Crags to riches 

Lake Koocanusa's scalable treasures

Stone Hill, on the western shores of Lake Koocanusa, is not Yosemite. It's not Smith Rock. It's not Joshua Tree or Red Rocks or Zion. In fact, it's not even Blodgett Canyon, the Montana big-wall mecca that the rest of the world hasn't heard of.

Instead, it's sub-100-foot climbs on giant buttresses in the Kootenai National Forest. It's beers on weekends. And it's parking at the base of the route, sitting shotgun, and belaying your buddy—or, in my case, my girlfriend— as she powers through a top-roped 5.10 on Hold up Bluffs while friends watch her 5-year-old daughter. In short, it's ease and accessibility—coupled with some of the most aesthetic climbing in western Montana.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

The combo was just what we needed. Randi, my aforementioned girlfriend, had just moved to Montana after four years in Houston. She hadn't climbed in months. She had, however, once led a 5.10c (read: a reasonably-difficult roped ascent) near Austin, Texas, that I tried and failed for more than two hours to match.

"Try mantling," she yelled at me that day.


"You're almost there."


"You want me to stop talking?" she finally called.


More silence. Lots of silence.

The full-blown tantrum I had on that climb did nothing to diminish my grudging respect for Randi's athletic prowess. Later that day, she put up a 5.10d, her hardest to date. I didn't even try.

At Lake Koocanusa, our party of five was rounded out by similar badasses who wanted to enjoy good company (or good crayoning) as much as good climbing.

Randi's daughter, Shaeli, climbs when she feels like it, and that weekend, she didn't feel like it. (Her favorite part of climbing is jumping sideways off the wall while a belayer lowers her down. If she could get to the jumping part without the climbing part, she'd like climbing a lot more.) Instead, she mostly spent the weekend with coloring books at the base of the wall or playing with our friend Kara, who came with her boyfriend, Chad. As for me, I hadn't done a Montana climb in months.

Stone Hill was a great reintroduction. A series of steep cliffs, bluffs and crags with more than 250 well-protected routes, it offers mostly easy or moderate single-pitch climbs, where you can walk off at the top or get lowered down if you want to quit. The views are spectacular and, even better for us, non-death-defying.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

The first night we didn't even look for the crags. Instead, we stopped at a rural lot that Kara's family owns near Libby, a rustic setup that was just the ticket for a late summer evening. There was running water and an outhouse; logs set on end served as chairs. But the centerpiece was the fire pit. We cooked elk steak on a grill over the flames and went to bed early.

Our itinerary the next morning included a jaunt through Libby, a waypoint we'd originally included solely for the purpose of visiting the Libby Cafe. Kara, a Libby native, assured us that a large breakfast of waffles and huckleberry pancakes would convert to major climbing fuel later on. As we approached the town, however, something seemed amiss. Parking, in a town of about 3,000 people, was proving to be seriously difficult.

"This is strange," Kara commented in her usual understated sort of way. "Wait, wait. I think it's Libby Logger Days!"

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

Turned out, it wasn't Libby Logger Days. It was the Libby Nordicfest, and our parking difficulties stemmed from the massive parade passing along Ninth Avenue before it headed down Mineral Street where, I noticed glumly, it separated us from our destination across the pavement, the Libby Cafe. Shaeli, however, grew ecstatic.

Like pretty much anybody with a single-digit age, Shaeli absolutely loves parades. Now I understood why. Every float seemed to contain somebody's grandma who would ask Shaeli, "Want some candy?" Soon, she was forced to convert her sweatshirt into a basket to carry her stash. Finally, we managed to herd her away from the candy ladies, across the street and into the restaurant.

Kara's pick didn't disappoint. After a fabulous breakfast of waffles and pancakes, we'd all carbo-loaded enough to summit Everest. As we left, the waitress, most certainly somebody's grandma, approached Shaeli and asked, "Would you like a chocolate?"

It was time to go climbing.

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