It’s barely light on Thursday morning in the Hyalite Canyon parking lot outside of Bozeman, Montana. Climbers are clambering out of their cars, tying boots, strapping ice axes to their packs. Rich Searle, the lead guide for the Bozeman Ice Festival, gives a whistle, and everyone circles up, coffees steaming, stamping their feet in the cold.

For the next four days, those climbers will swing their tools into the ice lining the canyon walls. But they’ll also do more than that. To get the gist of the Bozeman Ice Festival, you might have to back up a bit, to last night, or to 1996.

Steve House, putting on a clinic. Photo: Ryan Holm

Steve House, putting on a clinic. Photo: Ryan Holm

The festivals started then, almost a drinking age ago, as a competition to see who could climb the most routes in a day. Since then, it’s gone from a grassroots get-together (they didn’t start plowing the road to Hyalite until 2008) to a World Cup event and a yearly touch point for climbers from everywhere.

Hyalite is arguably some of the best easy-access ice climbing in the world. It’s where people like Conrad Anker and Alex Lowe learned the skills they took to the highest peaks in the world. There are hundreds of ice routes within 3 square miles of the parking lot, and when the sun crests over the canyon it’s incredibly beautiful.

But the Ice Fest is as much about the culture of climbing, and the people, as it is about the place.

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Last night, in the Emerson Building, in downtown Bozeman, gear companies — locals, like Mystery Ranch, and biggies, like Black Diamond — handed out packs and crampons, so rookies could take a turn swinging picks. After that, alpinist Steve House gave a talk about mentorship, and Conrad Anker handed out the Mugs Stump Award, named after his mentor, which gives young climbers grants to go tackle big peaks.

The following evenings, professional climbers hacked their way up a manmade tower in the city fairgrounds as part of the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup (spoiler alert: Russia cleaned up).

In the morning, those rookies could take a clinic from House, or Dawn Glanc, one of the best female ice climbers in the world. But the coolest part wasn’t the climbing glitterati putting on a show, or the Russian spider monkeys speed-climbing a vertical skating rink at the rodeo grounds.

Ice climbing is a sport that involves a lot of standing around, and Montana is cold and dark in December, so there’s a lot of time for shooting the shit. Ice climbing is a small, specific sport, and that might be the heart of it. Some of the volunteers come from Seattle or Salt Lake, year after year, because they consider those people their best friends.

Maybe there are a lot of places where Anker shows up and top ropes the same climb you just did, but I don’t know of a lot of them.

He did that, and then he stayed and chatted at the bottom of the crag as the light sank low again in the canyon.

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