RockFish Grabs Hold in Whitefish

New climbing and fitness gym prepares to open in Whitefish Mountain Mall

By Tristan Scott
Matt Pitts welds the frame of a boulder at RockFish Climbing and Fitness in the Mountain Mall in Whitefish on July 7, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Flathead Valley climbers eager to access more terrain in the area will find that and more when a new indoor bouldering gym opens in Whitefish Mountain Mall later this month.

Meanwhile, non-climbers pumping iron in the adjacent fitness center may feel inclined to set down the barbells and try maneuvering up and across the artificial rock faces spanning the new facility.

“A lot of people don’t realize they like climbing until they try it, and this will offer a safe, accessible introduction to the sport,” said Darren Stone, a partner in the business. “So it will turn a lot of people on to climbing, but also offer seasoned climbers a place to train and hang out with the climbing community.”

Stone is part of a trio of climbers preparing to open RockFish, the new bouldering gym in Whitefish, a project they’ve been pursuing for more than a decade based on a simple philosophy — serious climbers need a place to train, families with children need a healthy activity to pursue and the Flathead Valley needs a hub for its climbing community to gather.

Stone, along with Shaun Olcott, a Whitefish local, knew the opportunity was ripe when Belinda Kreitman asked if Next Level Fitness in Whitefish Mountain Mall could accommodate a bouldering facility.

Kreitman had worked at the 24-hour fitness center for 16 years, but when she purchased the business in February she decided a transformation was in order.

As the aunt of Shaun Olcott and his brother, Jason, who is leading construction of the RockFish facility, she knew just who to ask.

“I asked Jason and Shaun if they thought it would work, and they said, ‘If you built it, they will come,’” Kreitman said. “It’s definitely a family endeavor.”

“Belinda was the catalyst behind all of this coming together so quickly,” Stone said, while Jason’s experience building three facilities for The Circuit Bouldering Gym in Portland, Oregon, provided the expertise to apply a similar model to Whitefish.

Stone and the Olcott brothers moved to Whitefish as teenagers and began climbing at Stone Hill along Lake Koocanusa in high school, just as the nascent climbing community was pioneering new routes and pushing the sport in the region.

At the center of the scene was Kenny Kasselder, a dynamic athlete and the cohesive bond of some of the area’s earliest and strongest climbers.

“Kenny got us all into climbing,” Stone said. “His passion for it was second to none, and what’s happening here certainly stemmed from his early enthusiasm for climbing and his influence.”

Kasselder died in 2004 after falling from a climb into a crevasse on Oregon’s Mount Hood, a tragedy that rocked his family, the local community and his climbing friends — Shaun Olcott, Kasselder’s climbing partner on Mount Hood, was also injured in the fall. But Kasselder’s legacy continues to ripple through Whitefish today, personified by the new RockFish Climbing and Fitness center, as well as a growing climbing community that has never been so robust.

In May, an outdoor bouldering park opened in Kalispell’s Lawrence Park, thanks in large part to the fundraising efforts of Jandy Cox, also an early member of “Team Fish,” as the Whitefish climbers called their band of rock climbers.

A recently published guidebook will shine light on the obscure-to-some climbing area Point of Rocks, while RockFish’s opening — scheduled at the end of July — will provide an indoor facility for climbers and non-climbers to congregate.

“The climbing community is really taking off right now and congealing in a lot of ways, so the timing is perfect,” Stone said.

A twist on traditional roped climbing, bouldering has climbers maneuvering across the base of a rock face rather than straight up it, and the new gym won’t feature any roped climbs.

At 12,400 square feet, the climbing gym at the center of Whitefish Mountain Mall will exist in concert with the existing 24-hour fitness center, and the combined gyms will be called RockFish Climbing and Fitness.

The 3,000 square feet of climbing surface includes walls up to 14 feet high, as well as a prow, an overhanging cave, slabs, and a kids’ boulder with a slide.

Members won’t need to bring crash pads thanks to the nine inches of padding on the floor, while the fitness gym features free weights, machines and cardio equipment in a separate space at the back of the facility.

Membership will provide access to both areas.

The full-feature walls are skinned with wood and equipped with climbing holds, offering everything from vertical routes to steep compression angles.

Routes will be reset every two-to-three months by professional route-setters to ensure the climbing does not grow stale.

Climbing competitions, a sponsored climbing team, kids’ programs, summer camps, and the opportunity for birthday parties and events are all part of the plan for the facility.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.