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Bozeman Ice Festival 2012

One of the best signs to see if you like ice climbing.
One of the best signs to see if you like ice climbing.

December 5-10, 2012

It’s warmer at 26,000 ft in Pakistan.

-Kyle Dempster commenting on the weather at the parking lot in Hyalite Sunday afternoon.

The first week of December I had the great fortune to get a paid trip up to Bozeman, MT and the ice climbing festival in Hyalite Canyon.  Never having been to Bozeman and their famous ice fest I was pretty pumped.

Leaving from work on Wednesday me and Joel headed to the airport, leaving our desks at 3pm for our 5pm, flight.  Have I mentioned how awesome it is to live in a city with an international airport that you can get to in less than half an hour?  We boarded and in a little less than 90 minutes we were wheels down in Bozeman.

The weather as of late in Salt Lake was fairly warm and dry, not unusual I guess, though I’m not sure.  As we (KP, Bill, and Joel) walked past rows and rows of Suburbans I didn’t really feel like we were in a place that had ice.  Temps were in the mid-40’s and the damp pavement meant it had rained recently.  The drive into town, not in a Suburban but a Toyota Highlander, reinforced much of the illusion that this Ice Fest would be a bust, no snow and warm temps.

Joel and I settled into the house that some of the other folks from work rented and prepped our bags for an easy day of climbing.  We’d be going into Hyalite and checking at two of the popular areas, Genesis I and II to see if the organizers needed any help.

Bozeman is a fairly small town of less than 40,000 people.  Though it has a small population the town is vibrant and the Montana State University campus continually pumps energy into everyone, keeping the town fresh.  In the morning we picked up KP and headed through town to the Hyalite.  While the town is in a flat area, there are mountains surrounding it, namely Bridger Bowl Ski area and the mountains south and east of town which hide Hyalite.

In recent years the road into Hyalite is plowed on occasion to keep it passable by regular vehicles.  It was not always this way.  Climbers previously had to use snowmobiles or hike/ski about 13 miles to get to the best climbs.  Naturally this is a big commitment and an even bigger day so Hyalite was primarily an early season venue, closing once the snows closed the road.  Not so any longer.  While the plow doesn’t come everyday or even just because it is snowing, it does plow sufficiently for passenger cars with decent tires to get in and play in the canyon.  The plowing is thanks to the efforts and funds of many of the ice climbers who live in town, not the least of which Joe Josephson

Driving up the canyon we saw a little bit of snow as we wound our way higher.  The look of the place is very Rockies in that there are lots of conifers and the peaks have few if any trees.  Definitely a different look than the mountains in Salt Lake.  Winter made its presence known a little more with the few inches of snow on the ground.  Getting to the parking lot, Joel, KP, and I suited up for the 10-15 minute walk up to Genesis I (G1).  Here we found a bunch of people all trying to figure out how to do this dumb sport called ice climbing.  Wild noodle wristed swings with ice tools, puffy jackets, and tentative kicks in crampons–all the signs new climbers.  Things were getting along pretty well so Joel lead us on to G2.  Joel is a former Bozeman local and helped start the ice fest back in the day.  KP and I having never been to the area were just following his lead.

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One of the many clinic attendees.

G2 was similarly stocked full of clinic attendees and guides.  There was a little less room here and looked like we wouldn’t be able to get on the ice much.  Itching to swing the tools we moved on to a smaller climb another 10 minutes down the trail called Hangover (WI3).  Here we came across one or two people already at the base with two more hiking up, though not from the trail we’d used.  Since the other party had gotten there before us, we waited our turn and chatted with them.  Pretty quickly we made friends and found out Peter, Sarah, and Liz were from Salt Lake City and Christian, who led the pitch to set a top rope, was from Connecticut.  Talk about strange coincidences!  It also turned out we were all “working”.  Christian is a customer service rep for Lowa boots, Peter from Liberty Mountain (outdoor retailer), Liz from Patagonia, and Sarah assisting Peter her cousin.

Liz hadn’t done much, or really any I think, ice climbing in the past so she was naturally asking for tips and such.  At some point the topic of screaming barfies came up.  Sarah who had climbed just before her had gotten a mild case of them and confusing Liz.  For the uninitiated screaming barfies are what can happen to your hands after a pitch of ice climbing, particularly to beginners.  I’m not a physician but roughly here’s what happens.  First you climb a pitch, or perhaps not even a whole pitch of ice.  You’re scared, you don’t trust your feet, you grip your tools to death, you never shake out, your hands are constantly above your head.  Blood has a tough time pumping through your hands and fingers because of the kung fu grip and since it is cold (this is ICE climbing right?) your hands get cold.  I’m not talking about making snowballs with bare hands cold.  I’m talking about wooden and numb and have a hard time articulating your fingers.  Perhaps it is akin to frostbite, but not quite I think.  Sounds terrible right?  Well that isn’t the bad part of the barfies, the best (worst) has yet to come.

Once you return to the ground or you get to the belay where your partner is, you finally can lower your arms below your head and loosen your grip on the tools.  This allows blood to rush back down your arms and into your fingers, warming them up.  Great right?  Nope.  For some reason the flood of warm blood back into your capillaries causes your hands to go on pins and needles.  You might even feel the cold blood pumping back up your arm towards your core.  The pins and needles soon are muted by blinding pain in your hands.  The rush of blood has awoken thousands of nerve endings and they are all trying to reboot and send info back to your brain.  It is not uncommon for some people to vomit during this process, hence the name, screaming barfies.  As the blood does it’s job and the nerves sort things out, the flood of blood warms your hands so intensely that it feels like they are in a hot tub.  The contrast in feeling to the previous phase is remarkable.  From the lowest lows to the highest highs.  If all this doesn’t make sense Liz’s expression in the photo below should explain it.  The whole process takes about 10 minutes.

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Not 5 minutes before Liz climbed her first pitch of ice did she ask what the ‘barfies’ were. No explanation needed now.

The barfies can be prevented by careful warmth management and it isn’t hard to recognize their onset once you’ve gotten them.  We all did a few more laps on the climb which wasn’t very memorable, but fun since it was the first ice of the season.  We even got to climb to some tunes after Liz pulled out a fanny pack sound system.  We all headed back to the cars and parted ways for dinner and refreshments.

Thursday I linked up with KP and Joel once again, but also with Bill and his friend Doug Chabot, another Bozeman local.  Doug is an accomplished alpinist with many trips to Pakistan, an avalanche forecaster, and along with his wife runs an organization for educating women and girls in Pakistan.  Check out the site at Iqrafund.org.  The five of us headed to Champagne Sherbert (WI4).  The route started up a slabby rock and small runnel of ice, this lead to a sustained 20-25 feet of near vertical ice.  A rest leads into another section of vertical and then another rest.  from here there is a 5-6 foot pillar to top out to the belay.  The climb is no more that 10 feet wide at any point.  So what do you do with five people and two ropes?  Well have one leader and four seconds of course!  This was accomplished by having two second tie into cow tails in the rope near the ends, leaving enough room for the other two guys to tie into the ends of the ropes.  This is not what you’d find in any book or on the AMGA guide exam at all.  But it worked and provided no one falls ans sends a crampon into the top of the bottom guy’s helmet then it is about the quickest way you can get 5 people to the top of a climb.  And indeed we did get to the top in probably about the same time as a team of three.

We repeated this performance on the climb adjacent to Sherbert called Champagne Slot (WI3+). A slot isn’t exactly where you want to go with this sort of arrangement since the bottom guy gets ice rained down on him, but hey, it works.

Since Thursday night it had been snowing, there was a bit of a break during the first half of Friday but it picked up again in the afternoon and evening.  Friday had 3-4 more inches of snow than the previous day making things much more picturesque.  Winter was here for sure.

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Champagne Slot (WI4) was a narrow ribbon of ice at this point. Above this it was a narrow rock slot with lots of stemming on the rock.

After Champagne Slot we headed back into town to catch a slideshow with Michael Kennedy and his son Hayden.  Michael is an accomplished alpinist with many big routes under his belt.  In addition to being a badass climber, he also was the editor of Climbing Magazine for about 25 years.  He is now the editor of Alpinist Magazine which is an amazing publication.  His son Hayden, 21, has recently become thrust into the main stage of climbing for his and Jason Kruk’s controversial stripping of the bolts on Cerre Torre’s Compressor route in Patagonia.  I won’t go into the fine details, but here’s the reader’s digest version of what you should read here.

First off to get yourself in the correct frame of mind, google Cerre Torre and look at the pictures.  It is probably the most beautiful and inspiring mountain in the world.  An Italian climber claimed he was the first to reach Cerre Torre‘s summit in 1959 and in the process his partner was swept to his death by an avalanche during the descent.  The climbing community doubted his achievement and determined to prove his alpine chops and disprove the naysayers, in 1970 he returned to the mountain.  This time he brought some mechanical help to bring him to the top, a gas powered compressor used to drill hundreds of bolts into the upper headwall of the route.  Once reaching the huge rime ice “mushrooms” he turned around and proclaimed they were not part of the mountain and therefore weren’t necessary to climb to have reached the summit.  The “accomplishment” was controversial at the time as it goes against almost everything that alpinism stands for.  Nevertheless the bolts remained until January of 2012.

In January (summer in the southern hemisphere) Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk went up the route and were able to do without the bolts by varying their line.  On the way down they did something a bit brash perhaps, but given they are in their early 20’s these things happen.  On their way they decided to remove the bolts to return the mountain to a more natural form, something that should have happened a long time ago.  Despite the original controversy the bolts caused when they were placed in 1970, there was similar uproar at their removal.  Check out Hayden’s and Jason’s post on the Alpinist linked above for more info.

Michael and Hayden put on a touching slideshow covering some of their summits and reasons why they climb.  Michael made a touching presentation on the balance of his climbing, career, and his family.  Since I was with the “in” crowd I was able to share dinner and a few drinks with Michael and a couple other alpine badasses during the weekend.

From Friday evening on into Saturday it was snowing.  During the drive up the canyon in the morning there was probably 6 new inches or so on the road.  Four of us headed up to Dribbles (WI4).  For the whole hike up it snowed and there was about 12 inches of fresh stuff on the ground.  Once we got to the climb it was apparent that the weather wouldn’t be letting up.  The extra elevation and lack of trees exposed us to some gusty winds and plenty of spindrift.  It was full on in Hyalite.  Climbing went from being fun and social the previous two days to being a different kind of fun, more of a challenging fun.  It was great.  After topping out and rappelling we ran into a few groups on their way up, which was surprising, since at the pace they had they’d be topping out the three pitch route in the dark.  Hopefully they rapped off the first pitch.

Sunday cleared out the snow, which didn’t stop at all on Saturday, and brought a clear and cold day.  It was just Bill and I.  For this trip KP decided to stick to drinking girlie drinks and bum around town.  We headed to Cleopatra’s Needle (WI5).  After sweating through my Nano Puff on the hike in trying to keep up with Bill I quickly got a chill, even in my big puffy.  Though cold the position for Cleo’s is spectacular, even though it went into the shade just as we arrived.

Bill delicately kicked up the standing pillar at the base of the route.  Luckily previous climbers had hooked it out a bit making it easier to climb.  This was good since kicking it it sounded like a hollow core door.  Working higher there was a 40 ft section of vertical ice with again some good hooks.  While I belayed I couldn’t get a really good look at the route or how to climb it since there was a lot of brittle ice because of the cold.  Bill did his best to keep it from raining down but there’s only so much one can do.  I was safely tucked into an alcove so I was fine, but I had to kind of onsight the route as a second which is a bit odd.  The first pitch isn’t really the “business” P2 is for that.  The belay for P2 was equally picturesque but colder as the wind started to pick up at this point.  It was a constant battle to stay somewhat warm while Bill headed up P2 which had a good 60 ft section of vertical ice with few rests.  Understandably he took his time to make the careful moves and I was stuck catching spray from the drips that fed the formation.  The best place to belay was under a bunch of hanging daggers.  Standing under them really creeped me out but it was the best place to stand.

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Bill working up the second steep section of the first pitch.

Once I was on belay I got my hands back as best I could to fight off the barfies and went into it.  I didn’t have too much trouble with the pitch.  Not to say that it was easy, but I didn’t think it was terrible.  Wouldn’t have wanted to lead it for sure though.  The vertical section ended with a slight rest and then went into a few moves on rock on the right and thin ice stemming on the left.  I ended up popping off at one point where I thought I had a stance and was trying to warm my hands.  I wouldn’t even call it at fall though.  Getting to the top was no discussion necessary to get down and back to the car and get warm.  Cleo’s is an amazing climb, probably the best pitches of ice I’ve done so far.  Loving the Cobra’s and the Stinger crampons!  Made the job much easier and pleasurable!

The four days of ice climbing was just awesome.  The past two trips, less than seven days apart are why I wanted to move west–standing on top of a desert tower in the sun at 60 degrees on Saturday, then one week later standing in full on conditions, spindrift coming down on top of me at the Dribbles in Montana, stunning.

On top of the spectacular climbing I’m really lucky to have met a bunch of alpine greats, past and current.  It is really exciting to have met some of the people I’ve read about in magazines and seen in alpine journals.  The reason I’ve been able to meet these people is because of work and I’m looking forward to participating in their future trips; even if it is just by having a hand in some of their equipment.

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