Recreation

Locally Guided

Based in Whitefish, new chapter of esteemed alpine guiding service offers entry-level rock climbing; hires accomplished local guides

By Tristan Scott
Rock climbing guide Lisa Steiner scales a cliff at Kila Crags west of Kalispell on June 22, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When the brain trust behind Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, the second-oldest guiding service in the nation, overhauled their brand after nearly a half-century to accommodate an expansion into other markets across the West, they did so out of a sense that clients desired to be guided locally.

That is, the non-local client wanted a local guide with a local’s sense of the region, and the J-Hole appellation didn’t pair well with a Moab or a Red Rock or a Beartooth experience, regardless of whether the guide was, indeed, a local.

“Clients in Moab didn’t want to be guided by a Jackson Hole Mountain Guide,” said Kenny Gasch, a longtime guide with the vaunted alpine outfitter who now lives and guides in Whitefish. “Clients in Moab wanted to be guided by a Moab Mountain Guide. So we rebranded.”

Despite earning a sterling reputation as the second-oldest mountain guiding company in the nation, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides diluted its geographical specificity by becoming The Mountain Guides, thereby accommodating the particulars of a growing roster of clientele while helping it scale into other markets, including new locations in Montana.

In addition to offering guided alpine trips up the Treasure State’s highest summit, the 12,800-foot high Granite Peak, The Mountain Guides – Montana has been offering avalanche education courses in the Flathead Valley since 2018, partnering with Great Northern Powder Guides and Blacktail Mountain Ski Area.

So it seemed like a natural progression to Whitefish local Tim Shaw to expand the guiding service’s menu of offerings to include rock climbing, reasoning that even if Northwest Montana doesn’t rank high among climbers on the prowl for a destination climbing trip, the company could capture a more capricious set of climbers on vacation to visit Glacier National Park.

With a background in outdoor education, Shaw has spent his entire career using outdoor experiences such as climbing as a tool for teaching personal growth to special populations, including at-risk youth. Still, like many outdoor educators, he has supplemented his work as a guide and instructor, while teaching courses in Wilderness First Aid and avalanche education.

That’s how he met Gasch, who moved to Whitefish after working as a guide for The Mountain Guides since 2004, helping to establish the company’s Montana chapter in the Beartooths before settling down in the Flathead to retire.

“I’m 67,” Gasch said. “I don’t know how much longer I want to be guiding, but it was such a great idea to establish guided climbs up here I wanted to help out.”

Shaw met Gasch during a Wilderness First Aid course that Gasch was teaching in Whitefish and pitched him his business idea, which Gasch helped run up the flagpole. The Mountain Guides’ owners liked the idea, and set to work securing special-use permits with the Kootenai National Forest in order to guide trips at the Stone Hill Climbing Area along Lake Koocanusa, as well as begin offering trips at Kila Crags, just west of Kalispell. To outfit clients and store gear, he partnered with Whitefish Outfitters and Tours, which operates retail space in downtown Whitefish, at 334 Central Ave.

The only thing left to do was fill a stable of skilled local guides, which, it turns out, wasn’t difficult. The Flathead Valley abounds with experienced mountain athletes and guides who spend the busy season traveling to climbing destinations in Washington and Alaska, as well as internationally, in order to work on climbing and trekking expeditions.

“All of my guides are local, and I am focused on allowing them to pursue their passion here rather than have to leave their friends and families and community in order to do their guiding,” Shaw said, noting that several of his guides are working their way through the upper tier of certifications with the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). 

Among the guides who have committed to part-time work with Shaw are Adam Clark, who has led expeditions on Mount Everest while working for the International Mountain Guides Association; Blaise Reardon, director of the Flathead Avalanche Center; and longtime local climbers Lisa Steiner and Felicia Ennis, as well as Mike Miller, who moved to the Flathead from Colorado Springs.

“These are elite international guides with a ton of experience, who are super excited to be on a path where they can stop leaving the place they call home,” Shaw said. “I want to focus on paying a living wage in the area and create a pool of guides so they can focus on their career here rather than spending a summer or two and then moving on.”

Although the business model is to start small, with guided tours limited to Stone Hill and Kila, as well as Upper Stillwater Canyon up Mount Marston, Shaw said future expansions may include guided backcountry ski trips and climbing trips in the Cabinet Mountains.

Another important concept for Shaw is to integrate into the business an education component, which emphasizes environmental etiquette, outdoor ethics, Indigenous teachings, geology, and conservation.

“This is such a different style of guiding than what I’m used to in Colorado,” Miller said. “Down there it was just burn and turn, but here we’re teaching the principles of leave no trace ethics and why it’s important to respect Native American cultures.”

Shaw and his crew just started accepting reservations in June, and anyone interested in booking a trip, regardless of their experience level, should check out The Mountain Guides – Montana online at themountainguides.com.

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