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Legendary Montana Ice Climbing Festival Turns 26

The Bozeman Ice Festival was started by a group of climbers, including some Canadians, back before ice climbing was as popular as it is these days

The Bozeman Ice Climbing Festival (BIF) is one of the most popular ice climbing events in North America, along with the Ouray Ice Festival and Michigan Ice Festival. It will run from Dec. 8 to 11. This year will the 26th year it has taken place.

The festival began as two separate events in the mid-1990s by Barrel Mountaineering and Northern Lights Trading Post. Barry Blanchard, Joe Josephson and Jack Tackle were the original clinic instructors. For a decade, Barrel put on one of the best ice festivals in the country as the sport exploded with new gear and generally became more accessible to a wider diversity of participants. The Northern Lights event, held after Thanksgiving, was a smaller event but with better ice – provided the road wasn’t snowed in already.

Clinics are always popular at the Bozeman Ice Fest

In 2006, Northern Lights and Barrel along with Joe Josephson and Mike Cooperstein joined forces to organize one event. This was, in part, at the request from the sponsors who struggled to support two individual events. But it was also to improve advocacy and fundraising to help keep Hyalite Canyon open in winter. The Forest Service was proposing to close the road. Without access, the 250 ice and mixed routes would require a big ski in.

In 2008, after years of advocacy by the Southwest Montana Climbers’ Coalition and the Access Fund, the US Forest Service and Gallatin County agreed to a unique cost-sharing agreement to plow the road regularly. This allowed for Hyalite Canyon access through the end of March. With reliable access now secured, organizers were able to move the Ice Festival to the current regular time, ensuring consistent ice conditions and to reserve use of the beautiful Emerson Cultural Center in downtown Bozeman. This venue allowed the Festival to provide better evening events, organization and room to grow.

In 2012, BIF put on the first of several internationally sanctioned ice climbing competitions. Culminating in a major World Cup event held at the County Fairgrounds in 2015, these competitions attracted dozens of Olympic-caliber athletes from around the globe to Bozeman. These events stand today as some of the biggest and most successful World Cup events ever produced and BIF staff continue to be the leading experts working with the American Alpine Club and others to create a sustainable World Cup presence in North America.

Climbers at the Bozeman Ice Fest

As the overall event grew and the two local climbing shops shut down, the event needed an organizational home. So in 2013, BIF became fully incorporated under Friends of Hyalite to benefit Hyalite road plowing and stewardship. Between 2010 and 2017, Friends of Hyalite and the Bozeman Ice Fest have raised more than $82,000 to help keep Hyalite open and enjoyable for all.

By 2018, however, the size of BIF had outstripped the capacity of the Friends of Hyalite, so it was mutually decided to spin BIF off into a separate non-profit organization. Incorporated by Joe Josephson as a 501c3 non-profit, the Ice Climbing Alliance (ICA) is currently organized specifically to run the Bozeman Ice Festival.

The festival shares the same goals and objectives that have been in the DNA for decades: to secure winter access to Hyalite Canyon through road plowing while promoting the long tradition of personal engagement and camaraderie between climbers of all abilities, ages and backgrounds, whether you are a sponsored athlete or trying this life-changing sport for the first time.

The 2020 event was cancelled outright, and then Phil Bridgers took helm as festival director. Following the highly successful 25th anniversary celebration in 2021, the operation and ownership of fest was turned over to the Montana Mountaineering Association in what is described by long-time Festival Director Joe Josephson, as “the perfect marriage.” For a list of clinics and events this week, visit here.