The Bozeman ice fest in early December has become a bit of a tradition for me. Drive down, see some old friends, teach a couple of clinics ("Kick like you poo, swing like you screw."), and get in a day or two of climbing in Hyalite Canyon. This valley just south of Bozeman holds an outsized place in the history of North American ice and mixed climbing. Pat Callis, Jack Tackle, Alex Lowe and many others have set new standards of skill and boldness on its icy - and notoriously loose - walls.
Last year I was joined by Juan Henriquez and we had an excellent day on the Big Sleep, a classic Doug Chabot-Alex Lowe route. With Juan away in South America, I messaged Jess Roskelley to see if he wanted to get out after the fest. He was keen. We'd met before and hung out in locales ranging from Chamonix to Islamabad, but we'd never climbed together. I'd first heard of Jess in connection with a bold first ascent in Washington, a mess of chandeliers badly adhered to the rock. I though it was a futuristic ascent, with the future not an altogether nice place. I hoped we'd do something more mellow in Hyalite.
And we did have a mellow first day on a fat Matriarch and 21 Stitches: a casual start from town, a donkey trail to the base, sunshine and mild temps that had us climbing in base layers... Ice climbing can be comfortable - sometimes. However, the route I really wanted to check out was the Nutcracker.
When you drive up Hyalite Canyon, your eyes are drawn to a giant dagger high above the valley floor. It's the famous Winter Dance, a typically visionary and bold Alex Lowe creation. Unfortunately this year the ice didn't reach as low as it does in better seasons, and would have required even more boldness. Fortunately a few years ago Conrad Anker and Kris Erickson added a bolted line up to the hanging ice that is climbable most seasons: the Nutcracker.
The alarm went off earlier than it had for the past few days. We threw our packs in the back of the truck, grabbed espressos and greasy muffins at a coffee shop strangely full of insomniacs with their laptops, and headed up the canyon. It had snowed overnight and as we plowed up the untracked road, I was glad we were in Jess' truck instead of my ersatz sports car. The fresh snow also made it difficult to locate the spot where the team that had attempted the route a few days earlier had struck off uphill, but after a bit of back and forth we managed to locate their tracks. Up we trudged through steep pines, hoods up against the snow showering us from laden branches.
Standing on a rocky rib, squinting into the wind, we looked across at the route and at the exposed, snow-covered ledges leading to it. With crampons on and a tool in hand, we carefully scrambled across. At the base, as gusts of wind blew fresh snow into every gap in our clothes, we pulled on insulated pants. No climbing in base layers today.
Jess' hands froze repeatedly as he led the first pitch, a moderate but disconcertingly loose bit of climbing. At least the choss was bolted. I joined him at his windy stance and and looked up at the overhanging second pitch. The miserable weather made the prospect of drytooling gymnastics less than appealing but complaining wouldn't make it better. I pulled on thin gloves and started up. After a few moves of feeling stiff and awkward, I warmed up and started having fun. The holds were big and positive, and picks bit reassuringly into soft volcanic rock. Soon we were craning our necks at the roofs on the third pitch.
"Do you mind if I take this one too?", I asked Jess. He hesitated but a recent shoulder injury worked in my favour. "Sure, go ahead", he graciously acquiesced. With the onsight butterflies fluttering in my stomach, I stepped off the belay ledge. The rock on the third pitch was more solid, but that also made it harder to read. Halfway up the pitch I found myself scratching around, unable to find the next hold. Finally committing to a small edge, I moved up. The edge snapped and I slammed onto the lower tool. Oof, that was close! After that lesson I didn't use any hold that didn't take at least several teeth, and finished the pitch without further incident.
We dug the screws out of the pack for the fourth pitch. Jess made short work of the awkward mantle onto an ice umbrella, and swung his way up to a comfortable cave belay. A few days earlier a younger but perhaps wiser friend had declined the small freestanding pillar at the start of the last pitch. To convince myself it was reasonable, I gave it a couple of hard whacks. Jess winced. But, for what it was worth, the pillar remained standing. Still, I barely swung and didn't place any screws in it until I was safely above the fracture line. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean a pillar can't collapse on you.
At the top, I basked in that feeling you have when you might've gotten away with something. Once Jess joined me, we snapped a couple of summit selfies, coiled the ropes, and traversed toward the walkoff. It'd been a good day.
The Winter Dance area. The eponymous route climbs ice and choss directly to the final icicle, while the Nutcracker drytools choss further right. Vitaliy M. took this photo from the Unnamed Wall across the valley. Can you spot Jess (in red) and me (in red) on the third pitch?
Jess slogs up to the Nutcracker through forest and depth hoar. Just like hiking up to the Trophy Wall...
The Winter Dance icicle from the approach.
The final bit of the approach requires some exposed scrambling. The position high above the valley floor makes it feel very alpine, but can it be alpine if it's still below treeline?
Jess starts up the first pitch, a good warmup to all the choss wrangling required to get up to the ice looming overhead.
Jess comes up the second pitch, a fun overhanging jug haul.
The rock improves somewhat on the third pitch, making for more solid holds but also more cryptic sequences. Photo: Jess Roskelley.
Almost there! Jess nears the belay on the third pitch.
Jess leads up the last bit of choss before snagging the ice on the fourth pitch.
As it starts snowing again, I begin the fifth and last pitch. Photo: Jess Roskelley.
A couple of screws in some ice off to the side offer some protection for getting on the brittle freestanding pillar. Photo: Jess Roskelley.
Jess (in yellow) and me (in red) on the final pitch. Photo: Vitaliy M.
The obligatory goofy selfie on top: Jess (young) and me (not so young).