Learning the Ropes

Participating in the Bozeman Ice Festival.

It’s late November, and the bone-chilling temps of winter have begun to peel away autumn’s once-firm grip on southwest Montana. At 9:00 am, we’re bundled up and shivering as we watch our instructor, renowned climber Steve House, make his way up an 80-foot wall of ice. He ascends quickly and fluidly, explaining his technique with each swing of the pick, each toe-kick into the frozen waterfall’s milky surface. Soon he tops out and looks down at our eager, enthralled faces. His belayer, local climber and Exum mountain guide Doug Chabot, grins at us and says, “See? Piece of cake!”

“Yeah right,” we’re all thinking, as we stare at the 90-degree pitch in front of us. “Piece of cake my butt.” But within minutes, we’re picking and kicking our own way up the wall, scaling the seven-story span of ice with surprising proficiency. Steve and Doug discuss body position, axe entry angle, and a dozen other previously unfathomed intricacies of the sport, showing us how to overcome both our fears and our misguided instincts—mainly, swinging and kicking too hard. Step by step, foot by foot, we learn how to climb ice. By day’s end, we’ve all mastered the fundamentals, and one at a time we crest the rise, topping out victoriously, bodies tense and faces flushed from exertion, pride, and the thrill of learning yet another of life’s innumerable languages.

This is the Bozeman Ice Festival, an annual exercise in alpine adventure that’s become one of Bozeman’s most anticipated seasonal events. Put on by Barrel Mountaineering and Arc’teryx, plus a host of national sponsors, the “Ice Fest” draws over 120 people from all walks of life to the ice-covered cliffs of Hyalite Canyon. Participants range from anxious aspirants who wouldn’t know a carabiner from a cockatiel, to seasoned climbers looking to improve their technique on overhanging ice or mixed-climb conditions. Two distinct sessions —Introduction and Advanced Technique— ensure that both novices and more experienced climbers come away satisfied. Guest instructors come from all over the world, and usually include a handful of the world’s best climbers—Conrad Anker, Joe Josephson, Jack Roberts, Barry Blanchard, Jack Tackle, Will Gadd, and Mark Twight have all made appearances in past years. Reps from various equipment manufacturers are on-hand to outfit you with rental gear and answer questions.

But there’s a lot more to the Ice Fest than the actual climbing. Nightly slideshows entertain and provide extraordinary insight into the climbing lifestyle, where the serene beauty of the mountains is rivaled only by the unbreakable bond of friendship among climbing partners. At the end of the weekend, a post-fest pizza and beer party brings everyone together for story-swapping, schwag-distribution, and a huge gear raffle.

A word to the interested but apprehensive: If you think ice-climbing is an “extreme” sport, limited to aggressive, super-fit youngsters with a death wish, think again. My beginner’s group included a woman in her early 60s and a swarthy gentleman pushing 70. Both of them made it to the top of the icefall, and both were hooked on climbing. As the woman explained, ice-axe in hand and a wide grin on her face, “You only get old when you forget to keep on living.”