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Best in the West - Hyalite Canyon

15 miles south of Bozeman lies one of the premier ice climbing venues in North America. Home to over 300 natural ice and mixed routes — Hyalite Canyon is a serious playground for those seeking out steep ice and aesthetic lines.

January 12 2023

Ice climbing

Longtime Petzl athlete Anne Gilbert Chase shares her thoughts on climbing in Hyalite Canyon.

Hyalite Canyon is a stunning 34,000-acre recreation area that sits 20 minutes south of Bozeman, Montana. It is part of the Gallatin National Forest and is home to more than 300 ice and mixed climbs across four canyons. The Indigenous Nations of Montana existed on and engaged with this land for sustenance and spiritual reasons, for hundreds and thousands of years before it became known as Hyalite Canyon. Through their connection and relationship with this beautiful landscape, these Indigenous Peoples took care of the land, so future generations could exist on and enjoy it as well. 

Photo: Jason Thompson

I am fortunate to call Bozeman, Montana home and Hyalite Canyon my backyard and playground. I have been exploring Hyalite for almost 15 years and immediately fell in love with its beauty and wildness from my first time ice climbing on Twin Falls. Over the years, I have progressed from a beginner to a professional and have used Hyalite Canyon as a training ground to hone my skills for the greater ranges of the world. No matter how far I venture to be in the big mountains, I always return home to be immersed in the magic of “The House of Hyalite”. 

Winter Dance (135m, M8 WI6+ R) is the obvious piece of ice that looms high above the valley floor and can be seen from Bozeman on a clear day. It taunted climbers for many years, but it wasn’t until January 1 1998 that the first ascent was completed by Alex Lowe and Jim Earl. The first free ascent occurred on November 27 2007 by Whit Magro and Kris Erickson.  Since 2007, Winter Dance has seen multiple free ascents from climbers all over the world despite the route not forming every year. 

Photo: Andres Marin

In 2019, Winter Dance formed in great conditions and I was psyched to get up there and try and free the route, namely the second pitch bolt ladder that went at M8. On December 22, Anna Pfaff and myself made the 90-minute approach to the base in the dark. Our friends Andres Marin and Whit Magro were already up there making a link-up of Winter Dance and Nutcracker. The psych was high that day with all of us up there trying hard on our objectives. As a result, I was stoked when I sent Winter Dance, feeling all of our energy up there together. 

Photo: Jason Thompson

The third pitch of Winter Dance is steep WI6+ that involves a wild, exposed traverse into unique ice blob formations that form differently every time. I have climbed this pitch multiple times, each time requiring creativity and mental stamina, to place gear and find a path through the maze of ice blobs, ending in a comfortable cave belay.  The final pitch of Winter Dance is a beautiful big WI5 flow of ice that pours from a small alcove atop the Winter Dance wall. No matter how many times I have stood atop this wall, I have been awestruck by the immense beauty that lies within Hyalite Canyon. 

Far up the Flanders Drainage in Hyalite Canyon, lies The Big Sleep (120m, 5.8-5.10+ WI6), one of the ultra-classic and most sought after routes in the area. First climbed in 1984 by Alex Lowe and Jim Scott, this climb forms most years but can vary in difficulty from all ice (WI6) to mixed (5.10+) with a WI6+ overhang half way up. Having a remote and alpine location combined with 4 mega pitches of unique climbing, makes this climb high on every climber’s tick list. 

Photo: Jason Thompson

The money pitch is the second 50m pitch that involves a 10m traverse from the tree belay and a short section of cauliflower type ice that guards the upper 30m steep column of ice. Some years the ice comes all the way down, while other years, climbers must navigate good hooks and turf sticks with decent Spectre placements until one is able to reach the ice. The Big Sleep sits tucked in big cirque, sometimes creating an intense wind tunnel that provides the climber with a wild alpine feeling far above the ground. 

Photo: Jason Thompson

The first pitch of The Big Sleep has 3 different variations, all providing a uniquely different experience. The Resurrection start, is the most commonly climbed approach. It begins with 30m of WI3 just to the left of the main flow, followed by a rock traverse filled with loose cobbles that can feel very exposed if not used to Hyalite rock quality. The Original Start goes at 5.8 R and lies far to the right of fall line, rarely climbed today. Finally, the Direct Start is 5.10 mixed and was put up by none other than Alex Lowe in 1996. This pitch entails steep dry tooling to thin overhanging ice with very little, solid gear. It is not a surprise that it has only seen a few repeats over the years. 

Come & Get It (40m, M7+ WI6) forms almost every year and is located on the Unnamed Wall, which boasts more than 60 established routes, ranging from WI3 to overhanging M13. Come & Get It was established by Alex Lowe and Tom Sciolino on March 18, 1996. There is a photo in the Hyalite guide book that shows Alex Lowe on the first ascent in true Alex fashion, sans helmet on-sighting the upper ice dagger. This photo and this pitch have always been one of my favorites and is a Hyalite Canyon gem. 

Photo: Jason Thompson

The route starts up bulgy ice before getting into the hard mix climbing that gains a right facing corner and the upper ice dagger. Although the route now has a few fixed pins, there are no bolts, making it one of a few traditional mixed climbs in the canyon. Most of the rock holds below the corner are sloping and can make for challenging and technical climbing, but it is all there as long as a climber can find the holds. The route is very popular for good reason and often gets multiple ascents every season, it has also been soloed by Craig Pope and Matt Cornell. 

Photo: Jason Thompson

While Come & Get It is one of my favorite climbs in Hyalite Canyon, it is just one of the hundreds of climbs that fill this magical canyon every year. Each and every climb has a story and rich history that present day climbers can interlace into their own stories and experiences in these mountains. Every climber that has spent time in Hyalite Canyon is changed by the beauty and power of this landscape, hopefully creating a desire to cherish and protect this place for all future generations.