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STEVENSVILLE – Climbing is a unique sport because much of the appeal comes from pushing the mind to block out a perfectly rational fear of heights and pushing the body to the limits of physical endurance.

Sometimes, the fear wins.

In the climbing world, “Elvis syndrome” or “sewing machine leg” is a common term for uncontrollable shaking or trembling, often halfway up a climb, either through terror or exhaustion or both.

There is quite a substantial community of climbing devotees in the Bitterroot Valley, and Kootenai Canyon near Stevensville is one of the hot spots. With steep vertical walls of mostly smooth granite (that doesn’t crumble like limestone), the canyon offers both traditional and sport climbing.

Traditional climbing means the climbers place removable gear like pitons in the rock to protect against falls, while sport climbers use pre-placed permanent bolts that are drilled into the rock.

On Wednesday evening, Sarah Polhamus of Hamilton and Natalie Dawson of Missoula spent time on a couple of routes on the Outermost Limits, a large 60-foot-high wall on the south side of the creek.

“Kootenai is heady because there aren’t any climbs where you’re going to just fall into space and not hit anything,” said Dawson. “Most spots here you’re going to ping-pong off some blocky stuff if you fall.”

“It’s hard because if you’re going to fall you want to be able to push yourself away from the wall so you can get your legs under you,” Polhamus said.

Both climbers admit that they aren’t immune to being afraid of heights. But that’s part of the fun and the challenge of climbing.

“Climbing is 90 percent mental for me,” said Dawson, who is associate director of the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana. “It’s crazy because I haven’t even had –,” she stops herself, “well I’ve had some big falls, but I haven’t had any super-traumatic injuries. It does get addictive. You have a little battle with yourself. When you win you’re like ‘Yeah!’ but when you lose it’s like ‘(expletive)!’ ”

The two took turns going up a 5.8 rated route called Sleeping Beauty and followed that up with Elmo, a 5.10b difficulty-rated route. They both had to pause halfway to work their way up to a particularly challenging hold, but in the end they both made it, their hands covered in chalk and rock dust.

A little farther down, two scientists at Rocky Mountain Labs in Hamilton, Joe Prescott and Jim Makinen, were climbing another route with their friend Sam Balasz from Michigan.

Prescott often creates stop-motion climbing videos, and his favorite place is Lost Horse Canyon.

“The bouldering is awesome down there,” he says. “If that was in Colorado, it would be full of people all the time.”

Some of his videos can be found at

Besides strength and agility, climbing is a sport that requires a lot of concentration and patience. To work through a difficult problem on Elmo, Dawson had to lean back on her rope and study the rock.

“I need to contemplate my next move here,” she shouted while Polhamus belayed the rope below.

In that way, climbing is a lot like life: Sometimes, the only way to go forward is to stop and get some perspective.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or