Serious climbers and armchair outdoors enthusiasts were captivated last January by a pair of adventurers who completed probably the toughest ascent in the history of the sport of rock climbing. After years of examination, using only their hands and feet, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson spent almost three weeks meticulously scaling a 3,000-foot vertical expanse in Yosemite National Park.
The feat alone was impressive, but so was the media attention for a sport that generally flies under the radar. Perhaps it was their conquest of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan that prompted the current climbing boom, but no matter what the catalyst, rock climbing’s ascent continues in 2016.
According to Climbing Business Journal, the U.S. commercial indoor climbing industry grew by more than 10 percent in 2015 and is projected to grow another 13 percent this year. Too, it was recently announced that sport climbing (a form that relies on pre-placed bolts) has made the final shortlist for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
In Minnesota, the sport is following national trends. While we don’t have 3,000-foot granite monoliths like El Capitan or sandstone desert towers like the ones you’ll find in Moab, Minnesota is the envy of many expert climbers. From the North Shore, to Taylors Falls, to Blue Mound, to Red Wing, local climbers will tell you the state is a paradise of sorts, with beauty and sophistication.
“Climbing in Minnesota continues to grow,” said Peter Lenz, a Minnesota Climbing Association board member, referring to some of the aforementioned spots.
“We have an amazing climbing community here,” Lenz added. “I think it’s because we don’t have mountains. … We’ve developed a community that is tight and really a lot of fun.”
Several Minnesota climbers of varied experience (and on staff at Vertical Endeavors) told of three things about the state scene that currently makes it unique and exciting. Their responses have been edited and condensed.
Christian Fraser, 28, Duluth
Day job: Vertical Endeavors Guided Adventures guide and graduate student
Climbing experience: 10 years
“What initially hooked me on climbing was the fitness aspect. It is such a great way to get and stay in shape. Since then, it has become a part of who I am. I have met some amazing people and had the great fortune to be able to travel all over the continent to climb. I think what keeps me coming back are the people and the places. Climbing is a way to engage in a social activity, but also challenge yourself individually.
“My favorite climbing spot in Minnesota — and one of my top spots in the country — is Palisade Head in Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore. There are very few places where you get such quality climbing in such a spectacular location. Several of the climbs on Palisade and most of the climbs at Shovel Point are right over Lake Superior. It is a pretty special place.
“Each time I get out, climbing has something memorable to offer. It could be watching the sunset 1,700-feet up on a wall in the Nevada desert, or it could be hanging out with friends and family climbing up the shore.”
Katie Heimer, 29, Minneapolis
Day job: VEGA coordinator and guide, head climb coach
Climbing experience: Nine years
“An entire childhood devoutly devoted to climbing on, over, and under all things paved a natural avenue for me to discover rock climbing. But what really made me fall in love was the necessity to ‘fail’ to improve. I am an unrelenting perfectionist, and climbing was the first language by which I began to understand the importance of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and into the ethereal plane of ‘risk’ in order to really grow. You stagnate as a climber if you don’t push yourself, and the necessity to open myself up to failure became empowering and invigorating.
“Minnesota may not have much to offer in terms of elevation or quantity of crags, but, boy, does the North Shore compete for views. All year round the North Shore delivers — bouldering, rope climbing, ice climbing — they’ve got it all. Robinson Park in Sandstonewill always have the prime special place in my heart, though, because so many of my peers, truly great people in the Minnesota climbing community, poured so much of themselves into getting climbers access to this crag and then developing it into an impressive destination.
“I think the most impactful experience I have had climbing was the first time I was on a multi-pitch traditional climb in early 2012 in Linville Gorge in North Carolina, but that experience may have been eclipsed this past Thanksgiving on a trip to Red Rocks, Nev., where I was able to do another really fun multi-pitch climb (ascent of a route with one or more stop at a belay station). I think I may have enjoyed myself just as much, but in a different way, because I have a much greater knowledge now of anchors, gear placements, rope systems and guiding. Multi-pitch climbing is my favorite style of climbing and I hope to spend more and more of my trips on this style of route. The views, sense of accomplishment, experience and commitment make that style more unforgettable than any other.”
Zachris Haataja, 25, Esko, Minn.
Day job: Rock climbing guide and small business owner
Climbing experience: Six years
“I enjoy thinking through the puzzle of getting up a route. It’s fascinating learning about my body and seeing how I can move and balance and then know what I am capable of. I also enjoy the challenge of doing something that scares me a little bit.
“I love climbing at Palisade Head because of its long routes over beautiful Lake Superior.
“The most memorable climbing experience I’ve had was making the first ascent — ‘Haataja get aa’ta here,’ which is a variation of a climb called Superior Crack at Palisade Head, where you have to squeeze through a small crack and finish the route by climbing out a hole in the rock. It was a very intense experience emotionally and physically.”
David Schwab, 56, Vadnais Heights
Day job: VE director of safety, training and guiding
Climbing experience: 29 years
“Climbing takes you places you would otherwise never have gone. There is always an exciting new adventure or treasured previously climbed ‘classic’ route awaiting you. I have had countless wonderful experiences climbing and on occasion a few ‘exciting’ ones. I started climbing as a juvenile probation officer in Ramsey County when we received a grant to take adjudicated youth climbing at Taylors Falls. I was as green as green could be, but it sounded like a blast. The rest, as they say, is history.
“ ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies’ at Shovel Point in Tettegouche State Park is my favorite climb in Minnesota. It is beautiful climb, directly over Lake Superior. Hard to beat not only in Minnesota, but also anywhere else.
“My most memorable climbing experience to date had very little to do with climbing. In 2007 I was climbing at Palisade Head when I became involved in a rescue. Two unroped ‘climbers,’ who were not rock climbers at all but high school seniors on a senior skip day, were attempting to down-climb a 100-foot route over a boulder field when one fell and the other was left stranded midway down. The fallen climber was gravely injured and my involvement was very intense. Paramedics were put on the scene by rescue boat and at least a dozen law enforcement officers gathered above. I was needed to access the climber from above and get additional paramedics and their gear down. I was also instructed to come up with a plan to move the injured climber to either the boat or to the top. In short, we got him through the boulder field on a belayed stretcher and to the waiting rescue boat which brought him to Two Harbors. After a lengthy stint in intensive care, he lived. It was quite a memorable day.”
Erik Anderson, 23, Minneapolis
Day job: VE assistant head coach, assistant head route-setter and guide
Climbing experience: Nine years
“As a teen, my best friend and I went indoor climbing at P.J. Asch Otterfitters [now closed] in Stillwater. From that moment, I was hooked. The climbing gym became like a second home. I was fortunate enough to meet some amazing people who went on to show me more about climbing and took me outdoors. The rest is history. The constant room for growth keeps me coming back. This sport-hobby-lifestyle-whatever you want to call it, pushes you physically and mentally. You can always get stronger or learn more. It’s also a fantastic outlet for travel. I love going on rock climbing trips to other states or countries.
“One of the best spots to climb in Minnesota is up on the North Shore, but my favorite place that’s close to the Twin Cities is Willow River State Park in Hudson, Wis. That is my hometown crag. The climbing style is so unique and so much fun, and it’s in another beautiful spot with a lot of the climbing going right over a waterfall.
“I feel fortunate enough to have had many memorable climbing experiences. One of the best was this year when I flew down to Las Vegas for New Year’s weekend in Red Rocks Canyon with my best friend. On the first day of the year, we climbed one of the biggest and most difficult routes either of us have attempted before — Levitation 29 (a 9-pitch 5.11c, Grade III). It was established by Lynn Hill and John Long — two of the most significant climbers in American history.”
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.