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History of Bitterroot rock climbing provides insight

By Rick Torre, Philipsburg

I have followed accounts of climbing activity at the north rim of Mill Creek. After  discussing recent editorials with Mill Creek’s Pro Wall first ascent climbers, I think it necessary to provide some insight through history.

Bitterroot rock often lacks cracks and bolts are often necessary. Climbers also often leave fixed pitons to avoid damage to cracks from repeated placement. In the 1980’s bolt protection was more accepted to realize vast face climbing opportunities. Clean climbers were already conditioned to long runouts, and hand drilling took 20 minutes for a 3/8 inch bolt.

Face climbs were established on Parking Lot wall in Blodgett, then Mill Creek’s Pro and Gray walls. Ethics were similar, examples are: Neutered Rooster with 14 bolts in 170 feet (20 to 25 foot falls) and Leisure Suit, with the most bolts on Parking Lot at 13 bolts and pitons in 165 feet. By contrast, North Rim climbers have 10 bolts in 70 or 80 feet. They are not even similar to other routes in Mill Creek or anywhere else on the Bitterroot National Forest.

Also, 800 foot wide Parking Lot wall has but 17 lines. When I took Herb Spradlin there in the 90’s bolt wars he could not see a single anchor or station and noted the trail’s excellent condition and lack of slacklines.

There are other important differences, most from intent. Previously climbers goal was to explore new routes. From the very start North Rim climbers stated they wished to create an area with safe moderate climbs, something lacking in the Missoula area. The area was “transformed into  playground for adventure seeking highliners and rock jocks”.

When I discussed this noted absence of such an area I asked Matt Frank, “did they ever wonder why”.

Local sport climbing areas are all on private property. Kootenai Canyon had a 5 yard slide at a climbing trail in the last year. The Heap was developed for beginning climbers and immediately suffered from overuse, particularly permitted groups. Recently on a trip to Rattler Gulch we were stopped by a large rock rolling onto the road. Looking up was a scene that could only be appreciated by someone familiar with Bivy’s Wall: a dozen pastel helmeted kids obliterating the trail by glissading the talus. Don’t get me wrong, I raised four climbers. But that leader lacked local knowledge (the area was unsuitable and had no climbs) or the environmental ethics the kids needed, like the North Rim developers.

Climbers have policed their own. A bolt route on Flathead Spire was removed in the 90’s to discourage that type of climbing in Blodgett. In Kootenai bolts were removed on two routes over pictographs, an d a Wilderness  route, otherwise consistant with, was removed because a motorized drill was used. These were not personal attacks; they were begrudgingly done to keep climbing unregulated. Now the Forest Service is involved.

In the 90’s, after telling climbers they would need an EA to enhance access to the Lost Horse area, the Forest Service opened a gravel quarry at its base. Dave Campbell dismissed impacts to climbing with, “we just don’t see the use”. Thanks to North Rim their vision is improved.

The Bitterroot has no quantifiable data on climbing. Any management decision is therefore open to immediate challenge. Climbing organizations do not represent all climbers and do not themselves have objective data on history or practices. When I wrote the first climbing guide it included a questionnaire and a user profile.

The popularity of Mill’s North Rim shows the demand for this type of resource. But should it be on a National Forest? If so, should it not be in an area free of environmental damage and known social conflicts? Even then should it disregard past efforts to maintain the environment and climbing’s freedom?

Rick Torre has been a Bitterroot climber since 1976, published a Guidebook in 1985, and is currently a Recreation Resource Manager student at U of M.


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