Hyalite Canyon draws nature-lovers in year-round with tens of thousands coming to conquer its towering mountains or enjoy the beauty safely from the reservoir. But it’s the athletes defying gravity on the walls of Hyalite’s ice faces in the winter months that make the place more than just a postcard view.
“I think there’s a lot of activities that we can do in life, some of them are fulfilling, some of them we just do because we have to," amateur ice climber Cameron Hygate says. "But I think ice climbing, even though it’s very cold... it lights my soul on fire.”
With over 250 routes in less than three square miles, there is nowhere else in North America with a higher concentration of natural ice climbing than Hyalite Canyon.
“Look around at everything that we have," Hygate adds, gesturing to the vast canyon he stands at the edge of. "I mean there’s so much beauty here in this area, there’s so much wide-open space to adventure.”
All of this adventure is just a 45-minute drive from Bozeman, then over the river and through the woods to the top of a mountain, and its dazzling thrills.
With some of the most difficult mixed climbs in the country, every year the area lures thousands of climbers at the top of their game to the top of its routes. And some of the routes are no joke.
“That’s the cool thing about climbing," Manoah Ainuu says, "is it forces you to face that feeling of fear or whatever -- that challenge -- head-on, and it’s the only thing you can focus on.”
With spikes on your feet and essentially knives in your hands, hundreds of feet up a cliff face, a few pieces of sharp metal in ice are the only things keeping you from a life-changing fall.
Ice climbing is an emotional and mental activity as well as a physical one. But anyone who’s a part of it would testify that it's one of the most fulfilling things they’ve ever done.
Bozeman's own "Dreaded Climber" Manoah Ainuu has only been climbing for a few years, but he’s become a force of nature - and a head of hair - recognizable across Montana’s climbing scene.
New melts and new routes are discovered in Hyalite every year. The guide book for the area is constantly being updated. Each route is conquered one-by-one, and climbers continue their hunt for the next big 'send.' It’s the challenge and the beauty of ice climbing, and Ainuu has taken to it like a fish to water.
“Ice climbing for me, there’s a lot of different reasons," says Ainuu, a professional climber sponsored by The North Face and whose face adorns climbing magazines. "Obvious one is that it’s really fun and we get to experience this beautiful art of climbing. We’re just climbing up frozen water.”
It’s a sport that welcomes anyone with the bravery to go face-to-face with a wall of ice. But you don't have to be a professional to try it out. Touring company Montana Alpine Guides lets anyone sink their picks into Hyalite's ice routes.
Husband-and-wife pair Emily and Phil Shriver are no stranger to the outdoors, but are just beginning their ice climbing journey. Of course, their journey had to start in Hyalite, even though it's a long way from their home in Seattle.
“We did a little bit of ice climbing in Iceland, but nothing like this," says Emily. "So, we wanted to come out and just try it out."
"Yeah, thought it would be really fun, and it has been so far!” adds Phil.
Hyalite’s wide-open landscape lets climbers watch each other and communicate with friendly calls and hoots from one side of the canyon to the other. The landscape itself creates its own brand of community.
“Most ice climbers in Bozeman either know every other ice climber that comes out here often or has heard of them," says Ainuu. "And it’s like a little tight-knit family. It’s always super cool to tie in with someone and share that experience, whether it’s excitement or fear or whatever with another person. Yeah, I think that’s the most important thing.”
“Those unique adventures that we get to go on and interacting with nature in a really special way," says Hygate, "I think there’s no place better than here.”
Ainuu agrees: “The best spot in Bozeman, the best spot in pretty much any place that I’ve been to. Yeah, it’s a magical experience out here.”
A chilling landscape challenging some of the world’s best athletes… and a community you couldn’t dream up. Hyalite’s ice climbing: this week’s Montana Treasure.