Ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon
Genesis II and Zack Attack
By Joe Josephson Explorebigsky.com Contributor
The shield of smoky gray ice poured out of the forest
It was 1997, and though I’d only climbed in Hyalite Canyon
once before, I’d been invited from my adopted home in
Canmore, Alberta to teach a beginner ice climbing clinic at
the inaugural Barrel Ice Climbing Festival.
I stood with my group, looking up at the 150-foot ice flow.
Called Genesis II, or G2 for short, the popular moderate
poured over an inconsistent outcrop of conglomerate volcanic
kitty litter disguised as a rock band, and landed in a pile
of snow at our feet.
Pat Callis, a 30-something chemistry professor at MSU, and
Bozeman teenager Brian Leo, first climbed G2 on Halloween
Day of 1971 when the art of climbing frozen waterfalls was
in its infancy.
In those days, ice climbing was often described as a sport
for lunatics. Approaches were long, and equipment was
akin to implements found at a saloon—dull ice picks and
ice screws that looked like corkscrews for protection. Often
with homemade equipment, early climbers bludgeoned
their hands and feet against brittle, windswept sheets of ice.
Since the road to Hyalite wasn’t plowed, they cross-country
skied many miles in.
These hardy souls kept at it, exploring deeper into the woods
and mysterious corners of the valley. They found dozens of
ice flows that were frozen from November to April. By the
late ‘70s climbers had established more than three-dozen
routes in Hyalite’s three drainages.
As gear evolved, ice climbing’s popularity grew. By the early
‘80s Hyalite was a backyard playground and training ground
for some of North America’s best climbers, including the late
Alex Lowe. Today, the canyon has more than 225 climbs in
three square miles, with climbs of every difficulty.
By 1997, as I stood below G2 with my class, ice climbing had
evolved into a mainstream sport. Ice festivals were popping
up across the northern latitudes, and the first-ever Bozeman
ice fest hosted a cast of legends, new and old.
On Friday night I gave a rousing slideshow, inspired to be
headlining the festival alongside Barry Blanchard, the greatest
Canadian climber of a generation, and Bozeman alpinist
Beginner clinics like the class at G2 are my favorite, because
folks get to experience the shockingly steep learning curve of
climbing frozen water. As the sun dove toward the ridgeline,
and I was strapped into a belay barking commands, Kelly
Cordes and Pete Tapley strolled by.
I asked what he and Pete, a local Hyalite ice fiend, had
been up to. They pointed up at the snow-covered cobbles
and chocolate-colored ice staining the 500-foot rock band directly above G2.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Kelly said, his reticent smile the
kind only seen on a climber not wanting to give away the
secret of a great first ascent.
Four days later, after I’d headed back to Canada and
Kelly returned to grad school at UM, Pete and Dan
Gambino, another local boy, went back and climbed the
upper two ice pitches of Kelly and Pete’s route, creating
Zack Attack (575’, 5.9, WI 5).
When I moved to Bozeman a year later, Zack Attack was
the talk of the town among climbers. With challenging
mixed climbing on excellent rock (a rarity in Hyalite)
and steep ice pitches, it was one of the canyon’s longest
routes. Finally, in 2007, I teamed up with Pat Callis
(then in his 70s) to have a go at it.
Pat had looked at the line 35 years earlier, but thought
he’d wait for the ice to form to the ground. In the decades
since, mixed climbing has taken command of the sport,
and now any rock band with a phlegmy dribble of ice at
the lip can be considered a route.
After the hour-plus slog to the base, far above the
gentle flow of G2, I started leading the first pitch. I was
intimated at first, but was loaded with a full rack of ice
screws, camming units, nuts, pitons and even perhaps the kitchen sink.
Following intermittent cracks past rock horns draped with
clear, inviting ice, I moved upward placing solid protection
at my leisure. A route-finding challenge halfway up
the first pitch slowed my progress, but I skirted to the
right, finding protection by pounding a piton into the
rock, then moved upward by pushing with my palms as often as pulling with my fingertips or using my ice tools.
Pat quickly dispatched the much shorter second pitch, then we raced up the snow gully to the remaining two pitches of steep ice. Even the last pitch, an unprotected veneer over an overhanging wall of moss that would normally give me serious pause, wasn’t enough to stop us from reaching thetop of the route.
Yet, any thought of success was supplanted by a brewing storm and dusky skies, harkening a prudent retreat. Descending in the growing darkness, we saw the direct variation I’d avoided: Clean hand cracks split a wall of perfect andesite rock, perhaps the
best I’ve seen in Hyalite.
We arrived at the parking lot exhausted and satisfied. Large
heavy snowflakes were visible in the glow of our headlamps.
Sharing the rope with the humble and talented Pat Callis,
combined with outrageous climbing and a decade of waiting
for it, has made Zack Attack my favorite in Hyalite.
Joe Josephson grew up in Big Timber, Montana. Author of “Waterfall Ice: Climbs in the Canadian Rockies” and “Winter Dance: Select Climbs in Southern Montana and Northern Wyoming,” he organizes the Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival. This story was first published in the winter 2011/12 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.