Montana by Dirt: On Rock and Roads
From Longboarding on a Mountain Pass to Climbing with Conrad Anker in His Own Backyard
No one chatted much as we trudged uphill through the forest. Mosquitos made their way into my ear each time I paused to catch my breath, and the verbal silence masked any possible diversion from the buzzing and swatting. It masked any diversion, that is, until he yelled.
“YES! We’re going CLIMBING, and I’m PSYCHED,” Conrad Anker’s voice echoed against the Magic Wall, still 500 feet above. The rest of us—my roadtrip partners Max and Graeme, along with friends Sam and Alyssa—each half Anker’s age, lifted our heads and cracked smiles, salty sweat seeping into open mouths.
“That guy has endless stoke,” someone murmured.
The path was a steep climbers’ trail, more appropriate for deer than for casual hikers. In the rock climbing world, approaches are often made as direct as possible. They tend to be steep, difficult, and hiked with heads dropped and eyes on the next step. Beneath my feet, I saw tree shadows cast in the late afternoon sun. We were definitely in western Montana. While we hoofed up the trail, Conrad was clearing off any and all debris that guised it during last winter’s wrath.
Five o’clock the night before, I was eating dinner with Max Lowe and friend Tammie in Max’s Bozeman backyard as Conrad came barreling into the yard on a townie bike with a milk crate fastened to the rear rack. After a quick hello—I’d barely seen him since the time we shared climbing Denali in the summer of 2013—he ran inside for 30 seconds, returning with a plastic bag, a can of spray paint, and chains that he’d grabbed from the milk crate. Kneeling, he tossed the chains into the plastic bag and shoved the can in before starting to spray.
“What are you doing, Dad?” Max asked.
“Equipping new routes in Gallatin Canyon! Working a crag that no one’s developed. Some other guys thought about it, but they’re missing out now! Awesome rock; lowest climbs in the Canyon!” He was furiously spraying brown paint into the bag, turning his head to avoid the fumes as he rotated the chains. Conrad was camouflaging the metal chains that he would attach to the top of the rock climbing route, creating a safe anchor for climbers to use while minimizing aesthetic damage to the rock.
He left the bag on the ground, ran into Max’s basement, and emerged quickly with a spare climbing harness. His pants were covered in chalk and he was wearing a dirty t-shirt by The North Face, of which he is the esteemed Team Captain and a long-time athlete/employee. He tossed the gear into the milk crate.
Max caught Conrad while he remembered to pick up the plastic bag: “Wanna go climbing tomorrow?”
Conrad had obviously been climbing all day. That didn’t curtail his excitement.
“Great. Meet here at nine?” Max proposed.
“Sure, I guess…” Conrad said, “we’ve only missed four hours of daylight by then.”
Point made. This guy absolutely loves climbing. “I have a brand new 80-meter rope we can break in!” he quipped as he jumped on the townie, speeding away with barely a good-bye.
Our three-man team of road trippers had spent the previous day watching amateur downhill longboarders winding down the pass on the Beartooth Highway, the highest paved highway in the Northern Rocky Mountains, at 45+ miles per hour. They tucked in perfect unison, creating a body shape that eliminated as much air resistance as possible, noting everything down to their aerodymanic fingertips. As I gasped at the speed with which they rounded sharp curves on a barely-modified skateboard only three inches from the skin-ravaging pavement littered with stones, imperfections, and—oh yeah, that’s right—oncoming cars, they seemed to only want more speed. Even in shorts and t-shirts. I suited up to join them, only to soon realize that if I was actually going to rock climb with Conrad Anker, I probably didn’t want to skateboard into a semi-truck or go for an asphalt barrel roll under a guard rail and off a mountainside.
The next morning brought delays, and eventually a relaxed scenic drive on a dirt road to a trailhead at the end of Hyalite Canyon. At the base of the wall, everyone removed packs from sweaty backs, pulled out water bottles, and hydrated after a longer-than-expected approach. Conrad was already out of sight, scoping the wall of routes that he established, surely reliving memories of his past trips to the crag.
I found him and inquired about the routes. “I put them up nine years ago, immediately after our family returned from a trip to Europe. We had been in the Czech Republic, and these routes remind me of that climbing style. We passed through London the day before the bombings. I named this one London Calling, like The Clash album,” he pointed at the first bolt of a route, 15 feet from the ground.
As has been proven many times before, Conrad’s memory for climbing routes is incredible. He can recite the name, grade, location, and even specific movements of any of the routes that he established on the wall, the trailhead to which sits less than 45 minutes from his Bozeman home.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
I belayed a friend that I’d only shared a rope with on a glacier, never on a vertical wall. Adding to the experience, it was on a route that he established. The route London Calling (5.10b, “Sandbagged, of course,” according to Anker) is sharp, inset edges and slanted jugs, with a relatively restful ledge one-third of the way up. “I probably could have placed twice as many bolts and still had a thrilling route,” says Anker, referring to the long distances between metal bolts in the rock, used to help protect climbers from hitting the ground in the event of a fall. When I led the route, I agreed.
Back at the car, gummy bears in hand, Conrad pointed up the canyon, far from where the road ends. “Five o’clock tomorrow morning,” he told me, “I’m working on a new dry-tooling route a couple hours up there. It’s radical!”
Conrad has more to teach me about climbing than anyone I know. But what he really instilled in me during our first day on rock together was what it means to find something you love, and to do it every day.
For Montana by Dirt, Max Lowe, Brody Leven, and Graeme MacPherson take on 400 miles of dirt roads to find extraordinary adventures from Yellowstone to Glacier. See all Montana by Dirt posts.
The Adventurists blog series is sponsored by Toyota, which provided a Toyota 4Runner Trail vehicle.
Video “Rolling and Rock” music credits: “Blinded” featuring Michal Madeline by Onomono; “Loops” by Leon Sommer