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Matt Cornell free solos Hyalite Canyon testpiece, Nutcracker (M9 WI5+, 450')
Posted on: February 29, 2020
Matt Cornell climbing Nutcracker (M9 WI5+, 5 pitches)—with a rope and partner, prior to his solo ascent—in Montana's Hyalite Canyon. [Photo] Nathan Norby
On February 15, Bozeman climber Matt Cornell, 25, free soloed Nutcracker (M9 WI5+*, 5 pitches), in Montana's Hyalite Canyon. (*The Joe Josephson guidebook lists a grade of WI6, but Cornell and other local climbers agree that the ice on the route is in good condition this year, and no harder than WI5 or 5+.)
Cornell's solo of Nutcracker was a logical next step after years of soloing in Hyalite, where he began with the classic ice pillars for many seasons before moving on to harder mixed climbs such as Black Magic (5.9 WI5, 140') and Come and Get it (M7, 165').
"I was up there about five times a week for a month-and-a-half before I soloed [Nutcracker]," he said. "To prepare for the solo, I wanted to know the route intimately," he continued. "It's infamous for poor rock quality. I ran laps upon laps upon laps, finding the good, strong holds through rotten rock."
He doesn't own a car, so he was "riding the bike and hitching rides most days to get up to the canyon," he said.
Cornell held himself to a high ethical standard throughout his preparation, never creating or enhancing holds, and only clearing bad rock that was destined to break. He also did not make tick marks, a common practice in hard mixed climbing. He climbed as safely as possible on the solo, he said, wearing a harness, leashes, two screws, two draws, and a tag line.
"Ice and mixed climbing are so gear intensive that if any piece of equipment fails I would fall, so a way out was necessary," he said.
Cornell climbing Nutcracker with a rope and parter on one of his many ascents to rehearse the route before his solo. [Photo] Austin Schmitz
Photographers Nathan Norby, Austin Schmitz, and Nate Kenney had caught wind of Cornell's project and asked to film him. While they originally planned to film the solo climb, they decided not to, out of concern for Cornell's safety.
"Matt was in no way pushing any of the filming," Schmitz said. "This was a project of filmmakers wanting to capture an incredible thing." When it came time for the solo, "the immensity of the responsibility and risk turned us away," Schmitz said.
Cornell chose to solo the climb on a day when photographers, friends, and onlookers were not present. Clayton Thompson happened to witness the solo while climbing a route below Nutcracker. Later that night, he posted on social media:
Does anyone know who this absolute BEAST in canary yellow is who soloed Nutcracker today? Just wanna share some low-quality phone pictures and stoke with the fella because that was one of the more incredible things I've been fortunate enough to witness. Yeeeeeew!!!
Screenshot of Clatyton Thompson's social media post. [Image] Scott Coldiron
When asked about his reaction to hearing that Matt had completed the solo, Shmitz commented, "We all knew he was always going to do it. And it ended up being in the best style possible."
Nutcracker was established by Conrad Anker and Kristoffer ("Kris") Erickson in memory of their friend Alex Lowe in December 2013, 14 years after Anker's best friend and climbing partner passed away on Shishapangma, along with David Bridges. The first free ascent was done by Anker, Anne Gilbert-Chase and Jason Thompson in November 2014. Alex Lowe was considered by many to be the best all-around climber in the world at the time, but Lowe wasn't one to boast about his accomplishments, often repeating his maxim, "The best climber in the world is the one who's having the most fun."
"There was no one else in the same league [as Alex] in the '90s," Anker said recently.
In addition to Lowe's legendary solo circuits, he constantly pushed the standards in the canyon, with routes like Come and Get It, the Matriarch (5.10+ WI7, 220') and his pinnacle achievement in the canyon, Winter Dance, which was originally graded IV A0 WI7 until the route was eventually freed by Whit Magro and Erickson at M8 in 2007.
Winter Dance is the first ice that comes into view when driving into the canyon, and it lords over the other climbs from its high position on the west-facing wall. Nutcracker climbs the same ice feature, but enters higher up, avoiding the wild but rarely-formed lower section of Winter Dance. Because of this, Nutcracker is climbable on a regular basis, whereas Winter Dance isn't climbable during most seasons.
"I was blown away to first hear of Matt soloing Come and Get it," Erickson said via email. "Nutcracker is a level beyond, in my opinion. While the rock on both routes is commonly exfoliating, creating a continuous [possibility] for the unexpected to occur, there is also a much greater element of exposure [while] climbing Nutcracker. When you're thousands of feet off the valley floor and pulling on loose, overhanging Hyalite choss, it's a mind game to stay composed. A dropped tool during a drytooling sequence or the crumbling of some fiable rock could shift the scales on what's possible and deadly. Matt clearly has the ability to control his mind and body in ways so many of us only dream about!"
Cornell leading near the top of Nutcracker on a rehearsal ascent earlier this season. [Photo] Nathan Norby
"The Kid Under the Stairs"
It is perhaps fitting that Matt is the latest climber to push Hyalite climbing standards. The first time I climbed with him two years ago, after Anker introduced us, I thought that he may indeed be the climber having the most fun. I was impressed by his pure love of climbing, and he seemed immune to spraying about grades, climber drama, or comparing himself to anyone else. In other words, the things many of us do a lot of the time.
Matt may be one of the last true dirtbag climbers. I started calling him "The Kid Under the Stairs" after another friend texted me: "Hey—I think you're climbing with the kid under the stairs. Ask Matt if he lives in a closet at Kevin's house." Matt did indeed live in a closet under the stairs, but he would insist that it was a pretty dope closet. He has now graduated to sub-leasing a small trailer in a friend's backyard—I suppose a new nickname is in order.
Matt left home in Battle Creek, Michigan, at 18 and has been climbing full-time ever since, following an international circuit from Bozeman to Yosemite, to Patagonia, and just recently, the Greater Ranges, with a trip to Pakistan. In this age of increasing sponsorship opportunities within climbing, it is remarkable that he has thus far paid his bills by waiting tables part-time outside of Yosemite in the summer months. Since he does not own a car, for the past five seasons, he has ridden his bike to Yosemite in June and back to Bozeman in October.
For the Nutcracker solo, Matt focused on the importance of the process rather than the solo itself, remarking that it was "a way to experience the mountains and connect to the nature of Hyalite, learning the landscape so intimately and feeling so comfortable in such places."
I imagine Alex Lowe would be proud: "There are two kinds of climbers; those who climb because their heart sings when they're in the mountains, and all the rest."
—Scott Coldiron, Spokane, Washington
Cornell, right, with Martin Zabaleta, who is also an accomplished climber. [Photo] Austin Schmitz
[A video of Anker and Erickson climbing Nutcracker can be found here. For more history about Winter Dance and other climbs in Hyalite Canyon, see Joe Josephson's crag profile in Alpinist 36 (Autumn 2011), titled "The House of Hyalite."—Ed.]
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