Ice and Access in the Hyalite Canyon

Posted on: November 7, 2007

Doug Chabot on the Hyalite Uber-Classic, The Thrill is Gone (WI4 5.8). [Photo] Courtesty of Joe Josephson

In tune with the alpine and ice climbing world for twenty years, Joe "JoJo" Josephson has been a climbing writer and photographer for nearly as long. He is the founder and publisher of Bozeman's First Ascent Press, and he's worked an eclectic mix of other positions, including: gear consultant, athlete, photographer, stunt man, guide, sales rep, business manager and ice-access guru. Born and raised in Big Timber, as a fourth generation Montanan, Joe offers his inspiration.

Often in life, you don't realize how good you have it until it's gone—or at least under the threat of being taken away. After spending twenty years ice climbing in the greater ranges of the world, including a decade of living in the Canadian Rockies, my concept of world-class ice began with big-ass routes a mile high. But right in my backyard was Hyalite Canyon.


South of Bozeman, Montana, the canyon always has held a great low-key vibe and has been a perfect area for locals. But, with most routes averaging just a single pitch or two, it never occurred to me that Hyalite belonged in the Pantheon of world ice. That all changed in December of 2006.

That winter, the Gallatin National Forest published a new Travel Management Plan, which we ice climbers had been eagerly anticipating. The non-profit Southwest Montana Climbers Coalition met with the Forest Service several times in previous years and felt that it adequately had explained to the bureaucrats just how important the road access was for maintaining Hyalite as a viable ice-climbing venue for the majority of those interested. We expected our access to be improved, or—at the very least—stay the same.

My best and oldest friend is a wildlife biologist who has worked for the Forest Service off and on for twenty years, worked for US Senators and generally has been around the block a few times. He warned me that this Travel Plan and the public input process was little more than a smoke screen: "The Forest Service will adopt nothing they didn't already want to do."

"But we had great meetings with them. I think it'll be OK," I countered.

My friend nailed it. When the plan came out our access was greatly curtailed by a gate that closed every year on the arbitrary date of January 1. This curbed our twenty-week season into a five-week window, leaving climbers to pray for global warming to produce the weather we needed: freezing cold weather and no snow up to the New Year. In a ski-crazy place like Bozeman, this type of thought will get you run out of town quicker than the last snake oil salesman. Yet the Forest Service sincerely thought they were improving our access. Clearly we had some educating to do.

Over the next four months, we met with the Forest Service numerous times, listened to other user groups, chatted up local and federal politicians, gave Power Point presentations, talked with lobbyists and Senate staff members in Washington, D.C., obtained media coverage, built new coalitions, raised money, lost sleep, scratched our heads and generally wobbled between frustration, glimmers of hope and despondency.

Perhaps it was too many years strung out on nasty Grade 5 with bad ice in front, and the last good screw thirty feet down, but we leveled our heads and kept after it—refusing to fail, refusing to panic, always professional.

To my amazement, by March, the Forest Service bent.

They 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.

Mark Twight, well known for his incredibly difficult, often unrepeated climbs, as well as his unrelenting ethical stances, teaching on The Sceptre (WI5). [Photo] Courtesty of G. Adam Ruther

Maybe the Forest Service realized ice climbers are a tenacious bunch who were easier to dealt with than to ignore. They agreed to work with ice climbers and other users to manage the road and implement changes through a series of stages. In the end—it could take several years—we'll address their safety and road concerns, achieve the primary goals of the Travel Plan, give the XC skiers some peace and quiet, and—most importantly—maintain reasonable access to the end of the road where the action begins.

Although the leadership and vision shown by the Gallatin National Forest to work with us was something of a welcomed surprise, my biggest revelation was over Hyalite itself. The distinct chance that our ability to ice climb in Hyalite may be severely curtailed forced me to honestly evaluate Hyalite ice climbing. Trite and simplistic statements like "It's world class," do not do the area justice.

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