Always Above Us

Always Above Us

Conrad Anker and Kris Erickson

Completing a new route is the gold standard of exploration. In 1997, Alex Lowe established “Winter Dance,” the biggest, most difficult, and most imposing ice climb in Montana’s Hyalite Canyon. Fifteen years later, The North Face mountaineers Conrad Anker and Kris Erickson set out to establish a new mixed climbing route alongside “Winter Dance” that preserved the integrity and character of Lowe’s original while enabling the route to be climbed with a bare minimum of ice. What resulted was the “Nutcracker,” though as Kris explains, there’s an art to mixed climbing rock features — and often times it can be very tenuous.

Winter Dance

Alex glanced back at me. The curtains of falling snow obstructed his expression, but I could see well enough to understand that he was asking without words if I needed a rope.

To say “yes” would have been to admit that Alex Lowe had asked the wrong person to go climbing that day. We exchanged glances that I was fine with the exposure and continued on. Handholds broke, boulders cut loose and tumbled out of site into the clouds below us — the sound of their impact reverberated through the canyon. The clouds parted briefly, exposing the cliff we were walking on and the shrinking trees of the forest in the distance. Gusts of Montana’s biting winter wind ignited columns of spindrift from above, pounding down reminders that the mountains of Hyalite Canyon are serious despite being only an hour’s drive from our homes in Bozeman.

It was 1997, and Alex and I were approaching a new route that he was developing on an imposing wall high above the floor of Hyalite Canyon. The route began from a large and wide shelf, but to reach its safety required traversing a series of “no fall zones” — snow-covered rocky steps with hundreds of feet of exposure. Despite this, the approach itself was tame in comparison to the hundreds of feet of overhanging rock and ice of Alex’s proposed new route.

That was my first time on this approach and my first time in this part of the canyon. Over the next decade and a half I would cross this section of loose rock a dozen more times. Its rocky steps would become familiar to me, and with each crossing my partners and I would contribute to a legacy of Montana climbing and pay respect to and expand on Alex’s vision.

When I first arrived at the belay shelf in 1997, Alex offered me the lead of the first pitch. Alex always welcomed his partners to contribute to a climb, but it was often easier and less intimidating to just sit back, enjoy his performances, and learn. I was 23, young and strong, and I had some recent significant climbing accomplishments. I felt confident that I could climb the pitch, but was also deeply scared I would fall, injure myself, and end my climbing season.

I placed a series of short ice screws on the first few ice mushrooms and continued moving up to where the ice disappeared and the mixed climbing started to get serious. A few weeks earlier, Doug Chabot had fallen there and broken his leg. I couldn’t shake thoughts of his accident, and the climbing was suddenly more than I was capable of dealing with. I found a bad pin placement, hammered it hard into Hyalite’s famous crumbling rock, and had Alex lower me to the ground.

Alex tied in, found the line, and danced up the rocky first pitch. Alex always saw the optimism in hardship. It was one of the most important lessons I learned from the time I spent climbing with him. As if in a game, Alex embodied an ability to harness the fear of the unknown and feed off of its greater strength.

Upon reaching the top of the pitch, Alex hauled up a drill and established a solid bolted anchor. I followed the pitch, and from the belay we looked beyond to the climbing above. Past the initial ice the rock was severely overhanging and Hyalite’s frozen mud matrix looked daunting. Alex decided that significant bolting, more than likely a bolt ladder, would be required to continue the route. That day we established the first pitch of what would become Hyalite’s iconic route, Winter Dance.

Alex returned on New Year’s Day with my good friend Jim Earl. They picked up where Alex and I left off, and the two of them sent the entire route in great style. Alex proclaimed that the route was “the best route in Hyalite.” It became the tipping point and inspiration for a new era of climbing in Montana and afar.

Dancing with Wolves

Over the next decade, the lore of Alex’s Winter Dance began to spread far beyond the walls of Hyalite Canyon. The fact that the ice on its upper pitches didn’t form every year added to the allure, and the route started to become one that top climbers sought out and yearned to add to their climbing resume.

In February 2007, during a rest day at Tawoche’s base camp in the Khumbu region of Nepal, Whit Magro suggested we try to free climb the notorious bolt ladder on Winter Dance’s second pitch. Whit embodies much of the same passion and innate skill for climbing that Alex did. I was ignited by Whit’s enthusiasm and vision to usher in a new era of climbing in Hyalite. Half a world away and months from the first ice of the upcoming climbing season, Whit and I began to prepare our plans.

The following November, Whit and I made a few initial forays on the bolt ladder. It became clear that the pitch was possible without aid. However, temperatures were warmer than we had hoped for, and one day while working the moves ice was constantly falling from above. We left discouraged and frightened and knew that without enough ice the route would be even harder. We were uncertain if it would be one of the years in which the route’s ice didn’t form enough to climb.

As December approached temperatures began to drop and conditions looked optimistic. Our enthusiasm returned. Whit and I left the parking lot early one morning and our optimism lifted with each passing hour as we approached Winter Dance. We easily traversed the sketchy ledge onto the base of the route. The temperatures were perfect: not too warm, but warm enough to be able to endure the potential long leads and belays ahead of us.

Our prior trips working the moves had been well spent, and we both knew it was time. I made quick work of the first pitch and set Whit up for an attempt to free the bolt ladder. “All right Kristoffer,” Whit said, slapping his hands together. “All I need to do is hang on!”

Whit pushed off from the belay and moved gracefully through the initial crux. He dispatched the rest of the pitch for an easy send of the long awaited free climb. We had accomplished what we set out to do. Tens years after the initial dance we freed Alex’s bolt ladder.

However, we still had the remaining pitches to climb and knew the ice of the third pitch was still a considerable distance from reaching the top of the second pitch. This was often the case — most yearsWinter Dance would simply dangle out of reach as onlookers watched and waited from the valley floor for an opportunity to step onto its dance floor.

It was now my lead. I looked up at the matrix of rock and overhanging ice above. There were no bolts to protect the mixed climbing and no cracks to place a cam. A random pin pounded between two cobbles of stone was the best protection I could hope for. Ascending the unprotected rock in order to reach the dangling ice was going to require more courage than freeing the bolt ladder. I was scared! I looked back to Whit and graciously bowed out of the lead. “It’s yours Whit,” I said. “You got it.”

As Whit left the belay I knew the lead was going to take considerable time. I repeatedly fired words of encouragement as he struggled to fiddle in gear that would likely never hold a fall. Whit’s psychological strength that day was beyond impressive and at a level that I had rarely, if ever, before witnessed in a climbing partner. Whit nested multiple pieces of gear into pods of good rock with runners to equalize what he could and slowly picked his way up toward the ice.

Eventually, the ice came into his reach, and he was finally able to increase his pace. I was frozen to the core from the diligent belaying and glanced at my watch when he reached the belay. Whit had been climbing for more than three hours. He brought me up, and as I quickly transitioned into leading the last ice pitch we joked that the route’s name was Winter Dance, as we felt as if we had been dancing with wolves all day.

The sun was dipping below the canyon walls as I led out from the protection of the cave belay on the top of the third pitch. Darkness was upon us. The steep, yet mostly straightforward, climbing of the fourth pitch refreshed me. We rappelled the route in the dark infused by our accomplishment and giggled like young boys as we walked back to the car by the light of our headlamps. We had a new level of understanding about that which was unknown to us that morning and Winter Dance had a companion:Dances with Wolves.

Expanding the Dances: The Nutcracker

My relationship with Winter Dance was rekindled once again when Conrad Anker asked me if I was interested in helping him develop a new route next to Winter Dance. Conrad’s vision was to create a route completely separate of Winter Dance’s mixed pitches. It would be equipped with bolts on its lower dry and rocky section in order to enable the route to be climbed with a bare minimum of ice. The route would preserve the honor of Alex’s initial vision and would have the possibility of, unlike Winter Dance, being climbable nearly every year.

I was immediately infused with the passion and vision of Conrad, a longtime climbing partner and mentor. I shared Conrad’s enthusiasm for developing new routes in challenging, cold, and snowy weather. This was the type of climbing that Conrad built his multi-decade career on, and I was honored to yet again further Alex’s initial vision. Our route was to be a new dance on the same wall. It would be classic and deserving of the respect Alex had always graced us with and something that was always above us.

As part of The North Face Speaker Series, presented by Gore-Tex, Anker and Erickson are set to present Always Above Us in Toronto and Calgary on November 18 and 19, respectively. Can’t make the show? Always Above Us will be presented at the Bozeman Ice Festival on December 10. For full details and all upcoming stops on the tour, check out the Speaker Series calendar.

Expedition Athletes