BlackLeaf Climbing



Being knocked down by the wind inspires no confidence.  Staggering to your feet like a punch drunk fighter you then have to move, maybe.  This generally consists of short, drunk karate steps, doing the blind man crawl or bending into the gale and plodding with sled dog force.

            This is what greeted me when I first pulled into the parking area at Blackleaf.  Upon opening the car door, the handle was ripped from my hands and I was left with a tempest of lost tissue paper and forgotten beer cans.

         Once I righted myself, shut the door behind me and grasped a weary but stout tree, then I was able to take in the view that made me forget all else. After a short but vigorous crawl I was happily climbing like a lost kite at the cliffs base.

            Blackleaf canyon rises out of the high plains like a mighty citadel gaurding the nearly impenetrable Rocky Mountain Front in northern Montana.  This Valley, that leads into the Bob Marshal wilderness just south of Glacier Park acts like a trough for every bit of breeze with in a hundred miles.  Finally, when it reaches Blackleaf and catches sight of the broad plains the gusts seem to sprint for freedom. 

           If you do venture here and make your way past the small cow town of Choteau Montana and continue up highway 287 to JD’s Wildlife Sanctuary (the local beer joint) after turning onto a long gravel road you will soon catch site of many towering buttresses. As you continue to thread your way around pot-holes and wandering Blue Grouse you will watch those rocks grow larger and larger until you are parked in the shadow of a hulking beast. Crane your neck and take in the expance of her grey flanks. With your finger trace a line down a black water streak, notice that brown shield speckled with red and the roofs that loom like hunchbacked gargoyles. Blackleaf beckons.




You’ll soon find out that the wind blows almost constantly here but when you feel the texture of uncommonly smearable limestone and see the fist sized chert the deafening wind will sound like sweet nothings from another time.  Blackleaf is exceptionably climbable.  The first few hundred feet generally consist of bullet proof and gritty grey limestone accentuated by rusty red and black chert.  This chert resulted millions of years ago when sea corals and sponges died, their death results in your pleasure, don’t get too sad as you pull on a perfectly preserved seashells or other fossils, remember life is a circle someday you might be a hold.

  The chert ranges in size from Moms school lunch sandwiches, to garden variety sub’s, and even to footlongs and beyond.  On the upper pitches the chert usually thins out a bit and is replaced by drip pockets, super textured slopers and the occasional pinch.  But always, just when you need it the most, chert will magically appear.


            Adventurous climbers have been tackling the loose chimneys and gravelly gullies of the area for decades.  But the first time I heard anything about the place was in 1998 when a friend told me I had to check out Blackleaf.  He claimed that routes could be bolted with no cleaning and were ripe for the taking however he was somewhat creative with his description of a climbing nirvana and only casually mentioned the wind.            

            I had been bolting roadside routes with a twenty dollar craftsmen drill and a borrowed generator for a few years and thought the time had come to lose the extension cord and try batteries.  Blackleaf was the perfect place to try out my new toy.

           On our first trip I woke with puke tainted breath in the early, early morning. I had spent the night freaking out, fighting gigantic waves of panic and generally melting down in the back of my truck. I was there with the “The Old Man” who, par for the course, was eager to check out the high-angle face climbing potential of Blackleaf.  This self-imposed moniker describes arguably the most prolific rock climber and route developer to ever call Helena, Montana home and who, like most Montanians, aside from the “first ascent list” prefers to remain anonymous. So being there to put up routes with the community climbing hero/father and professor was more than my nerves could take and I felt like my stomach was doing the jitterbug with my spleen.  “Alpine start” was the old man’s motto as I rubbed my eyes and tried to figure out where I was and why I stared in disbelief as he limped around the camp with manic urgency.  “How can this old fart have so much energy”  I wondered and I was soon to find out that his tank seldom was empty.  Although being the proud owner of an artificial hip and being twenty years my senior, the old grump always led the way on those first journeys. I tried to keep up as best I could but generally felt like a pimply faced kid in the principles office.

               Hiking up the backside and rappelling in from the top hoping you were near the line that you visualized and then finally putting the six pitches together like a gigantic puzzle both scared and intrigued me.  But soon we had our first line to the top.  Six pitches of bullet proof and varied climbing, a fun and proud line.  But like all good things a price had to be paid and before it was over the old man and I would lose a dear friend.




This is how it went down.  The old man recruited at least three of us for that first climb.  So no one was surprised when he asked an old friend Sarge to help him bang in a few pitches.

            Sarge is an ice climber, a carpenter, and an ex-marine so he had plenty of grit for the job.  He often speaks with machine gun force and lobs fifty caliber expletives at will.  Sarge is a tough dude but he does have a soft spot, his dogs.  So it was that two men and two dogs started up the steep scree slopes at sunrise, working up the cliffs shoulder with packs laden with ropes, bolts, hangers, and my brand new drill.

            The top of Blackleaf is a series of tree filled ledges linked by dirt gullies and steep wooded terrain.  It was on one of these ledges that they began to set up there first rappel.  One can imagine the scene, dogs sniffing at the cliffs edge, climbers sorting gear and ropes.  Then the unthinkable happened, Chola, a particular frisky and unfettered mongrel, ventured dangerously close to the edge of the void.  Sarge reached out to the suicidal mutt and in so doing dropped the rope.  The old man reached for the rope and bumped the pack that contained my love, my soul mate, my drill.    

            Some feel that a tool is a lifeless, inanimate object, void of moods or personality.  But this drill had charisma, it hammered away with such enthusiasm and was so sexy in its rubber suited, German kind of way that sometimes at night I’d put it on the couch next to me as I watched TV.  Just seeing it shiny and new made me happier. 

            But the drill is no more.  Whether it jumped or was pushed is still under investigation but allegedly, out of the corner of his eye, the old man saw his pack slip off  the precarious ledge and plummet six hundred feet to the cold hard talus.  Later, when its body was recovered, the only piece bigger than a few inches was the bit.

            The old man frowned, Sarge swore, the dogs licked themselves and all four headed back down, slower, but with much less panache then my drill. 

            The next morning as I happily dreamed at home in bed the phone woke me.  “This is the county coroner,”  “I’d like to inform you of a death.”  I sat bolt upright in bed, my parents were my first sickening thought.  “Is a Mr. Bosch related to you?” the voice said.  Bosch, who the heck is Bosch, I thought, and then it all came to me: the veiled but familiar voice with a hint of sarcasm in it, the snicker in the background.  THE OLD MAN HAD KILLED MY DRILL.




The next week we had a brand new drill and an extra battery and we really started working on the route.  We linked up a huge grey slab peppered with chert to an overhanging half moon pitch that finally ended on a spacious ledge with beautiful steep rock jutting two hundred feet to the skyline.      

            So there we were, after a near sleepless night, the rookie and the mentor on the wall together again. The two hundred foot top-rope we set up was a bit exposed and the thought of all that sharp limestone between me and the anchors made my intestines whine like an old dog.  I tentatively tied into the bungy cord.  I cried my way up twenty feet of over my head climbing and began shaking like a meth addict.  “Taaake,” I squeeled as I peeled off.  Now I’m on a top-rope so I shouldn’t be scared right?  That’s what I thought as I sailed past the belay anchors on the overstretched cord, “BOING!” I ended up face to face with the old man who held an expression that said, “I didn’t say this was going to be easy.” We then had a meaningful conversation about the art of the  belay and how I would appreciate if there wasn’t quite so much penalty slack out.  He politely apologized and said something about MY stretchy rope.  I knew he was thinking, “I should of brought Sarge.”

The rest of my way rad, extreme, adrenaline junky top-rope went pretty well. After about forty feet of hard .11 climbing I exited out right on a super exposed 5.10 ramp that traversed about fifty feet and finally reached a precarious stance where I hammered in a belay anchor.  Now it was the old mans turn.

I pulled and yanked on our tired rope as if my mom was on the other end.  But soon the old man came to the crux just below the traversing ramp.  I could barely hear his scream over the wind as a hold broke and he went on a seventy foot pendulum from Hades.  The rope chattered along the Ginzu sharp ramp as both the old man and I cringed and held on tight, I for one shut my eyes so as not to see the white tuffs of nylon floating away in the breeze.

When I finally opened my eyes I was surprised to find the rope intact and the old man now directly below me dangling in space.  After a few choice words of advice about slack in my belay we began the laborious job of wenching the old man up to my stance.  This involved thrusting and clutching like a couple uncoordinated Bandaloupe dropouts for a half hour.  We then had a spirited debate on whether or not to get off this cold wall.  I wanted my mom but the old man would have to do. He took over marking and equipping the thrilling last pitch while I huddled on the tiny stance sucking my thumb but, after eight hours on the wall we finally had marked and bolted two pitches and the route was done.     

With the newly replaced  drill, one shredded rope, all the hardware, and my new found need for mind numbing prescription drugs the old man spent over a thousand bucks on this project.  He called the route “It’s only Money”.

             Blackleaf has been a gracious stage on which many characters have acted.  A tall dark stranger stopped by for a year and put up a handful of six pitch routes and many single pitch masterpieces.  Stop by and try “Climbing 101”.  You’ll laugh as you pull on brown chert as big as loaves of bread imbedded perfectly into the gray limestone.  Float up five pitches of 5.6-5.8 climbing that culminates in an exposed 5.9 pitch up an arête.  The stranger also worked hard on some more strenuous endeavors.  Self belayed and in a storm he put up a very continuous hard 5.11, “Rainy Days and Bad Belays”this beauty  rewards endurance and stays tough right to the chains.  He then partnered up with a soft spoken Rastafarian to complete a few long climbs with cruxes way up in the air.  Try Bodhisattva, with its 5.12 sixth pitch up a super exposed Budha belly it will leave even the hard people feeling a bit soft.

            The old man is still at it, he’s put up some of the more user friendly routes on the rock.  “Homeboys on soy” is a steep slab that always has me asking, “am I going to fall off a 5.9 today?”  With its short, well protected 5.11 crux and spacious grassy belay ledges, Homeboys is a must do for the traveling climber and don’t forget to bring some gear for its short but impeccable 5.9 finger crack .

            The old man and the stranger also teamed up for “Zen and the Art of Bolting”.  When you pull the airy 5.11 second pitch, you’ll be rewarded with two impeccable 5.10 pitches, the second of which is an overhung jug haul.  I’ll buy you a beer if you don’t giggle all the way up this beauty, oh, by the way, after you stop laughing take your shoes off and belay your second from another grassy ledge. 

            With around thirty separate lines and sixty-five pitches, Blackleaf has something for everyone.  You can craig at the cliffs base on many stellar one pitch routes, get a little air on the second and third pitch climbs, or really feel the exposure on the areas seven routes that climb five hundred feet or higher.  There is also plenty of variety in grades and styles of climbs with a handful of pitches at every grade from 5.8 to 5.12, with most in the 5.9 to 5.11 range.  The chert bands on the central wall can be somewhat crimpy but intermixed are overhung jug hauls in the 5.10 range.  Recently we have found on the west end, rock that  is devious in nature and almost void of chert.  We dubbed this the “Prozac Area.”  Be sure to bring your favorite mind elixir.

My hands sweat in anticipation as I write this, although I climbed at Blackleaf just yesterday.  Fall is here with winter rolling in too fast and the north facing wall will lie dormant for six months.  But in the spring when the streams run happily down the valley and the grizzly bears wake up, brightly clothed climbers will dot the wall like wildflowers.  Whether you bring your drill and your imagination, or your slippers and quick-draws, I hope to see you soon at Blackleaf.



Whats in a name. Alot I guess. Some names are purely filler: a song you were listening to or a catchy phrase. Others more often describe the climbing ie. a climb in Mulkey Gulch I once cried myself up called; "Sharp Crap". I try to name my climbs both in a funny, edgy graphic way that not only describes the climbing but the mood of the day  or the climbers I was with. That being said after over 100 pitches equipped I'm losing my touch.

Anyway here are a few of my better names and why. Often the name is better than the climb.

1. The Shiv 1o.c Blackleaf. The Bagel Co. is a favorite breakfast spot for my wife and I especially before we head to the crag. In the small hours we are sleepy but elated to have some time to play. However for the workers behind the counter we are Hitleresc fun freaks with are sleepy grins and pre coffee manners. We took to calling one such worker "The Shiv". In my innocent understanding a Shiv is a homemade prison Knife. This gal is often as sharp as a filed down toothbrush with her slept in hair and rage that boils just beneath the surface. But at other times she is as welcome as a honed blade to warn off the romantic roommate. She seldom smiles but will crack the occasional half grin. Once in a blue moon she even gets our orders right which is to say at least one component is kinda OK. Yet we would miss her if she left. So heres to you Shiv and your namesake climb a route that looks like it might be nice to you but then spits in your coffee.
2. Log dogger 9+ Avalanche RG the dude who taught me alot about equipping routes deserves respect. I treat him like a peer and a Helena climbing father. When he offered to help me on a moderate and interesting route on the Alien formation I readily agreed. Dispite tons of work the trail was junk: loose and scaly but we happily chated as we plodded along. I was about 40ft. from RG when I dislodged a 20 foot dead fall from the scree slope. It picked up speed as it tumbled down the steep slope and made a b-line for the Godfather. I yelped as if seeing the president vomit on a dignitary. This was not only embarrassing but potentially catastrophic. Soon the beast overtook RG who was laboring under his heavy pack. It bowled him over like a grasshopper on a greyhound and left him cursing in the talus. I was horrified I had just killed my climbing mentor with a tree. Thankfully RG cheerfully stood up and after limping around in the rocks for a minute he declared himself "Good to go". I was so relieved not to have killed or maimed him I even offered to carry his pack which he declined of course. The line we put up that evening paled in comparison to the adventure we had before roping up.

3. Prozac Moments 10-11+ Blackleaf. Kim had climbed for 12 years at Blackleaf and had a hand in tons of routes but we had never come off the top by ourselves just the two of us. Prozac was not the greatest break in route. I had scoped the route before so I knew where to jump in but after a few feet on rappel I found myself hanging in space. The rock was much steeper than it looked and there were huge roofs below us. Of course our ropes had to touch down sometime so we could drill another anchor. Either that or it was going to be a long day. Spinning helplessly high above the scree is fun for some but as I let the rope slowly pass thru my device I was not laughing the rope teased and assured me that it would tickle the face 200ft. below but because of the wind I really couldn't tell. So down I went wishing for Prozac or better. Soon I found myself tiptoeing on top of a giant roof I was at my ropes and my wits end but if I stretched I could just touch the rock. I knotted my rope and let it jam in my belay device. Both arms free I began pawing at the rock but it was a fingernail away. I rocked back and forth and managed to hook my hammer under a creaky flake. I breathed again and reeled myself in. The flake exploded and sent me careening east on a giant pendulum I looked up and willed the rope to resist the sharp limestone. Yes I was being a drama Queen but it's my party and I'll cry if I want to. The rope resolutely held and with the momentum of the swing I was again able to latch a lip. After more tom foolery and shenanigans I traversed back west and finally was able to get an anchor and bring Kim down. My energy and confidence was waining and she just wanted to climb but we managed to steal our selves and continue on. Kim prepared the second pitch by marking an unlikely path thru the blank face and finally we were on the ground shaking the dirt from our hair. It was pretty close to just another nervous breakdown but in one day we opened up the way for a dozen quality pitches. Who needs Prozac when you haveBlackleaf.

Well theres the scoop on a few climbs stay tuned for more..... 

Website Builder