From left, Leo Doolan and Shiri Franklin pictured at Stonetree Climbing Center on Wednesday afternoon in Helena.

Two of Helena’s most accomplished active rock climbers haven’t even started middle school. Leo Doolan and Shiri Franklin will be competing in the Divisional Championship Competition in Denver, Colorado, this weekend with a chance to move onto nationals.

Doolan is 10 years old and attends Jefferson Elementary. Franklin is 11 and attends Central Elementary.

These youngsters train at the Stonetree Climbing Center located in Helena. Stonetree is a youth climbing facility for ages 6-18 that opened just over four years ago. They have a team of coaches who are dedicated to helping children and young adults develop enthusiasm for climbing.

“I really like sharing my passion with them because obviously I’m still super passionate about climbing,” says coach Jackson Wetherill, a senior at Helena High whose parents own Stonetree. “Having (the kids) get a good result is really gratifying, but seeing them really latch on to something that I know they’ll carry into the future for a really long time is really powerful.”

Within the sport of indoor rock climbing there are two seasons, bouldering and sport climbing. Sport climbing is climbing with ropes whereas bouldering is climbing over crash pads. Bouldering is more of a shorter sprint, and sport climbing is more of a long distance, endurance sport.

“Bouldering is a little bit more power-based and has a little bit more problem solving involved,” says Dillon Key, a coach at Stonetree since November 2019 who has been working at climbing gyms for the past eight years. “Sport climbing has a little bit more endurance, and I guess overall fitness throughout a longer climb.”

During bouldering season, there are local competitions throughout the state. Stonetree climbers and coaches travel to competitions in Bozeman, Missoula, Whitefish and Billings. In order to get to the divisional competition — where the two Stonetree climbers are going now — they have to compete in two local competitions and place 16th or higher. From there they have the option to go to regionals, which, this year, was held down in Ogden, Utah.

“The regional competitions have a different format from the local competitions,” Key says. “It puts the kids under a lot more pressure, requires a lot more fast-paced problem solving, as well as a lot more fitness. Down at regionals they compete in categories based off their age group and gender.”

The top 10 per category advance to divisionals. Out of the three climbers Stonetree sent to regionals, two qualified for divisionals this weekend.

“One of my favorite parts (of regionals) was that the routes were really fun,” says Doolan.

“One of my least favorite parts was waiting in isolation,” recalls Franklin.

Before each climber took their turn they had to wait by themselves, facing away from the competition, so that they could not see the route that the climbers before them were attempting to figure out. Leo agreed that this was also his least favorite part.

“I was more nervous for regionals than I am for this because the only thing I was really nervous about for regionals was the format and how it was going to work,” says Leo of their upcoming competition. “Now that I know that, I’m not that nervous.”

“I’m a lot more excited for the divisionals than I was for regionals — well I was excited for regionals, but I was a lot more nervous,” adds Franklin.

Depending on how Franklin and Doolan perform during the qualifying and final rounds, they will have a chance to move onto nationals in Bend, Oregon.

Climbing is a sport which offers a unique blend of team sports with individual sports. Being on a team creates a positive environment with its members supporting each other. At the same time, the sport rewards individual effort and performance because once you’re on the wall, it’s all about you and the time you’ve put in.

“I really enjoy the team aspect of climbing, in the sense that you have a group of individuals your age supporting and building you up, but it’s still very much an individual sport,” Key says. “It’s something for kids who enjoy team sports or prefer to do individual sports — it kind of meets both of those criteria. So, you have people building you up and supporting you but it also comes down to your own ability and how hard you’re willing to push yourself.”

Matthew Kiewiet covers high school and community sports for the Independent Record and Email him at or follow him on Twitter @IRmattkiewiet.

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