Soldiers on Ice

Tuesday Mar. 1st, 2016

Special places stick with us.

Most folks remember the first time they rode a bike, or where they got married, or the smell and sounds of a favorite park bench. Those special places are memories we can hold on to when life throws a wrench our way. When we wake up in unfamiliar surroundings…or when we must push on through pain, fatigue, or uncertainty, our minds take us back to those places for comfort.

We are lucky in Bozeman to have so many special places right outside of our back doors. The Gallatin Range is a swath of rivers and mountains chock full of mega fauna including elk and grizzly bears, and offers a multitude of recreational opportunities - no matter what your favorite method - just scant miles from downtown Bozeman. Those special places are just steps away from our front doors…yet often thousands of miles away are our service men and women protecting our country in lands far away.

Reconnecting with those special places upon returning to the US after deployment has proven to be extremely healing to our veterans. By partnering with Sam Magro of Montana Alpine Guides, Military and Veterans Coordinator Rob Vessels of the Sierra Club’s “Military Outdoors” program, is doing his part to help our veterans reintegrate and heal from their service.


The Military Outdoors program serves two purposes: to work with service members, veterans, and their families prior to deployment to promote mental health resiliency and leadership development, and to improve mental and social health as the servicemen transition home. Over the past decade the program has served over 50,000 service members, veterans, and their families. Vessels stated, “Getting veterans outdoors is important. It offers them a place to get out of their own heads, to focus simply on the task at hand. From my own personal experience, nothing helped me adjust to civilian life more than putting on a heavy pack and just walking.” Vessels served as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division, the same historic unit that the Sierra Club’s first executive director David Brower served during World War II.

For the past five years, Military Outdoors has been bringing veterans to Hyalite canyon to scale the vertical icefalls with the help of local guide Sam Magro. Last year’s trip was led by Demond Mullins, a professor based in Brooklyn, New York. He draws a parallel between climbing and his time in service. “There’s a desire to train. There’s the maintenance of gear, and training others how to use that gear. There’s an ultimate objective, and concrete steps to achieve that objective. These actions were missing in my civilian life,” Mullins explains. “There’s an identity behind doing things.”

Hyalite holds a wealth of high quality ice climbs ranging from the popular formations of G1 and G2 close to the parking lot, to the visually stunning and extremely difficult Winterdance.

Mullins describes Hyalite as “absolutely spectacular.” He details his favorite multi-pitch climbs, describing: Because it’s in a canyon, when you’re way up high and look across, it just takes your breath away. It’s an awesome feeling- wind whipping, snow falling, and just comfort. You’re not too hot, and not too cold. It’s like being part of the environment and a connection with the Earth. Climbing has connected me with nature.

It is Vessels’ hope that these experiences in such special places will help our veterans heal, and also aid in that transition to civilian life with the support of others experiencing similar feelings and challenges. He explains, “Sit around a campfire long enough and deep conversations happen organically. Surrounding yourself with other veterans in the outdoors can be like a breath of fresh air.” Mullins echoes this sentiment. Last year he stepped up to coordinate the trip because he finds it important. It provides a platform for like-minded people with similar experiences to meet and socialize.

This March, Vessels will be traveling to Montana for the first time with volunteer co-lead Dan Shoemaker. He will also be ice climbing for the first time. He comments, “I actually just started climbing in a rock gym a few months ago. I’m stoked to finally try it out, but I’m also pretty nervous to get my 6’8” 225 lbs frame up on that type of surface.”  

Our special places here in Bozeman provide us, and visitors to our area, many gifts. Some are as simple as witnessing a frozen icefall in winter, surrounded by the quiet and solitude Montana holds. For more information about Military Outdoors, visit:

Kiersten Iwai is an organizer for the Sierra Club based in Bozeman.