KILA – Rock climbers tend to be enormous boosters for their hometown crags, arguing doggedly of its merits over cliffs in other areas. The Kila crags, however, invoke a different – almost sheepish – description from the small but loyal numbers who spend weekends and evenings scaling its walls.
Jandy Cox, an employee at Rocky Mountain Outfitter in Kalispell and climbing instructor at Flathead Valley Community College, calls the Kila crags “a scrappy little place.” Cox also wrote the introduction to the slim Kila crags guidebook, where he describes the area as, “chossy, and it’s dirty but it’s rock and at least it’s close.”
Most climbers at the Kila crags echoed Cox’s sentiments. While the Kila crags are by no means world class climbing, they say, it’s an ideal place to spend a day or evening edging and crimping your way to the top.
The small cliff bands, located above the old Kalispell-Marion railroad grade running parallel to U.S. Highway 2 West in Kila, reach as high as 125 feet in some places. The crag is composed of soft, sedimentary stone, making it poor terrain for technical climbing. Because the rock crumbles in some places, “trad” or traditional lead climbing – where the climber places protection in cracks that the secondary climber removes as the team advances up the wall – is impossible.
In the 1990s climbers, including Cox, established “sport” routes on the cliffs by bolting into the rock’s solid sections steel rings that a climber with carabiners and slings can simply clip the rope through during an ascent. As the established climbs have received more traffic over the ensuing years, the routes have gradually cleared of loose rock and become quite clean. As the number of people frequenting the area has increased, so too has the impact. Cox said climbers routinely pick up all the litter they find, and have organized clean-up days to maintain the Kila crags.
For beginners and those who lack the mettle for lead climbing, trails lead to chain anchors at the tops of the cliffs to set up “topropes” – where the rope extends above the climber to an anchor before it descends down to the belayer, who takes in the slack as the climber ascends.
And therein lies the beauty of the Kila crags: While top climbers might sniff at bolted climbs and sub par rock, beginning and intermediate climbers will find an abundance of fun, mellow routes upon which to hone their skills.
On a warm evening last week, Miranda Clairmonte, her father Paul Strahl and friend Tracey Sudan spent a few hours climbing in the shade afforded by the south-facing cliff on a section called “Psychology Wall.” Clairmonte, 24, has been climbing for four years and prefers the Stone Hill climbing area, west of Eureka.
“This doesn’t really compare,” she said of the Kila crags, “but this is the closest place besides that to really come to.”
Sudan, 23, has only been climbing for three weeks, and Clairmonte teases her about her previous excuses to avoid climbing: “She’d always get her nails done and say she couldn’t climb and I finally talked her into it and she was hooked.”
After tackling an easier climb, Clairmonte starts up a route called “Vertically Challenged” as her father belays. The most difficult move, or “crux” of the climb, is about 15 feet off the ground, and Clairmonte becomes momentarily stumped upon reaching it. She hangs for a moment, and exhales loudly.
“Are you going to try scooting over there?” Strahl asks her, pointing to a foothold on the left.
“No, I have a plan.”
“I’m going to shut up.”
“I need to get my right foot here, but I don’t know where all my handholds are.”
Then, clinging to the rock, Clairmonte gently works her right foot up until she eases her toe onto a hold level with her hip, her knee up near her shoulder. With her right foot high, she pulls down with her left hand and reaches up with her right hand for a high hold. The crux solved, she climbs smoothly to the top.
Her father watches her with admiration.
“Ahh, to be young again,” he says.