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Mountain News : Ice climbing park puts livelier step in Ouray



OURAY, Colo. — A calico cat sat in the highway that bisects Ouray one night last week, unfazed by passing traffic because, in fact, there was none. Nights this time of year get quiet in Ouray.

The town is located in a spectacularly beautiful amphitheatre at the north end of the San Juan Mountains, a few kilometres as the crow flies from both Telluride and Silverton but separated by tall mountains.

Ouray was one of the richer mining towns, a bit like Aspen, as is still evident in the gingerbread Victorian architecture. Thomas Walsh, one of the miners, got so wealthy so quickly that he bought a bauble for his daughter. It's called the Hope diamond.

Mining petered out in the 1980s, but has come back to life a few times. At least one mine is now operating again, and it was in the news last week after the U.S. government imposed a fine of more than $1 million as the result of the deaths of two miners last November. They died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Revenue-Virginius Mine.

But like most old mining towns, Ouray today makes most of its living from tourism. Some 80 per cent of all sales tax revenues now occur within three months of summer, and most of that in just six weeks. During those weeks, you hear a lot of accents from Texas.

Winters remain relatively quiet, but they used to be much more sleepy. Mayor Pam Larson recalls that 20 years ago only two motels, at best, remained open through winter and just one restaurant.

Today, it's a far livelier place during winter with several hundred motel rooms available , as well as a variety of restaurants and shops. A big reason for the new vitality is ice climbing.

It began as something of an accident. A pipe conveying water into the town sprang a leak and, in the cold temperatures, produced a nice wall of ice on a narrow gorge in the winter shadows. In short order, somebody realized that this could be a good thing.

Now, the ice is intentionally created every fall, providing challenges for everybody from children just beginning to learn how to climb ice to advanced ice walls challenging to some of the world's best.

"There is literally nothing like it in the world," said Nate Disser of San Juan Mountain Guides.

He estimated the ice park has 13,000 user days each winter, 84 per cent of them non-guided.

Access to the ice park is free, although, of course, motel rooms are not.

Gay marriages, plus a remarriage at age 84

KETCHUM, Idaho — There are more gay marriages in ski towns of the West — plus, in Vail, a remarriage after 49 years.

In Ketchum, Mayor Nina Jonas officiated at the wedding of two city employees, Jennifer Smith, who directs the parks and recreation department, and Heather Johns, a city information services coordinator.

In Telluride, Maren Korpela and Jess Bauer are now legally married. They run a catering company in Telluride but first met five years ago on a kickball field in Minnesota, where they were teammates. They vacationed in Telluride soon after and then moved.

Aspen had two marriages of gay couples. Robin Margolin and Laurie Cohen-Ringler travelled from Denver to Aspen because, as they told the Aspen Daily News, they had celebrated some of their best moments there. But Tom Pritchard and his partner, Jody Rhone, spend most of their time in Aspen. Each of the two couples has been together for more than 20 years.

But from Avon comes a very different story. The Vail Daily explains that the first time Frank Schoppet proposed to his wife, Evelyn, he was in high school. The second time, he was 83 and she was 84.

The couple had been high school sweethearts. She was the local festival queen and he was the captain of the school basketball team. They got married in 1949, as soon as he graduated from high school.

He then fought in the Korean War and later started a career as an accountant while they began raising a family.

But as he worked to develop his career, he neglected his relationship. In time, the couple drifted apart and got divorced.

It wasn't an acrimonious divorce, however. They remained friendly, even after each remarried. A few years ago, after both of their second partners had died, they were at a family gathering for their mutual grandson. They ended up in the backseat of a car together and were soon holding hands. Within a year, they were talking about moving in together ...

Well, isn't that story enough to warm the cockles of a curmudgeon's heart?

Lashing the whip on homeowner rentals

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The municipality of South Lake Tahoe has whiplashed homeowners renting out their properties, but not collecting sales and lodging taxes.

Lake Tahoe News reports that the city conducted an audit of one vacation home rental and then collected $14,800 in transient occupancy taxes. The owner denied the illegal activity, but a criminal investigation showed the owner had been renting the home since at least 2008.

Another case yielded $24,000 in fees paid as a result of past rentals.

El Dorado County is also pushing a good neighbor program in case of neighbourhood home rentals.

Vail moving toward plastic bags limit

VAIL, Colo. — The formal vote has yet to be taken, but the Vail Daily surmises from statements made at a recent town council meeting that the town will soon adopt some sort of ban on plastic grocery store bags.

The ban has been kicked around since 2009, about the time that Telluride adopted its ban. Aspen, Breckenridge, and other mountain towns in Colorado and California have since followed suit, although with somewhat different approaches.

The Daily reports strong vocal support for a ban, both from members of the public and from council members. "I'm not worried particularly about the impacts on guests," said Craig Moffet, a councilman. "It's not that burdensome."

"I'm a little embarrassed that the last time we discussed this was 2009," said Councilman Ludwig Kurz.

Durango parks get a little less organic

DURANGO, Colo. — Three weed-infested parks in Durango may lose their organic designation, getting artificial fertilizers and herbicides.

Mayor Sweetie Marbury said one of her nearby parks is "deathly ill."

Durango, explains the Durango Herald, has nine parks that can get only organic fertilizers and herbicides. But taking the three parks out of the program will save the city $66,000.

Truckee River just a trickle

RENO, Nev. — The Truckee River that flows off the Sierra Nevada has been reduced to a shallow stream as it flows through Reno. The Associated Press notes that outfitters who normally send rafts down the river through October this year shut down at the end of July. The flows in the river at the California-Nevada stateline were the lowest in two decades for this time of year, dropping to 70 cubic feet per second at Reno.

Shout-out for more meatless Mondays

TRUCKEE, Calif. – The Tahoe Truckee Unified School District has decided to take part in the "meatless Monday" campaign by offering only meatless meals in school cafeterias.

To John Merryfield, a resident of Kings Beach, one of the towns along the shore of Lake Tahoe, this is good news.

"We grow up being told that we need to eat meat to get protein and that eating animals is normal and natural," he writes in a letter published in the Sierra Sun.

He cites one school in New York that went totally vegetarian, with a result of improved attendance, test scores and energy.

UP sharpens eyes on railroad tracks

TRUCKEE, Calif. — Union Pacific has boosted inspection of its railroads across mountain passes in the West. The Sacramento Bee reports that UP is dispatching high-tech vehicles with laser to check tracks for imperfections.

The increased inspections are a response to concerns about derailments of trains ferrying crude oil from the Bakken formation of North Dakota and other fields to refineries.

Building activity continues to pick up

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Many ski town newspapers tell of development proposals moving through the review pipeline.

In Telluride, officials with San Miguel County are reviewing two different residential developments outside of Telluride.

One of those projects would involve 20 single-family residential lots, and the other 15 single-family residential lots. The Telluride Daily Planet says the county is asking for a 0.2-acre parcel to be reserved for a larger affordable housing project in one of the neighborhoods.

In Crested Butte, Dallas-based Cypress Equities has submitted an application to annex 44 acres of land into the town with the idea of developing 115 housing units.

In Steamboat Springs, developer Curt Weiss has broken ground on 14 townhomes.

And in Ketchum, the company that has approval to build a hotel is seeking an extension.

But the Bald Mountain Lodge hasn't been able to secure funding. Bald Mountain LLC, the developer, reports being in conversation with a Colorado-based partnership, called the Aspen Group. If this Colorado-based group is to provide funding for construction, Bald Mountain needs an extension of the approvals to allow construction to begin next summer.