On belay 

New nonprofit gives voice to growing climbing community

About four years back, several avid Missoula rock climbers began putting up new routes on a cliff face up Mill Creek northwest of Hamilton. These weren’t the technical, difficult, hair-raising climbs one might expect from a crew with decades of experience. Rather, the routes were the type of moderate ascents that were relatively rare in the area at the time. It was a conscious decision on their part, a way to provide newcomers to the sport a bridge between indoor walls and real rock. And so far, the effort is paying off.

“I was out at Mill Creek last Monday, and two women were out there all day,” says Dane Scott, one of the climbers who helped establish the routes. “They explicitly said they were there to learn how to lead. So there were climbs there where they could actually do that. That really didn’t exist a few years ago.”

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  • Ken Turley
  • Climber Natalie Dawson scales a section of Mill Creek known as the Tick Traverse. Mill Creek has become a transition ground for climbers new to the sport, serving one of several missions set down by the new nonprofit Western Montana Climbers Coalition.

Scott notes anecdotally that climbing activity at Mill Creek has skyrocketed; he and fellow Missoula climber Michael Moore recall seeing upwards of 40 climbers in the area one day, many of them queuing up at specific routes. That near-immediate escalation in use—coupled with the sport’s increasing popularity in western Montana and nationwide—prompted another forward-thinking decision by Scott, Moore and a clutch of dedicated climbers. Last month, they officially launched the nonprofit Western Montana Climbers Coalition, a group aimed in part at tackling any issues the climbing community might face as it continues to grow.

“We just started thinking, we don’t really have an organization here anymore, and there are a lot more people climbing now than there were when we were climbing 20, 30 years ago,” Moore says. “We started thinking, at some point you could wind up … in discussions with [land managers] about what’s going on. We felt it would be better to have an orchestrated voice.”

The last such entity active in the area—the Bitterroot Climbers Coalition—went dormant around 2011. That group had initially coalesced around user conflicts related to a gravel quarry adjacent to a popular climbing spot in Lost Horse Canyon. Discussions with the Bitterroot National Forest eventually led to better parking, a pit toilet and signage indicating the presence of rock climbers.

WMCC is already working with the U.S. Forest Service to address concerns stemming from Mill Creek’s popularity. Stevensville District Ranger Dan Ritter says the agency has discussed putting in a new trail to access the Mill Creek cliffs this summer, shifting climbers to a different trailhead and possibly mitigating issues with increased traffic through the nearby community of Pinesdale. That plan is still going through the environmental review phase, Ritter adds, but the presence of WMCC makes it much easier to move through the process.

“It’s a tremendous asset to have an organized group like this to work with,” Ritter says. “Especially with climbing, because while it’s not a new sport, it’s definitely getting more popular.”

A unified voice for the climbing community is particularly critical given some of the questions Ritter has fielded in the past year. Locals have expressed concerns about the impacts of climbing on species like peregrine falcons, and a few have even asked if the sport is a permitted activity on national forest land. It is, Ritter says. But that hasn’t stopped some from taking drastic action. Last year, an unknown vandal took to smashing climbing bolts in Mill Creek. Moore noted on WMCC’s Facebook page last month that the activity had resumed, including blockage of the trail leading up to the routes. Ritter says that’s part of the conflict that his agency hopes to solve with new trails.

Establishing a partnership with the Forest Service was one of the primary goals in founding WMCC, which now has a governing board of roughly 15 members. But Moore and Scott see a broader mission for the group as well. That’s why, before WMCC was even fully off the ground, the duo approached the climbing nonprofit Defying Gravity with the prospect of merging. Defying Gravity came together nearly two years ago largely to promote and support the youth climbing team at Missoula’s Freestone Climbing Center. Vicki Balfour, one of Defying Gravity’s four founding members, says the group always hoped to become a bigger nonprofit. A merger with WMCC seemed mutually beneficial.

“When Vicki and I first sat down about it, to me it just struck me as like the best of all possible moves,” Moore says. “We’re taking the people who are newest to the sport and are being trained pretty much exclusively in an indoor environment and we’re creating that avenue for them to make the transition to the outdoors.”

The group also intends to sponsor a few events each year; Balfour says there’s big interest in bringing back the Lost Horse Climbing Festival, a now-defunct event that brought individuals from numerous different climbing pursuits together for a weekend of competition.

WMCC even found a ready home at Freestone, a place Moore, Scott and Balfour all feel has propelled the sport and built a more diverse, centralized and welcoming climbing community. Gyms like Freestone “are changing climbing,” Scott says. Older, more experienced climbers are now mentoring newcomers, helping them make the move from indoor climbing to areas like Mill Creek. WMCC is looking to build on the community Freestone has fostered for nearly three years.

“We’re trying to breed a culture of responsibility and stewardship and safety that will post-date us,” Moore says.

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