Black Magic

Our packs are packed and I’m sitting in my friend Steve Halvorson’s kitchen in Bozeman, sipping coffee and listening to Jonny Cash. I haven’t climbed in Hyalite Canyon in years, though when I drift back great memories flood my mind. When I drift too far back, though, I shake my head at one particular Hyalite story, of the sort that earned me my old moniker: “Sketchy Kelly.” Steve remembers the Sketchy Kelly days, as he was one of my early climbing partners when we both lived in Missoula, dirtbagging it. He’s since turned respectable, is an M.D., still gets after it and is still a great friend – reflecting on us back in Missoula, it’s comforting to know that at least half of today’s team turned out all right. I do contribute to our friendship, though, as I pour a damned good margarita. And depending on how today’s return to Hyalite goes, maybe I can be re-dubbed “Respectable Kelly”? Yeah, I think that has a nice ring to it.

Anyway, here’s an old story I wrote after an early epic in Hyalite – it’s not the greatest effort, but at least I survived. OK, time for another cup of coffee, then into the canyon…


Me on Black Magic, about 100 feet before implosion, ca 1997(?)

Verglas seeped and shimmered from dark Hyalite rock, the glaze thickening with altitude until long, slender tentacles – like the crooked fingers of a wicked witch – spilled from the curtain above. The name befit the line: Black Magic.

I was a young, obsessed climber living in Montana and – of course – I wanted to climb an Alex Lowe route. Although my ability didn’t match my ambition, I figured that Black Magic was one of Alex’s easier climbs – and it was “in.” Sort of.

I had no idea that there was more to hard routes than strength and a modicum of skill.

Pete Tapley and I chugged loads of coffee, gathered the gear clustered about Pete’s floor and did the bumper-car-boogie up the deep ruts into Hyalite, with an old Metallica tape blasting from the cheap car stereo. Lashing out the action returning the reaction weak are ripped and torn away! Though Pete was a far better climber, somehow I’d managed, from back in the comforts of his living room, to stake claim to the lead. Smashing through the boundaries, lunacy has found me, cannot stop the battery!

I nearly fell in the stream on the approach, my overloaded nerves jittery with anticipation.

We emptied the packs, flaked the ropes, and I cinched my boots. Pete handed me the rock gear and I began racking.

“Uh, you’ve got ice screws too, right, Pete?”

I knew who was supposed to have the screws. Shit.

We fished through the pebbles and candy bar wrappers in the depths of our packs, and came up with two Spectres. Hell, the route was mostly rock anyway – and from my foreshortened view, the ice looked like the easy part. So I was missing a few screws.

“I’ll do it!”

I battled the butterflies and embraced the moment. I’d never climbed anything like it. And for 80 glorious feet, I climbed outside myself, just as I had dreamed, imagining myself as my hero on the first ascent. Where the verglas grew to brittle, thick ice, I found a stance, constructed a rock mini-anchor, clipped the red rope and gazed upward.

It was steeper than it looked from below. I set off.

Forty feet above my last wobbly Spectre and a tied-off icicle – not a chance in hell either would hold a fall – and one move from the top, I was imploding. Desperate for security, like the rookie I was I over-swung and over-gripped. I was no Alex Lowe.

My arm got stupid, my meager swings flopping my axe to the ice like a dying fish needing water.

10, 9, 8…

Finally, one tool stuck. I locked off, fumbled a hand from the other leash, barely managed to grab a draw, and tried to clip it to the tool. But my trembling hand bumped it, and the tool fell. A 140 foot freefall, a quiet puff into the snow. My body quivered. Pete says he wanted to puke.

Still locked off on the wobbly sole remaining tool, I could do nothing. I was going to whip huge.

5, 4, 3…

Pete swears that my brain suddenly tripled in size when suddenly I flipped a sling from around my neck, tossed it over the tool, clipped the yellow rope, and called “take.” Sweating and trembling, I Jedi-mind-trick-willed the teetering tool to stay put as Pete gently fed slack, lowering me toward the rock anchor.

He kept lowering me on yellow while taking in slack on red. It’s still the best belay I’ve ever seen.

8 thoughts on “Black Magic

  1. Pete Tapley + classic Alex Lowe route + Metallica + sketchiness on multiple counts = AWESOME!

    Great story! Pete has definitively been a contributing factor to many an aspiring climbers career.

  2. uh Kell? I think you are terminally equipped with the moniker, Sketchy Kelly, but we could start naming’ the little karmic good freakin’ luck fairies that flutter around your noggin’ when you climb! lol!

  3. Yeah, I was also thinking about that term “old moniker”. How do you outgrow a moniker? When is an old one no longer useful? I’ve never heard the term “new moniker”. Fascinating.

    BTW, did you ever get your tool down after you lowered off it?

    • ha, good point, Peter. hmmm, “old moniker” — maybe like a wart you’ve had forever, can’t remember how or when it started, but it’s not going away, no longer useful, never was?

      yeah, afterwards we found a way to hike around and bushwhack along the top and lower in off a tree, and get my tool. near-death be damned, we’re cheap!

      hope you’re doing well up there, and skiing a ton.

  4. I can’t wait for the follow-up. In my mind you are becoming “Legendary Kelly”, with the likes of Jack Tackle and the late Dwight Bishop – Great alpinists who recovered from setbacks. Cheers.

    • thanks, Olin. man, really appreciate the good words, and it’s funny/ironic, eh? your comment came soon after i’d wrecked myself good, so i guess i have another opportunity to recover from a setback. damned character-building experiences….but what is life without challenges and surprises, right?
      hope you’re getting after it and living life to the fullest.
      take care, kelly

    • thanks a bunch, appreciate your reading, glad you dig it. funny, after all those years of making fun of blogs, here i am…and, don’t tell anybody, but i’m really enjoying it. glad you are, too.

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