Memories and reflections on enjoying nature’s crystalline manna

Ice climbing on the frozen flute

It seems a dream that waterfalls freeze, that the cold hand of winter can reach out, grab the water, and stop the relentless pull of gravity, turning sparkling cascades to silent green gullies, thin sheets smeared over rock walls, or translucent tubes of sheer and shining ice. But when the temperature falls enough, this dream comes true for ice climbers.

So it was, nearly 30 years ago, that we found ourselves skiing up Hyalite Canyon in wool knickers, leather boots, and ancient Silveretta cable bindings to search out Horsetail Falls and see what wonders winter had wrought. To our great delight, the cold’s magic hands had transformed the falls into a 250 foot-high ribbon of ice, culminating in a vertical, free-standing pillar where summer’s rivulet threw itself off an overhanging cliff.

By modern standards, the ice tools we carried were exceedingly primitive. The straight shafts of the ice axes and north wall hammers were made of wood, the picks drooped only slightly in graceful, large-radius arcs. Likewise, the crampons strapped to our leather boots were caveman versions of the sleek, strong, step-in models available to contemporary climbers. But for the early ’70s, they were state-of-the-art, and we used them to push the limits of the possible in those embryonic days of vertical ice ascents.

What we called “Zen ice climbing” back then required total concentration on every placement of the ax or hammer, driving in the picks deeply, surely, and firmly with just one swing, bringing crampons up to seat the front points with a single kick. Joyously, we repeated the motions, climbing quickly over the first 200 feet until we reached the base of the final pillar ... and this is where the magic happened.

Here at the crux, gravity and flowing water fought with winter’s cold. My climbing partner, the redoubtable Dogfuck McCarty, was about 20 feet up the pillar when his right crampon suddenly broke through the ice and was drenched by water rushing within the 50-foot, dead-vertical, free-standing icicle. Realizing his precarious position, and thinking that perhaps his right foot had merely hit a pocket, he quickly kicked in his left crampon. To his surprise it, too, broke through the ice sheath to be washed by the holy waters within. It would do a disservice to one of Montana’s finest ice-climbers to say he panicked, so let’s just say he “carefully considered” his next move.

Then, as now, ice-climbers protect themselves from fatal falls through a variety of methods. The sharp steel of crampons and ice ax is great for moving up a frozen waterfall, but sometimes, when you least expect it, an ax or a crampon will pop out, often resulting in a fall, so ice climbers invented threaded, hollow tubes called “ice screws” to provide more secure protection. Modern ice screws are almost self-installing, with little handles to quickly twist the sharp, cutting threads into the ice. But in the old days, you had to use the pick of your ice ax and laboriously twist them in, one partial turn at a time. Unfortunately, the ice screws, like his boots, simply went through the thin outer sheath to dangle in the water providing, at best, a momentary pause in the downward plummet should a fall ensue.

Luckily, there was magic in Horsetail Falls that day. As he climbed higher and higher, every boot hole in the sheath of ice acted like the holes on a flute, allowing the beautiful sounds of the rushing water to escape. The higher he climbed, the higher the pitch from within the waterfall itself. At a time when we should have been gripped with anxiety, the soothing music of the falls brought great peace and wonderment at this rare natural phenomenon. Soon, the crescendo of falling water and rising notes peaked as my partner disappeared over the top of the falls. I remember very little of my own ascent up the frozen flute, lost in awe and bathed in music. But I do remember this: As we skied away, the lovely sounds of Horsetail Falls followed us for miles, echoing ever-so-sweetly from the canyon’s rocky walls, a strange and beautiful music I have yet to hear again.

By George Ochenski

Time’s on ice when you’re skating round and round

It had been 14 years since the last time I put on a pair of skates. By the time I rented a pair and got them all laced up, a light snow had begun to fall and “Ziggy Stardust” was playing over the loudspeakers. My sweetie was too busy unpacking from her Thanksgiving vacation to come along with me, which was probably just as well. It’s awkward to have to tell someone why you’re smiling when you didn’t even realize you were.

I remember the last time I brought a girl to an ice rink. Her name was Ilona and she was from Poland. She wouldn’t tell me why she was crying, eating hot dogs and doing figure-eights. She did tell me she learned to skate on the frozen water that collected in the cellar of an unfinished Krakow high-rise. Perhaps that was her answer.

Our day at the rink, as it turned out, would be the last time we ever went anywhere together. She moved away and I never heard from her again. A friend of mine swears he saw her in a jewelry catalogue and that she even called him once from Florida, but she hung up before she could say why she was calling.

Until two years ago, the gloves she wore that day were still among the old things I had boxed up at my parents’ house. I picked them up and sniffed them one last time before they went into a pile of clothes bound for the Salvation Army, and they stilled smelled like perfume.

Nothing like revisiting a diversion from your childhood to open the floodgates of memory. My recent afternoon at the Glacier Ice Rink had such a perfectly preserved, frozen nostalgic quality to it, it was easy to imagine that the intervening 14 years had never happened. I also had a blast. If you haven’t been skating in ages, your symptoms may vary slightly, but you may also notice several of the same things.

The music has changed, but you’ll know just what to do when you feel it in your knees and hips as you come around to the straightaway. You might make a funky wiggle or two you hadn’t intended, but if anyone notices they won’t think anything of it.

It’s nice going round and round listening to music. You’ll remember the routine from junior high school dances and roller rinks. Ice rinks came before roller rinks, ice skates before roller skates and, of course, inline skates, but all play a part in the natural history of going round and round while listening to music.

All these people, looking happy, happy, happy. In fact, people might never look happier than they do on the ice, with apple cheeks and stray bits of hair tucked under their woolly hats, the more like something Grandma might have made, the better. Except early in the day, when a kid or two will always be crying, cold, falling down or sitting on the ice refusing to get up and try again. Later in the day some of the kids will have had enough, sitting on the bleachers with pink hands wrapped around Styrofoam cups of hot cocoa.

The guy with the wool pants and red suspenders is a good skater, as, to your mild chagrin, are all these peewee hockey players with jerseys hanging down to their ankles, forever snaking past you at waist level like there’s a game in progress and you’re the only one who hadn’t noticed. You won’t fall down as often as you thought you would, but even upright you’ll feel much more ungainly than you remember feeling when you were 12. When you do fall, you almost expect to end up in a romantic heap with Leslie Caron, Ann Margret, or Cary Grant. You don’t expect it to be with a beanpole of a sixth-grade boy who gets up mumbling and skates off like it was nothing.

A buzzer goes off and public skating is done for the day. It doesn’t matter what you wore on your feet when you showed up, because anything will feel like mink slippers after an afternoon on skates.

The figure-skating club is meeting, and its members have all that ice to themselves for the next two hours. In five minutes, the lady in the smock will stand on a chair and unhook the shutter to close the concession stand, and the little red shack will look as lonely as a 4-H barn in the middle of November. But the kids still stick around to watch the Zamboni clear away the powdered ice and smooth over the divots with overlapping ovals of water that glisten under the lights like tracks left by a giant slug. And you’ll still want to be the guy who gets to drive it.

by Andy Smetanka

Mogul skiing—It’s all about bumps in the road

Popular sentiment now goes that it’s not cool to do what other people are doing—everybody wants off the beaten track. It’s as though folks today feel cheated out of the long-gone western frontier that our pioneering forefathers were lucky enough to get lost, frozen, eaten, or buried in. Like small men and women with inferiority complexes, we search for more extreme activities in increasingly hard-to-reach places. To be sure, this leads to some thrilling experiences. But from time to time, there is good reason to follow the masses. Not convinced? Then step aside, and allow me to sing the praises of a winter sport that simply cannot exist without a shared community of maniacs beating the same path into a blissful pulp of creamy goose bumps. I speak of moguls, the serrated slopes of yin-yang reform.

For those of you unfamiliar with the mogul phenomenon, a little background is in order. It all starts with the fall-line, the most direct route down the slope. The fall-line is the route that a rolling ball would follow, the path that water would choose to flow. The skier always stays aware of the fall-line, constantly reassessing the position and direction of his or her center of gravity with respect to the fall-line. Good skiers will let their center of gravity glide smoothly down the fall-line, while their skis turn back and forth across it. As skiers follow each other down the same fall-line, their skis carve ruts in the snow, displacing snow into little piles between the ruts. As more and more skis find their way through braided sine wave canyons between little mountains of snow, a mogul field is born. A field of moguls looks like a chain-link fence, interlocking diamonds with rounded corners. With world class moguls at our doorstep—Snowbowl’s “Angel Face” is listed in Outside magazine’s list of top ten North American mogul runs—why not strap on some boards and grind the special cream?

Skiing moguls requires striking a delicate metaphysical balance between “letting it flow” and being a control freak. You surrender to the downward flow, i.e., gravity, in small increments, using each mogul to check your speed, center your balance, and adjust your direction. The moguls are not in your way, they are the way. The mogul is not your obstacle, it is your partner in the dance of bump and grind. Bump your partner, then bounce to the next, and the next. Contraction, extension. Hands forward. Merge with the flow. Soon you will attain the zone.

Skiers at the top of the learning curve have been known to resort to crazier and crazier stunts to get their ya-yas, such as jumping off cliffs or racing through trees. I recently watched a ski video in which every scene showed someone skiing in an avalanche of their own making, on impossibly steep slopes high above the tree line. To glorify stunts like this is both dangerous and irresponsible, equating good skiing with risking your life. But for those who have achieved this level of proficiency, there is another path: The path of bumps. Moguls offer experienced skiers a way to challenge themselves with top-notch ya-yas without putting their lives on the fall-line.

Until recently, I harbored the snobbish supposition that bumps belonged to those in fixed-heel, alpine gear. I may even have gone so far as to tell the free-heelers to “fix the heel and get real.” That sentiment was a result of taking an honest look at telemark skiers trapped on mogul fields like so many flies on fly paper, carefully negotiating each bump with shaky knees as though it were an alligator-filled moat. I thought to myself, “Hmm, it doesn’t look like they are having much fun on these here bumps.” And how could they? To ski moguls with an aggressive stance, leaning forward with your hands in front, you need a fixed heel if you don’t want to be picking your teeth with your ski tips. Right? Well, in the last few seasons I have seen some telemarkers redefine what can be done in their gear. They stay low to the snow, shooting the bumps like a kayaker in whitewater; fast, smooth, and graceful. These pioneers have achieved all that is good in the beaten-track field of moguls. Hats off.

As for snowboarders, they not only don’t seem to enjoy the bumps, they destroy the bumps. I don’t mean destroy as in “hit,” “bash,” or “tear it up,” which are all euphemisms for skiing moguls with grace. I mean destroy as in shave the growing moguls back to stubble and hardened ice with the scrape, scrape screeeaaape of so many fingers on chalkboards. Let the boarders have their groomed corduroy, let them flourish in the trees; we’ll clink our glasses down at the bar. Just leave the moguls to the skis. Amen.

by Ari LeVaux

Frozen tails—Ice fishing in western Montana

Grammatically speaking, the difference between “fishing” and “ice fishing” is a mere three-letter qualifier. As a form of recreation, however, the gap between the two endeavors is as large as the one between heatstroke and hypothermia. How do they differ? Let me count the ways:

Fishing (as practiced by fly-fishing enthusiasts): An esoteric sport, often performed as a solitary getaway. Zen aspects include “becoming one with the river” and “thinking like a fish.”

Ice fishing: Most often a group endeavor, since there’s nothing pretty or genteel about hauling fish through a hole in the ice. Practical aspects include “not freezing your ass off” and “proper schnapps-to-hot-chocolate ratio.”

Fishing: Fish attractors are delicately spun marvels of synthetic fibers and bird feathers, bestowed with grand names such as “Royal Coachman” and “Pale Morning Dun.” Artificial flies have become an art form unto themselves.

Ice Fishing: Lures are generally neon-painted hooks tipped with maggots, waxworms, nightcrawlers and even corn. Standard bait-holders include “Rattlin’ Bug Eyes” and “Swedish Pimples”–beautiful only in the eye of the beholder.

Fishing: Upon landing a fish, most fly fishermen gently remove the hook and release the fish back into the water, sometimes even massaging the finned critter back to life. The act of fly fishing is most often an end unto itself.

Ice fishing: Fish are hauled through the ice as quickly as possible and immediately bludgeoned to death. A perfect ice-fishing catch involves no direct skin contact with either fish or water. You’re not going to endure these conditions without coming home with a passel of fish to fry. It’s a simple R-value equation.

While there’s probably not a whole lot of cross-contamination between practitioners of these two modes of fishing, perhaps there should be. After all, what would the hoity-toity yin of fly-fishing be without the practical-subsistence yang of ice fishing? And with the technological advances in both clothing and equipment, the sheer suffering of the ice-fishing experience has been greatly reduced. Read on for a basic primer on western Montana ice fishing.

Ice fishing’s popularity in the state has exploded in the last decade, says Bill Brinkman, local ice-fishing ambassador and specialist at Sportsman’s Surplus in Missoula. “Eight years ago, we’d be lucky to sell 40 to 50 tip-ups in a season,” says Brinkman, referring to a standard of ice fishing gear. “But now we go through hundreds.”

A primary reason for the burgeoning ice fishing population, says Brinkman, is the relative cost-efficiency of the endeavor. A complete ice fishing setup can be assembled for well under $100–a price tag that would barely make a dent in the accoutrements required for fly fishing.

The first order of the ice fishing business is to procure the means to get through the ice and at the fish. Although power augers can run in the hundreds of dollars, a simple manual auger can be had for less than $50, and a few more bucks will get you a scooper to keep your hole free of floating ice.

Regulations in western Montana dictate a limit of two rods per angler, which allows the ice fisherman to use one standard rod and one tip-up on each outing. A Tip-up is basically a crude reel on a stick, set in such a manner that a flag goes up when a lunker starts peeling line out. They are used to dangle large bait fish beneath the surface, in the hope that a monster pike or similar leviathan will swoop it up in passing. Both can be purchased for under $10.

A varied spread of ice holes is essential to covering your bases, says Brinkman. “I like to set up what I call a baseball diamond when I go fishing,” he says. “The home base hole is in shallow water, second base is in deeper water, and first and third bases are in mid-depth water.”

Beyond the auger and rods, you’ll need a five-gallon bucket to haul gear and fish. The bucket also serves as a fine stool, as does a milk crate. A gaff for pulling the big boys out of the hole is optional, but warm—and extra—clothes are not.

A prospective ice fisherman with money to burn may want to pony up for an ice shelter, a tent-like structure that considerably ups the comfort factor while allowing for fishing through the floor. Brinkman notes that a cheaper, reasonable facsimile of the shelters can be made through creative construction. “We used to use an old pop-up tent, cut the floor out of it and use a lantern for heat,” he says.

A shelter provides an advantage not found in open-air fishing: The shade provides a clear line of sight down the hole. “I like to look down the hole and see what’s going on down there,” Brinkman says. “I call it Fish TV.”

Now that’s reality programming, winter-in-Montana style.

by Nick Davis

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