by Dave Vaughan

One Friday evening in January or February of 1971 Brian Leo phoned me to tell of Pat Callis and Peter Lev climbing on the frozen Pine Creek Falls just south of Livingston. He suggested that a few of us in the Dirty Sox Club should ski up Pine Creek over the weekend and give the ice a try. At that time, the “club” consisted of only eight members. The core group of younger members were Dougal McCarty, Brian Leo, Brian Gary and myself. Brian Gary was ski racing at the time and showed little interest in such nonsense as trying to climb frozen water, much to his credit. So the remaining three of us made plans to leave early the next morning. Before light the next day we drove off to Pine Creek.

Two and a half hours of skiing on our heavy, old, downhill skis with Silvretta bindings brought us a clear view of the Blue and Green Gullies across the canyon. It was a humid, grey, ominous morning and the sight of these tongues of ice struck fear in both Dougal and me. Brian removed his skis, tied them to his pack, and in his inimitable style started stomping across the canyon toward the ice. As I recall there was no discussion between us and Dougal and I numbly followed Brian like zombies which was our usual response to his superior leadership and experience. As we marched closer to the gullies we could see that the green colored ice had several overhanging bulges of ice dripping with enormous ice daggers half way up. An obvious decision was made. We approached the base of the blue ice.

McCarty only had ten point crampons and was clearly not equipped for such an endeavor. B.O. and I had brand new twelve point Chouinard crampons, and because Brian was (and still is) an extremely strong and determined climber, I couldn’t beg off. There was no explanation from him as to how one actually climbed steep ice, though we assumed Brian knew, and after preparing a belay for him he began front pointing up the first 30 feet, swinging his axes like a mad man. After placing an old “coat hanger” type ice screw just above the first crux Leo realized he hadn’t tied in to the rope, promptly cursed and down climbed the crux! Properly tied in he launched off again. On seeing the ease with which he climbed both up and down I felt much more relaxed. Soon he reached the first belay stance and I followed, mimicking what I’d just witnessed. I remember feeling quite comfortable on what was then probably the steepest ice climbed anywhere in Montana. Leo’s tremendous cool and confidence was our link with success, I am convinced, as I had absolutely no idea what we were doing though I did understand “why” we were doing it. Brian knew more than I about ice climbing having practiced with Pat Callis a bit prior to this experiment. My knowledge was based on a Chouinard Equipment catalog showing the useless “French Technique”.

As soon as I pulled out of sight of McCarty, he began complaining (loudly) of being left behind. Throughout the day and into the night he bellowed endlessly: “Hey! What are you doing? Hurry up! I’m cold! What the fuck are you doing?! Hey!!” on and on… one wanted to throw something down at him.

After switching leads I climbed on through the easy second pitch and Brian followed. Brian led the third pitch over a steep bulge and up a long thin gully to lower angle ice. It was all slow going but two more pitches (totaling five – by far the longest ice climb of its kind done in the region in 1971) led to what appeared as a lower angled escape route off to the left.

McCarty’s incessant complaining continued the entire time and now as it grew dark increased in fervor and abuse. Brian and I alternated rappels, down climbed pitches on mixed rock, ice and snow and soon it was totally dark, and had begun snowing hard. We could finally hear McCarty shrieking directly below us and assumed one more single rope rappel would complete the descent. We rounded a small tree with the 150′ rope and Brian rappelled free off into the dark while McCarty’s hoarse voice disappeared around the buttress. After a short time I heard Brian yell that he was going to have to rappel off the end of the rope to reach the snow! The rope went slack and soon he yelled up to me, “It’s not too bad – you’ll land in the snow. Just remember to hold onto one end of the rope”. I readied my rappel and began descending. I was startled to discover that I hung free nearly the entire rappel and that I could see absolutely nothing in the cavernous blackness. I eased my way down until the ends of the rope swung at my frozen feet. I closed my eyes tightly, hollered “look out below”, and let go of one end of the rope. Brian was wrong. It was bad – a long free fall. Long enough that a drop of that distance into anything but deep soft snow would certainly have resulted in serious injury or death. It took a while to free myself from the neck deep hole I’d created. Of course the rope clobbered me, too. Not prepared for such darkness I stumbled blindly around to where Dougal was whining to Brian about his woes. We collected our packs and skis and headed down the slope to the canyon trail.

The ski tour out was terrifying in pitch darkness and several collisions with trees, rocks and each other resulted. When we finally exited the mouth of the canyon we had to ski through several acres of fresh cow manure and mud, falling a number of times in the stuff only to discover a half dozen or so much hated snowmobilers with their lights on racing up the road toward us.

I suppose it was reflex conditioning to hide from them as on past trips we had, as a rule, tried to throw rocks and ice balls at their ilk from hiding places as they roared by on their stinking machines. We ducked into the woods along the creek and continued skiing there watching in amazement as these fools raced aimlessly around in the middle of the night. When we finally reached our car we discovered that the maniacal snowmobilers were actually a sheriff’s posse out to rescue “the lost mountain climbers”. In embarrassment we quickly loaded our gear and quietly left as the posse continued roaring about, obviously not looking for anything but a good time racing their new snow machines through the mud, manure and sloppy snow.

Apparently the posse neglected to re-contact my father, who had called them at the insistence of my mother, to say they had or hadn’t located us. My sister confided in me years later that the lack of proof of our being at Pine Creek led my parents to the belief that our trip that day was really an outing to the house of ill repute then operating near Livingston and our “climbing” forays with their often late returns were simply a ruse to disguise our delinquent misbehavior.

The next day we gloatingly informed Callis of our magnificent achievement and for a week we felt rather grand until Callis and Kanzler – not to be out done – climbed the much more impressive and difficult Green Gully placing our achievement and egos in their correct places. Still, Montana’s first classic ice climb had been done, albeit unwittingly, by Brian Leo and myself and witnessed, with commentary, by Dougal McCarty, in February of 1971.

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