Climb On, Jim Kanzler
By Terry Kennedy Explorebigsky.com Contributor
Jim Kanzler backed over the edge and stopped ten feet down the rappel. He looked up the rope, his gaze fixed.
“What’s wrong?” I glanced nervously to the knot of the runner anchoring us—it was OK. Had Jim felt the block shift?
It was November 1977. We were retreating from an obscure crag Jim had discovered up Bear Basin, near Big Sky. The steel gray sky threatened snow. Kanzler didn’t answer for a moment. He wasn’t looking at the anchor, but at the vertical slab above, with small edges protected only by shaky wired nuts. It had turned both of us back.
“I didn’t try my hardest,” Kanzler confessed like a disgraced boy scout.
“What?” I couldn’t put what he was saying into context.
“I think I can get up that pitch. I didn’t try hard enough.” Kanzler grabbed the doubled rope, “bat-manned” up to the ledge, and we retied into the ends. He warmed his hands under his armpits, shook them vigorously, then launched into the pitch, power breathing like a steam locomotive as he disappeared over the crux. I followed by the skin of my teeth.
That was 30-some years ago. On April 18, 2011, Jim Kanzler was found dead outside of his tiny one room cabin outside Jackson Hole, a few days shy of 63.
Kanzler began skiing on Big Mountain, within view of Columbia Falls the town where he grew up. He became a professional ski patrolman at Bridger Bowl in 1968 and Big Sky’s first Ski Patrol Director in 1972 (the year before the area opened). He played a major role mapping terrain and developing routes and procedures for avalanche control on Lone Mountain.
“Jim was a good snow technician and a great leader,” said Beep Dixon, who patrolled with Kanzler at both Bridger Bowl and Big Sky. “He could sit down and listen, and he could command. The guy knew what he was doing.”
According to “Dougal” McCarty, “Jim had an even disposition, a great sense of humor and superior patrolling skills.” McCarty also patrolled at Big Sky and was a regular climbing partner. “We never questioned his decisions and would have followed him anywhere.”
Like many who live in Big Sky, Kanzler drove into Bozeman for supplies. On that drive, he had a regular routine: he free soloed the Standard Route on Gallatin Tower, including the 5.9 direct finish (first climbed by his brother, Jerry). He could do it under 15 minutes from the car and sometimes repeated the stunt on the way back.
Kanzler left Big Sky in 1978 and joined the Jackson Hole ski patrol. He evolved into the leadership position of avalanche hazard forecasting in Jackson in 1986, using field data and computers. Kanzler was also a guide with Exum in the Tetons for 22 years until he took a full time position in the IT department at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in 1999.
The witty and sarcastic Kanzler was an influential figure in Montana rock and alpine climbing. He started scrambling the peaks of Glacier Park in grade school in Columbia Falls in the early 1960s with his father Hal and brother, Jerry. When the family moved to Butte in 1966, Jim and Jerry teamed up with other teenage climbers, discovering the Humbug Spires for climbing. Jim named the Wedge and established its first routes. Tragedies were just around the corner.
Hal died in 1967. Then in December of 1969, Jerry and four other young climbers were swept to their deaths on Mt. Cleveland in Glacier Park. Jim and renowned alpinists, Pat Callis and Peter Lev joined the park service search and bivouacked in a snow cave high on the mountain but found no survivors.
In the next two years, Jim Kanzler’s resolve took him up the Northwest Face of Half Dome and the Nose of El Capitan, two of Yosemite’s most prominent big walls. Kanzler and Chad Chadwick of Billings formed an early guide service in the Beartooths in 1972, called Mountaincraft. They also pioneered the most difficult routes of the day in Montana’s highest mountains.
In 1974, Kanzler and Callis made an epic attempt on the 4900’ Emperor Face of Mt. Robson in the Canadian Rockies.
“Jim wanted to go up the middle,” Callis said. “I was in favor of a less committing route but Kanzler’s enthusiasm was catchy. We went for bold.”
In 1974, Kanzler and Pat Callis made a significant multi-day attempt on the Emporer Face of Mt. Robson in the Canadian Rockies, one of the biggest unclimbed faces in North America at the time. Theirs was the high point for several years.
Two years later, in Glacier, Jim led the crux sections on the first ascent of the upper headwall of Mt. Cleveland’s 4000’ North Face, something of a vindication of his brother and friends’ deaths there. Jim and I went on to make the first ascent on the coveted 3500’ North Face of Mt. Siyeh in 1979. Jim later joined expeditions to Denali and China.
During the years Kanzler and I focused on Mt. Siyeh, I nicknamed him “Mad Wolf.” Si-yeh is the phonetic pronunciation for the Blackfoot word meaning Mad Wolf. Friends and ski patrollers referred to Kanzler as Mad Wolf during the last years of his Big Sky tenure, and the ski run on Andesite is named after him.
But another nickname, “Rat Hole”, “Ratty” or “RH” developed more adhesion. Kanzler’s attitude and prowess had earned him the nickname “Reinhold,” after the world famous Italian climber, Reinhold Messner. Jim had married Lindalee Voss, whom he’d met in high school in Columbia Falls. One evening at a party in their mobile home in Big Sky, their six-year-old son Jamie asked, ”Daddy why do they call you Reinhold?” Someone misheard, and thought Jamie said “rat hole.” The following laughter tagged Kanzler with a name that stuck like an overdriven piton.
During winter of 1976-77, Kanzler recruited me to climb a facet of Lone Mountain near the terminus of the triple chair in the cirque above the tram, called the West Wall. (Strangely, it’s on the east shoulder of the mountain and faces south). We rode the lift, skied up the moraine, then climbed an exciting line of snow-covered rock leading to the cliff’s apex, which we protected with a few pitons. Jim thought it was a great winter training climb because of the short approach.
Kanzler (on right) with North American climbing legend Fred Beckey at a 2007 climbing reunion near Bozeman
Kanzler’s influence permeated younger climbers in the Bozeman area, including Alex Lowe. A photo of Lowe is on the cover of Climbing magazine, no. 166, and when he autographed a copy for Kanzler, Lowe wrote: “Jim—You started this non sense—chasing you.”
Jim Kanzler would walk into the ski patrol room full of cranky, hung over ski patrollers every morning, two hours before sunrise and light the place up. Climbing, he took the sharp end of the rope when the chips were down. His wisdom and the sound of his boots approaching will be missed by the many people who knew him. Safe travels, my friend.
Writer Terry Kennedy is a Physical Therapist at Health in Motion Physical Therapy in Bozeman.