My First Time: Pat Callis

Pat Callis climbing

Catching up with a Bozeman climbing pioneer.

Anyone who climbs often in the Gallatin region, or has thumbed through a copy of Rock Climbs of Southwest Montana, probably knows the name Pat Callis. After growing up in Oregon and attending grad school in Washington, he moved to Bozeman in 1969 when he was offered a job in Montana State University’s science department. He’s been here ever since. In the early days, when he wasn’t spending time with his wife and kids or teaching students about quantum mechanics, Pat was climbing. He’s shared a rope with legends of the sport like Alex Lowe, Layton kor, and Warren Harding—and made a reputation for himself in his own right.

Pat has quite a few firsts to his name: the first-ever ice climb in now-famous Hyalite Canyon; 25 first ascents on Suicide Rock, a popular crag in Southern California; and the first ascent of the North Face of Mount Robson (the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies and a route that had turned away the likes of Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, and Fred Beckey), among others. He also founded Bozeman’s first search & rescue team with Jack Tackle, which eventually became the Alpine Rescue arm of Gallatin County Search & Rescue. But despite these towering feats, Pat’s climbing career had humble beginnings.

Pat, tell us about your first time climbing.
When I was 15, I was paging through a magazine and saw a climber in an advertisement for some expedition. A wave of emotion hit me. I can still remember that sensation in my gut, like when you’re scared—but this was different, and I thought, “I would like to do that.”

I didn’t know much about climbing, so I thought it would be silly, so dangerous, stupid, and irresponsible to try. But I couldn’t shake the feeling.

I started reading everything I could about the sport—which wasn’t much at the time—and I had a sophomore literature teacher, who liked to climb around Eugene, show me slides of his expeditions. He mostly hiked up volcanoes, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s just hiking, with a little bit of scrambling.” He said it was like driving—potentially dangerous, but you could learn to do it safely.

That was right around the time my parents bought me a chemistry set, which altered the course of my life professionally, and they were equally helpful in getting me into climbing. They supported my new interest and signed me up for a Tenderfoot climb called the Obsidians, a beginner-friendly trip held every year by the climbing club in Eugene. This “climb” scaled the Middle Sister, a 10,000-plus foot volcano in the Cascades.

The morning of the trip, we were up before sunrise for an early start. We didn’t need ropes, but we did use ice axes and crampons; the route wasn’t very steep, but the snow was frozen rock-solid in the summertime. It was actually quite easy, more of a hike than a climb.

My dad joined us, and as we were hiking up, he asked, “You’re not going to do that high-angle, real technical stuff, are you?” I hesitated for a while. Then I said, “Yeah, I am.”

Pat Callis climbing