Montana State University

Spring 2011

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Mountains and Minds

Climbing has long prospered around Bozeman, with the MSU community taking the lead

Because it's here April 25, 2011 by Suzi Taylor • Published 04/25/11

Climbing has long prospered around Bozeman, with the MSU community taking the lead
There are people who climb, and then, there are climbers. The Gallatin Valley has plenty of both, but it's the climbers--those with the dirt under their fingernails, the bloody rock bites and vagabond hippie-bus stories to prove it--who have put the local climbing scene on the map.

Like many of Bozeman's recreational and cultural successes, today's thriving climbing community can trace many of its roots to MSU, where students and faculty of decades ago helped incubate a fledgling sport.

MSU student Kevin Volkening said he believes the Gallatin Valley is undergoing a "second golden age" of climbing, following a swell in the early 1990s, when top climbers like the late Alex Lowe, an MSU grad, pioneered ice climbing routes throughout the area and went on to be called the best climber in the world by Outside magazine. Lowe was killed in a 1999 avalanche in Tibet.

"(This is) a really exciting time to be in Bozeman," Volkening said.

Volkening was instrumental in reviving MSU's climbing club, which was dormant when he came to MSU as a freshman from Pullman, Wash. Eager to try out rock climbing, Volkening said he fully expected to connect with a student club upon arrival. He was in for a surprise.

"I had never climbed before, and I always assumed there would be a climbing club here," said Volkening, now a senior in chemical engineering. "You know, 'Mountains and Minds!' MSU literally had nothing."

Volkening said the next year he and Victor Hagg, now a senior in liberal studies, formed the Vert-i-Go Mountaineering Club so other MSU students could have the support they had sought. That first year, five people joined the club. By the second year, it had grown to 40, and this year 70 MSU students are members. It's one of the university's largest clubs, and Volkening estimates about three-quarters are brand-new to the sport.

MSU chemistry professor Pat Callis was adviser to an earlier iteration of the MSU climbing club in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he has been climbing in the Gallatin Valley since the late 1960s. He said early climbers at MSU set new routes and constructed trails to local climbing sites. Callis said two long-standing local events--the Tour de Hyalite running/rock climbing competition and the Best of Bozeman slide show, an annual photographic celebration of extreme sports, came out of the MSU climbing club. The club also designed one of the country's first climbing walls, a structure with mostly wooden holds housed in an abandoned handball court. Later, under Chuck Swenson's watch as climbing-club president, the wall became "modernized" with plastic holds and a coated surface.

Meg Hall, who founded Bozeman's indoor rock climbing gym, Spire Climbing Center and now co-owns it with fellow MSU alumnus Jeff Ho, was climbing club president as a physics graduate student in 1987. At that time, she said, MSU's climbing club served a broader role.

"Back then it was the only sort of organization climbers had," Hall said. "There were probably just as many non-students as students, or more."

Today, climbers of all stripes are served by the non-profit Southwest Montana Climbers Coalition, founded in 2003. But MSU is still the common thread for many of the valley's best-known climbers, including Lowe; Ridge Run founder and retired chemistry professor Ed Anacker; climber/photographer Kris Erickson, a photography graduate. Even Conrad Anker, who discovered George Mallory's body on Everest, takes classes at MSU as a non-degree graduate student.

Alums Bill Dockins, Tom Kalakay and Kyle Vassilopoulos have authored Montana climbing guides, and along with grads Rand Swanson and Kristen Drumheller--who was a member of the first USA women's climbing team--are credited with many first ascents in the Gallatin Valley. Tom Wells established the Bozeman Climbing Team and Touch the Sky, a non-profit that gets youth outdoors through rock climbing; both are now managed by Aaron Hjelt, another former climbing club president.

Countless other MSU climbers serve as teachers, filmmakers,
writers, conservationists and behind-the-scenes contributors to the climbing community.

Callis says it's natural that the university would serve as catalyst to an activity like climbing.

"There seems to be a correlation," he said. "Many people are intense academics and passionate climbers. It's the problem-solving aspect."

But what is it that draws people to climbing, which can, at times, be dangerous, and might be better called a passion or a lifestyle than a sport?

Callis puts forth that humans are wired for it, just as some ancestors felt compelled to risk adventure on the high seas while others were content as farmers.

"There's a drive to do it," Callis said. "It's not something that everybody feels." Callis believes the passion is born within climbers, released like an "awakening" by a chance encounter with a person or place.

Climbers will say they love climbing for its melding of mind, body and spirit; the reliance on partners and preparation; the trust in tools and training; and the tight community of like-minded souls. Climbers also speak of a profound intimacy with nature: the smell of lichen warmed by the sun, the tactile grit of rock on a fingertip, the sharp shower of shards as an ice axe pierces a crystalline column that days ago was a torrent of rushing water.

"You become aware of all the environmental aspects, like climate change," Volkening said. "You're more aware of your environment around you. So many people are disconnected with that. It's a way to be totally in touch with nature."

"I love where it takes you," said Callis. "Incredibly, surrealistic places. It's breath-taking. You can be very far away, or get that same feel on a small cliff. There's an intimacy with the rock, discovering how to do it. It's like creating a story, like exploring, like Lewis and Clark."

"It's this crazy trichotomy," said Volkening. "Your brain, your physical body and also your training--the time and equity that you put into it."

"It takes complete focus," he added. "Everything else in your brain shuts down and all you see is your hand on different holds or gripping your tools. You don't think about the project at school or that you're going to have no money or your girlfriend's [ticked] off at you. You just get in that focused zone completely captures you."