Wild Cats

As we walked single-file along the trail beside Pine Creek, the distant sound of axes shattering ice could be heard piercing the mellow calm of a clouded winter day. On this January morning, Wild MSU was leading a group of eight college students on an ice climb, one of the bimonthly outings organized by the University club. For some, it would mark their first time swinging axes, and for others, it was simply an opportunity for some time on the rope. Upon reaching Pine Creek falls, the rookie climbers took a few minutes scaling a ground-level wall before joining the rest of the group on the motionless waterfall. Bradford, a rock climber having never adorned crampons, swung his leg perpendicular to the rest of his body, landing his heel upon a platform of ice. He then pulled himself atop the projecting shelf and proceeded to crouch through an archway that had been formed by the frozen water.

The opportunity to go headlong into a new sport without any previous experience is one of the benefits of membership with Wild MSU. Mark Paulson, one of the club’s climbing leaders, says that “the purpose of Wild is to familiarize students new and old with the area around Bozeman and the outdoor opportunities it offers.” The club is structured in such a way that a student could finish the first year of school with a wider range of outdoor sports to his or her name than some longtime Bozeman residents. This is because Wild crams the school year with as many activities as a given season in Montana can offer: kayaking, rafting, winter camping, tele-skiing, etc. Such a variety calls for lots of equipment, and so the club receives support from local shops like Barrel Mountaineering in addition to the stipend awarded by the college. The most important factor for a group such as Wild, however, is the student leadership, on which the structure and management of the club depends entirely.

The day in Pine Creek wore on, and all but one route along Pine Creek Falls had been climbed. It was at this point that Jono Binger, the club’s president, decided he would tackle the remaining ascent personally. Scratching his way up a 35-foot rock face while the rest of the party found a seat to watch, he reached his left foot out to the enormous ice mantle hanging three feet from the wall. Amid the occasional shouts of support from his friends, Jono exemplified his role as a leader when he successfully negotiated his way to the top of the icicle on his first try, the only person of the day to complete that route.

Typically, a Wild leader specializes in one particular sport, ensuring that every club outing is guided with expertise; however, skill is not his lone attribute—sharp and thoughtful foresight into every factor involved with a club trip is another necessary quality. Jono, who spends his summers in Glacier National Park guiding commercial rafting tours, has mastered the art of both an authoritative and cool composure, even when navigating foaming torrents of whitewater. This ability to be always in control is common to all club leaders and bears the mark of professionalism.

Part of what makes Wild MSU unique is the occasionally obscure trip it organizes. On one particular winter-camping expedition, students spent the entire afternoon crawling through the ins and outs of crystal caves before making their way back to their tents under the nighttime sky.

Bringing new ideas to the table is just one more duty of the club managers. Although favorites like rafting the Madison are always chalked up for the fall and spring semesters, brainstorming new trips is a regular task at club meetings. I sat in on one such gathering, held not in the student union building or a classroom, but around a living room table in a typical college house. Jono and his roommate Mark hosted the meeting that night, and there was talk of renting cabins from the forest service for a weekend ski trip. In addition to the usual logistical concerns, the needs of less experienced members were given lengthy consideration.

The beauty of Wild MSU is that anyone can join and—by the end of his or her time in college—emerge a well-seasoned outdoorsman. Many club leaders have gained much of their knowledge from their first years as members of Wild. Others have arrived in Bozeman with a long background in one sport or another. Fortunately for them, there was not the usual hardship of moving to a new area and trying to meet likeminded people; Wild immediately presented a group of trustworthy and enthusiastic athletes. In short, there is a place for everyone in Wild MSU.

Our long day of scrambling around on sheets of ice was brought to an end only by the darkening sky, and as always, our arrival back to the cars was met with the satisfying sensation of tired arms and legs. Early Saturday evening is about the time when most college kids are trying to figure out how to make the most of their weekend, and as we drove back to Bozeman, with a full view of the sunset across the western horizon of Paradise Valley, we knew we already had.