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Climbing Cleo's Gargoyle

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By Loren Rausch Explore Big Sky Contributor

BOZEMAN – Some 35-54 million years ago, a massive series of volcanic explosions from the Absaroka Volcanic Supergroup and the ensuing mud flows created the unique stratigraphy seen in Hyalite Canyon’s cliffs. This rock creates world class ice climbing but leaves a lot to be desired in terms of rock climbing.

A handful of intrepid climbers have established rock routes here, and in 2008, Nate Opp and Aaron Thrasher climbed one of the canyon’s more compelling features, Cleo’s Gargoyle.

The spire sits adjacent to the classic Hyalite Canyon ice climb, Cleopatra’s Needle. I talked Scott Salzer into climbing this three-pitch route with me, and he agreed, but we went in knowing that Opp and Thrasher are well traveled, strong climbers, and that the route would likely be bold and, well, loose.

According to the description we found in Bozeman Rock Climbs, the route is rated 5.10d and protectable with quick draws to clip the bolts drilled by the first ascentionists. I have climbed in Hyalite long enough to know I should bring along a couple of pitons and a hammer, just in case.

I’m not going to lie, this was kind of a messed up route. Messed up in terms of the medium one is climbing on: overhanging kitty litter sprinkled with tennis balls half sticking out of it. But on a climb like this, the experience is what dictates quality- not the rock- thus, we found it enjoyable.

In winter, the rock-like material in Hyalite is frozen together. While leading the first pitch, the crux, I found this is not the case in summer. I ended up hammering in two crummy pitons in the first 25 feet on my way to the first bolt… a rough start, but things improved. After that, the bolts appeared more regularly, and although there were some spicy sections on easier climbing, the route was actually protected fairly well.

A squall came in when we’d finished the first pitch, but we found a cozy cave to huddle into and keep dry. As we waited out the storm, a hummingbird buzzed up to us and hovered a few feet away.

At 5.8, the second pitch was the easiest on the route, with by far the best climbing. The last pitch, a 5.9, was exposed and required a long runner on every bolt to reduce the rope drag, something I failed to do, which made upward progress difficult and frustrating. It also has a huge detached flake that the climber must stand on – if this thing came off, it would be no good for anyone.

As we stood on the summit of the spire admiring Hyalite’s peaks and waterfalls, I had a brief realization that this was the only rock route I’ve ever climbed that felt ephemeral. Like the hummingbird on the breeze or the frozen waterfalls that form here every winter, the gargoyle may cease to exist tomorrow, falling into the fir trees below – or it may remain standing for centuries to come.

This piece was adapted from one originally published on Loren Rausch’s blog, The Dukkha Diaries.

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