My friend Doug is in trouble, and it’s all my fault. I’ve roped him into joining us at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin for the day to try our hand at rock climbing.
Shading my eyes, I glance up at the two sheer sheets of rock in front of me, which meet together in a V, much like the corner of a room. Doug has managed to complete the vast majority of this climb, dubbed Cracking Up, but now is stuck in an awkward position, his arms and legs splayed out in a giant X. He looks a bit like a squashed bug.
A helpless bleat slowly drifts down the still, hot air. “I can’t move! There’s nowhere else to go!”
His fear is so palpable that I wonder if that’s why two turkey vultures are suddenly circling lazily overhead, their giant wings twitching ever so slightly to catch the invisible currents.
“You’re doing great, Doug,” Nick Wilkes calls up calmly. Nick is owner of Devil’s Lake Climbing Guides, one of about a half-dozen climbing outfits operating at Devil’s Lake. We tapped him as our instructor after reading positive reviews about his company.
Turning to us, he says, “New climbers always say there’s no place to hold onto, or no place to go. But experienced climbers will try one spot for two or three hours before giving up.” Newbies also need to learn how to read a route — to recognize not just obvious holds and perches, but how this small crack or that gentle bulge can be used to propel yourself upward and onward.
Doug’s legs begin shaking from the effort of holding himself tightly against the rock, his fingers clinging to rocky nubbins, his toes timorously perched on whisper-thin ledges. Watching him struggle, my palms begin to sweat.
“There are a few holds just about a foot above you,” Nick says patiently. “Move your left foot to that big rock to your left, then push with that foot and get a little higher, where you’ll be able to see some new holds.”
Doug moves his foot and pushes his body upward as instructed, his right hand scrabbling around for something new to cling onto. But he doesn’t find anything, and sags back down into the X, with its comfortable, familiar holds.
“Can someone throw my sandwich up here?” he yells, chagrined. “I’m going to be a while.”
“Take your time,” says Nick.
After a brief respite, Doug again boosts himself up a few inches. Once more his hand fails to find something new to grab. An expletive pierces the air.
“You’re so close, Doug,” Nick says encouragingly. “Another 3 feet up and you’ve got it all.”
Gathering the last of his strength, Doug launches himself upward a final time, but just can’t find a place to grab. “Why aren’t there handles up here?” he wails.
Back on the ground, we cheer his valiant effort.
“Shoot,” he says, his tired limbs trembling slightly. “I really wanted to do it!”
“You did do it,” says Nick.
1,800 climbing routes
Devil’s Lake, 20 minutes south of Wisconsin Dells, is Wisconsin’s largest and most-visited state park, with more than 2 million people stopping by annually. While most visitors come to camp, hike, swim, bike, boat and ski, Devil’s Lake is also a favorite with rock climbers. The park’s 1.6 billion-year-old quartzite cliffs, which rise more than 500 feet skyward, are said to offer some of the best climbing in the Midwest.
Amazingly, there are 1,800 identified climbing routes in the park, although Nick guesses only 20 to 40 percent are commonly climbed. His outfit uses about 150.
None of us — Doug, my husband Ed, our daughter Molly or me — had climbed outdoors before. But we’d done just about every other activity the park offers. So we eagerly gathered at 7:30 this morning to give climbing a try. As we hiked up to a 70-foot rocky outcrop dubbed Pseudo Hawk’s Nest, Nick explained his guiding philosophy: “I want you to have a peaceful, positive time in nature, and to learn something new. My job is to open doors.”
Once at his chosen spot, Nick quickly went about setting up five potential climbs: Beginner’s Delight, Chicken Delight, Chicken Tonight, Hero’s Fright and Cracking Up. (The climbs and their names come from “The Climber’s Guide to Devil’s Lake,” by Sven Olof Swartling.) Although beginners’ climbs, these aren’t the very easiest in the park. But they’re in the shade and tucked into a less-trafficked area, two factors that tend to create a more enjoyable experience for novices, Nick says.
Molly is first up, and takes on Beginner’s Delight. Slowly, carefully, she makes her way to the top, pausing just once to rest. Nick is as enthused about her success as she is. “It’s important to pick the right person to go first,” he says. “If they struggle, the rest of the group is filled with doubt. If they have a great time, everyone else is encouraged.”
Doug is up next, nimbly scrambling up three-quarters of the bluff before veering off the main, easy route and getting stuck. Unable to progress, he’s belayed to the ground.
During my attempt, I take the proper path at the juncture where Doug went awry. But I can’t hoist myself up the climb’s final difficult spot, known as the crux, and return to the ground. Like Molly, Ed scampers up effortlessly.
With one climb apiece under our harnesses, Nick does a quick evaluation. “Molly is a very methodical climber. Doug has a long, leggy style. And Ed is very confident when he climbs.”
I hold up my hand to stop Nick before he assesses my style. I’m the only one in the group who couldn’t jump high enough to grab the initial hold on Beginner’s Delight, and had to cheat by taking a little set of rocky steps to get started. I’m also the only one who fell backward while trying to vault up the final steep section, then spun around and clumsily bounced against the sharp quartzite. An honest evaluation would likely result in a climbing style dubbed “awkward and confused.”
A mirror of your fears
Doug passes on his third turn, still too spent from his Spiderman-like crabbing up the quartzite. Ed opts for Hero’s Fright, a more challenging climb, and makes it nearly to the top, where he’s stymied by the less obvious and declining number of holds in this part of the route. I again tackle Beginner’s Delight, and that gnarly crux, hurling myself at it four times — and nearly making it twice — before giving up.
Later, appraising our adventure as Nick breaks down the anchors, Molly and Ed rave about the experience, eager to climb again. As someone who’s afraid of heights, I decide climbing isn’t the sport for me. But I’m very pleased with how high I climbed today, and how many times I had the courage to attack the crux. Doug, generally a circumspect person, is happy with his foray, too.
“I didn’t make it to the top, but I’m so proud of myself,” he says. “I’m normally a quitter, but today I tried a lot longer than I typically do.”
Nick affirms that we all did great. While the climbs we tried, successfully and unsuccessfully, are some of the easiest in the park, all of the climbs at Devil’s Lake are generally more difficult than those found elsewhere, he says, even popular climbing spots in the West.
Then, fixing his eyes on Doug and me, he offers up this bit of wisdom: “Climbing is like a mirror. It shows you how you deal with fear.”
Doug and I may not have made it to the top of Pseudo Hawk’s Nest, but we did courageously battle our fears.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer in Sun Prairie, Wis.