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Bozeman Ice Festival: Accounts from the Players
Hyalite Canyon Access
By Joe Josephson, Montana
In December, 2006, the leadership of Montana's Gallatin National Forest released their new Travel Management Plan for Hyalite Canyon, decreeing that the sole road leading into Hyalite Canyon would be gated from January 1 until May 15, allowing no motorized vehicle access into the canyon for the majority of the winter recreation season. This closure would affect every user group involved: snowshoers, nordic skiers, snowmobilers, and ice climbers.
Pete Tapley cranking M-hard in The Cave, Hyalite Canyon. [Photo] John Irvine
An advocacy group was quickly formed. The Southwest Montana Climber's Coalition (SMCC)—well established, with a history of successful access negotiations and trail building—was joined by the Bridger Ski Foundation, environmental groups, City and County Government, motorized users and others. After months of discussion—spearheaded by long-time Montana climbers Joe Josephson and Bill Dockins—on March 15, 2007, the Forest Service reached an agreement with the advocacy groups that would maintain reasonable access to the canyon for ice climbing and other recreational purposes.
The Forest Service finally admitted one of their main goals was simply to close the road to avoid the hassles and safety issues of the "Hyalite Rodeo," the term given to the snowed-up road when it becomes littered with ice climbers in Subarus, motor heads in or on anything that burns two gallons per mile, meek young couples wanting to hold hands in a winter wonderland, ice fishermen hauling sheds of unspeakable squalor, college kids dragging inner tubes, red necks looking to pop a few thousand rounds into the hillside over a case of Schlitz or poor, naive skiers trying to find some peace.
However, this new plan suffered a setback when a mudslide swept across the road near Practice Rock in the spring of 2007. After funds allocated toward implementing other aspects of the plan were used to clear the mudslide, the Forest Service decided that the easiest route to take would be simply to maintain the status quo for the 2007-2008 winter season.
The status quo, in this case, means that the road will be plowed by the County to a popular fishing access point at the mouth of the canyon. The road will remain open past this point for motor vehicle access as long as it is drivable; the Forest Service will gate the road if a "season ending event" occurs. Snowmobiles will be allowed on main roads only (not on the reservoir itself), as far into the canyon as the Emerald Lake and Grotto Falls trailhead parking lots (which are the main access points for ice climbers) until March 31. The Forest Service had committed to installing a series of signs warning users of various hazards but these remain to be seen. This signage is the first part of a larger educational push that both the Forest Service and the advocacy groups are making to reduce behaviors that have led to this access crisis in the first place. The entire canyon will be closed by a gate at the bottom of the road between April 1 and May 15 with no motor vehicle access at all.
A climber enjoying her first day of ice climbing. Despite the grimace, she reported having a good time. [Photo] Erik Lambert
In the next one to three years, Hyalite Canyon will hopefully see several changes. The Forest Service is in the process of planning the installation of guardrails along the access road. This is the first step to upgrade the road to meet "Winter Use Standards" that will allay concerns about watershed quality that the City of Bozeman has recently raised.
A cross-country ski trail will be constructed away from the road, on the opposite side of the reservoir that lies at the mouth of the canyon. This trail will link to other, established trails in the canyon, and leave the road free for motorized traffic, allaying concerns of vehicles striking skiers. In keeping with the "many uses" objectives of the Forest Service, an independent snowmobile trail will also be constructed, on the same side of the lake as the current road. This trail will allow access to a Forest Service Rental Cabin and more importantly the Grotto Falls trailhead, the main trailhead for ice climbers. Finally, at some point it is hoped to form a non-profit organization to spearhead the ongoing educational efforts, manage the plowing funds, and begin the process of lobbying for Highway Trust Fund money from the federal government to make long term upgrades and improvements.
An unknown climber on the crux pitch of The Dribbles (WI4, 250m), a classic Hyalite Canyon route. [Photo] Erik Lambert
As with all issues related to access, the Hyalite Canyon story is complex, convoluted, and difficult to summarize. As a recreational space not just for climbers, but also for hikers, snowshoers, nordic skiers, and snowmobilers, Hyalite is the most popular and contentious Forest Service-managed land in Montana. The central focus of the entire issue for climbers is one road. Different agencies—municipal, county, state and federal—all have an interest in different components of that road. Some agencies are concerned with safety, some with access for different user groups, some with plowing and maintenance and some with monetary concerns. These differing jurisdictions and goals make management decisions difficult to reach.
Since the story is so complex, as ice climbers, the easiest way for you to help, without even having to understand the intricacies, is simply to go ice climbing. More climbers traveling the road means that the road stays passable longer. Keeping the road open, as well as avoiding accidents and conflicts with other user groups will go a long way towards keeping the road open this season and seasons to come.