Pioneering Ice by Maxe Lowe

Ice climbing draws attention from major companies who spend millions of dollars to advertise the extreme winter sport with mixed climbing competitions across the globe. But you probably wouldn’t even know about it if not for a labor of love by a handful of trailblazing athletes in a lonesome Montana canyon.

“In the beginning we were just climbing on piles of ice that we found along the Madison River,” says ice-climbing pioneer Pat Callis.

Callis grew up plying the pages of National Geographic and other tomes of mountaineering history, with his eyes fixed on snowy slopes and rocky pinnacles across the globe. He was introduced to climbing for the first time in Oregon’s Cascade Range as a teenager. Almost 20 years later, after moving to Bozeman, Montana to work as a junior professor at Montana State University, he found himself for the first time staring up at the shining pinnacles of ice spanning the far-flung walls of Hyalite Canyon, located about 20 miles south of town.

“In the beginning we were just climbing on piles of ice that we found along the Madison River.”

On a cold day in November 1970, Callis and good friend Charles Caughlan cross-country skied up the canyon, where they spotted a series of dramatic ice formations that they’d never previously noticed, hidden amidst crags and forested nooks. Climbing vertical ice routes had been discussed in the global climbing community for some time but few people were actually doing it. Hyalite resembled an untapped resource in the development of the sport, as few, if any, outsiders had laid eyes upon its frozen flows with the intent of climbing them.

Driving to the trailhead in Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Photo by Jason Thompson

Callis returned later with friend, climbing partner, and high school student Brian Leo to break ground. Armed with innovative new gear from Chouinard Equipment including droop pick (curved) ice axes, rigid crampons, and ice screws, they set routes on “Willow Gully” and “Mummy I,” routes that under today’s standards would be overlooked as beginner run-ups, but at the time were innovative in an undiscovered field of this new sport.

Soon more friends including climbers Jerry Kanzler and Clare Pogreba had joined Callis in the call to explore Hyalite’s ice flows. The group began informally calling themselves “The Wool Socks Club,” and pushed into the wild with a sense of dedicated leisure. They capped climbing days off with evenings at Bozeman’s Haufbrau pub, where they would drink pints and scheme their next adventures.

Embodying the pioneering spirit that drew them together, the members of the Wool Socks Club were no strangers to treacherous situations. The same year they began climbing in Hyalite, four of the friends—including Kanzler and Pegreba—perished in a massive avalanche in Glacier National Park while attempting an unclimbed and unknown route on the West Face of Mt. Cleveland.

The event struck a hard blow to the climbing community in Bozeman, and as winter closed in on the Hyalite Canyon road—which was only accessible through mid-December—the thoughts of vertical ice hidden behind the dark canyon walls of Hyalite flitted away.

Climbers Jim Kanzler, Chad Chadwick, and Doug McCarty approach “Green Gully” on February 20, 1972.
Photo by Pat Callis

Callis turned his focus from Hyalite and, accompanied by friend and fellow climber Jim Kansler, moved on to “Green Gully,” a magnificent ice flow just outside of Pine Creek in the nearby Paradise Valley. A photo of their first accent of “Green Gully” was published in the centerfold of Yvon Chouinard’s now-iconic book, “Climbing Ice,” securing Bozeman as a bucket-list-must destination for would-be ice climbers around the world.

Thus commenced what Callis refers to as the “golden years” of Hyalite Canyon, when climbers gathered in Bozeman to contemplate how to tackle new unclimbed routes. Possibilities for untapped exploration in Hyalite seemed endless.

Alex Lowe (full disclosure: he’s my dad), who had moved to Bozeman to attend Montana State University, along with Jack Tackle, renowned for his mountaineering efforts in the Pacific Northwest, made residency in Bozeman and took to the trails of Hyalite alongside Callis and others. The crew began calling themselves the “Dirty Socks Club” in honor of those who first made designs on this Eden of ice.

Andres Marin traverses a snowy slope in Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Photo by Jason Thompson

In 1980, the northwestern United States experienced an unusually dry and warm autumn that brought with it some of the best ice formations ever seen up in Hyalite by the climbing community. The lack of snow enabled climbers to drive to the trailhead and the clear weather allowed for unburdened growth of many routes that had before been too under-formed to be climbed.

That year, Callis and Jack Tackle completed a first accent of the grade-V multi-pitch “Cleopatra’s Needle.” Their accomplishment opened up new possibilities for climbers in Hyalite, opening the door to more innovative and scary routes that had traditionally been overlooked in favor of the more obvious and easier ice routes in the area.

“As Jack and I emerged from another route up Hyalite in early December, the graceful and imposing profile of the 400 ft. unclimbed “Cleopatra’s Needle” came into view, in shape for the first time since Alex Lowe and Stan Price had attempted the route two years earlier. Jack made the comment that we should come back that next week and try for the first accent. I was struck by how much it had changed, where two years before, the ice flow had been patchy and treacherous, it was now fat and sticky. That first accent remains one of my most memorable climbs in my history in this area,” says Callis.

“As Jack and I emerged from another route up Hyalite in early December, the graceful and imposing profile of the 400 ft. unclimbed ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’ came into view…”

So it was in Hyalite: One year a route might be rated at an intermediate level and the next it would be impossible to climb. The chaotic pattern of ice growth in the canyon led local climbers to doubt there was a future for the sport as anything beyond a pursuit for local enthusiasts. Yet they were laying the groundwork to enable a future they never imagined.

Tackle recalls how now-commonplace innovations—such as when Callis began using leashes for his ice axes so he could rest without dropping them—made longer and more challenging routes accessible. In 1986 Tackle would help bridge another gap in the progression of Hyalite when he made the first accent of “The Thrill is Gone,” one of the first mixed climbs to be completed in the region.

As this new era of climbing ice ensued and the hum of drills echoed off the far-flung walls of Hyalite became more commonplace, one thing remained unchanged from the early days of exploration in the canyon. Tackle refers to it as the “Mountain Ethic”—a no-showboating attitude and respect for a place to practice a devoted hobby.

Whit Magro and Adam Knoff approach a line of ice in Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Photo by Jason Thompson

With few promotional opportunities beyond print publications and word-of-mouth, developments in Hyalite didn’t get nearly as much attention as they would today. Also, “The Boys of Bozeman” (as they were called by many) kept this gem to themselves. Lowe and Tackle among others were training for the big game, climbs in Alaska, the Himalayas: expeditions to the highest peaks in the world. To them, ice climbing was practice for the peaks beyond the horizon. Across that same horizon climbers envied them for having Hyalite, an unexplored sanctuary of solitude, right in their backyards.

The golden age of Hyalite sprouted before the age of climbing gyms and sponsored climbing athletes. At that time, beyond the still very small and concentrated climbing community, the world of climbing rock let alone ice was still unsung and unseen by the general public. In the early 90s, all that changed as Hyalite began to draw more attention within the climbing world.

Jack Tackle gearing up for the crux pitch on first ascent of “Cleopatra’s Needle,” 1981.
Photo by Pat Callis

Across from “Cleopatra’s Needle” loomed a massive icicle amidst a wall of black pyroclast. This, the most imposing feature of Hyalite—and a tantalizing potential climb—had hung above the climbers of Hyalite for years and the now-vetted Lowe had eyes on it. After one failed attempt that ended with his partner breaking his leg earlier that season, Lowe returned with friend Jim Earl with crosshairs on what was to become “Winter Dance,” a route that remains a pinnacle in the ice-climbing world.

After their success that day, Lowe wrote in the legendary Barrel Mountaineering Shop route book, “Love it! The formation that has been called by the egregiously overused name “Fang” we’ve called Winter Dance!” Lowe’s introduction of mixed climbing in the region began a revolution, and climbers from the area as well as throughout the climbing community started bolting routes and using aid-style techniques in achieving routes previously thought un-climbable.

“Alex was without a doubt a spark to the world we would all now walk in—not only within the confines of Hyalite but also across the span of winter climbing possibility. He was such a warm and welcoming person that he also just drew in so many people to these new endeavors,” says Callis.

Rusty Willis climbing “Responsible Family Men” in Hyalite Canyon, Montana. 
Photo by Jason Thompson

In the fall of 1999, Lowe—who had been picked up on The North Face’s fairly new athlete team alongside Conrad Anker (Full disclosure: Anker is now my step-dad) and several alpine climbers—was on an expedition in the Tibetan Himalaya, with the intent of climbing and skiing Mt. Shishapangma, when tragedy struck. A massive avalanche descended from the heights of the peak and swept Lowe and one of his partners, Dave Bridges, to their deaths.

The incident struck a blow to the Bozeman climbing community and the hearts of many who had looked up to Lowe as one of the (by then) most well known climbers in the world. Lowe left behind a family of four: His wife Jennifer, and his three young sons, Sam, Isaac, and myself. Anker, who had become one of Lowe’s closest friends and one of his favorite partners for climbing expeditions across the world, was in the same avalanche but survived. Drawn together by the loss of Lowe, Anker and Jennifer kindled a relationship in following years, and Anker took up where Lowe had left, taking us under his wing, marrying Jenny and making Bozeman and Hyalite his home.

The Golden-Age climbers left behind a legacy in Hyalite, and their exploits continue to inspire the next generation to delve into the expanding world of winter climbing.

The Golden-Age climbers left behind a legacy in Hyalite, and their exploits continue to inspire the next generation to delve into the expanding world of winter climbing.

“I would see articles in magazines about the climbers from Bozeman that were crushing at a world-class level. This is what drew me in, knowing that people like Alex, Jack, and Doug had learned the skills they needed to climb in the greater ranges right here in my backyard. It was inspiring to say the least, and I feel like I have been chasing that dream that they sparked in me ever since,” says SCARPA climber and last years North American Mixed Climbing Championship winner, Whit Magro.

Climbing a mixed pitch in Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Photo by Jason Thompson

Beginning his freshman year at Montana State University, Magro arrived from Ohio a greenback to the sport of climbing. He first experienced Hyalite while driving across Montana with his dad. The further he explored the canyon, the more he realized he had found a place of extraordinary magnitude.

“The culture of Hyalite when I first arrived in Bozeman still had a very ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ vibe. The veteran climbers would shrug off any compliments on recent ascents and everyone wrote off any accomplishments with jovial dismissals. If you got any info on routes it was minimal—usually a sandbag that would send you searching for phantoms in the woods. It felt like the community was protecting something and I had to dig into that,” says Magro.

After graduating from Montana State University and falling in love with his now-wife Kimberly, Magro made Bozeman home base and started pioneering new ground in his own right. He secured his place in the story of Hyalite Canyon when he made the first free-ascent of “Winter Dance” (an M8-rated route) in 2007 and then in 2012 with his brother made the second acsent of “The Matriarch,” another extremely difficult mixed route that hadn’t been climbed since Lowe’s first accent in 1997.

“Hyalite has always been an unpredictable field of sport, sometimes things form up that have never been seen before because a branch falls in a drainage, and creates a flow that hadn’t existed before, and you can set a brand new route. That’s what I love about ice climbing: the fact that progression of the sport is truly at the mercy of nature’s labor,” says Magro.

Whit Magro climbing “Inglorious Bastard,” an M12 in the cave on the unnamed wall in Hyalite Canyon, Montana.
Photo by Jason Thompson

Hyalite is at the forefront of new development in the sport and has become a well-traveled destination for young up-and-comers and newbies to ice climbing. In 2011, North Face Athlete Sam Elias put up the M12-rated “Inglorious Bastards,” one of the most difficult mixed routes in Hyalite.

The Bozeman Ice Festival, started by Joel Lee and Barrel Mountaineering, held its 17th annual gathering of climbers old and new in December 2013. The event featured the second annual North American Mixed Climbing Championships, which took place on massive scaffolding in downtown Bozeman and drew nearly a thousand awed and amorous onlookers.

Hyalite has shaped the face of modern Ice and mixed winter climbing, and with the road being plowed now to allow year-round access, the canyon is a different place.

Climbers now travel from all corners of the world to claim a climb up some of the famous routes pioneered in that golden age of innovation. But the spirit that set young eyes on those first climbs in Hyalite, and indeed on any unknown and unexplored territory throughout the history of men is still what resonates at the heart of the canyon today.

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Angelica Rainer hangs mid-move during the North American Mixed Climbing Championships at the Bozeman Ice Festival. Photo by Max Lowe

Max Lowe

Max Lowe has been exploring the far reaches of the planet since before he could walk. His wanderings have taken him from his home in the mountains of Montana to Antarctica, Nepal, and Mongolia. The extraordinary wildlife, places, and people he’s found along the way have inspired him to pick up a camera and capture the moment. Currently Max is an independent photographer and writer in Bozeman, Montana. His work has been featured in Backpacker, Powder, and with National Geographic Books and Web.

Follow Max’s photo, video, and writing work: Website | Instagram

Jason Thompson

Jason Thompson is an adventure lifestyle photographer based in Bozeman, Montana. Over 10 years of experience as a mountain guide and ski patroller enable him to maintain a high level of safety during demanding photo shoots. He has collaborated with Sherpas Cinema, National Geographic Adventure, Outdoor Research, Powder Magazine, Alpinist, and more.

Website | Instagram: @_jt_photo

Kyler Pallister having a look at the rarely formed Alex Lowe route, “The Matriarch.” 
Photo by Jason Thompson