Worth a Thousand Pictures

Re-reading the Barrel Book. 

In the fall of 1995, Brent Bishop and Chris Naumman opened a new climbing shop in Bozeman: Barrel Mountaineering. Taking up space in the same building as Jack Tackle’s Bridger Mountain Sports, Barrel Mountaineering was named in honor of Brent’s father, the great Barry Bishop from 1963 Everest fame, who had recently passed in a tragic automobile accident.

Barrel quickly became the epicenter of the local climbing scene, and was soon organizing one of the first national ice festivals in the country every December. Always one to encourage others—and perhaps to help stay abreast of conditions while he was frequently out of town—the late, great Alex Lowe left a log book at the front desk. In the front, he wrote, “This book is dedicated to Barry Bishop, Barrel Mountaineering, Climbers Past, Present and Future, and the spirit shared by all those who love the hills—to share your love, for climbing is a gift—write down your events.”

Quickly known as “The Barrel Book,” this loose-leaf binder chronicled an era that remains unmatched in Hyalite history. Until March 1999, every climber in town would make a pilgrimage to the Book and check the latest happenings and conditions. You might just as easily run into someone recently on the cover of a climbing magazine as you would a pack of college kids soaking up as much info as their neophyte passion would allow.

Although there were dozens of entries recording everything from conditions of the most common Grade 3s and 4s to climbs in other areas of the state, Alex’s Hyalite entries dominate the Book. His distinctive script, neatly written in all caps with an economy and eloquence betraying his erudite engineering background, was combined with an exuberance uniquely Alex. Even reading it today, you can feel his energy and excitement.

What Alex really did with this book and his frequent write-ups was help everyone else in the community feel they were part of something, that you were in it together, with “the best climber in the world.” In a brilliant understatement, Alex would regard some of the hardest routes in the world at the time with comments like “another fine treat” (The Matriarch); “Mixed, sketchy, steep and great fun! Trust no holds” (The Big Sleep Direct, with a “huge overhang where the pillar broke off with Hyalite rock at its best, grim, and pins are suspect”); “very strenuous to start then fabulously complex climbing, take rock gear” (The Shimmy, Grade 6); and “Great but serious route – Grade 7+ R/X. Have fun!” (Smears for Fears). 

By 2000, entries in the Barrel Book began to slow thanks to the internet and the creation of montanaice.com. Climbers could immediately check road conditions (this was long before plowing), see what ice was in, and generally troll the canyon from around the world. The closing of Barrel in 2010 put an end to an era and the book once and for all. But since the road is now plowed and access virtually guaranteed, a certain amount of discovery has been reintroduced to Hyalite and even the web is less necessary. No longer are there any excuses to not find yourself at the end of a road in Hyalite, packed for adventure, and ready to go take a look for yourself.

This article first appeared in the program for the 2013 Bozeman Ice Festival.