One winter day in 1970, Montana State University biophysical chemist Patrik Callis set out for a cross-country ski with a fellow professor when he inadvertently discovered cascades of ice floes lining the canyon beyond Hyalite Reservoir.
Callis, an avid climber, knew he had stumbled upon something special in the quiet, icy canyon. The area was ripe for ice climbing, which was just starting to gain footing thanks to innovations to the ice axe. He and a cadre of young climbing companions returned to the snowy, unplowed road numerous times, gear in hand, ticking off many first ascents in Hyalite, an area that’s now celebrated as a North American mecca of ice climbing.
The list of Callis’ early and continued contributions to the climbing community is both lengthy and admirable, but perhaps lesser known is his commitment to research and teaching at MSU. Callis, who’s been described as a “giant among us” will celebrate his 50th year at MSU in 2018, making him the university’s longest-tenured professor.
“The excitement of teaching has not gone away,” said Callis, who turns 80 on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. “I’m still learning life sciences; I’m still learning biochemistry. Every year I have more biochemical information to give that’s directly associated with physical chemistry, and somehow that just keeps teaching interesting and fulfilling. This seems to be directly linked to my research activities, which steadily became more biophysical over the last 30 years.”
Callis became hooked on climbing as a teenager after a high school teacher showed slides of climbs on volcanoes in his native Oregon. Callis, an eager outdoorsman and climber of trees from a young age, thought it looked more doable and less dangerous than he’d previously imagined. He sought mentors and set out to learn how to move up the faces of mountains.
While nabbing first ascents up and down the West Coast, Callis was also spending a significant amount of time researching the quantum mechanics of molecules. After earning a doctorate at the University of Washington and completing postdoctoral research at Caltech, Callis accepted a professorship at MSU, which had impressed him with its commitment to research.
“When I (first) visited here, I was quite enchanted. That was my dream, to be in a place where you could do good science and be able to climb without spending too much time traveling,” said Callis, who has well-known first ascents of ice and rock routes around Bozeman to his name, including “Cleopatra’s Needle,” a grade V multi-pitch icefall in Hyalite, and “Spare Rib,” one of Gallatin Canyon’s classic rock climbs.
Callis expanded upon his sense of early enchantment with the area in the introduction to “Bozeman Rock Climbs,” the 1987 guidebook written by Bill Dockins and illustrated with hand-drawn maps that served as the first published guide to Bozeman’s burgeoning climbing scene.
“It was an unforgettably brilliant afternoon in late July 1968,” he wrote, “with the Northern Rockies at their peak of lushness that marked my first encounter with the Gallatin Towers. Gayle (his wife) and I and two-year-old Kristina were literally high on the greens, golds and special incense of Gallatin Canyon. … It was more than love at first sight. There was immediate recognition that this oasis of hard rock crags in a region of crumbling limestone would be the site of many enjoyable hours of exploratory rock climbing I had grown to love during the previous decade on the West Coast.”
In terms of risk, Callis equates climbing with driving: both are potentially dangerous activities that one can learn to negotiate intelligently. Callis’ approach to risk has helped him to summit — and return from — big first ascents, like the north face of Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. He also has first ascents of numerous routes on Suicide Rock, near Idyllwild, Calif.
“Surviving the first couple years — that’s where the luck comes in,” he said. “I was lucky that my first regular climbing partner was a slightly older person who’d done quite a bit of climbing. He really calibrated me from the outset on how to climb safely. I think everybody should strive for such mentorship if they feel that urge to climb.”
And where does that desire originate? Some climbers chalk it up to an “inexplicable urge to ascend,” but Callis has a slightly more scientific understanding: “I think it’s genetic, to some extent,” he said, while also acknowledging that there’s another, perhaps more mysterious, element. “It gets in your blood. … To me, it was just that free climbing and hiking translated into the beautiful mountain environment, which is just something in itself. Unless you’ve really gone up high on a mountain, it’s hard to quite realize.”
In 2001, Callis introduced Conrad Anker, possibly Montana’s best-known mountaineer, to many of the area’s 5.11 climbs. Rock climbs are rated on a scale from 5.6 to 5.15; a 5.11 route requires both technical proficiency and considerable strength.
Callis and Anker had a mutual friend and climbing companion in the late Alex Lowe, an MSU graduate who remains legendary in mountaineering communities for his enthusiasm and stamina.
Two years after Lowe’s death in 1999 in an avalanche on Shishapangma, a 26,335-foot peak in Tibet, Anker moved to Bozeman to be closer to Lowe’s widow Jenni (whom he married in 2001) and her three sons. Callis and Anker were aware of one another’s climbing accomplishments and took advantage of their proximity to climb together — which they still do, two or three times a year.
“Pat’s a great example of the generational connectivity that climbing builds,” Anker said, adding that Callis is the only climber he knows who has completed first ascents with both Yosemite icon Warren Harding and Fred Beckey, one of North America’s most prolific mountaineers.
“He just loves climbing. That’s the best part of Pat — any day that he can get out climbing is a good day,” Anker said.
Even Callis is surprised by his tenure on the crags and icefalls of southwestern Montana. “I couldn’t not do it,” he said of his vertical pursuits.
There was a period of Callis’ fourth decade when he considered giving up climbing, buying into the notion that at a certain age he’d no longer be fit enough to do it well. Instead, he discovered that the opposite was true.
“I finally woke up to the fact that I was deteriorating because I wasn’t climbing enough,” he said. “That was an epiphany.” He started climbing more and continues to climb at the same difficulty level as 30 years ago, although the famously modest Callis also acknowledges that some of the grades may have softened a bit.
In August, Callis completed his 23rd Bridger Ridge Run, a brutal 20-mile trail run along the spine of the Bridger Mountains.
“Something about it started to haunt me during the winter after [my first Ridge Run] and I found myself wanting to run it again, and again and again. It just keeps sort of luring me,” he said.
The race was conceived by the late Ed Anacker, Callis’ friend and fellow MSU chemistry professor. Anacker was instrumental in Callis’ move to Bozeman, having taken a sabbatical from MSU to conduct research in a laboratory at the University of Oregon, where Callis was finishing his graduate studies.
If challenge and high-alpine environments form the wellspring that keeps Callis on mountainsides, the process of discovery is what keeps him returning to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science to conduct research and teach courses on physical and quantum chemistry.
Recently, Callis has become particularly interested in how enzymes accelerate biochemical reactions.
“I’ve been able to see that I have some ideas that are not out there in the literature, and I’m very busily and excitedly exploring these ideas right now,” Callis said. He added that he is particularly thankful for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, which had funded his research for 29 straight years, for supporting the graduate and postdoctoral students he mentored during that time.
“My many colleagues within the department carrying out similarly sponsored programs have contributed greatly to my learning experience,” he said.
His colleagues note his scientific contributions are as significant as his athletic accomplishments.
“He is a giant among us, and yet he has such a gentle, calm demeanor that many people in the Bozeman community know him only as an outdoorsman and a nice person, having no idea how scholarly he is or how deep his contributions to the advancement of photophysics truly are,” wrote Mary Cloninger, the head of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, in her nomination letter for a creativity award Callis received in 2015.
“He’s quiet, he listens and he’s thoughtful. There’s great positive energy around him,” said Nicol Rae, dean of the College of Letters and Science.
“If you meet Pat, it doesn’t look like he’s been at MSU almost 50 years,” Rae added. “Long may he continue.”
This fall, the Montana University System Board of Regents approved making Callis a Regents Professor, the highest honor in the system. Callis will present a Regents Symposium on his work on April 7.
And Callis’ students still appreciate both his patience and his ability to illuminate scientific processes.
Jacob Remington, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry who has been working with Callis since he was an undergraduate, said Callis has a unique ability to explain difficult concepts in, say, quantum mechanics, while simultaneously revealing larger truths.
“I leave [Pat’s] office thinking a little more deeply about what I went in there to ask, and it leaves me with a sense of wonder that the universe could possibly behave that way,” Remington said. “Pat has been a complete idol for me in terms of work-life balance—to become a full-time professor and still go outdoors a bunch. It’s pretty inspirational.”
This article first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Mountains and Minds, MSU’s award-winning magazine, which is now online.