By Marcie Hahn-Knoff Explorebigsky.com Contributor

Tiny bits of ice explode from the surface with each kick. I glance at my picks as I remove them carefully from the ice and whack them into the frozen surface a tiny bit higher. Their jagged structure reminds me of a 21st century pterodactyl skull. Spikes bristle from my feet. I try not to concentrate on how tiny the points of steel are that hold my body weight against gravity.

I have never been much of an ice climber. Skiing has defined my winter sporting life for decades. Despite moving to the ice climbing mecca of Montana and marrying a member of the ice climbing mafia, I’ve only spent a handful of days out each year. Intimidated at being a novice in such a demanding sport, I was anxious about ascending too slowly and looking like a hack.

Lack of snow and less then stellar ski conditions this year tipped the scales, inspiring me to take a Bozeman Ice Festival women’s clinic. I hoped climbing with a group of skilled ladies might help my technique and give me a better grip on climbing in winter.

Single digit morning temperatures seep through the multiple layers of insulation and down I’m wearing. I focus on a fringe of sunny illumination growing on the ridgeline across the canyon—it will be hours before the sun’s warmth makes it our way. High on a snowy bench in Hyalite Canyon, our training ground for the day is Mummy II, which is currently busy with more women climbers than I recall ever seeing in Hyalite at once.

On my first climb, I peck at the icy surface with unsure blows. Slowly I ascend, trying to apply the numerous tips on form and efficiency discussed before I stepped off the ground. But right away I revert to previous ice climbing experiences, grappling with what my body should be doing while my mind does summersaults—this the beginning of an all too common negative self-dialogue.

Voices drift from below, a mix of encouraging words and helpful reminders. My mind snaps back to a more positive focus. Match your feet, stand up, hips into the ice, aim and fire your axes. The movements become more methodical and a system for success begins to develop in my actions. I continue moving upward. My movement is becoming more exact, and the reassuring thunks of well-sunk axes resonate through the air.

As the day progresses, ladies succeed on harder climbs. The women in the group flow seamlessly between belaying and climbing, sharing reassuring thoughts and honest critiques on technique and style, questioning one another on goals, strengths and weaknesses for each climb. Laughter comes easily, and it occurs to me that despite the cold and at times wet conditions, I’m having a blast.

Our time runs low and we head for the car. I am plainly aware that a transformation has happened. After one day, I’m already becoming a more confident ice climber. I am amazed at what is possible when a group of women venture into the mountains together. I’m already plotting my next visit to the ice.

Marcie Hahn-Knoff handcrafts bombproof and creative collapsible hula-hoops from her home in Belgrade, Mont. hooplahulahoops.com

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[H3]The 15th annual Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival wrapup [/H3]
By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

The 15th annual Bozeman Ice Festival was the biggest one yet. Big sponsors like Arc’teryx showed up; on-ice clinics filled up right away; and almost 600 people packed the Emerson theatre for Friday and Saturday night’s evening presentations.

“I think this is one of the best grassroots community-based consumer ice Festivals that’s ever been put together,” said Jack Tackle, a Montana native and world-renowned alpinist.

From beginners to the high end of the sport, and everything in between, it addressed everyone’s needs, Tackle said, especially the community and the social aspects of climbing.

This year’s event featured a historical retrospective of waterfall ice climbing over 40 years, and drew a host of climbing’s greatest characters, including climbing pioneer Jeff Lowe.

Known for making over 1,000 cutting edge first ascents in North America, the Alps and the Himalaya, “Lowe was the most influential ice climber of all time,” said festival organizer and accomplished climber Joe Josephson.

In a powerful moment on Saturday night, Lowe, now in a wheelchair with Multiple Sclerosis, came on stage and talked about his experiences climbing, and about what he remembered most: the places he visited, and the people he spent time with.

Lowe struck upon the theme of the fest overall. Old friends and new, all connected tied by the bonds of adventure.