By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor

BOZEMAN – The 18th annual Bozeman Ice Festival, held Dec. 10-14, was a watershed for this homegrown event. One of six UIAA World Cup events this year – and the only one on North American soil – the competition drew elite athletes from 11 different countries to the Emerson Cultural Center in downtown Bozeman.

In addition to the climbing competitions held Dec. 12-13, the festival hosted 260 clinic participants from around the country over four days in Hyalite Canyon. More than 50 people participated in public climbing clinics, as well as adaptive climbing hosted by Eagle Mount-Bozeman, at the Emerson on Dec. 14.

ice_fest_ice_sculptureThe yearly event is the largest fundraiser for Friends of Hyalite, a nonprofit that helps fund plowing for the Hyalite Canyon road throughout the winter. It takes about $22,000 a year to plow the road, according to festival director Joe Josephson, and last year the festival raised around $8,000 for the cause.

“None of this would be happening if it wasn’t for the road being plowed. [It] has allowed us to grow this festival,” Josephson said, noting the road has stayed open since 2008 as part of a cost-sharing agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and Gallatin County.

“We’ve been consciously working toward this World Cup for three years,” he said. “Having a World Cup event on North American soil is important for the [International Olympic Committee] if it’s to become an Olympic sport. And it’s no secret that the UIAA is making strong push for [that].” The IOC needs to see competitions at the highest level held on all the continents in the northern hemisphere in order to consider it for the winter games, he added.

The warm temperatures on Friday night seemed to keep the crowds at bay during the speed competition finals, but the athletes ensured an Olympic-style atmosphere. The four men’s semi-finalists – all Russians – raced each other with arachnid-like speed up the vertical wall, with Nikolai Kuzovlev winning the finals heat in dominant fashion over Egor Trapeznikov. Maxim and Alexey Tomilov battled to a photo finish in the consolation round with Maxim barely edging out his brother.

The women’s speed event was equally impressive, with American Kendra Stritch topping the podium over Russians Nadezhda Gallyamova and Ekaterina Vlasova, and Swiss climber Petra Klingler taking fourth. Stritch made history in Bozeman, becoming the first North American athlete to notch a UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup victory.

Winter returned to Montana for Saturday’s lead difficulty competition and wet snow was falling on the 1,000-plus crowd that came to cheer on the athletes, or gasp when they took big falls off the wall, swinging on their ropes in the floodlights. The deteriorating weather and cunning routes set by Russian Pavel Dobrinksy baffled climber after climber in the finals – which didn’t see a single athlete top out on the structure. The number of quickdraws that competitors were able to clip decided the victors.

In both the men’s and women’s finals, Koreans managed to break into the Russian-dominated podiums with second-place real estate – WoonSeon Shin for the women and HeeYong Park for the men. Liudmila Badalyan and Nadezhda Gallyamova rounded out first and third for the women respectively, and Maxim Tomilov took top honors for the men, with 48-year-old Tarasov Sergey placing third. The Russian dominance wasn’t a surprise, according to Theresa Blake, Bozeman Ice Festival PR and marketing director.

“They have a training facility in Russia and their schools pay for it,” Blake said. “It was a very eye-opening experience for the athletes in the U.S. [The international athletes] traveled so far and we got our butts kicked.”

The UIAA officials did a presentation for the event organizers on Sunday, and talked about the strengths of the festival, according to Blake.

“[They called this] ‘one of the best – if not the best – World Cup events,’” she said, adding the officials were impressed with the venue’s downtown location. “The amount of press and attendance was the best they’ve ever seen. That type of exposure is what’s going to move the needle to turn ice climbing into an Olympic sport.”

The competitors at the Bozeman World Cup event were scrutinized like Olympic athletes. UIAA Anti-doping Control Officer Nenad Dikic was on hand to randomly test one of the top three finishers in each of the four competitions. Dikic, in town from Belgrade, Serbia, was testing for competitive advantages like anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and blood doping.

In addition to the international oversight, another requirement for the Bozeman Ice Festival to achieve World Cup status was to live-stream the event. Bozeman-based Polar Bears International provided free streaming, reaching 4,000 unique viewers in more than 70 countries, according to Blake.

“Bozeman is really at the forefront of this sport,” Josephson said.

Korean Park HeeYong reaches for the “Montana Cow Bell” during his second-place effort in the lead competition at the Bozeman Ice Festival World Cup on Dec. 13.

Korean Park HeeYong reaches for the “Montana Cow Bell” during his second-place effort in the lead competition at the Bozeman Ice Festival World Cup on Dec. 13.