An Essay On One Of My Favorite Pastimes
Author's Note: I wrote this awhile ago, lost in bout of memories of my youth. Currently, I'm back in Michigan, spending time with my family after our loss. I'm returning to the Sea Bird on the 2nd, and so I have about a week of down time until then. Early winter in Michigan doesn't offer a whole lot to a vagabond. It's cold, and wintery; not enough snow to ski, unfortunately. So I thought I'd post this little piece and share some thoughts and stories about my climbing exploits.
I started out climbing trees. The land I grew up on had a thick forest of maples, oaks, red pine and apple trees, among others, and I climbed them all. I’ve spent many hours swaying in the thin branches of the tallest trees in the woods. I really liked climbing up high in strong winds. The wind would cause the tallest branches to buck and sway, and for me it was a homemade rollercoaster of sorts. Climbing trees is relatively easy. Most have reliable branches to elevate and descend with. Some of them bear gifts- fruits such as apples or cherries. Sometimes when I’d climb, I’d find the perfect branch, and turn it into a throne, a favorite spot to sit and think, daydreaming the afternoon away. I still climb trees at 29. I don’t climb them as much as I used to, but a couple times a year, I like to recapture my youth…Recapture is the wrong word, I like to reconnect with my past by exploring as a kid. I find that it helps me retain my interest and youthful vigor in my explorations as an adult.
I have to thank my oldest brother for getting me into rock climbing. When I was about twelve, he used to fill my head with stories of his exploits climbing the rock cliffs that make up the Greenstone Ridge of the Keweenaw Peninsula. His tales involved climbing, camping, freedom, friends and youthful vigor. He told his stories well, and I was an interested listener. He inspired me and I wanted to climb. Whenever someone would take me hiking up in the cliffs, I would take every opportunity to climb up a rock face instead of hiking along the trail. I was hooked even at an early age.
During the summer of my 15th year, my dad died. After numbly attending the series of ceremonies that goes with a death, I finally found myself alone and looking for an outlet. I called up a friend of mine, wondering if he wanted to do something. “Like what?” he asked. “I don’t know, how about we go climb up in the cliffs?” I said. “OK,” he said, “I’ll pick you up in 20 minutes.” So began my climbing career.
I don’t remember much about that first climb. I know it was a beautiful day, and that we had a great time climbing the face we chose to tackle. I remember the euphoria running through my body as I clung to the rock high above the pines of the forest below. We were both reveling in the challenge, and the fun of climbing. For the next three years, we spent any free time we had climbing. Some summer days, we’d work in the morning, attend football practice in the afternoon, meet up and climb two or three pitches in the late afternoon before descending down the sheer cliff faces in the dark. When school was in session, we’d climb every weekend, usually on Sunday. During the winter, we didn’t climb, but we still hiked up and down the cliffs, looking for new routes, and sledding back down. We called it exploring, and so it was.
We were purists. For footwear, we wore tennis shoes. No kidding. That was what we had, and so that’s what we used. We wore jeans, as not to scrape our knees on the rocks. We didn’t use ropes of any kind. We climbed the hardest faces we could. We specifically chose the more difficult routes that we could, as we reveled in the challenge. The routes we climbed were anywhere from 20 feet to over sixty feet high. If we fell, we were probably dead, or mangled. Neither one of us wanted to have to be the one to tell the other guy’s mom that his son fell off the rock. Our moms didn’t even know what we were up to, and I was very vague about my afternoon’s adventures when I showed up in the evening sweaty, filthy, bloody, and grinning. We came up with ideas on how to tell our mothers what happened if something went wrong. I figured that if it came to that, that I would take a casual approach. “Hi Mrs. Parks, do you remember Jeff? Oh, you do? Well, about that, he’s going to be late for dinner. He wanted me to let you know that. Why am I driving his car? Well, he said I could have it, as he wouldn‘t be needing it any more…”We were invincible. I didn’t learn that I wasn’t until ten years later, in an unrelated incident.
There was only one time that I was stuck, and had to improvise a descent. In climbing, it’s always easier to climb up, than to climb down. We were climbing in an area that we hadn’t been to before. Typically, we’d each choose a separate line, instead of both of us climbing the same one. Often, if someone was higher, he could call out holds that were unseen to the other climber. On this particular day, we were both climbing a 30-foot wall on two separate lines. I had worked myself onto a tiny shelf that allowed me to stand on it while hugging the overhanging rock above my head. I could shinny to the left, and to the right as far as the shelf went, sliding my feet as I palmed the rock with my hands. I couldn’t find anyway of getting around the smooth overhang. There was nothing.
Meanwhile, Jeff was having his own dilemma. He was perched on one good foothold and had one good handhold. The line he was climbing petered out of holds, and he had a decision to make. He could see a possible hold several feet above him, if he gripped a slender twig of a tree that was clinging in a crack, he could jump up and grab the “handhold. “ If he made it, he would complete the climb. If he missed, he fell twenty feet onto a hodge podge of jumbled boulders. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. He went for it. Luck was with him, and it was a good hold. He pulled himself up and kicked his leg over the top of the wall.
I wasn’t so lucky. I was still hugging the smooth surface of the bulging rock. I was nose to nose with it. I could smell the earthy moss, and ancient scent of the rock itself. Young lovers couldn’t have been closer to one another that I was with that rock. I heard Jeff’s shout of triumph that indicated he completed his climb. I couldn’t see him, as a chimney and an outcrop separated us. I tried shinnying left again, and still I couldn’t find a way. I knew I was tiring, and I knew I had to do something, so I decided to go back down. Climbing down is easier said than done. The same holds you used to elevate yourself are often only useful on the way up. The friction and force of your hands and feet on the rock are different when going up and down.
To get down, I knew that I couldn’t use the same holds that I used on the upward climb. They were of no use. I lowered myself gingerly over the side of the shelf, using the edge as my last handhold. The way down was slightly sloped in my favor, I wouldn’t be free falling. I slowly let go, and began a twelve foot slide using only my bare arms and feet as a brake against the rock. Time stood still. I landed on the boulder I was aiming for with a loud “THUMP” on my feet. My arms were in agony. The raw scrapes reached from my palms up to my biceps. My legs also had some scrapes, but overall, I was none the worse for wear, and very happy to be back down.
We compared our stories, laughed at our fortunes, and decided that it was probably enough climbing for the day.
"KC Rock" Named after the Keweenaw Central Railroad which used to run beneath it.
Our greatest climb was when we took a direct line up “KC Rock.” KC Rock is probably the most difficult climb on the whole length of the ridge. It’s definitely the highest pitch I’ve ever climbed. We climbed the first couple of steep pitches with ease. We were feeling good, in great shape, and ready for the challenge of climbing the big one. Finally, we were perched about a hundred feet above the ground and directly underneath the overhanging “nose” of the rock itself. KC rock is a monolithic rock that sticks out like a nose at the very top of the cliff. The over hand is a flat roof of 20 feet that for us was unclimbable (we still didn’t use rock shoes, protection or ropes).We had to find a way around it. We maneuvered our way to the right side of the rock and there found a chimney that led halfway up the rock. Then it narrowed into a 4-inch crack that led all the way up to the top. It was a climb of about thirty feet. We jammed our bodies into the chimney, using our arms then our legs to force our backs flat against the chimney wall. By alternating arms to legs and sliding our backs along, we made it up to the crack. We jammed our feet and hands into the crack, climbing around a five-inch pine tree that had taken root. We continued upward, until I grabbed the backside of the rock the crack was in and pulled myself over the top. Jeff soon followed, and we had done it! We climbed KC Rock, a feat normally only completed by members the serious climbing club at the local university. We did it in tennis shoes, without ropes.
Climbing At The City of Rocks, New Mexico
I continue to climb. I’ve given up the death defying routes of my youth, I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. Instead, I’ve become an avid boulderer. Bouldering is climbing in its simplest form. All that I need for equipment is a pair of rock shoes, a landing pad, and a chalk bag, though I only use shoes. In bouldering, you climb rocks close to the ground up to about 20 feet (this varies with the climber). This takes away the fear of falling, so you can try harder moves without worrying. It’s great exercise, a complete workout for the body and mind.
I’m not a great climber. You’ve probably have seen climbers clinging by one finger as they cling to the underside of an overhang. I’m not that good. I challenge myself as best I can, and I have fun. I get into a zen-like state when I’m climbing. I have total focus on the problem at hand. It’s probably the only activity that allows me to forget about everything else, concentrating completely on the climb. It feels so good to lose yourself in the climb. It helps me purge my body and mind, leaving me fresh.
I have favorite climbing areas all around the country. That’s what is great about this sport, all you need to do is find some rock, and there are rocks everywhere (except North Dakota and Florida). I have a catalog of climbing areas for every state and Canada, so no matter where I’m traveling to, I can find some places to climb along the way. It makes a trip that much more special when I can find a good place to climb.
I love climbing on the shore of Lake Superior. The rock is usually excellent. It’s good for gripping, not too high, good landing areas. Moreover, it’s a beautiful place to climb. I love climbing out over the clear water, testing my mettle against the rock. If I fall, I fall right into the lake, which can be shockingly cold, especially if you fall into the water in late April. That’s a jolt to the system let me tell you.
I was climbing the other day on my favorite wall on Black Beach near Silver Bay, Minnesota. A gaggle of teenage girls came up to me as I was clinging precariously to the rock. “Excuse me, are you climbing?” one of them asked. “No, I’m just hugging rocks,” I replied. “It looks like you are climbing to me.,” she said. “Really?” I asked. “Yes. What’s your name? This went on for a while, each of the girls asking questions, and bantering with one another. Meanwhile, I was weakening as I was still clinging to the rock with my fingers and arms outstretched like an eagle. I decided to try the next move. “Why don’t you just climb up over here? It’s way easier.” One of them pointed out helpfully. Grunting with the effort, I gasped out, “BE..CUZ I like the challenge…” “Well, that’s dumb,” she said. The group finally was bored with me, and moved off letting me finish my climb in peace. It’s not everyday I am interviewed in the middle of a climb.
I’ll continue to climb as long as I can. At this point, I see no end in sight.