There’s a requisite degree of absolute trust that any level of mountaineering demands. Regardless of whether that faith is placed in a critical piece of gear, a climbing partner or a billion-year-old chunk of argillite, your life depends on it.
It was with that implicit trust that a wiry, long-haired climber named Don Scharfe came to occupy the old building at 135 Main Street in downtown Kalispell, which for the past 111 years has been home to just two businesses: Eagle Shoe Store, which moved to the mall in the early 1970s, and Rocky Mountain Outfitter, which has served an essential role in Northwest Montana’s mountaineering community for more than four decades.
Divining the venture back in 1976, the 23-year-old Scharfe — having been invited never to return to the University of Montana after posting a grade-point average in the low-one range, an act of academic defiance that substantially boosted his rock-climbing prowess — cobbled together an anchor, clipped in and leaned back on a spider string; the rig held, and Scharfe has been climbing ever since, furnishing adventure-hungry mountaineers with the highest-quality innovations in all things outdoors gear and dishing out literal life sustenance.
After 42 years, Scharfe decided it was time for someone else to assume a leadership role, and on April 1 he handed the belay rope over to longtime shop manager Jandy Cox, whose first job at Rocky Mountain Outfitter was in 1989. After a brief migration to the climbing mecca of Boulder, Colorado, Cox returned to Scharfe’s tutelage in 1994 as the lead buyer. He’s been managing the store ever since.
During his first year at the shop, Scharfe went on a month-long backpacking trip in Europe, leaving Cox in charge of the store. His instructions to his 19-year-old mentee were simple: “He told me, ‘Just treat the store like you own it.’ That’s what I tell everyone I’ve worked with ever since. It’s one of the reasons that we have almost no turnover.”
Indeed, most employees, like Cox, are as much a part of the institution as the gear and the Glacier National Park murals that inhabit the shop.
“People used to ask me if I was still at RMO, and my response would be, ‘Yeah. That’s what I do,’” Cox said on a recent weekday afternoon, surrounded by mountaineering guide books at the shop’s upstairs reading nook, a bastion of beta that helps customers plan the adventure of their lives. “This has always been the place for me, I think just like it was for Don.”
For Scharfe and his wife, Colleen, who ran the back end of the business while her husband hustled around the shop up front, Rocky Mountain Outfitter has always been an extension of family and home — if you have to be relegated to the indoors, at least it’s animated with friends and familiarity.
To that end, the currency that’s sustained RMO through the years doesn’t fit an orthodox business model.
Some of the longest-lasting business relationships at RMO began with a six-pack of beer in exchange for a new zipper pull rather than a pitch to buy a brand new tent or jacket. Mill around the front counter at RMO for more than a few minutes, and it’s guaranteed that a longtime friend will amble into the shop eager to swap stories of adventure and catch up with the staff.
“We are who we are not because we have this great gear, which we do, but so do a lot of places,” Cox said. “But what makes us unique is the human connectedness and the customer service. That’s special. Our staff is what sets us apart.”
For Cox, the most important relationship of his life was born one May morning in just this manner.
“This is where I met my wife, Denise, right here in this spot,” Cox said, lighting up like an electrical storm. “She came in to buy a one-man tent because she was peeling yew bark in the Swan as a cancer-fighting agent. She was a gymnast and smelled like roses, and then she left. I thought I was never going to see her again.”
Denise’s fitness as a gymnast made her a natural fit for the Flathead Valley’s budding climbing community, whose members — some of them the most prominent climbers to emerge from Montana — learned about the sport’s finer points under Scharfe’s guidance.
At the end of the summer, her seasonal job peeling yew bark over, Denise returned to the Flathead Valley, stopping in RMO for a new pair of climbing shoes.
“I was like, ‘Hey that’s that girl,’” Cox remembers.
Some mutual friends introduced the two as fellow climbers, and the rest is history. The couple has two sons, Gus and Fynn, and the family continues to passionately pursue the sport, embarking on annual trips to iconic climbing trips.
A few years ago, Cox founded the Kalispell Bouldering Project and spearheaded a fundraising effort to build a new bouldering park near downtown Kalispell in Lawrence Park, making the sport accessible to anyone.
The groundswell of community support that carried the project to fruition helped Cox realize that his dream of owning RMO — he and Scharfe had been discussing the transition quietly for a decade — was going to become a reality.
“I felt like people supported me because they knew I was going to make it happen,” Cox said. “They trusted me.”
The trust in Cox from the community is hard-earned and well-deserved, but Cox’s confidence and faith in himself is also unrivaled.
There’s an oft-repeated tale about Cox told that lingers over campfires on the shores of Lake Koocanusa, which girds one of Northwest Montana’s premier climbing spots, Stone Hill, where Cox pioneered dozens of first ascents and established climbing routes used today.
A young Cox entered and won a climbing competition, and in a fit of reverie and intoxicating derring-do, celebrated by performing a perfectly executed swan dive off of the Koocanusa Bridge spanning the reservoir, the longest and highest bridge in Montana with a length of 2,437 feet and a height of 270 feet, depending on water levels.
It’s a great story. As for its verisimilitude, well, you’ll just have to ask Cox. He’ll be at the old building in downtown Kalispell, at 135 Main Street.
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