by Dave Vaughan

Before Yvon Chouinard’s introduction of the modern 12-point platform type crampon in 1968, and curved picked ice axe in 1970, ice climbing as it is practiced today was virtually impossible. Not only was early equipment unsuitable for ascending steep ice without chopping steps but almost all of the printed material on ice climbing was based on techniques for which the now antiquated equipment was intended, namely walking on glaciers and climbing on steep snow. Front pointing, at least in the U.S., was only an experimental technique at best.

In the 1960’s, Freedom of the Hills, the climbers “bible” of the day, stated the following: “Horizontal toe points or ‘horns’ are for clawing and stopping slips on hard snow….but dangerous for their leg-goring propensity. Clawing with sharp spikes for each foot and hand, the climber moves fast – but not very far in any single rush, since the technique is too strenuous for leads much longer than 10-20 feet.”

In November of 1965 Summit magazine, the only widely circulated climbing magazine of the time, ran an article entitled “Ice Climbing – The New Standard” by Gregg Blomberg. This exposé showed drawings of a climber on steep ice standing on front points using a piton and the head of his ice axe as daggers. This combination of French and Austrian techniques already well established in Europe was our first harbinger of ice climbing, as it is known to American climbers today. Still, most of those who may have attempted this method as the article showed it probably dismissed it as simply unworkable. It was a very unstable and unnerving style of ascending steep ice. Most climbers continued to chop steps and avoid steep ice whenever possible. Yvon Chouinard wasn’t one of those. Chouinard’s study of French, Austrian and Scottish ice climbing techniques led him to several crucial advancements in technique and equipment for which we as climbers should be grateful.

In 1967, Chouinard began bending Simond ice axe picks to a curvature that allowed them to stay in the ice when weight was placed on the shaft. He also began designing a new 12-point crampon with narrowly spaced toe points. The wide points common at that time were very easily dislodged from the ice with even the slightest foot rotation. He also made these crampons adjustable so that one size fit all boots. Until this advent, most crampons were sloppy fitting devices meant for walking on glaciers and front point models were rare.

In 1968, Chouinard’s design was manufactured by him and his partner Tom Frost and put on the American market for $30.00 a pair. Modern ice climbing tools were born. The curved pick ice axe and ice hammer were not yet being built for the climbing public and the only ice screw was the Russian “Marwa Coat hanger”, a horribly weak and dangerous design. Nonetheless, steep ice climbing began in earnest in the U.S. by a few hardy souls.

Among the first to own the new Chouinard crampons in Montana were early Dirty Sox Club members Chad Chadwick and Wally Hunter of Billings, and original Wool Sox Club members Clare Pogreba and Bill Antonelli of Butte. Chad and Wally had actually begun climbing steep ice gullies in 1964 using WWII iron crampons, ice daggers and straight picked axes but the new crampons put them on much steeper ice than ever before (see photo, page 17). Eighteen-year-old Clare, unable to find suitable ice for experimentation near Butte, simply flooded the Butte Tech. football grandstand with a sprinkler to form a 45° ice ramp! He invited Peter Lev and Pat Callis of Bozeman to visit him and give the ice a go. Though hardly a newcomer to Scottish style ice climbing having done first ascents of the north faces of Mt. Robson and Mt. Index (in winter) with Dan Davis in 1963 (very significant achievements), Callis as well as Lev found the “grandstand” ice a challenge at first using the equipment of the day as had Antonelli and Pogreba. This exposure was enough to incite Callis to explore the Bozeman area for steeper ice to practice on, which he did.

In 1970, Chouinard’s new ice axe was made available along with the Charlet ice screw, and this really opened up the possibilities. Until then local climbers were busy trying to bend their own axes and creating ice hammers from old piton hammers, neither of which worked well.

Though it was Chadwick and Hunter who first took to steep ice (some of the first to do so in the U.S. or Canada), it was Callis, the legendary climber newly transplanted to Bozeman, who led the way.

In the eastern U.S., climbers were still chopping steps on the five pitch, 10+ hour Pinnacle Gully in Huntington’s Ravine. There was no printed information available to the climbers of the U.S. concerning the use of Chouinard’s new tools except his own short course on the “French Technique” in his 1970 catalog, a technique that was next to useless on significantly steep ice. Callis, independent of outside influence, began to adapt techniques with his new tools to his already phenomenal grace and skill as a natural climber. He excelled very quickly on the short steep ice he had discovered.

In December 1970, he and Brian Leo entered the cirque near the end of Hyalite Creek Road and discovered a mind-boggling landscape filled with frozen waterfalls. On that day, they ascended the left side of Genesis I. A few weeks later, they made a trip to the area near Mummy I. Then, in January or February of the same winter, Callis and Lev did some minor climbing on Pine Creek Falls south of Livingston and discovered the magnificent Blue and Green Gullies on the south wall of the canyon. A week or so later Brian Leo called Callis to ask about possible climbing areas besides Hyalite, since that was inaccessible by then. Callis mentioned Pine Creek Falls and gave strict paternal advice not to venture near the Blue or Green Gullies because of obvious avalanche danger. The next weekend brought news of the first ascent of the Blue by Brian and me; with Doug McCarty watching from below, (he only had 10-point crampons). A week later Jim and Lindalee Kanzler and Callis went to the Green Gully, which represented the most imposing objective of the year, although quite mild by today’s standard. Jim and Pat, with some trepidation, alternated leads while Lindalee took pictures from below, one of which become the centerfold of Chouinard’s 1978 book, Climbing Ice. The first two of many following classic Montana ice climbs had been done.

In mid April of 1971, a very significant meeting took place between Pat Callis and Chad Chadwick. They met at the outfall of Mystic Lake Dam in the West Rosebud Canyon. Here they discovered an enormous wall of ice. This meeting and the first ascent of this fantastic ice monolith lead to the exchange of ideas and techniques between not only Pat and Chad but in the following year at the same location between Pat, his Bozeman protégés including Dougal McCarty and Brian Leo, Chad from Billings, and Gray Thompson of Alaskan, Canadian and European climbing fame who had recently moved to Missoula. The exchange and learning of techniques at this easily accessed ice wall broke old barriers of fear and ignorance and ushered in a virtually statewide ice climbing campaign in 1972/73 that yielded a great number of new climbs.

Also in 1971, the first modern ice climbing exposé had been published in the American Alpine Journal: James P. McCarthy’s “Coming of Age – Ice Climbing Developments in North America” and “The North Face of Mt. Fay, Can. Rockies” by Peter Carman, Yvon Chouinard and Denny Eberl. Most Montana ice climbers were surprised to find that they were at the forefront of the “ice age”, at least relative to what was revealed in the A.A.J.

By this time Callis, a true master of ice climbing of that era, had perfected several techniques relative to safe and secure front pointing and in April 1972, Summit magazine published an article by Pat on water ice climbing. It was the first time that the techniques we all use today on steep ice were given to the climbing community across the U.S. and Canada in a coherent fashion. Probably the most significant revelation in the article was Callis’ ingenious yet obvious adaptation of the wrist loop (inspired by the wrist loops on X-C ski poles) to ice tools. Before this “invention”, one simply clung tightly to the axe or hammer. This required a lot of energy and truly limited the length and angle of what could be climbed. Ignorance was dispelled, photographs of a climber on near vertical ice showed what could be done, and in fact what was being done in Montana, of all places. In the early winter of 1972 the first significant ice climbs were put up in Colorado, Utah and Canada. One can only speculate how much the article by Pat Callis made the ice-climbing era of the 1970’s as significant as it was. He, with his fellow Dirty Sox Club members, surely helped lead the way.


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