I’ve never written an article on a single pitch climb before, but “The Thrill” was something special. A one-hundred foot andesite black rock chimney chocked with ice up to WI4 and mixed climbing up to M5, or 5.9 rock, was first climbed by Jack Tackle in 1986 and remains “the best single pitch climb in Hyalite Canyon” to this day – an ultra-classic benchmark for the grade in an area revered for world class winter climbing. Seven days earlier, on my second ever trip to Hyalite, I had the pleasure of belaying my friend Brian Emory on his first red-point attempt. I watched as he climbed the first twenty feet of anemic ice, placing two screws and proceeding into the confines of the deep, dark and intimidating chimney. I held the brake strand tight as he wiggled through several awkward sections with grunts and scratches, dry-tooling and stemming his way to a thin curtain of ice above. When he stepped from a small cave onto the wildly exposed ice my obsession was seeded. I was new to the mixed climbing universe, and had never before seen such a harmonious uniting of so many climbing disciplines and skills. I never even considered the idea that in one single pitch of climbing someone could place ice screws, cams, tri-cams and nuts, switch between traditional ice climbing, dry-tooling and bare hand rock climbing while jamming, stemming, hooking and smearing their way up one-hundred feet of beautiful black volcanic rock. I think Brian was surprised when I asked him to “clean the route” after he clipped the chains. Why in the world wouldn’t I want to top-rope the most classic mixed line in Hyalite Canyon? Because perhaps stubbornly, or maybe romantically, I wanted to preserve my right to on-sight. When the stars aligned I sought to experience this storied classic for the very first time on lead – no trial runs and no do-overs. I had never been so purist about a climb before, but something about The Thrill Is Gone struck a special chord within me. And the best part was, I wasn’t far from trying.
Seven days later I was at the base of the famous chimney with my good friend Scott Melin, tied in with a rack of eight screws, a full range of cams and chocks, two ice tools, a pair of crampons and a harness full of stoke. No, this wasn’t an extended ice climbing trip. I drove four hours home to Teton Valley, worked for a few days and made the four hour pilgrimage back to Bozeman, almost exclusively for this route. The day before I led The Matrix, an “almost classic” mixed climb of similar grade, though varying proportions of rock and ice, skewed far towards ice, meant the Thrill had a different set of challenges to throw my way. The Matrix, first climbed by Steve House and company in 1999, had half a dozen stemming moves between rock and a hanging pillar of ice, protected well on small gear, before relenting to an otherwise all-ice ascent. A thin and delicate body-width pillar up high elevated the stakes with twenty some feet of unprotect-able WI4 crux climbing, but ultimately felt routine – well within my within my wheelhouse. Though graded at M4, WI4, right on par with The Thrill, one look over my head warned loud and clear: I was about to wrestle with a different kind of beast. After all, 2022 was my first season ice climbing. A bit of Idaho limestone dry-tooling added beef to my toolbox, I sure felt comfortable on 5.9 (M4-ish) summer rock and climbs like The Matrix, Jeff’s Right and an early season Prospector Falls in Grand Teton National Park introduced me to the idea of switching between earth and water mediums – The Thrill was the obvious next step – but just how big a step was it?
Thirty feet and three screws off the deck I found myself wedged precariously into the tight chimney, staring up at the mess of down-sloping rock, cracks, intermittent ice patches and seeping moss that is The Thrill Is Gone. Solid hooks and and interesting foot placements between rock and ice made the initial steep flow feel easy for the grade, but now that the ice had run dry things were beginning to heat up. The first half of the rock portion was relatively routine given my dry-tool experience, protected well by small wires and micro-cams. Solid tool hooks behind large blocks and deep mossy cracks inspired confidence through a few short bulges, and several no hands, back-to-the-wall rests warded off the dreaded flash pump. I even stashed the tools and busted a few rock moves, including one crucial finger jam. But now, with a mere ten feet of rock left before the upper ice curtain, I was stuck. I couldn’t find any reasonable footholds and my calfs were raging with fatigue from resting on small edges. I needed to move fast. I sunk two good tools over the crux chockstone and committed to a greasy pull-up maneuver, unglamorously skating and smearing my feet over the slippery rock and mantling into a small cave protected precariously by a nest of two micro-cams at ankle height. I bet Jack Tackle made it look better, but now was no time for ego.
Wedged into a cavern formed by the convergence of the top ice curtain and rock chimney, I groped around my harness for a much needed ice screw when I felt my tool dislodge from it’s resting placement, bounce past my face and clamor into the abyss below, nearly beheading poor Scott. I couldn’t believe my eyes – I just dropped an ice tool. I certainly couldn’t continue, and faced with questionable ice I wasn’t sure I could easily retreat either. However, I happened to be in the best rest of the entire climb, completely hands free and wedged comfortably between rock and ice. After a bit of logistical banter I sunk three screws, clipped each directly to my harness, went off-belay without weighting the gear and lowered a loop of rope to Scott to retrieve my tool. He clove hitched my axe and a few more screws to the line and sent my saving graces back up The Thrill. After retrieving my gear I went back on belay, finishing the climb on a hooked-out thirty foot punch of hero ice basking in the mounting sun. The style department could’ve used a little work, but hanging from the chains of my proudest winter climb, I couldn’t really care less. I just sent The Thrill.
Reflecting Back – Problem Solving & Living in the Moment
In one single pitch of climbing I learned more lessons than possible to type in a single article. Beyond physical, mental and technical advances, I learned (again) that winter climbing grades are much more subjective and less uniform than summer rock grades. Talking to a local guide hours later, The 2022 Thrill is much “thinner” than normal years and as such, could be climbing as hard as M5-M6 in sections that usually fill with ice. Ice is an elusive medium and unlike rock, changes dramatically by the day, weeks and years. Though I never felt entirely over my head, The Thrill registering as much more demanding than the nearly equal graded Matrix speaks to the individuality and unpredictability of ice climbs, and the likewise difficulty with grading them. Apparently the upper curtain typically fills over the crux move left of the “cave”, and in some years the “mixed” nature of the route entirely disappears as ice packs out the full chimney.
My second takeaway from this phenomenal route was how absolutely invaluable the ability to improvise is, especially in traditional and alpine climbing. As Murphy’s Law of ice climbing states, if an ice tool can be dropped, an ice tool will be dropped. Stranded sixty feet off the ground with one tool, my gut instinct was to panic. Instead I breathed into the discomfort, found a stable stance, clipped a few pieces of good protection and analyzed the situation. With the help of my belayer we improvised a safe system to retrieve my tool, allowing me to finish the route instead of retreating. Should this scenario have happened on a multi-pitch climb, my tool unrecoverable, I could have built a three-piece anchor and returned to the belay safely. Every time I set foot in the mountains I add skills to my experience bank. Some days the contributions are small and other days, like these, deposits are quite substantial. Upon returning to terra firma, my job is to catalog and learn from these events, broadening my trouble shooting skillset for the next strike of the inevitable.
Lastly, the ability to unconsciously disappear into “my own little world” while climbing never ceases to amaze me – I guess we can call this lesson three. When I touched crampons to snow after about an hour on the wall, I had the sobering realization that my mind never once wandered from the task at hand. I was fully absorbed in the moment, my entire reality and essence encapsulated in one-hundred feet of rock and ice. I’ve often suspected this supreme focus as the crowning gift of climbing. In a world fraught with distraction and interruption, climbing provides an antidote. Climbing affords me the opportunity to step wholly into my body and live within my own little world, at least until the rope runs out. Some might cite adrenaline and the human body’s natural “fight or flight” mechanism as the precipitator of this focus, but never once was I scared on The Thill Is Gone. Instead, my neurons were firing at maximum capacity to analyze which tic-tac edges to place my crampon mono-points on, the stability of the hooks I slipped my tools behind, calculating the remaining gear on my harness in proportion to the climb remaining, searching the intimate confines of the chimney for the perfect crack offering protection – the list extends ad infinitum. To me climbing is the ultimate puzzle, a testing fusion of mental, physical and spiritual fitness I find incredibly engaging – my principle temple for self expression, discovery and reflection.
Canyon Conditions – Other Routes Climbed
Below is a list of other routes Scott and I climbed over the weekend, any firsthand observations related to those climbs and a subjective current grade.
- Mummy Cooler Area
- Feeding The Cat (WI3)
- Left side corner well-traveled, right side and prow forming new ice.
- The Matrix (WI4-, M2+)
- Short three-move start on rock protectable with small gear on right (small wire, micro-cams) or “easy solo” for confident WI4 & mixed climber. Pillar 2-3 feet wide, beaten, spiderwebbed, but holding on. Optional placement for #0.75 or #0.5-ish cam on left side of upper pillar.
- Mummy Cooler II, Right Side (WI3)
- Hooked out. Fat. Newer ice low.
- Feeding The Cat (WI3)
- Unnamed Wall Area
- The Thrill Is Gone (M4++, WI4-)
- Thin conditions. Upper curtain thin and definitely not vertical. Emphasis on small gear. Felt harder than M4+, local guide suggested possible M5+ … who knows.
- The Fat One (WI3/3+)
- Hooked out. Less climbed ice can be found on the steeper prow (WI3+) between the evidently popular right (WI3) and left (WI3) lines. New ice forming rapidly on right side.
- The Thrill Is Gone (M4++, WI4-)
As always, I would like to give a huge thank you to my supporters, Icelantic Skis and Chasing Paradise.
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