Hyalite Ice 2021

Returning to the Genesis

Back during my senior year of college, I convinced Jacob, my main climbing partner at the time, to “try this ice thing”. We had one pair of tools, a few screws, and glacial crampons, and set out to the famed Hyalite Canyon in Montana. We started at G1, or Genesis, and took off from there. Unbeknownst to me at the time, ice climbing has been a roller coaster for me since. After nearly taking an entire season off, I decided it would be best to head back to the basics with another trip to Hyalite with Jacob and Kelly.

A roundtrip drive in mid December to Bozeman and back is threading the needle with winter weather. Kelly and I left early to get over Snoqualmie before intense snowfall, poaching some Hyak bottomless, baseless powder along the way. How come the skiing only gets good when we leave?

“Early season hazards”.

We arrived in Spokane in the evening, staying at Jacob’s parents home. It is immaculately decorated with enough Christmas related furniture to fill an entire barn, including a 15 foot Christmas Tree. The place looks like a literal home magazine. Props to his mom for decorating, and the rest of his family for adhering to the strict cosmetic rules.

Like something you’d see on Pinterest.

The next day, we got stuck at Lookout Pass for a few hours in a snowstorm, a harbinger of future doom. As Kelly stepped outside to go pee in the snow at one point, the man and his wife in the car behind us suddenly appeared with a bucket and blanket and set up a makeshift toilet for her. “Welcome to winter!” he exclaimed, but technically it was still late fall, as Logan would like to remind us. Fortunately, the rest of the drive went smoothly and we got to Bozeman in the evening.

On Sunday morning, we met up with Logan, who lives in Bozeman now, and drove up towards Hyalite Canyon. Around 7:45 am, at the intersection with the main fork and east forks, we were greeted by a representative from the Bozeman Ice Fest. I had hoped in vain that because it was the last day of the Ice Fest, we would avoid the crowds. He asked us which climb we intended on doing (Twin Falls) and then told us that the parking lot was full. I only realized afterwards that it was incredibly suspicious that he first asked which climb we were intending on doing, before telling us that parking was full. I also later heard from a friend that they were able to easily get parking at noon that day… Suspicious at the least, dishonest at the worst!

We rapidly pivoted to the Flanders Cirque, which held Champagne Sherbet and Champagne Slot. Driving there required going through some absolutely shell-shocking icy potholes. They were over half a foot deep and rocked my little Subaru Outback. I was legitimately concerned we would get stuck or my suspension would get messed up. I have never experienced such jarring potholes. I would not recommend driving that road again.

Once at the trailhead, we hiked up to the climbs and ran into Kelly’s friend Naomi and their group. Naomi has frequently volunteered to carry a cello and keyboard up a mountain if Kelly and I one day decided to do a mountain top concert. They were looking to lead Champagne Sherbert, which looked far too challenging for us to lead off the couch anyways, so we instead moved over to Champagne Slot. In retrospect, it was in fine condition, but it was our first climb, so Jacob just led the lower half and made a screw anchor where it got thin and steep.

Logan belays Jacob up Champagne Slot.

We each took one lap on the lower half of Champagne Slot before giving it up to another group. There were many large groups here at the two climbs, a product of the short supply of ice and big crowds of the Ice Fest. Just a week before, a heat wave hit Bozeman, with temperatures of 50 degrees in the canyon, and most of the climbs fell apart. Fortunately, everyone but two cranky women were very chill about the crowds and we patiently took turns and shared ropes to get the laps we wanted.

After Naomi’s group left, they trailed our rope up Champagne Sherbet and we got the lucky opportunity to top rope this exceptional route! It is a full 60m so we had to tie two ropes together. The climb was long, with three distinct sections. The lower part was a low angle ice chimney, followed by a steeper, technical crux with many holes, and a long fat rambly upper section. This was one of my favorite pitches of ice I have ever climbed – so varied and enjoyable! Huge thanks to Naomi’s team for leading it.

Logan getting some of that TR action.
Kelly enjoying the ice chimney start.

The next day, we made sure to get an alpine start to avoid any leftover crowds, but the crowds had all left. During his last trip, Jacob had tried to get on the Elevator Shaft, but could not manage it with crowds and time. So on this morning, we hiked straight up to the Unnamed Wall. The Elevator Shaft is a striking, beautiful pillar pouring out of a gully. On a blustery stormy morning, the air was perfectly calm in this little protected cove.

The beautiful Elevator Shaft.

As others noted, the Elevator Shaft was in relatively “early season” conditions meaning it was pretty steep and narrow. As the season goes on, more ice forms and the climb “bulks out”, becoming easier and less steep. In this condition, it was a bit more challenging, but it still climbed and protected well. Jacob cruised up it.

Jacob on lead.

As I was following, near the top, I swung my tool straight through one of the ropes! It was hard to believe my bad luck, considering these were skinny 7.2mm ropes. So now I have twin ropes, one 60m and one 58m…

On the way back, I led up The Fat One, which was not very fat. I had to be careful to not swing through to the rock beneath in one section, but the ice was mostly adequate. Being my first lead of the season, I struggled a little with the screw placements, but otherwise was solid.

The not-so-fat one.
Winter Dance is the pillar high on the wall across the valley.

With improving weather, we decided to trek out deeper into the canyon for the afternoon. Our intention was to climb Silken Falls, an easy multipitch past the Dribbles. We did a variation to the Dribbles four years ago while we were here and it was my favorite climb during that trip.

Passing the Dribbles, with another party on it.

When we arrived at the base of Silken Falls, it looked nothing like we had seen in photos. There was minimal snow at the base, and so the climb appeared to be much longer and steeper than in pictures. There was an additional steep step at the bottom. Since this climb sits in a snow funnel, it really fattens and gets buried. But the lean conditions just meant bonus climbing for us!

Looking up at the first pitch of Silken Falls. The top of the second pitch is barely visible.

Jacob started up the first pitch, but backed off at the steepest curtain. He was tired from his lead of Elevator Shaft earlier. What is great about climbing with Jacob is we are pretty evenly matched and if one person ever needs bear a little more of the load at any given point, there is never any shame or issues. If I’m not feeling it I know he will step up. And in this case, it was my turn to step up.

The section where he bailed was much harder than it looked from below. I slowly worked my way up the 20 ft vertical section. It reminded me how much harder “real” – not picked out and stepped out by other climbers – ice is. I made it up, but it took some effort.

The second pitch looked quite low angle and chill, with some fat flows, but it also turned out to be deceptively steep (solid WI3) and long. Jacob came back and led this pitch brilliantly. The winds howled, spindrift swirled around us and for a brief moment, it felt almost alpine.

Jacob starts up the second pitch of Silken Falls.

It proved to be a long day, hiking out by moonlight. But Kelly had a killer dinner ready for us when we got back, as she did most evenings.

The next morning, we took it easy and did some work from our Airbnb, before driving up with Kelly in the afternoon for a G1 session. With warm temps and rapid action, Kelly enjoyed this gym-like version of ice climbing much more than the “sit-around-and-try-not-to-be-cold” Champagne day.

Genesis!

We shared the crag with a very entertaining couple. The man used “Babe” approximately seven times per minute (“You’re looking great, babe!”; “So proud of you babe”; “Babe, I can setup a 3:1 if you need”). He had funny, but poignant advice (“Kick like you shit, swing like you screw!”). He also rope soloed the ice without tools… with his bare hands and no gloves. It was a total show! For the rest of the trip, anyone and everyone was “Babe”.

“You’re looking great, babe!”
“Swing like you screw, babe!”

As we were about to leave, another group showed up and asked to use our rope to set up their rope. One of them also forgot a harness, so I threw him mine and told them to bring our rope and harness back to our Airbnb later tonight. Shenanigans always happen at G1!

Jacob and I both woke up the next day feeling a bit sick, but fortunately we had planned a rest day anyways. It also snowed 8 inches overnight, changing the avalanche dynamics for the rest of our trip.

After a day of rest, we both felt good enough to head back out. Temps were finally dropping to normal Bozeman levels and we expected more climbs to be coming into shape. We planned to do a circuit around the Ampitheater area. In the parking lot, we ran into our friends Deb and her partner, and the other real Climber Kyle and his partner Sarah. Of all the parties in the parking lot, we knew about half of them.

We began the day leading Fat Chance and then using that to top rope Mustache Ride, which was fun but a complete shower. I took a lead on Thin Chance, which felt easier than I expected and gave me more confidence.

Jacob on Thin Chance.

One climb that I was very curious about was the Matrix. Wayne Wallace said it was his favorite climb in Hyalite, so it has to be good. The lower pillar does not usually form all the way to the ground, requiring a few mixed moves to start before getting onto the ice. Since I have been doing a least a little mixed practice, I wanted to give it a shot. The fall potential was very safe, with a cam protecting the first crux and a nice soft landing of snow if I slipped in the first few moves.

Looking at the Matrix.

We had conflicting beta from two friends about the route. One friend told us a 0.75-0.1 cam protects the crux, while another told us to bring a 0.2-0.4. I found a 0.75 fit perfectly in a crack 10 feet off the ground. With a cam placed, I delicately stemmed over to the ice pillar, hooked a tool into the ice, and began to pull my body onto the pillar. It probably was not the most efficient movements, but it worked. It felt airy and exposed, pulling onto a pillar that narrowed to nothing beneath my feet. A few quick swings brought me over the lip!

The next section rambles up some moderate ice for a ways before steepening to a second crux, a narrow ice pillar about 1 ft wide and 5 ft long. I rested for a bit on a screw, trying to decide how I would climb this tricky section. After placing a few screws, I got high tools in the snow above the bulge. They seemed solid to commit my whole body weight to them. But right as I was about to make the moves, I saw a crack to my left in the roof and threw in a 0.4 cam. Both beta were correct!

With a cam at my waist, I was now able to confidently pull the delicate lip. I continued up to the bolted anchor on the left and Jacob lowered me off. I was absolutely ecstatic. What a route!

Jacob stems between rock and ice to start the Matrix.

The route was just so much fun that Jacob and I each took two laps before moving on. Even though I am still not thrilled about pure DRY tooling, I find mixed rock and ice lines like this one to be some of the most fun! I am really happy with my progress, feeling solid on an easier mixed route like this one.

We finished up the day on Feeding the Cat, which was strangely brittle and aerated (i.e. not very confidence inspiring), and a speed lap up Crypt Orchid. For once, we walked back the car before it got dark, very content with a great slate of climbs.

“You’re looking good, babe!”

On Friday, our friend and fellow Issaquah runner Kaytlyn joined me and Jacob. Kaytlyn is a pro runner for North Face but is actually a well rounded mountain athlete who does more activities than just ultra running. It was a cold morning, and we began the day by breaking trail up to G2.

Kaytlyn demonstrating supreme style at G2.

It was the kind of morning where you wear your partner’s puffy in addition to your own while they are climbing. We each took two laps, struggling to not get the “screaming barfies”, a painful sensation that occurs when previously cutoff nerves in your hands get repurfused with blood. Jacob once got the barfies so bad that he fainted, while belaying. Yikes!

After G2, we moved over to the Hangover. Our friends Kyle, Sarah, and Nick (of spokalpine.com) were just wrapping up the Hangover, doing the same circuit as us, but in the opposite direction. Nick and I actually climbed ice together in Spokane back during my senior year of college. The Hangover was another climb Jacob and I did during our first trip here, but it definitely felt a bit easier this time. We took it all the way to the upper anchors, which made for a nice long climb.

Kaytlyn having a good time on the Hangover.

It was the first truly bluebird day of the trip and also the coldest. There was a brief moment of sun near the belay of the Hangover and so we absorbed as much warmth as we could.

A beautiful day in Hyalite!

We incorrectly followed the other group’s tracks down towards G1. They approached The Hangover by climbing the Girdle, so we ended up having to rappel over the Girdle, but it was a cool way to see another climb.

The Girdle shining in the sun.

We descended to G1 to meet up with Kelly and Kaytlyn’s brother Mitch, who drove up in the afternoon. It was really busy at the time, but Jacob and I wanted to get on a mixed line on the far right that was open. Because conditions are a bit thin, the pillar only came about halfway down, necessitating some mixed climbing with ice blobs to start. It looked really inspiring.

Ready to be top rope heroes!

I dropped a rope and then got the first crack at the route. The mixed section went pretty easily with a nice crack to sink my tools into. Getting onto the pillar took a lot of strength and once on it, it was unrelenting with delicate, sustained movement. Both Jacob and I got up it without any falls or rests on the rope!

Looking down the pillar.

We set up some ropes on the left side of G1 as the other groups filtered out for the day. One group asked Kelly if we were from Washington simply because we had Showa Tem-Res 282 gloves on. Kelly asked if they had read about the gloves from Climber Kyle’s blog, and they said yes. I should get paid for this stuff!

As the sun started to set, the temperature suddenly dropped 10 degrees, probably into the single digits. Kelly started to get really, really cold. Half a dozen puffies could not do anything to warm her up. Eventually, we sent her down to the car early while Jacob and I cleaned up the gear. When we all got back to the car, it was a balmy 1 degree Fahrenheit. Brrr!

We had plans to climb Palisade Falls the next morning with Logan before starting the drive back, but Kelly was still miserable the next morning, definitely wanting to leave this cold Hell. She said she had never been so cold in her life. I guess she learned from this trip that she never wants to live in the Rockies because she definitely cannot deal with cold temperatures! So we packed up and planned on driving back to Issaquah in one long day.

On the drive back, Jacob and I reflected on the trip and our previous trips to Hyalite. We both ended this trip feeling like much better climbers than we ever have before. Over the past few years, I have primarily climbed ice through alpine routes and have missed the simplicity of a great ice crag like Hyalite, where you can focus solely on the technical climbing, free of heavy packs, avalanche concerns (if you chose the correct climbs), and tiring approaches. It is incredible how much more confident we felt after five great days of climbing. It is easy to see how, if we stayed an entire winter, we could work our way up to climbing a lot of the routes in the canyon.

For me personally, it was a huge step in my recovery. Ever since Sloan, I have had a dealt with a lot of self doubt about my climbing abilities. A real ice climber never falls. And falling on a WI3? Embarrassing. I have been accused of top roping my way up Moonlight Serendipity last month, which is true in a technical sense but definitely a personal attack on my abilities. I am not some rad WI6 leader and probably never will be, but I at least feel like I can call myself an ice climber again. I feel proud of the climbs we did in Hyalite and the progress we made. Most importantly, it always felt like we were staying within our abilities and keeping things safe.

We dropped Jacob off in Spokane and then Kelly and I continued through freezing rain across the Columbia Basin. Around Ellensburg, we caught word that Snoqualmie Pass had just closed indefinitely due to multiple vehicle spinouts. As I have listed in the past, I am truly cursed with bad weather for my planned trips. Luckily, the MacDonald’s in Ellensburg has free wifi and chargers at each table. As I write this, we are sitting in the Mickie D’s, waiting for the pass to open and our journey to complete. Kelly has taken the opportunity to finish a baby blanket for her neighbor that she has been crocheting all trip.

Big enough for a real big baby.

Jacob and I thoroughly enjoyed our Hyalite trip, returning to the Genesis of our ice climbing four years ago. Kelly got some good climbing in too before succumbing to the cold. No one knows what the rest of the winter will hold for Washington Ice, but I am glad to have at least had a great week in Hyalite Canyon to start the season!

Climbs:

  • Champagne Slot
  • Champagne Sherbet (TR)
  • Elevator Shaft
  • The Fat One
  • Silken Falls
  • G1 Left
  • G1 Right (TR)
  • Fat Chance
  • Mustache Ride (TR)
  • Thin Chance
  • The Matrix
  • Feeding the Cat
  • Crypt Orchid
  • G2
  • The Hangover

Notes:

  • Don’t mess with the crowds of Ice Fest week.
  • Bring a 70m rope, some routes require one to top rope. Other routes even require two ropes tied together to TR.
  • G1 is best in the late afternoon and evenings, when the crowds leave.

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