2/21/2017

High on Hyalite: Ice Climbing with the Sierra Club Military Outdoors

2016 Sierra Club Military Outdoors Ice climbing group. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com  
I was surrounded by silence.  A thousand feet above the canyon floor the environment was so frozen in white that time seemed transfixed. Snow slept heavily on the mountains. Pale clouds hung low, stretched out across the peaks like slowly pulled wool. Together the snow and the clouds seemed to absorb any sound. I felt as if I’d forgotten how to hear, what day it was, or anything other than the wall of snow and ice that I had dug my crampons into. I was high up in Hyalite.

Lindsey Robinson on the Mummy II WI3. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
Gregory Schillinger on Champaign Sherbert WI4. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
The silence was broken by the faint clinking of ice tools as Devin worked his way up the cliff and joined me at the anchor. “My forearms are burning,” he remarked and I smiled in agreement. We still had a few more pitches before finishing the route. Devin and I were climbing Land of the Lost, WI4, which is a beautiful long and winding ice route in Hyalite Canyon. Each pitch gave us a different perspective of the canyon and frozen waterfalls first climbed decades ago by men like Alex Lowe and Conrad Anker. Sometimes we could see Winter Dance, an intimidating icicle hanging like fangs above our own route; sometimes we caught glimpses of Twin Falls and the towering Cleopatra’s Needle across and up canyon from us; we could also look down at Unnamed Wall and the Fat One where we’d climbed both rock and ice a few days earlier.  

Hyalite has arguably the highest accessible concentration of natural water ice formations in the US. It looks like a frozen rainforest. The rock walls behind the snow and ice are mostly basaltic andesite, formed by an ancient lava flow. Mounds of conglomerate rock are found in higher layers, deposited by a mud flow from volcanic activity in Yellowstone millions of years ago. More than one glacier has carved Hyalite into a wide U shape and dragged rock debris far down the canyon.

Gregory Schillinger and Isaac Teaford on Champaign Sherbert WI4. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
Devin and I were part of a Sierra Club Military Outdoors annual trip to ice climb in Hyalite Canyon with the Montana Alpine Guides. Everyone in our group had some background in climbing or mountaineering, but the chief common element among us was that we had each served in the military. Several men came from Army and Navy backgrounds; Devin had served in the Marines and I was in the Air Force. Most of us had not been with a group of veterans since leaving the military.

Gregory Schillinger climbing at the Unnamed Wall. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
Kyle Burton climbing Genesis I WI3+. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
The group at the Unnamed Wall. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
For five nights, we all camped in Hyalite sharing hot meals and coffee and resisting the cold fingers of winter. Around the campfire we laughed with familiarity at each other’s stories of military life.

Window Rock Cabin, Hyalite Canyon, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
BBQ. Window Rock Cabin, Hyalite Canyon, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
BBQ. Window Rock Cabin, Hyalite Canyon, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
BBQ. Window Rock Cabin, Hyalite Canyon, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
After Action Review. Window Rock Cabin, Hyalite Canyon, Custer Gallatin National Forest, Montana. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
During the day, we pushed each other to climb better, longer, and harder. I could tell there was instant trust and camaraderie in ice climbing with people who have been through deployments and who know the ups and downs of serving in the armed forces.
  
Approaching the climbs. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
Climbing The Fat One WI3. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
Heading back to the cabin for the night. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
The day Devin and I climbed Land of the Lost, our guide Adam remarked on the fortitude of the military teams he’d guided in the mountains. I can see how dealing with tough and miserable military deployments can help veterans adapt quickly to demanding situations in the wild. However, in war there is a human enemy. On the mountain, there are challenges and hazards to overcome, there is a very real risk of death or injury, but there is no true enemy. I gathered that Adam had likely lost as many friends on treacherous expeditions in the Himalayas as I had lost in Operation Enduring Freedom

Adam Knoff teaching lead technique on the Mummy II WI3. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
Adam Knoff of Montana Alpine Guides Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
Harsh and painful experiences can make us feel isolated, but being together with women and men who have gone through the same difficult times can help restore a broken spirit. Spending time in the mountains, in wild places, is just as important for guides like Adam as it is for veterans.

Issac Teaford on Champaign Sherbert WI4. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
Isaac Teaford – U.S. Navy Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
Being on a wall of brittle ice forces you to exist only in the present. The mind is focused on the spikes of the crampons and the tips of the ice tools, the pressure of the body on the ice--nothing else. The stress and confusion of careers, relationships, money, past mistakes, and future plans—everything is cleared away so that the mind and body can feel the ice and maintain vertical progression up the waterfall.
Adam said on our descent, “Sometimes you have to stop pursuing happiness, and just be happy.” In the quiet pauses between our crunching footsteps in the snow, I said to myself, “I am.” 

Lindsey Robinson – U.S. Air Force

Lindsey Robinson – U.S. Air Force Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com


Robert Vessels – U.S. Army, Sierra Club Military Outdoors Program Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com


Gregory Schillinger – U.S. Marine Corps Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com


Kyle Burton – U.S. Army Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com


Devin Duval - U.S. Marine Corps Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com

Steve Seager – U.S. Army Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com


Dan Shoemaker – U.S. Army, Sierra Club Military Outdoors Program Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com


Sam Magro – Montana Alpine Guides Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com


 
Nathan Smith – U.S. Army, Liberty Mountain employee Photo ©Jake Hirschi

The goal of Sierra Club Military Outdoors is to ensure that service members, veterans, and their families have the skills, exposure, knowledge, and confidence to access the great outdoors. Time spent in nature not only promotes mental health, emotional resiliency, and leadership development prior to deployment, it provides invaluable know-how to help returning vets enjoy and engage with nature upon returning from deployments. Many veterans experience difficulty adjusting to civilian life after leaving the service. Time spent outdoors eases the transition and improves both mental health and social skills. Providing service members, veterans, and their families with quality outdoor experiences will help foster the development of a new generation of Sierra Club leaders and supporters from within the military and veteran community, including family members who will work to actively achieve the Sierra Club's mission and become outdoor leaders in their communities.

In March of 2016, Liberty Mountain was proud to support the Sierra Club Military Outdoors Program on it’s ice climbing trip to Hyalite Canyon above Bozeman, Montana. We believe in the power of the outdoors and it’s restorative nature. To find out more about the Sierra Club Military Outdoors, go to: sierraclub.org/outings/military

"I was not sure what to expect going out on this ice climbing trip being a more mature veteran, retired in 2000, but it was just plain awesome! The bond among the veterans the Montana scenery and the professionalism of the guides made this an experience that I will never forget. If I had trepidations at the start of the trip they soon were erased with feelings of excitement and challenge. I was proud to be chosen for this experience, proud to be a part of this group and by the last day wished it could last a little longer." 

-Steve Seager – U.S. Army

Steve Seager on The Fat One WI3. Unnamed Wall, Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
“The Hyalite Canyon trip was my first exposure to ice and mixed climbing, but certainly reinforced my love for the outdoors and passion for climbing in general. Being with fellow veterans and fantastic guides made for an awesome experience. Climbing in Hyalite had the affect I always seek in the outdoors; where all the noise and worry of life is cancelled out by being in the moment and surrounded by a beautiful landscape.” 

-Devin Duval – U.S. Marine Corps

Devin Duval on The Fat One WI3. Unnamed Wall, Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
“Spending time in the mountains, in wild places, is just as important for guides like Adam as it is for veterans. Being on a wall of brittle ice forces you to exist only in the present. The mind is focused on the spikes of the crampons and the tips of the ice tools, the pressure of the body on the ice--nothing else. The stress and confusion of careers, relationships, money, past mistakes, and future plans—everything is cleared away so that the mind and body can feel the ice and maintain vertical progression up the waterfall.” 

-Lindsey Robinson – U.S. Air Force

Lindsey Robinson on a pillar at the back of the Bingo Cave. Unnamed Wall, Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Photo ©Nathan Smith – Pullphotography.com
"The mountains and climbing are an important part of my life. The beauty and solitude I find there is invaluable to keep my life in balance. The friendships I’ve found in climbing are the closest thing I’ve found to the comradery and teamwork I experienced in the military. Joining this great group of veterans in the backcountry was an amazing experience I hope to repeat at some point."  

-Nathan Smith – U.S. Army, Liberty Mountain Employee

Nathan Smith on the Elevator Shaft WI4-. Unnamed Wall. Hyalite Canyon, Montana. Photo ©Cheri Smith – Pullphotography.com


Photos by Nathan Smith @pullphoto Pullphotography.com
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