Hard Road to Hyalite

11:00 am. It feels early. I squint my eyes and look through the bedroom window. It’s snowing. Lucian and I had planned on climbing today, but if there’s fresh powder at Bridger, he might want to ski. The phone rings. “Let’s go climbing,” he says.

It’s early afternoon as I toss my pack into Lucian’s pickup. We make for Hyalite; I wonder aloud if we’ll have enough time to set up. Lucian puts his truck in gear. “We’ll climb,” he says. “If anything, I can put the chains on and see how far past the dam we can get.”

We reach the reservoir with no problems. The sky threatens to dump more snow, but there’s no way of knowing how much. The dam looks drivable now, just a few drifts piled here and there—but how much more drifting will occur while we’re climbing?

“Let’s see how far we get before we need the chains,” Lucian says, accelerating hard. I reach for the grab bar. We get across the dam but on the far side, Lucian takes a tight curve and sinks the rear wheel. I attempt to push but the wheel digs deeper. “Looks like we’re putting the chains on here,” Lucian says with a grin.

Twenty minutes later we’re free. Lucian tears ahead as I sprint after, yelling at him to keep going. After 50 yards I reach the open tailgate and dive toward the truck bed. I ram my knee hard into the metal, nearly falling out, feet dragging on the snow as I grab the tailgate hinges and pull myself in.

We drive another mile before stopping; the road ahead appears less friendly. 3:30 pm and three more miles of hiking ahead. An hour and half later, we reach the trailhead and notice an abandoned-looking Isuzu Trooper in the parking lot. “That’s our lift out,” Lucian jokes. Snow falls as we reach the climb. It’s 5:00 pm, the time most climbers start heading back. We pull out our gear.

Considering our limited time, we decide to set up a top-rope on G1. The climbing feels good: the ice is thick and plastic, each placement secure, solid. With a grading of Water-Ice 5, the 90-degree angle of the ice doesn’t allow for good rests. I catch one where I can but keep motoring, my hands slowly becoming cold and numb. I top out the short 60-foot climb and yell for Lucian to lower me.

Hyalite Ice Climbing Outside Bozeman Genesis

He climbs G1 well, muttering about the spindrifts that fall on him and his cold hands. “Do you want to climb again?” Lucian calls down. It’s dark and snowing harder. I think for a moment. Ah, what the hell. “Yeah!” I yell up, and we swap places once again.

I try to climb quickly, concentrating on each movement. My hands are too numb to feel the direction the tool is pointed; heavy snow falls onto my face. At the bottom, we secure our headlamps and pack up. My light shines orange on the snow, weak batteries depleted by the cold. “I’ll be psyched if we get a ride in that Isuzu,” I offer, not wishing to hike out. Lucian though, thinks we won’t.

My headlamp soon dies, so I follow behind Lucian to catch his beam. As we step out onto the snow-covered road, a body silhouetted by a headlamp asks if we want a ride. We stare dumbly at each other. “Sure!”

Kyle introduces himself, and lets us know it’ll be a tight fit. “I’ve got three more people coming but you’re more than welcome to cram in,” he offers. Crammed it is. Six-packs, skis, shovels, wood boards for tires, other assorted gear for extracting a stuck truck, and six bodies hunched over it all, heads bouncing against the roof. I should’ve kept my helmet on.

The first 100 yards pass quickly as we introduce ourselves. Justin, offering a cold PB&J sandwich; Jesse, preferring not to look out the front; Brock, riding shotgun; and Kyle, driving, the only one wearing a helmet. We make an eighth of a mile before the Trooper sinks into a snowbank. Jesse, Justin, Lucian, and I pile out the back; Brock, sliding out the passenger door, falls to his waist in snow. We gather around the front of truck and start pushing as Kyle drives in reverse. The truck pops free and we clamber back in, out of breath and laughing after a few clumsy stumbles in the deep snow.

The Trooper crawls along. Headlamps flicker all around as our bodies bounce in rhythm to the jostling of the truck—a moving, miniaturized mosh pit in the middle of this cold winter night, miles from city limits. The power steering is broken, preventing Kyle from making vital last-second corrections; we get stuck again. Pushing does not work. Lucian suggests we get the boards, high-lift jacks, and shovels. He stands at the driver’s door directing the extraction. With the boards underneath the tires, we clear a path. The Trooper’s engine revs loud in the silent night, the chained tires slapping the wood for traction.

We repeat the process eight to ten times, becoming more efficient each time. Someone jokes that we could probably make a go as a pit crew on the NASCAR circuit. Brock ribs Lucian and I mercilessly, blaming us and our extra weight for the truck being stuck. “We didn’t have this problem coming in,” he says.

We left the trailhead at 6:00 pm; now it’s almost 8:30 pm as Kyle and the crew deliver Lucian and I to our truck. We resist the urge to point out that we could have walked backed faster. Lucian, with intact power steering, leads the way and Kyle follows in our tracks. Thick snow still falls.

At the dam Lucian cuts the engine, headlights illuminating the path across. Only four inches of snow have fallen since we came in, but the winds over the frozen reservoir have deposited much more. All passengers pile out to lighten the load and help recon the crossing. Beyond the dam the snow is passable; if we can just get across this stretch, we’re home-free.

Around the trucks, headlamps cut long swaths in the darkness. I watch Lucian back up, accelerate forward, and stop dead in the first snowdrift. Kyle uses his truck to free Lucian. Lucian tries again with similar results. I watch the snow appear from the blackness into the light and settle on the ground. Again Lucian rushes forward and quickly lurches to a halt.

“You need some weight in back,” Kyle tells Lucian. Brock and I jump in back and Kyle stands on the tailgate, hands bracing the back of the topper. Lucian gives a hearty battle cry and guns the engine. Suddenly I’m prostrate, bouncing against the side, desperately holding onto the open topper window. The tailgate crashes up and down while packs and assorted gear smash into Brock and me. Brock is rapidly slipping towards the back of the truck, his feet pedaling to find purchase. Kyle is still standing, somehow holding on with the topper hatch bashing into him. I grab Brock as the truck launches over a huge mound, keeping him from sliding out the back.

I notice that Kyle is no longer standing on the tailgate. “I hope he jumped!” I yell over the din of the engine and groaning metal. We continue to lurch across the dam, struggling to stay inside the truck. I have no idea how far we’ve gone. All I see is black. At last the truck slows and then stops at the far side. We’re clear. The eight-second ride is over.

Kyle is okay and is making his way back across the dam. Following in Lucian’s hard-won tracks, he gets the Trooper across without mishap. We regroup, pile into our respective rigs, and promise to keep an eye on each other for the ride out.

Lucian and I ride in silence, until I wonder aloud about symmetry of the snowmobile tracks in front of us. “They’re a result of harmonic oscillations,” Lucian explains. “The same thing causes washboards on gravel roads.” As we ride back out of the canyon, he offers a detailed explanation of their formation. In the dark, I listen, already looking forward to the next time.