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.

Situated by Lake Koocanusa along Highway 37, Stone Hill is scenic but not totally remote: The town of Eureka is 17 miles northeast, Libby is 50 miles south. Its solid black and grey quartzite draws a steady stream of visitors, but it doesn't host the social scene of some of western Montana's climbing hot spots: Kootenai Creek, for example, or Lost Horse Canyon.

Lake Koocanusa, a 90-mile-long reservoir, features cliffs along deep shore-side pools where the adventurous try unroped climbs that use the water as a safety net (deep-water soloing, the kids call it). If you'd rather not hit the water at terminal velocity, the lake is a moderate hike down from the road.

Canadians first discovered Stone Hill in the late 1970s. Our jolly neighbors to the north pioneered many routes, frosties in hand, and at least one route, Solid Coorage, bears testament to those days, according to Randall Green's Rock Climbing Montana. Americans discovered the spot by 1980, and by 1988 it was home of the Koocanusa Crank climbing festival. The Forest Service, citing usage concerns, shut down the fun in 1993.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

Today, you'll generally find about a dozen weekend craggers at Stone Hill instead of the crowds that once crawled over the rock. The majority of routes are on the east side of the road, not far from the blacktop. If you crave more isolation, there are also climbs up the hill or by the lake. In terms of ratings—the numbered and lettered system that ranks climbs, with the toughest-ever a 5.15b—nothing at Stone Hill gets much crazier than about 5.12.

That means it won't exactly challenge hardcore types, people who climb 1,200-foot Moonlight Buttress in Utah's Zion National Park or Half Dome in California's Yosemite National Park, for example.

There is at least one 5.13, however. Local legend has it that the sole clean ascender—someone who didn't fall or rest en route—was an Italian who bagged it once.

For the rest of us, climbing at Stone Hill is generally a picnic. In fact, I wish I'd have been able to bring a snack up with me on my favorite route, Room With a View.

If there's one thing at Stone Hill worth climbing—repeatedly, in my case—Room With a View is it.

The roadside route on the east side of the highway ascends a towering cliff above the water. I climbed it three times.

The truth is, I would have been content to climb it over and over with longer and longer rests in its natural sitting room, a rock cavern about 7 feet wide and 5 feet high, with unparalleled views of the lake.

The easier of the climb's two routes involves navigating a small roof, or overhang, as you start out. Once you're past that, there's a straightforward stretch of wall before you're standing (or rather, hunching) in the room.

The place is something of a head trip. The view draws you forward; even sitting down with my legs dangling over the edge I experienced a touch of vertigo. I felt like I was a nanosecond from doing a header over the rim. Maybe it's because the view is so incredibly big.

It's when you leave the room and continue upward that the route gets nasty. Since the roof of the cave extends out about four feet past the floor, you have to stand with a toe or two hanging over the edge, lock your fingers somewhere with one hand and lean waaay out to get the next hold with your other hand. From there, you have to swing your feet out over the abyss with little in the way of footholds. Then it's a pull-up until you can place your feet and make one more move to the top, some 60 feet above your belayer on the ground.

"You can do this," I told Randi and Kara when I'd finished my first trip up and down.

"I don't think I need to," Kara replied, before making it look easy. Then Randi gave it a try. Despite her climbing-free summer, she still insisted on leading—clipping the rope through bolts set in the rock rather than relying on the anchor I'd set at the top. The method is less forgiving and the falls are twice the length of the rope between you and the last bolt below you, but the psychological reward is substantial. Professionals won't claim an ascent unless it's done on lead.

Randi was stymied, though. After she managed to struggle over the first roof section, her arms were rubber. Grudgingly, she returned to the ground.

We next moved to a 5.8 route called Roadside Distraction, an edifice created by blasts of dynamite when construction crews built the highway. Stone Hill is full of these road cuts, not something you see at the majority of your local crags. Still angry over Room With a View, Randi insisted on leading. This time, she sent it. Then it was my turn.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

Although I relied on her anchors, limiting my potential fall to a foot or two, I felt uneasy the whole way up. I wasn't sure what rattled me: it wasn't the height or the difficulty. But I think maybe nature's lack of input had something to do with it. Far different from the elegant beauty of Room With a View, the road cut was just that—a climb that never would have existed if explosives hadn't ripped open the rock so cars could get through. In that way, the wall provided little more satisfaction than the plastic in the gym at the University of Montana.

Saturday was almost over. The sun was beginning to set and our muscles were feeling the fatigue, but Randi wanted one more shot at a lead. She picked Right Hook, a 5.9 climb up the face of a buttress with a bigger challenge than Room With a View. A stubbornly determined person, Randi does not like to quit, but the rock wound up winning on this day. After making it most of the way, one roof proved extremely difficult to conquer. She gave it serious hell until she was fuming with frustration.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

"You can do this," I coaxed her. "I've seen you do way harder!" I was thinking of Austin.

"C'mon baby," I yelled.


"I know you got this."

"OKAY!" she yelled. Translation: "Shut your mouth before I come down and put my foot in it." So I did. There was more silence. Lots of silence.

A few tries later, she wedged her foot below the roof, reached, reached some more, slipped, and whipped off the rock.

"Bring me down," she said.

"Are you ...?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

I knew better than to try to change her mind, but I did talk her into climbing Room With a View on top rope.

"That," she said when she returned to the ground, "was amazing."

For our last night we stayed at Peck Gulch campground on Lake Koocanusa's west shore. It's a beautiful spot, perched high above the water on a wooded hillside, and our tents were the only ones there. The five of us feasted again on elk steak, potatoes and marshmallows, and slowly, Shaeli drifted off on Randi's lap.

Eventually, Randi passed Shaeli to me. Her arms, she said, were pleasantly shot from climbing, and she needed a little break to stretch out her hands. She stood up, cracked her knuckles, and rubbed her sore forearms. Then she sat down and took her daughter back, a hold that wasn't difficult at all.

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