OURAY — The timpani beat of cramponed boots thudding into ice. The treble tick-tock of scythe-like picks digging the next foothold. A sudden chord of shattering ice.
This woman-and-nature duet worthy of Steve Reich is the soundtrack to a Chicks with Picks morning in the San Juan Mountains. Chicks with Picks, founded to give women ice climbers a chance to learn from other women, has grown over the past 15 years. In addition to signature clinics in the Ouray Ice Park, a city-owned facility with artificial ice in a natural gorge, the umbrella company Chicks Climbing now offers rock climbing tutorials around the country and even treks in Nepal.
"I call myself the accidental entrepreneur," said Chicks founder Kim Reynolds. "I'm just creative. I take on more, I have more ideas. And I'm having fun."
Reynolds' philosophy — that women thrive when they support one another — informs her social responsibility agenda. Chicks with Picks sponsors auctions that have over the years raised tens of thousands of dollars for women's shelters.
Ice climbing is "a very empowering experience for the women that do it," said Aimee Quadri-Chavez, whose Tri Country Resources project for victims of domestic violence has received Chicks with Picks auction funds. "Our mission is to empower women. It fits really well."
Reynolds' guides are world-renowned. Kitty Calhoun, who has been with Chicks with Picks since its beginnings, was the first woman to climb Makalu, the Himalayan peak that is the fifth highest in the world, at 27,825 feet. Reynolds herself has been an Outward Bound instructor and Himalayan trek leader.
Calhoun said her other guiding often involves working with clients for just a day, an experience she compares to being an emergency room doctor: "There's no continuity of patient care."
A typical Chicks clinic is a long weekend or more, and the same students return year after year.
Reynolds, who also is a life coach, opens each clinic with a slideshow extolling the exploits of guides like Calhoun, and then asks her clients to introduce themselves and talk about what they want to take home from Ouray.
"It creates an atmosphere where women can be themselves, they can speak their hearts, and they can see that they're not alone," Reynolds said.
Cathy Murray, a nurse from Aurora, volunteers with a Denver area search and rescue crew. She and other crew members, most of whom are men, also hike and take part in outdoor activities together. With Chicks, she finds women who share her interests.
"I need my women time," Murray said.
Kari Berg, a psychologist from Burlington, Vermont, took part in her first Chicks with Picks clinic a decade ago, and has done four since. She also hikes and climbs with other groups, and often finds herself the only woman on the trip. The men will forget she's there, she said, and start gossiping about their girlfriends or what they find attractive in a woman.
On a Chicks clinic, Berg said, "I feel comfortable with my body. You can feel gratitude that you can do something with it, instead of criticizing how you look."
A recent class drew students from across the country and from varying walks of life. The oldest was 61; the youngest too young to rent a car.
Ice climbing is for neither the faint of heart nor the faint of wallet — a good rope can cost a few hundred dollars. A three-day Chicks weekend starts at $800. Reynolds has persuaded Eddie Bauer to sponsor scholarships for climbers.
On this particular day in Ouray, the chicks have now laid down their picks. Over soft tacos and champagne poured to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Chicks with Picks, dinner conversation is peppered with climber jargon: mushrooms, the outcroppings of rock or ice that climbers find so handy; the intriguing but treacherous ice formations known as chandeliers; barfies, that feeling when your hands are so cold, you're nauseous.
While they don't play down the physical challenge, the climbers focus on the mental rewards. Reynolds' first ice climb was in 1982, with a fellow Outward Bound instructor as a guide. Back before the Ouray Ice Park opened in the 1990s, ice climbing in the area entailed seeking out hidden ravines. Reynolds, already a rock climber and mountaineer, was intrigued by the beauty of the places the ice formed, and of the ice itself.
Her chicks speak of the meditative moments they experience on the rock face, a focus reinforced by the monochromatic wonders of the scenery and the minimalist music of the climb.
"It's just you and the ice," said Dawn Rathburn, a medical device trainer who started climbing with Chicks four years ago. "Everything else in your mind kind of settles."