The Flathead Valley’s rock climbing community embraces growth with new guidebook, bouldering park, and plans for a state-of-the-art climbing gym

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Greg Lindstrom
Jandy Cox stood on a vertical rock face waiting for a rain shower to clear. It had done this all day: rain, sun, rain, sun. Wrinkles in the quartzite provided a narrow shelf and slight roof. Denise, Cox’s wife, who was belaying, shouted that she could see the next patch of sun approaching from the north over serene Lake Koocanusa. He balanced patiently.

Cox was about a third of the way up an outcropping called Big Buttress at Stone Hill, a climbing area west of Eureka. The 5.10d-rated route, which is called Scattered Few, runs up 115 feet of rock. Cox, manager at Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell, the region’s quintessential rock climbing shop, didn’t set this one. But he did set the route to the right, along with Ted Steiner, another local climber, as well as a considerable portion of the 600 other routes here, the birthplace of Northwest Montana rock climbing.

The sun moved in and Cox traversed over to a thin crack running up the rock. Relying on invisible footholds on the sheer face, he stuck his fingers in, found something to pull on, and slid up over an arête, a sharp furrow in the wall. He let out a huge grunt that made Denise, a nurse and yoga teacher, laugh and widen her eyes at me in playful alarm. Cox picked his way up the next face, and then disappeared from sight, topping out in order to belay Denise from above. She flew up the rock at first, but fumbled for a hold at the crack.

I shouted up from the ground, “You got this!”

“Either that,” she replied, hanging in her harness and shaking her wrist, “or it’s got me.”

With another try, Denise nailed the crack and finished the route as the sun warmed the quartzite. She and Cox slipped their sneakers back on, wound up the blue rope, and we moved on to the next route.

Of the three places with established climbs in the Fathead Valley, Stone Hill has the best rock and the most routes, many of which are either roadside or just a short walk from the car. The drive west from Eureka on Montana Highway 37, though, is a haul that requires a full-day trip for most Flathead climbers. The Kila Crags, 15 minutes from Kalispell, are fun and accessible, but the old dumpsite doesn’t exactly offer a wilderness experience. Point of Rocks, tucked into the Stillwater State Forest north of Whitefish, strikes a better balance. It’s closer than Stone Hill, has better rock than Kila’s choss, and feels wilder than both. The only problem with Point of Rocks is that hardly anyone knows it’s there.

Any jaded local might say that’s a great problem to have. Cox, who has climbed here for almost 30 years, has earned that title, if he wanted it, but he hopes that more climbers will discover the “undiscovered” area this summer. In May, Brett Eckert, whom Cox taught to climb, published Point of Rocks’ first guidebook. It details 183 routes that he, his climbing partner Aaron Young, and others have put up since 2011. Eckert spent innumerable hours on the guide over multiple years, excited to share this unexpected treasure trove with others.

“Rock climbers rejoice!” the guide’s back cover reads. “One of Montana’s best kept secrets has been let out of the bag.”

In April, thanks to the efforts of the Kalispell Bouldering Project (founded by Cox) and enough community support to raise over $100,000, a new bouldering park opened near downtown Kalispell in Lawrence Park. There are also plans to build a first-class indoor climbing center in Whitefish, to complement the 20-year-old wall at the Summit Medical Fitness Center in Kalispell.

With all of this development, good climbing is suddenly a lot more accessible to a lot more people. It’s easier for the uninitiated to experiment, easier for friends and families to climb together casually, and easier for weekend warriors to get out on weeknights after work.

Attention from the mainstream is new for the long under-the-radar community, and this summer may bring the most change in a single season since 1982, when the first bolt was placed at Stone Hill and the sport of rock climbing took off in the Flathead Valley.

Denise Cox climbs at Stone Hill near Lake Koocanusa on May 10, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Denise Cox climbs at Stone Hill near Lake Koocanusa

In 1972, before anyone in the Flathead had thought of scaling cliffs as tall as skyscrapers, a 422-foot dam was built on the Kootenai River 17 miles north of Libby. This created Lake Koocanusa, a reservoir that stretches 48 miles to the border, then continues another 42 miles north on Canadian soil. A new road was needed to circumnavigate the lake. This turned out to be an unexpected blessing.

“When they put this road in, it was just dumb luck that it went through this band of rock,” Cox said.

It took a decade before climbers discovered this new zone, when a few Canadians established Stone Hill’s first routes near the highway. In 1982, Paul Clark drilled Northwest Montana’s first bolt into Hold Up Bluffs on the eastern side of 37, creating Clark’s Nutcracker, a 5.9 still climbed today.

In the mid 1980s, Kenny Kassleder, a Whitefish High School student, was introduced to rock climbing by his aunt’s boyfriend, a big climber from Yosemite. Kassleder took to it immediately. He showed Stone Hill to his friends and they fell in love, too. They started climbing all the time and took to calling themselves Team Fish.

“There were only a handful of routes, and once we figured out how rock climbing worked, we started pushing our limits,” Greg Stenger, one member of the crew, said. “Everybody was in a mini-competition with each other, always testing ourselves. The stronger and better we got, the better our routes got.”

At this moment in rock climbing history, the sport was beginning to see a huge evolution. The old guard—whose high-consequence style is now known as “trad,” or traditional—didn’t climb with bolts permanently screwed into the rock. When bolt-protected routes were introduced and the nascent discipline of sport climbing spread, a whole new generation of athletes began tackling routes of much greater technicality, with much more grace and gymnastics.

Rocky Mountain Outfitter became an incubator for the growing community. It was, and still is, the place to share stories, beta, and beer. Owner Don Scharfe, who wanted to promote the sport, supported Team Fish and others with gear and hardware to put up routes. Anyone in the Flathead interested in climbing went to the shop, the only place to buy climbing gear. Via this hub, word quickly spread among locals about Stone Hill. Stenger put out the first Stone Hill guide, with a hand-drawn map, in the late 80s. A decade later, Tyler Hawk put out an expanded, comprehensive text, now in its fifth edition. Stone Hill remained uncrowded, though, thanks in large part to its location “kind of in the middle of nowhere,” as Stenger said, too out-there to entice many tourists from far-flung places.

“We were kind of in a bubble,” Stenger recalled. “We knew about climbing outside Montana from the magazines, but we didn’t realize that with what we were climbing at Stone Hill, we were right on the heels of some of the better climbers in the country … I’ve been all over the country climbing, and Stone Hill is still one of the best-quality sport climbing places.”

Jandy Cox climbs "Room with a View" at Stone Hill.

Jandy Cox climbs “Room with a View” at Stone Hill.

Famously hard and tough, the granite in the Bitterroot and around Bozeman makes for a better climb. But Stone Hill’s quartzite, made of large grains, is sturdy too, and it forms nice cracks at its joints.

Cox moved to the area in 1989, after graduating high school on the East Coast. A lifelong climber, he got a gig at Rocky Mountain Outfitter and began working with Stenger, Steiner, and Kassleder to put up routes. Though sport climbing’s popularity was exploding elsewhere across the nation, it was still emerging in the Flathead and still had a lingering aura of insanity. That reputation, coupled with bright Lycra athletic fashion, reliably earned the crew a few looks in the bars near Eureka after a day at Stone Hill.

Eventually, as Team Fish aged, many of the trailblazers moved on to other things or other places. Development slowed until the late 1990s, when Steve Stahl, a Canadian climber, moved to the valley. He set a huge number of routes, likely more than anyone else. Hawk put out a guide to the Kila Crags in 1995. Climbers have continued to set new routes at Stone Hill, but those years marked the last major progressions in the region’s climbing history. According to Cox and Stenger, the local scene has actually seen a lull since the hype of the 90s.

“There hasn’t been a resurgence of climbing since Steve put up his routes,” Cox said. “The next bump is Point of Rocks.”

Aaron Young climbs at Point of Rocks this May.

Aaron Young climbs at Point of Rocks this May.

Passersby on U.S. 93 between Whitefish and Eureka would never guess that there are rows of rugged, exposed rock shrouded by the Stillwater State Forest’s rolling hills. Photographer Greg Lindstrom and I, for one, would have missed Point of Rocks entirely if we didn’t have Eckert and Young as guides. We met the pair one Tuesday afternoon in April at Point of Rocks Restaurant, the only real landmark nearby. After following Young’s small white truck a half-mile down an unmarked, single-track dirt road off 93, we parked at the East Canyon Trailhead.

Like Stone Hill, the climbing at Point of Rocks was revealed with the construction of a road. Under obligation to raise revenue for the state school system, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation began logging parts of the 93,000-acre forest in 2008-2009. The resulting logging roads opened up 3,000 acres of steep argillite cliffs blanketed with thick moss and lichen. Determined climbers began scrubbing.

“You could spend the rest of your life scrubbing off these cliffs,” Young said, smiling gamely about the amount of time they’ve spent cleaning rock to make it grippable, sometimes up to 50 hours on a single route. “And [Point of Rocks] still doesn’t reveal all its secrets.”

We followed Eckert and Young westward down the gentle East Canyon Trail to the Middle Canyon, 1.4 miles in. The highway felt far behind. Aside from an elk calf that crossed our path, the woods were still. Waist-high saplings in the clearings felt like a sign that the forest was reclaiming its wildness. Rock features with bolted routes are fairly spread out here, with only a few routes at each site. Compared to Kila and Stone Hill, where the human touch is always visible, this setup felt remote.

“Hey, there’s chalk,” Eckert exclaimed as we walked up to an outcropping called Buddha Buttress, described in the guide as rotund and billowing, like a sitting Buddha. “It’s great seeing signs of people out climbing.”

Young slid on his climbing shoes, then pulled the rope through his harness and tied a tight figure-eight knot. When Eckert confirmed that Young was on belay, he stepped up onto a 5.11d-rated 55-foot route named Bodhi. It’s among the “Cream of the Crop” list in the back of the guide. Young lifted himself up the left side of a sloping dihedral, what climbers call the inside corner of two faces joined at a sharp angle like an open, upright book. He locked into a finger crack and followed it up the rock, clipping quickdraws onto bolts as he slipped by.

“You’re all over this,” Eckert called from below.

As Young came up under a big overhanging ledge, the crux of the climb, he shouted down, “Watch me here.”

“I’m watching,” Eckert said, gripping the rope as Young tried for a handhold and slipped off. He grasped at the rock once more, and on his third attempt managed to push himself up.

“That’s pretty intense, man,” Young said after a moment. “That was so ugly.”

“No style points, but well done,” Eckert responded.

It was a tough warm-up, in any case, a route with which most casual climbers would seriously struggle. Young works in an office, as an IT assistant at the Sportsman & Ski Haus. Eckert runs his own architectural photography and design business.

The rock here is primarily argillite interrupted by some bands of quartzite. Argillite is sedimentary, the product of fine particle mud that was compressed billions of years ago on the seafloor. It’s strong rock, and pretty, with purple and green stripes. To self-proclaimed rock nerds like Eckert who look to the layers for an understanding of geological history, Point of Rocks’ colors indicate periods when the iron-rich mud hardened under deep water or was sealed off from oxygen. In his guide, Eckert describes the rock as a step or two above Kila, and just below Stone Hill, if one were to place their quality along a scale.

“It’s not so much the rock you climb,” Eckert said. “It’s walking out here, hanging out, the wilderness experience.”

We hiked farther back into the canyon, following a footpath that threaded through a lime-green birch forest. The path shortly ran up against Swamp Rock, a crag with four routes. We started with the leftmost one, Snafflehound Blues, a straightforward climb with solid holds and laybacks. The 50-foot, 5.9 route is named for the salt-hungry critters that once chewed through Eckert and Young’s sweaty rope. Young then tackled Welcome to the Jungle, all the way to the right of the crag. It’s a short and sporty 5.11b/5.12 route with a large overhanging face.

On our way back to the trailhead, we circled around the Battleship, a narrow, detached formation that sits alone in the middle of the canyon. Hopping across the talus, Eckert pointed out its four routes, all 115 feet long and weaving up fractals of the ship’s eastern front. One, called In Your Face, is described in the guide as a “tall, classy, sustained face.”

The potential for more climbing on the Battleship and elsewhere in the canyon is immense. Eckert believes there could easily be 400 routes here, eventually, with many requiring more technical climbing to set than the current routes— “it’ll take a really strong climber, but those lines are out there,” he said.

Later, with the spring sun still high nearing dinnertime, Eckert and Young headed to the Quarry Bluff, accessed by the Quarry Trailhead off the same dirt road from 93. They pulled out a cooler with beer and relaxed for a moment. After a full day of climbing, they planned to spend the next few hours cleaning new routes. Greg and I waved goodbye. We drove home on 93 South, craning our necks and laughing as we realized we still couldn’t make out a hint of the hulking geological secret in the woods.

Soon, more people will drive by with a knowing smile. Eckert will find more traces of chalk on the rock and eventually he’ll see familiar faces. Like a community formed around Stone Hill, a new generation of climbers will grow with Kalispell’s bouldering park, the Whitefish climbing gym, and Point of Rocks. Maybe the development will be enough to finally put Northwest Montana on the rock climber’s map.

“It’s on the cusp,” Eckert said. “I can’t wait to see it all in 10 years.”