The Bouldering Boom of Western Montana

By Zeno Wicks

The Bitterroot Mountains on the border of Montana and Idaho have been a longtime secret of western climbers.

Since 1970, hundreds of long climbing routes have been set in Kootenai Canyon, Blodgett Canyon, and several other canyons cutting through the range.

As both the sport and the climbing areas have grown, hundreds of amateur climbers come not just for its long routes, but also to clamber atop the boulders there.

For some, it is a growing business. For others, it is the end of an era.

Sam Vesey scales a boulder, photo taken by Eric Wall.
Sam Vesey scales a boulder, photo taken by Eric Wall.

“I’m not psyched about people tramping around my hood but what can you do,” wrote Levi Parchen, a local boulder route setter, on his blog. “Paradise doesn’t last forever. Please be respectful of the nature out there.”

Bouldering does not require a harness or a rope. Pads are used to cushion falls. Strength is key to complete powerful moves over short distances.

Climbers like Parchen and his friend, Dean Towarnicki, have secretly set more than 300 routes on boulders all over Lolo Canyon. They have pulled loose rocks and scraped off lichen in areas such as Elk Rock, the Heap, and Crystal Theater. For every new route they set, they keep a note in their personal journals with a difficulty rating and a description of the location. Other climbers who know of these routes have heard by word-of-mouth.

“They’ve always kept to themselves about the routes,” said Michael Moore, a local route setter and journalist. “But I think they have recently had a change of heart.”

The number of routes Parchen and Towarnicki have set in Lolo rivals that of Western Montana’s most popular bouldering area, Lost Horse. Home of the Lost Horse Climbing Festival for five years, bouldering at Lost Horse has attracted westerners of all ages. Lost Horse received a publicity boost through Joe Josephson’s book “Lost Horse Canyon: A Climber’s Guide to Montana’s Best Cragging and Bouldering,” Moore said.
The 2011 opening of Freestone Climbing Gym in Missoula further stimulated bouldering’s popularity. Owner Walter Hailes said he has seen more than 500 people join or buy a membership.

Moore believes bouldering wouldn’t be as popular in Western Montana without Freestone or the University of Montana rock wall.