by Pat Callis

During the early years of Bozeman area ice climbing a strange event occurred. I’m not sure how it started–it might have been from reading about the hardy Scots–but for some reason I carried about a half-pint of whisky along on one of the ice climbs. There was just enough for each in the party to have a single swig after the climbing was over, and the experience seemed to positively punctuate our already robust feelings. A slightly larger container was taken on the next climb.

Already on the first experience I had noticed a curious thing: an amount of straight whisky sufficient to have a noticeable effect (though small) while in one’s living room had not the least effect on any of us. This phenomenon was again observed by each of us, even though the amount had increased slightly. Apparently the high level of activity and the intense cold combined to elevate the metabolism to a level which used the alcohol immediately, so I theorized. My scientific curiosity was definitely aroused, and I felt a clear responsibility to investigate further.

On a third outing the dose was raised to an alarming 2 oz. per man, but, to our astonishment, not one of us felt a twinge of the giddiness normally accompanying two shots of whisky on the rocks at a cocktail party. This was amazing. I became somewhat excited about this finding, and being somewhat young in my career, made a mistake in scientific judgment. I lost sight of the obvious goal, which was to determine the precise threshold of whisky intake while ice climbing which would begin to cause symptoms. We, of course, did not wish to cross that line.

So it happened that on the next trip impatience caused me to bring an entire quart of Jim Beam–for only three of us. My companions on that fateful trip to the Blue Gully were Don Harder and, ironically, Charles Caughlan, then chairman of the Montana State University Department of Chemistry and the man who would decide whether I, a struggling assistant professor, received tenure or not.

Unlike on the other outings, this time we had a round before the climbing began, so confident had I become that there was to be no perceptible effect due to one shot under these circumstances. The climb went smoothly, and afterwards before leaving the base we had another shot or two each. Now here is where things got sloppy. Without thinking, I took perhaps two more giant swigs. As we headed down the hill towards the trail, I found myself falling behind. Soon I noticed a certain lack of stability, and a tendency to reach out to trees for assistance. I realized that the line had been crossed and felt some disappointment in myself for the imprecision which had crept into the experiment. Somehow though, that didn’t bother me for long as I hurried the pace to catch Don and Charles. In only two miles I overtook them as they stood next to our car, parked in the Pine Creek Campground. I acted as if nothing were unusual and so did they.

As we pulled up at the Pine Creek Store a memory from the first ascent of the nearby Green Gully with the Kanzler’s was triggered. On that historic occasion we had been startled by a large moose as we approached the climb, and of course had seen many characteristic little brown “footballs”, i.e., moose scat. We were therefore delighted later that day in the Store to find unusual elongated malted milk balls which bore an uncanny resemblance to the brown items in the trail. I knew that was what I wanted this time too, but not seeing any I heard the alcohol within me blurt, “Do you have malted moose balls?” The clerk, a teenage girl, seemed to know exactly what I was asking and simply said no, with faint amusement. Disappointed, I settled for a fudge sickle.

Caughlan aimed the veteran Dodge Dart down the windy road towards Livingston, and I quickly dozed off. Charles was what you would call an aggressive driver, and seemed to be trying to set a speed record for the return to Bozeman despite a blizzard which had suddenly come up. The lurching car caused me to wake and I realized that the fudge sickle wanted out–the way it came in. Peering into the swirling snow from the swerving car quickly heightened the nausea.

Not wishing to embarrass myself in front of my senior colleague (nor my junior one) I exerted extreme willpower and mind control to quell the urge and finally fell asleep again. When I next awoke we were stopped behind a Greyhound bus at a red light in front of the Ellen Theater, only a few blocks from my house. For a brief moment I was feeling kind of pleased with the way I had averted getting sick, but then the choking diesel fumes hit me like a rock. No amount of mind control could deal with the intense wave of nausea that resulted. I furiously rolled down the window, and several dozen patrons of the Ellen were treated to an early show: Assistant Professor Callis ralphing down the side of his Department Head’s car.

The flawed “experiment” ended there. Somehow the incident suppressed further curiosity on the matter. Oh yes, I was granted tenure.

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