BOZEMAN, Mont. — Joe Josephson’s work to brand Bozeman as an ice-climbing town scrambled upward last weekend with ice climbing competitions held on a 38-foot tall wood and metal wall in the heart of the city.
“The goal all along has been to get more going on in town,” Josephson said on Monday. “That place was packed. There were probably 300 people there. That’s more people than they get at some of the European events.”
Ice climbing history
Ice climbing as a competitive sport is fairly new, according to the UIAA, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation. The International World Cup started with a competition in Cortina, Italy, in 2000.
Although the first ice climbing competition was held in 1912, it wasn’t until 1970 that events started in earnest in Russia with three different disciplines: difficulty, speed and longer relay-type routes where the racer changed every 40 meters. The country held its first national speed climbing competition in 1987.
France got into the sport with a 40-meter manmade wall at Courchevel, holding events that required climbers to scale the wall quickly with as few moves as possible.
The United States started ice climbing competitions at the Winter X games, but that ended after 1999. Ice climbing contests are still held in Ouray, Colo., at a five-day festival.
The competition was just part of the 16th annual Arc’teryx Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival held earlier this month in Bozeman and nearby Hyalite Canyon.
Despite the name of the festival, there was no ice on the plywood Icebreaker Tower, just molded chunks of plastic and hard foam bolted to the scaffold-like structure for the competitors to wedge their ice axes and crampon-fitted boots into.
“The plastic is slippery, and the foam things it’s hard to get your tool out,” said Bozeman climber Rusty Willis who competed against his son, 17-year-old Justin, in the first race.
Set up on the lawn next to the Emerson Cultural Center, the wall and the rock ’n’ roll-accompanied races up its face at the Urban Base Camp were some of the most visible events in the four-day climbing get-together. It may also foreshadow a new chapter in Bozeman’s outdoor sports future.
“The idea is to have a full-on sanctioned World Cup event,” said Josephson, a Livingston ice climber, author and organizer of the festival.
The event is also seen as a way to build support for another, more permanent ice-climbing facility in Bozeman.
Bozeman-based climber Conrad Anker is behind a push to build a $3 to $4 million 84-foot tall ice climbing venue at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds. To that end, he is searching for a corporate sponsor to fund the endeavor.
The Bozeman Ice Tower, as it is being called, already has a design chosen from a competition among Montana State University architecture students that would include office spaces in the support structure and the ability to use the facility as a concert venue. When the ice melts in spring, the runoff would irrigate an adjacent baseball field. Anker is also touting the facility as place to train search and rescue teams as well as world-class athletes.
Climbers at the Saturday event were all for the Bozeman Ice Tower.
“The permanent facility at the fairgrounds would be the single most important advance for this sport in the country, enabling U.S. climbers to compete with the Russians and Europeans,” said Will Mayo, a competitive climber from Erie, Colo., who attended the festival.
On to the Olympics
Ice climbing will be a demonstration sport at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In order to qualify as an Olympic medal sport, there has to be World Cup training facilities and competitions around the world. Right now, the only World Cup competition in the U.S. is held in Ouray, Colo. Another is held annually in Canmore, Alberta.
Willis, a former Billings resident, echoed Mayo’s praise for having such a climbing facility in Bozeman.
“It would bring so much to the city,” he said.
Even the ice festival draws an international crowd. Stephanie Maureau, a French World Cup competitor, made the trip to Bozeman to climb on natural features in nearby Hyalite Canyon, as well as compete on the climbing wall.
“It’s a great venue,” she said after hanging by her ice axes from the scaffolding on the back of the tower to stretch out before she competed.
Anker and Josephson made a presentation to the Gallatin County Commission in September, seeking the community leaders’ approval. The next step is signing a sponsor. Outdoor gear manufacturers The North Face and Arc’teryx were the main supporters of the Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival.
Josephson said the festival’s Ice Breaker Tower could act as a bridge to the permanent facility.
“The more we can brand the community with what the sport is and increase the level of events, that would pave the way for a permanent structure,” he said.
Despite Saturday’s cold, blustery weather, Bozeman physician Bob Flaherty attended the competition to find out more about ice climbing. He praised the climbing competition at the old school playground as a good way to educate the public about a sport that’s usually conducted in remote mountain canyons.
“I know the Hyalite area is getting pretty popular,” he said, and he praised the climbing and cross-country skiing communities for talking the county and Forest Service into plowing the road in the nearby canyon in winter to ease access for winter recreationists.
“It would be a lot more difficult for the sport without having Hyalite Road plowed,” he said. “That opened up that whole area.”
Josephson said Hyalite has the longest ice climbing season in North America, stretching from Halloween until March. The fact that it’s only minutes from the Bozeman airport adds to its uniqueness, unlike other more remote ice climbing areas.
“No one else has that combination,” Josephson said.
Flaherty said he was “neutral” to having a permanent climbing facility at the fairgrounds. But he does like the idea of bringing new sports to the Bozeman area.
The ice climbing festival began on Thursday and also featured talks by noted climbers, on-ice clinics – some for women only – a Saturday night party with live music, as well as gear demos, raffles and fund-raisers to help pay to plow Hyalite Road.
“What a great thing for the community,” Willis said.