Last stop: Early Ice in Bozeman

Well, we’ve been seeking ice for a bit now and found it a month later than expected in the one and only Hyalite Canyon.  Though not the Canadian Rockies, Hyalite has a fantastic density of mixed and pure ice routes that provided a last minute training ground before heading to Patagonia (4 days after leaving, I am writing this from an airport in Florida on my way south).

I want to recap the week spent there, but writing about ice climbing seems challenging for two reasons:

  1. Its a relatively new discipline to me, which makes it exciting and means there is a lot to learn.  This also means, however, that describing or promoting certain skills or climbs is a bit naive as someone with a bit more experience and an expanded set of domain specific diction could do much better.
  2. More importantly, ice, and ice climbs, change from day to day.  While this process is interesting to observing, it makes it more difficult to provide useful beta on particular climbs that will still be helpful the next week.

In light of the above, I want to describe our days in Bozeman to give folks of some ideas of fun days, and I’d like to discuss the formation of ice during the first week in December in order to provide the basis of comparison for future days spent there.

Day 1 (Nov 27th):

Jimmy getting his leg underneath him on the first lead of the season (Twin Falls, right)
Jimmy getting his leg underneath him on the first lead of the season (Twin Falls, right)

The temperatures in Hyalite had been relatively warm (high 20s), up and through our first day of climbing.  We had heard that Twin Falls had come in per the MAG website, so that was the destination.  Over the course of the day, Jimmy and I did 5 leads total up the right, middle and left aspects of the flow. The right side offered a 3m curtain, followed by rambling 3+ terrain.  The middle offered delicate climbing on stubbies up thin bulges, and finally, the left, moderate terrain to a near vertical step to reach the top.  Both the right and left were fairly wet, though the running water could be avoided quite easily.  At the end of the day, a large part of the curtain on Twin Falls right fell off due to warming.  On the same day, Cleo’s was wet and anemic but we estimated that with a few cold days it would be in great early season condition.

Day 2 (Nov 28th):

On our second day out, we headed up to the left side of the canyon to explore the Mummy area.   The day was expected to be cold with a solid wind chill per NOAA (around 0).  At thiss point in the year, we found ~12 inches of loose snow at the base of the climbs, and some solid drips

Jimmy styled this lower start of "The Matrid" safter placing some iron and a nice .3 a bit higher
Jimmy styled this lower start of “The Matrid” safter placing some iron and a nice .3 a bit higher

We detoured to the Matrix (contour hard left 100m) after we found several parties at the Mummy/Sceptor area.  The Matrix is a mixed climb which gains a short pillar (not touching the day we climbed it) via a tricky mantel and some face climbing. The climbing protected with a medium sized nut out right, and then .3 sized cam before transitioning to the ice, offering left and right variations after this.  On the left, Jimmy found thin, delicate ice smears (no gear) starting up above the gully, then some 10cm screw placements which protect a cool exposed move through a small pillar/bulge where a small flow constricts through a roof. In turn, I led the right variation which requires some chimney groveling and stemming. The climbing was secure, but without any ice, unprotect-able until I hammered in a pin on the left after exiting the chimney.  The left variation seemed much more enjoyable and classic in these conditions.

Later in the afternoon, Jimmy went for a lead up the Scepter and got a cold shower in the process.  He ended up bailing off a slung icicle, on which I did a quick TR lap to clean the gear.  I pushed for a quick lap on Mummy II to round out the day, which was in fat conditions.   There are anchors at both the top of the right and left sides of the Mummy II flow.

Day 3 (Nov 29th):

To change things up, I got out with a fellow AAC section chair and Bozeman local Kevin Brombach. Modest as he is, Kevin has climbed out most of Hyalite Canyon and the surrounding areas.  Kevin and I went back to the Mummy area, and went up Mummy II and III.  On the approach to the higher Mummy pitches, we found anywhere from 6 inches to 2 feet of loose unconsolidated snow. High temps had now been in the mid-20s for two days now.

Mummy III was completely touching down; a state that Kevin had reportedly never seen before.  I found the ice a bit rotten for most of the climb, though some solid blue stuff existed underneath the aerated/snowy top layer. Mummy IV was touching but very wet and thin at the base.  On both the right and left, small cauli-flowered ice existed on the rock.  Between the lack of rock gear (left at the base of Mummy III – don’t do this) and the torrent of water coming off the pillar, we left it for another day. The climb looked about as wet as the Scepter with Jimmy the day before.  There are new bolt anchors for the top of Mummy III on the right side on the outcropping in the gully below Mummy IV.

Late in the afternoon, I led up the Scepter.  It started on steep hooks before some gargoyle wrestling to gain the midway ledge.  From here, pumpy hooks and joined icicles gained the top out (anchors are past the small step ABOVE the Scepter pillar.  I am still working on identifying ice grades with any accuracy but Kevin allowed that it was in solid grade 5 conditions.

As the third day of colder temps (high teens, low twenties) the Scepter was dry in comparison to the near water-fall state which Jimmy and I found just the day before.

Day 4 (Nov 30th):

NOAA reporting cold temps and a big wind chill. Still gotta get out!
NOAA reporting cold temps and a big wind chill. Still gotta get out!

One last short day before taking a break for a few.  With even colder temperates forecasted (single digits), Jimmy and I got a late start. After arriving, we did a bunch of movement with packs on, soloing up Greensleeves (grade II), the left variation of the Hangover (grade III, conditions, wet/saturated at the very top).  After this, I led the right hand variation of Hangover (M4 up a constriction with a pillar in the back to WI3 and some turn sticks to gain a tree).

After a few days off we returned for even more fun.  With cold temps and a bunch of precip, the anemic conditions we found on many of the routes were quickly changing by the first week in December.  Everywhere from the Genesis area to Unnamed Wall, routes were shaping up and the mixed lines were going on almost all ice.

Day 5 (Dec 6th):

With temperatures expected to be quite cold (wind chill of -10), we again got a late start, this time as party of three.  The third being Jimmy’s buddy Peter.  After a few days off and a bit of rest, I was feeling ready to hop on something challenging. Up through this point, Jimmy and I had mostly been tickering around in the M4-5 and WI3-4 ranges. We had seen that Black Magic could be possible and traverse the Unnamed Wall to get there.

Nearing the midway anchors in Black Magic. PC: Jimmy Voorhis

As the hardest mixed and ice route I have tried to lead thus far, hopping on Black Magic (in thin conditions) turned out to be a really challenging and still positive experience for me. The first part of the route follows 5.9+ rock up a chimney corner which allows for gloved jams and stemming.  Be sure to bring at least #3 cams and you’ll be psyched.  After passing a slung chockstone and a midway anchor at a ledge, a sustained thin ice smear (grade 4+, thin) led to the top.  On the day we were playing around, gaining the smear required a few mixed moves with bad/scratchy feet just above the height of the anchor, or very gentle, reachy moves to thin icicles just off the ledge.  More confident on rock/mixed climber than ice, I opted for the former.  After a bit of testing things out, I matched a few times on my tools, moved onto to the smear. It wasn’t really until I moved up another 3m that I realized just how pumped I was from getting this far.  With nerves brewing, “pumped out of my gourd”, I tried to continue to focus on my feet and technique. Finally, I chose to give up the possibility of making it to the top (or falling on small stubbies), and bailed off a V-thread. More on this experience soon.

Me transitioning onto the smear on the upper part of Black Magic
Me transitioning onto the smear on the upper part of Black Magic. PC: Jimmy Voorhis

My focuses for the week

My intention over the last week was to become a much more competent ice climber in a short period of time.  There is no way to cheat the learning curve, but here are the things I thought about as the week went on.

The difference in mental state between rock and ice climbing

When rock climbing, I am inspired when I look at a climb that I am not sure if I can do.   Whatever the motivation for this, the great thing about leading rock is that if you are placing your widgets well, its okay to fall.  The system works and is generally pretty safe.  Now I am not one for big whippers, and I am still more scared of falling more than I should be, but I know that I CAN fall.  Ice is a different story as many of us know.  We’ve got sharp points strapped to our feet and we are hanging onto a set of large metal spikes in our palms that can cause quite a problem should they touch any number of things on the way down.  This danger of falling forces a much more conservative risk taking approach that I am still feeling out.

Ability to estimate the difficultly of a climb BEFORE you head up.

This ties into the problem above, where falling on an ice climbing just simply isn’t acceptable.  So if we can’t fall, how do we avoid situations where we will be in over our heads.  Part of this comes down to accurate visualization of how challenging a climb might be given the condition of the ice.

Understanding various types of ice (thin, wet, brittle, picked out, chandliered, ) – identifying this before you swing

As I’ve continued to experience more of the same climbs on different days, I’ve noticed, and learned from others, about just how vastly different a grade 4 flow can feel in two distinct sets of conditions. Thin, brittle stuff will get the mind moving a lot faster as it plates when you swing into it, compared to something wet which takes each stick quite easily.  Picked out ice is the same story.  A climb can either be virgin (PO 0 as they call it in the Rockies) or a hook ladder, depending on how many people have been on it compared to the rate of growth or sublimation. Swinging into these different types of ice requires various amounts of force, either a gentle repeated wrist tap, or one nice thud from the scapula. Climbing on thin icicles? Maybe you won’t be swinging at all!

Understanding how ice can change throughout the day, or over a few days. 

In the previous years that I have visited Bozeman or other ice venues, I haven’t had the chance to see the ice metamorphose over time.  Seeing both the day-to-day changes (or those that occurred between the first and second weeks in town), and the changes intra-day were interesting.  For instance, the Scepter was a completely different climb on back to back days out.  The first, a small waterfall, the second, hooks on small chandeliered ice. As an example of how ice can change within a matter of hours, I noticed that Twin Falls went from hero sinker ice in the earlier afternoon, to brittle stuff that had the tendency to plate a few hours later when the temperatures dropped.  Needless to say that climbing experience changed dramatically in that timeframe due to the changing texture of the medium.

Bailing off an ice climb

Sometimes you are just going to have a high gravity day, or you might misread the climb. Its important to be able to maintain a calm head so that you can get off a climb safely. I’ve built and bailed off of several types of anchors before (v-threads, slung icicles) and I have also practiced the ability to clip into a tool should the going get rough.  When gripped high up on Black Magic, I found it more difficult to execute these systems with confidence and speed.  As a skill in itself, staying safe means being able to take care of yourself even when you get into a tricky situation.  Have a handle on your nerves, and consider exit strategies before you head up.  This will make it a lot easier to make the decision to bail, knowing that you can do so safely, rather than feeling forced to continue up a climb in a state of fear.


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