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Climbing competition at Stone Hill makes a comeback

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | September 13, 2023 12:00 AM

In rock climbing lingo, to crank is to pull on a climbing hold as hard as possible. This month, climbers from all over the northwest are getting pumped for the return of the Koocanusa Krank, a climbing competition at Stone Hill in Rexford.

It’s been 30 years since the last Koocanusa Krank was held and on Sept. 23, it makes an epic return to the quartzite routes at Stone Hill. The Northwest Montana Climbers Coalition in association with the Access Fund, The American Alpine Club and the Kootenai National Forest, will host the first revival.

The event is this year’s annual fundraiser for the Climbers Coalition, but the primary goal of the day is fun.

“We’re just trying to get the climbers together and throw this event that hasn’t been put on for 30 years… and make it a yearly event,” said Climbers Coalition president Jake Frerk. “If we do make money, it’ll go toward the things we’ve been doing at Stone Hill – trail projects and bolting projects. If we break even, we’re going to be psyched.”

Participants are encouraged to attend a meeting on Saturday at 8 a.m. at The Gathering Place Coffee Shop in Eureka to register, pay the $30 fee and sign a liability waiver. People arriving later to the crags will be able to do the paperwork at Hold Up Bluffs but will need to bring cash.

Climbers of all ages and abilities are welcome at the event and encouraged to register and enjoy a fun day at the crags. There will be divisions for young and old, men and women, and the way the competition is organized, everyone can earn points by going from the bottom of a route to the top without falling.

“We will have top ropes on the roadside at Hold Up Bluffs,” Frerk said. “The real difference in this competition is that you can score points on every climb at Stone Hill. You and a partner could team up and go explore new crags or strategize.”

Each one of the over 600 routes at Stone Hill is open for the event which is a quantity competition, wherein harder climbs are worth more points. Participants can only get points on each route once and scoring will be done on the honor system.

It is best to bring a partner but there will be some volunteer belayers on site.

“Obviously you can’t just grab one of these volunteers and spend your whole day with them, getting belays, but they’re going to take turns and give anybody a catch who needs one,” said Joel Handley, founding member of the Climbers Coalition and principal organizer of the event. “We’ll also have ropes set up for people who don’t necessarily know how to lead. So we’re going to try to make it as accessible for everybody as possible.”

Everyone is welcome to the afterparty at Camp 32, a nearby Forest Service campground that has been reserved for the event. There will be music, games, food and drink.

“We should have a good night of fun there, along with a raffle and awards ceremony,” Frerk said. “We are encouraging folks to camp at the Camp 32 because we have that whole site there, so bring tents, spend the night and climb the following day.”

ROCKY MOUNTAIN Outfitters in Kalispell is sponsoring the event and has supplied prizes, including ropes, helmets, tents, chairs and hardware for competitors, belayers, and even spectators.

The owner of RMO, Jandy Cox, has fond memories of the early days of the competition. In 1989, he was driving through the area while on a road trip and came upon the Koocanusa Krank.

“I participated in it and, in some ways, it was one of the reasons I ended up moving here,” Cox said. “It was a very fun sense of the climbing community. It was a great group of people and they were having a really good time.

“It was a pretty grassroots group of friends that called themselves Team Fish and there were climbing festivals going on in other parts of the country,” Cox added. “And the Koocanusa Krank started, probably with about 15-20 people and it grew exponentially.”

There were nearly 200 people in attendance at the final year of the Krank, which was likely 1993. In the early events, the goal was to climb the ten hardest routes possible at Stone Hill.

“At that time, it wasn’t a permitted event, it wasn’t an insured event,” Cox said. “It happened organically.”

IT IS NO LONGER 1993 and events like the Krank now have certain requirements. Frerk said the American Alpine Club, who is covering the insurance costs for the event, and the Access Fund have been great partners. Handley obtained needed permits from the Forest Service and said they have been very helpful and are excited about the event.

While the Climbers Coalition had been thinking about reviving the Koocanusa Krank for years, they had been too busy with other projects. This January, they decided it was time. This year’s Krank could be considered Handley’s going-away gift to area climbers, before he moves to Ohio.

“I thought, the last thing I want to do is try to get the Krank going again,” Handley said. “So I decided to focus on that, primarily.”

Frerk said Handley is one of the stronger climbers in the valley and he’s going to be missed. After helping to start the Climbers Coalition six years ago and serving on the board, Handley is moving to Cincinnati for a new job, to be closer to family and for world-class climbing.

“I don't want to move from the Flathead Valley, but I'm not terribly sad about having to go climb at the Red River Gorge [in Kentucky],” Handley said.

Handley is a medical physicist who has worked in the radiation oncology department in Kalispell for the last eight years. He said his job entails quality assurance and new technology implementation.

“We treat cancer patients with high energy radiation and so as a physicist, we’re kind of the behind the scenes people, making sure everything is running properly, that the radiation is getting where it's supposed to go and we’re not giving them too much or too little,” he said.

Outside of work, Handley’s main focus has always been climbing, having grown up in Louisville, Kentucky. Upon moving to the Flathead, he sought out the climbing community and found that while there were many climbers, they were not working on improvements or climbing together very often.

He offered climbers a way to unite and fix some of the issues they were all having at the crags including shoddy trails and sketchy bolts and anchors throughout the crags.

“Why don't we just start a climbing coalition, raise some money so that we can get all this stuff done and get some manpower and build trails and replace the hardware and try to build a community while we’re at it?” Handley said.

Since then, the Climbers Coalition has replaced bolts, improved trails to the main crags and, most recently, installed signs that direct climbers to routes around Stone Hill. The signage was made possible by a grant from the American Alpine Club.

“There are so many open routes and they used to be hard to find, but now they should be pretty simple,” Handley said.

In addition to improving conditions at the crags, another aim of the Climbers Coalition is to build the climbing community.

“We’ve been trying to community build since we started, to get more people out and actively enjoying the sport,” Handley said. “There’s a ton of climbers here. We just need to get together and meet each other so we have access to these places.”

While Handley admits he has no idea what to expect as far as numbers during the Krank, he says whether there are 20 people or 100, it will be super fun. He predicts the event will grow by word of mouth, making each year’s competition a great time.

“We really just want people to know that it’s designed to be as accessible as possible for anybody, from a beginner to an expert,” Handley said. “If people are wanting to learn to climb or just wanting to have fun, we would appreciate the support. We’ll try to make sure everyone gets on the wall and everybody learns something and has a good time.”

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New signs await installation at Stone Hill climbing area. (Photo provided)

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One of the new signs NWMTCC recently installed at Stone Hill with a grant from the American Alpine Club. (Photo provided)