The limestone cliffs of Mount Helena stand above the valley as giant rock shields, the stone walls looking daunting to most, but inviting to a select few hoping to get an adrenaline rush high above the ground.
Earlier this year a group of rock climbers approached the city of Helena with a proposal: make Mount Helena City Park a climbing locale by installing hardware to line out some permanent climbing routes. The city officials liked the idea.
“A group of us started talking about the potential of Mount Helena, and how great it’d be to have a place that’s such a close proximity to town,” said Brad Maddock, one of the driving forces behind the plan. “So we decided to come up with a proposal and see what (the city) thought, and they liked our proposal.”
When the city received the request, open lands manager Brad Langsather and others reviewed restrictions in the park. They were somewhat surprised to find that rock climbing was not mentioned.
“In reality they could’ve just went ahead and done it because there weren’t restrictions, but we really appreciated this group coming forward and doing something organized,” he said. “From a parks standpoint we’re excited to have another recreational pursuit accessed within a short distance from town.”
The park already bustles with hikers and bikers and the city worked with the climbers to make their sport compatible with other users and put up advisory signage. Mount Helena is the first city-owned park in Montana with established rock climbing, Langsather believes, with maybe some climbing taking place on sandstone near Billings.
With the city’s blessing Maddock, Hermes Lynn, Jake Mergenthaler and other local climbers “scrubbed” the climbing area by removing loose rock and installed camouflaged stainless steel bolts for 11 routes. Climbing walls, located about a mile from the parking area above Reeder’s Village on the 1906 Trail, carry informal names such as Red Slab, Sunset Slab, Vigilante Wall and Whit’s Wall. They provide a range of difficulties and heights from 60 to 120 feet.
“It really just came from a love of rock climbing and wanting to do it as a community thing, to bring more of the community of Helena into climbing,” Maddock said.
The Helena area is a bit of a “hidden gem” when it comes to rock climbing, he said, with a smaller contingent of climbers than college towns Missoula and Bozeman. Most climbers meet through word of mouth or groups such as Southwest Montana Climbers Coalition or Helena Climbers Coalition. A few spots such as Sheep Mountain by Clancy or Avalanche Gulch offers some climbing but also require time for travel.
Maddock directs the outdoor program at Carroll College and sees the easy access to Mount Helena as a great way to get students into climbing.
Fellow climber Lynn advises the Helena High Outdoor Club, and echoed the convenience of getting members to the rock walls as a major benefit.
“It’s just a great resource to have now that it’s up there and just a bike ride or hike to get there,” he said.
“It’s a great view first of all with a nice panorama of the valley, but the best thing about the spot is it’s shady in the summer. So even if it’s 90 degrees you can be up there climbing comfortably, and that’s huge,” he said.
The climbers noted that the 11 routes so far only cover a small portion of the viable climbing walls.
“There’s a lot of potential up there,” Maddock said.
Under the framework with the city, any expansion must go through an approval process.
Maddock and Lynn both recommended new climbers first get some instruction before attempting one of the rock walls. Going with an experienced climber and using safety equipment including ropes, harnesses and helmets are also a must.
“I’d start at the local climbing gym because once you’re up there, you’re at the whim of the rocks,” Maddock said.