After Three Decades, Local Climbing Coalition Revives ‘Koocanusa Crank’ Competition

A pre-registration party on Sept. 8 at Rocky Mountain Outfitter will showcase the history of the contest at Stone Hill climbing area and the raft of prizes available to participants

By Tristan Scott
A climber's fingers crimp rock at Stone Hill Climbing Area along Lake Koocanusa. Beacon file photo

For the past 30 years, the legacy of the Koocanusa Krank rock-climbing competition has lived on through local lore, with stories swapped in between belays or over beers at the local crag.

Anyone well-versed in northwest Montana’s climbing history has no doubt heard the colorful tales of the Koocanusa Krank, an outdoor contest that debuted in 1988 at the Stone Hill Climbing Area near Rexford and, during its brief lifespan, drew a coterie of climbers who sent big routes on the quartzite cliffs spanning Lake Koocanusa. In exchange for their bravado, participants earned bragging rights as well as the opportunity to have their names etched indelibly in the region’s rich climbing history.

At some point in the early ’90s, however, the event was discontinued and, even as the tales grew taller, the vintage vertical contest was never resurrected.

Until now.

On Sept. 23, climbers of all abilities will have the opportunity to experience the vintage vertical contest firsthand and become, as they say, legend.

“It’s really just an opportunity to get a bunch of climbers together, have as much fun as possible and win tons of excellent prizes,” says Jandy Cox, the affable owner of Rocky Mountain Outfitter, whose under-graded assessment of the event belies its significance to his own Montana origin story.

In the late ’80s, Cox and his Volkswagen van embarked on a cross-country climbing trek and while road-tripping to the Bugaboos in British Columbia encountered some dirtbag climbers hitchhiking along Highway 93 near Eureka. In exchange for Cox’s roadside assistance, the climbers invited him to attend the Koocanusa Krank, which he subsequently won. He also met his future boss, Don Scharfe, and then his future wife, who was a customer at the iconic outdoor retail shop in downtown Kalispell.

So, when Cox learned that the Northwest Montana Climbers Coalition was reviving the Krank to highlight their mission of stewardship and safety, as well as to galvanize a growing climbing community and showcase the addition of 130 new routes to the crag at Stone Hill, he decided to pitch in and throw a pre-registration party, which takes place Sept. 8 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

For Joel Handley, a founding member of the Northwest Montana Climbers Coalition (NWMCC), the return of the Koocanusa Krank represents a revival as well as a last hoorah.

“The Northwest Montana Climbers Coalition has always had the mission of replacing hardware, improving anchors, building new trails, and just being good stewards of our local climbing areas,” Handley said. “But from the very start we have had members talking about the Koocanusa Crank and how cool it was. Well, I’m getting ready to move to Ohio and I decided that if this is going to be my final go-round, I’m going to bring back the Krank.”

Participants who register prior to Sept. 10 will be guaranteed a vintage-looking T-shirt. Courtesy photo

With support from the American Alpine Club, the Access Fund and the Kootenai National Forest, the Stone Hill Climbing Area is more accessible than ever, and the recent installation of new signage will help newcomers and veterans alike orient themselves around the more than 600 routes. There’s also a new miniature guide available online that was compiled by local climber Jason Mills with updated beta on more than 130 routes.

Kim Givler, vice president of the NWMCC’s board, emphasized that the Koocanusa Krank is open to climbers of all abilities, and will provide a prime opportunity for newcomers to the sport to get acquainted with the region’s premier climbing area.

“This is taking the place of our annual fundraiser, so it’s less about the spirit of competition and more about helping us provide safe climbing to the local community,” she said. “We have accomplished some big re-bolting and re-anchoring projects that are ongoing and supported by grants, and in the stewardship vein we did a big trails project at Stone Hill that went on for about three years. We’ve got a lot of new development and we’re excited to show it off.”

Participants who register before Sept. 10 will be guaranteed a competition T-shirt.

For more details about the Koocanusa Krank, the pre-registration party and how to register, visit http://koocanusakrank2023.square.site/

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