Scaling waterfalls: The evolution of ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon

Hyalite Canyon, located just a half hour drive south of our campus, boasts one of the highest concentrations of waterfall ice in the United States, including over 225 climbable pitches of naturally forming ice. It is the proving grounds for some of the best ice climbers and alpinist in the world. The late Alex Lowe honed his techniques here, and Hyalite continues to serve as training grounds for his climbing partner Conrad Anker, who remains on the leading edge of alpine style climbing.


The history of ice climbing in Hyalite

In 1968, when MSU professor of chemistry Patrik Callis moved to Bozeman, the sport of ice climbing was barely in its infancy. In Montana only a few climbers were beginning to experiment on ice.

Callis grew up climbing steep snow and glaciers in the Cascade Range near his home in California. Drawing on this experience, he and a few friends began going out and climbing piles of ice they found forming along the Madison River. “None of us even considered going [to Hyalite] to look for ice, partly because it was hard to get to,” Callis said.

One example in particular shows how eager they were to climb ice: “A kid from Butte, Clare Proglebe, one day calls up and says, ‘Come over, I’ve flooded the football stadium with water and there is good ice.’ So we went over and climbed this 45 degree ramp of ice.”

On an early winter day in 1970, Callis went out for a ski tour in Hyalite. “I wasn’t even looking for ice, and there it was. It was so exciting,” Callis recaled, his expression visibly lighting up as he spoke. The next week Callis was back with one of his climbing partners, a high school student by the name of Brian Leo. “We did a little climbing, nothing too steep. We didn’t know what to expect; we hadn’t climbed vertical ice.”

Soon after, Leo led the first ascent of the now iconic Blue Gully in the Pine Creek drainage of Paradise Valley. The next week, not to be outdone, Callis and Jim Kanzler made the first ascent of Green Gully in the same valley. These two climbs marked the beginning of vertical ice climbing in Montana.

Callis recalled that the invention of Chouinard ice tools (Chouinard was the predecessor to Black Diamond Equipment) paved for the way for vertical climbing. A classic mountaineer’s axe has a straight pick and a long straight shaft. Chouinard designed a tool with a slightly curved pick and shorter shaft. This allowed for the user to swing the axe with greater ease and for the pick to hook into the ice, Callis explained. He further credited the invention of rigid steel Chouinard crampons and Russian ice screws to pioneering vertical ice.

Callis was also an innovator in the sport. He was one of the first climbers to use leashes on his ice tools. Leashes act in a similar manner as ski pole straps. This innovation allowed the climber to hang partially from their wrist saving energy that was normally wasted on tightly gripping the handles.


The progression of climbing

With the discovery of Hyalite as an ice climbing mecca and the innovation of tools and techniques that made vertical climbing possible, the sport progressed rapidly. Callis and his partners paved the way for the “golden years” of ice climbing in Hyalite, as the ‘80s and ‘90s are commonly referred to among local ice climbers.

In 1980, Jack Tackle and Callis broke ground with a 400-foot multi-pitch ascent of Cleopatra’s Needle. Up until this climb, most ice climbing in Hyalite had been restricted to single pitch climbs — less than 200 feet or one rope length long. In 1986, the sport further progressed when Jack Tackle conquered a route called “The Thrill is Gone,” which combined ice climbing with traditional rock climbing. The mixture of the two sports has since become somewhat common practice and is now referred to as “mixed climbing.”

Most climbers agree the most notable ascent to date in Hyalite occurred in 1997 when Alex Lowe and Jim Earl completed the first ascent of “Winter Dance.” Winter Dance is an iconic dagger of ice that dangles high above the valley floor. The climb has rarely been repeated, which stands as testament of its difficulty given that recent advances in gear have made mixed climbing much easier and safer. The only guidebook on ice climbing in Montana, written by Joe Josephson, is named in honor of this route.

In the last decade the level of climbing in Hyalite has only increased. MSU graduate Whit Maggro has climbed some of the hardest mixed climbs in the world in Hyalite. One is the roof of an overhanging cave named “Inglorious Bastards.” Maggro and his partner Kristofer Erickson were the first to free climb (climb without aid equipment) the Winter Dance route.


Changes in recreational access

The road access that recreationists enjoy during the winter in Hyalite today is a vast improvement from ten years ago. Until 2007, the road was not plowed at all past the reservoir parking lot. Those who wanted to climb ice after snow buried the roads did so either through long ski approaches or by snowmachine access.

In 2006, with input from the Southwest Montana Climbers Coalition (SMCC), the Gallatin National Forest Service approved a travel plan that allowed for the roads to be plowed regularly all the way to Grotto Falls parking lot, until April 1. Currently, funding for plowing comes from several local groups, including the SMCC and Friends of Hyalite, which raises money through events such as the annual Bozeman Ice Festival.

Since the roads began being plowed in 2007, the number of recreationist visiting Hyalite has skyrocketed. A 2013 user survey conducted by the Forest Service showed that 67 percent of current Hyalite winter recreationists did not visit the area prior to the road being plowed. Today Hyalite road is the only Forest Service road in the nation that is plowed through the winter entirely for recreational access.


Learning to climb

Unlike when Callis was pioneering the sport, today Bozeman offers many opportunities to learn to ice climb in a professional setting. Every year the Bozeman Ice Festival holds beginner climber clinics held in Hyalite. Starting this past winter, the MSU Outdoor Recreation Program offers introductory clinics for students.

According to the Outdoor Recreation Program director Ryan Diehl, “all the trips sold out within a day of being opened up.” Diehl is excited about the success of those trips this winter and hopes to expand the program’s offerings for next year. “Our focus right now lies in beginning and intermediate level courses, but in the future I see the program trending towards more advanced courses, like multi-pitch ice climbing,” Diehl said.

In the last year MSU Outdoor Recreation has also greatly expanded their gear inventory. An experienced climber can rent any gear they need whether it be crampons, ice tools, screws or a harness. The student price for a full ice climbing package is just $25 a day or $37 dollars for the weekend.

One of the questions Callis gets asked most is “isn’t ice climbing really dangerous?” While both Callis and longtime local climber Pat Wolfe agree that sport is inherently dangerous, Callis says “it is no more dangerous than rock climbing.” Wolfe believes that “there are more objective hazards in ice climbing than other forms of climbing, like falling ice and avalanches.”

“Nobody has been killed ice climbing in forty-some years in Hyalite,” says Callis. “There was one death of an ice climber, but it was an avalanche. He wasn’t doing anything dangerous; the snow was knocked down by other people.”

Wolfe believes that advancements in climbing gear technology have made ice climbing much safer than it was 30 years ago. “With modern equipment, like ice screws you can put in [quickly] and leashless tools, people put in more protection, and it has become relatively safe or comparable to rock climbing. You can put in an ice screw every 5 feet if you want.”

Wolfe was quick to add, “The risk is probably what draws people to [the sport] to begin with.”