Winter Dance

I wrote this Foreword for Joe Josephson's waterfall ice climbing guidebook to Montana and Wyoming titled Winter Dance. It was "fun" to revisit the dissatisfactory period in my life that drove me from Washington to Wyoming. The move certainly changed my life but had I driven a few miles further up the South Fork canyon it might have been changed forever.


Day in and out I slung burgers to people who told me how good the skiing was. My girlfriend bought coke instead of paying rent. I wasn’t a good skier and didn’t have the time to become one. There was no climbing nearby to placate me. Managing a ski area restaurant sounded good in September but I was irritated by February so I kissed it goodbye, packed everything I owned into my ’69 Dodge Dart and headed east to Wyoming.

I’d met Kirt Cozzens in the Tetons the previous summer. It was 1982 and we were all more or less beginners. He took us to Devil’s Tower, The Needles and eventually to his home crags in Cody. I thought Cody incredible and vowed to return – though not in winter. The Cozzens family kindly invited me to live with them until I could land on my feet. Kirt thought he could get me a job in the spring so I found some temporary work and in my spare time climbed as much south-facing limestone and granite as I could.

I soloed two new routes in the nearby Bridge Bands, explored Shoshone Canyon, bouldered, and got bored when the weather was bad. I thought one might climb ice in those conditions and I had ice tools, just no experience. It was winter, in Wyoming, waterfalls were surely frozen somewhere. Kirt and I drove his Z-28 up many dirt roads as far as it would go, finding nothing. Eventually we drove up the South Fork of the Shoshone River. We spied a route high on Carter Mountain, drove until we stuck the car in a snowdrift and started hiking. The more we walked the smaller the route was but we reached it late in the day. The ice shattered at each blow raining magnificent, brittle plates down on the belayer. By the time we topped out it was dusk and had been cloudy most of the day so we never saw the concentration of waterfalls further up canyon. Had I seen them my life might have changed forever. As it was the job never panned out, I ran out of money and headed for work in a Seattle climbing shop.

Over the years rumor percolated out of the South Fork. I heard that the main new route activist was Todd, Kirt’s younger brother who climbed with us one day in Tensleep Canyon, and that Kirt had quit climbing.

It was 1992 before I went back to Cody. Chris Noble and I were working on a book about waterfall climbing in North America and I suckered a variety of partners to belay while I led and he shot pictures. The indelible moment occurred high on "Ovisight" when Jack Tackle chose to belay 30 feet away from the crux pillar so that, "when it collapses with you on it I won't get wet." Part way up, with nothing but bad screws between me and the ground I broke out a huge block of ice but didn't let it fall. I climbed past it as delicately as I could, setting the trap. While Jack followed the sneaky block cut loose giving him a good shot to the head. Out of sight, I felt him weight the ropes and braced myself for the sound of the pillar crashing to the talus but it never came. The sound of groaning wafted upward and the rope slackened as he continued climbing. Jack's bloody face popped over the horizon and as he pulled onto easier ground I could see him relax. I sarcastically noted that, while he looked hardcore and all, when it comes to helmets function trumps fashion every time.

Later that afternoon, as we parted ways in front of the Conoco he said, " 'See you at the trade show, I'll be the guy wearing the helmet." And he's worn one ever since.

Jack introduced me to Hyalite Canyon a year later. I assumed routes must be fairly accessible like other waterfall sites I'd visited so I showed up without skis or a snowmobile. We post-holed from the dam to "The Thrill is Gone." It was cool to hear Jack's account of the first ascent while he led it again for Chris' camera.

When it was my turn to lead I found the pitch hard. Jack's first ascent was probably well ahead of its time -- like many of Hyalite's more difficult lines. That shouldn't be surprising because back then most climbers were hard-cases and ice climbing was anything but convenient. Tools had straight shafts mated to "classic" picks, screws worked poorly by comparison and the crampons of the era are considered primitive today. Given modern gear it is difficult to appreciate the talent and commitment expressed by Pat Callis, Jack Tackle, Chad Chadwick, Stan Price, et al during the early days in Hyalite -- unless one revisits their routes with the gear they used.

Barring that, I think we can honor the sport best by respecting its traditions. Of course, a principal tradition of ice climbing has been iconoclasm but this does not mean we should refute the ethics of yesteryear simply because technological advances allow it. New technology and technique have outstripped our ability to accurately predict their effects on the future of climbing. Certainly, talent and vision must remain free to express themselves but not at the expense of the long and colorful history belonging to the community, and played out on the ephemeral routes described in this book. History deepens the climbing experience. Its influence can be felt every time we approach a route, that wonder and wondering who might have passed this way before.

"The Winter Dance" describes and pays homage to the both the traditions and the vision of several generations of climbers. I hope it will serve as reference and springboard for the future, whether expressed in Montana and Wyoming or the distant ranges of the world.

Mark Twight
Mark Twight