Ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon

By Emily Stifler

In mid-November 2009, Pat Wolfe and I went to Flanders, a chilly side drainage of Hyalite Canyon that often holds early-season ice. We parked by Whit Magro’s car and crossed the creek on slippery rocks.

After a half hour of walking on a packed trail through the snow, we looked up through the trees to the impressive freestanding Killer Pillar, a route Jack Tackle first climbed in 1982. Next in view was the exquisite hanging drip The Big Sleep, a 400-foot test piece suited for the strongest climbers. A climber in a red jacket was visible on rock between the approach ice and the massive main flow on The Big Sleep. We hooted.

“WhoooHoUoUoUooooo,” echoed back Sam Magro’s classic loon call.

“I bet Narcolepsy’s in,” said Pat. “Wanna check? It hasn’t formed in three years.” We walked another 10 minutes, crossing huge moose tracks. We could barely see the ice through the forest.

“It looks thin,” I said.

We turned off the trail, and post holed across a creek and up a treed hillside.

“Did you see how big those tracks were?” Pat asked. “I’d like to put in for a moose tag next fall.”

Raised in Bozeman, Pat is a blacksmith and a dedicated bowhunter. He’s climbed throughout the U.S. and in Patagonia, but couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than here.

We skirted the base of the cliff and kicked out a snow platform near Narcolepsy. I knew this was a cool find; established in 1995 by Doug Chabot and the late Alex Lowe, this ephemeral line doesn’t form often and melts out quickly.

I organized the ropes and then settled in to belay, wearing both of our down coats. A sheet of ice, three feet wide and three inches thick, was starting to peel from the rock. Pat was careful before committing to the steep ice flow. Finally, he stemmed his feet between the rock and the ice, moving upward methodically. The protection was thin, and Pat placed short screws in the ice and tiny gear in the rock, when possible. Spindrift blew hard from above, and he turned his head away and waited, then gunned through a rotten bit, disappearing onto lower-angled ice.

My pitch was a rolling, three-foot wide ribbon in a U-shaped chimney. Spindrift continued, turning the world white, black and gray. The sound of metal on rock scraped in my ears as my crampons scratched against the rock beside the ice. At the top, I folded myself into a cave and built an anchor of ice screws and a cam placed between curious, smooth rock cobbles. I piled the ropes on the ice in the tiny cave, and sat down on them to stay warm. Joining the handful of people who’d done this rare route seemed like a moment to remember, and I realized I’d begun to feel in tune with the climbing mediums of ice and winter.

2009 was my sixth winter in Montana. By nature of the geography, people often live far apart here, and the size of the place sometimes feels isolating to me. In the winter though, Hyalite Canyon and its plethora of natural ice brings the ice climbing community together. Three years ago, with leadership from the Southwest Montana Climbers’ Coalition, this sometimes scattered community of independent spirits rallied together in a battle to preserve Hyalite’s road access against seasonal closure. The road is now plowed all winter.

This essay was adapted from a longer piece first published in Rock and Ice magazine. rockandice.com