Ice Climbing and Skiing Montana’s Mighty Lines
Since 1996, the Bozeman Ice Festival has attracted thousands of ice climbing enthusiasts from across the globe ranging from first-time participants to some of the best climbers in the world, including Marc Twight, Conrad Anker, and Will Gadd. Hyalite Canyon, 15 miles from Bozeman, is part of the Gallatin National Forest, has the largest concentration of natural ice routes in the lower 48, and is known for its reliable blue ice and long, steady season. It features more than 150 ice and mixed routes ranging from Type I “Look Ma” fun for beginners in the Genesis area with The Whiskey Sweats (M5 WI4), Hangover (WI3), and Genesis II (WI3) to Type III “Fear of God” fun in the route areas near the iconic Winter Dance (M8+ WI7).
I have always wanted to experience the many splendored slopes at Big Sky Resort and I had a hankering to swing my new Black Diamond Viper Ice Tools into some frozen waterfalls in Hyalite Canyon. This urge conveniently coincided with the 18th Annual Bozeman Ice Festival. There are plenty of reasons to visit Bozeman, Montana, and the beckoning ice climbing and skiing are just two of them.
The Bozeman Ice Festival distinguishes itself from other ice festivals by offering unique women-only clinics for climbers of varying ability levels taught by some of the top female athletes in the sport, such as Kitty Calhoun, Danika Gilbert, and Dawn Glanc. When we arrived, I was elated to see so many chicks with picks and thought, “Indeed. I have found my people.” These clinics cater specifically to the way women learn to climb and endeavor to teach everything from body position, axe placement, and crampon use to anchor-building and ice-screw technique in a safe and supportive environment—where she may finagle her harness to answer the call of nature with nary a male in sight. Despite the stingy December sun, temperatures in the canyon were unusually high, which made climbing ice falls with spouting water on some of the routes a little dicey, but it also made for nice and sticky holds all day long.
The festival also delivers the latest technical gear demos, a film festival, gear giveaways, and the International Climbing and Mountaineering (UIAA) World Cup and North American Ice Climbing Championships. Every night of the festival a sea of puffy-down-jacket-pom-beanie-wearing-festival-goers fill the Urban Base Camp, located outside the Emerson Cultural Center, to watch the competitions, enjoy the festivities, and consume rather large quantities of fried chicken-on-a-stick.
The day after our climbing clinics, we decided to head to Big Sky Resort to see how the shredding there compared to the slopes at Brighton, its sister resort. If you have a Gold Pass and book accommodations at one of Big Sky Resort’s many lodging properties you can ski there for FREE! Big Sky Resort’s ski slopes, base area, and lodging options are all located in the Mountain Village. The Meadow Village is located approximately 10 minutes away and offers additional shopping, restaurants, and entertainment. Big Sky Resort is located midway between Bozeman and West Yellowstone.
You may know that Utah’s Canyons Resort and Park City Mountain Resort are unifying to create the world’s largest ski resort area with more than 7,300 skiable acres, but what you may not know is that while Canyons and PCMR will reign supreme in real estate, Big Sky wins the gold for space to ski with almost two acres per skier. Holiday skier traffic in the Wasatch is less than desirable for locals competing for fresh turns. Big Sky Resort taunts a roomy 5,800 skiable acres with 300 runs, 4,350 vertical feet, 22 chairlifts, and seven terrain parks.
In 1995, Big Sky opened the Lone Peak Tram, which increased the terrain by more than 1,200 acres. Only 15 passengers are allowed in the cab at a time. It summits at 11,166 feet, so you have some time to think on your way up.
Adrift in existentialist thought we pondered the gravitas of a view that includes two national parks and three states and asked questions like if it’s possible to ride all of the chairlifts and surface lifts in a day. Elk Park Ridge is known as one of the best intermediate runs in the country and is fun whether the snow is skimpy or substantial. And then there’s the famous Big Couloir, which is considered one of North America’s classic ski lines. It has a 50 degree pitch and over 1,000 feet of vertical so it’s kind of a big deal, but is not such a good idea early season.
If you get hungry while you are skiing or snowboarding, but you don’t want to stop to eat, no problem. Big Sky Resort has a variety of grab ‘n go food shacks including Black Kettle Burrito Co. and Uncle Dan’s Cookies at the Tram & Six Shooter. How perfect is that? A burrito and a cookie ski-through? Yes, please. I can definitely ski with both poles in my left hand so I can nom-nom a burrito with my right.
In addition to skiing and snowboarding, Big Sky also offers two winter zipline tours (Adventure or Nature), snowshoeing tours, dog sledding rides, and tubing. If you need to take a break from the slopes, you can visit the Solace Spa and Salon in the Mountain Village for relaxing spa treatments or hit up a yoga class at the Wellness Studio to stretch out your muscles before or after your hard day of making turns.
The night before I left Bozeman it snowed several inches, making for dramatic roadside views on the way home. Everything was completely flocked with bright white snow except the contrasting black waters of the Gallatin River, which parallels US Highway 191. The six-and-a-half-hour drive back to Salt Lake City was a reasonable go. I like road trips and chose driving over the hour-and-a-half flight because I didn’t feel adequately prepared to explain axes in my luggage to TSA. They recently confiscated my toothpaste at the airport so I’m pretty sure I’m on their watch list.