48 Degrees North

The Last Best Boulderers

In 2023, Gus Cox climbed to the top of Montana’s competitive youth bouldering circuit with a perfect score in the Last Best Bouldering Series. He did it with a little help from his friends and family.

By Tristan Scott
Gus Cox at Rockfish Climbing Gym in Whitefish. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Standing on a crash pad in the middle of RockFish Climbing Gym, Gus Cox surveys the 14-foot-high overhanging wall looming above him with intense focus, not to puzzle out his own bouldering problem but to monitor a teammate’s progress.

“Yeah Pita!” he shouts as Guadalupe Chentnik, aka “Pita,” explodes off the wall in a “dyno” — a term that’s short for “dynamic,” and which climbers use to describe a leaping move from one hold to the next — and sticks the sequence. 

As members of RockFish’s Team Scalers, the teenagers are at the vanguard of a budding generation of young climbers in northwest Montana who have benefited from the seeds planted by their predecessors. Those seeds are now growing like climbing vines across the region, sparking a rock-climbing renaissance in a region defined by its scrappy local crags. 

Some of that momentum can be traced back to 2016, when an outdoor bouldering park opened in Kalispell’s Lawrence Park, thanks in large part to the fundraising efforts of Jandy Cox, who owns Rocky Mountain Outfitter and is also Gus’s father.

As a pioneering member of “Team Fish,” as Whitefish climbers called themselves decades ago, Jandy cut the ribbon on the outdoor bouldering park in Kalispell just months before several other longtime local climbers, including Darren Stone, opened RockFish in the Whitefish Mountain Mall, christening the mountain town’s premier indoor climbing facility.

Guadalupe Chentnik at Rockfish Climbing Gym and Fitness. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“My dad introduced me to the sport when I was really little,” Gus recalled. “We took our family vacations to City of Rocks (in Idaho) and he’d be top-roping with me attached to him. It was pretty hilarious. So, I was exposed to climbing my whole life, but two years ago is when I started taking it seriously. That’s when I started going to the gym every day and pushing myself to climb harder.”

“My dad says I learned to climb before I could walk, and I started walking at 14 months,” says Kenny Stone, Darren’s son and a competitive youth climber on Team Scalers. “But it wasn’t until he opened the gym that I really started seeing my climbing improve. All of a sudden I could just walk home after school and climb.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Flathead Valley’s burgeoning crop of rock monkeys are descendants of climbers. Even so, several members of Team Scalers are showing that they’re not just the top crushers at their local gym.

Last year, Gus Cox took the competitive Montana climbing scene by storm when he ascended the ranks to become the best youth boulderer in the state, winning the Last Best Bouldering Series Championship by notching perfect scores at “comps” in Great Falls, Bozeman, Missoula, and Helena, while also winning the final event in Billings (at that point, he’d already accumulated a perfect 400-point score and didn’t need the win). Cox was in solid company, as two other youth climbers on Team Scalers, Emmet Donaldson and Ginger Bergland, also won their respective age categories at the finals.

Climbing coaches Cody Moore and Forest Harmon are quick to brush off any credit for the team’s success, instead heaping praise on the climbers’ talents and their sense of team spirit, as well as on Ryan Nelson, head coach and founder of Team Scalers.

Ronan Armstrong climbs at Rockfish Climbing Gym and Fitness. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“This is Ryan’s baby, and he’s really helped nurture the youth climbing community in the Flathead,” Moore said during a recent Monday evening climbing session.

Although Cox isn’t competing with the team, he still attends practice three nights a week, both to sharpen his skills and support his teammates.

“I just want to enjoy myself and climb as hard as I can,” Cox said.