Some may wonder why, I am in love with the sleek, slippery quartzite that is abundant all over Devil’s Lake in Baraboo, Wisconsin, but it is literally one my top favorite areas to climb at in the world. In the world, you say? Yes. In. The. World. This area has more routes and boulder problems than one would expect in a random Midwestern state. Believe me, I would not have pegged Wisconsin as having a major climbing area, and I live in Ohio.
Friday morning, around 7am, we pulled onto the interstate to drive over the two and a half states to climb in Devil’s Lake. I was tired, but I could not wait for a weekend of perfect temperatures for climbing. The last time I was climbing at the Lake, in August, it was over 90 degrees outside with humidity that made me feel like I was swimming up the rock, not climbing. The rock around Devil’s Lake is naturally smooth and slick and in those conditions I had to boulder with a chalk bag around my waist to literally chalk up after each move.
Arriving Friday night, we quickly set up our campsite that was located on a farm about 5 minutes away from Devil’s Lake State Park. We met Dan and Donna, the owners of the property, from our good friends Chris and Scott. Donna treats anyone who stays on the farm like family and lovingly refers to everyone as “honey child” – there really is no downside to this area! Chris and Scott arrived about an hour after us with a few others who were joining us to climb for the weekend. Chris and Scott were taking some volunteers climbing from Adaptive Adventures to show their appreciation for all their hard work helping out with clinics.
Early Saturday morning, I helped – to be fair, mostly observed – my friends, Lloyd and Scott, set up top rope anchors in the Birthday Rocks area along the East Bluff around the Lake. One of the routes caught my eye – a crack climb known as Birthday Crack. I never learned how to lead trad with two hands so I was not about to wing it with only one hand – maybe one day, but today was not that day. I had never climbed a crack before and the challenge intrigued me. After sufficiently warming up my shoes, one in each armpit, and wrapping my stump I tied in and looked up the 60, or 65, foot cliff face. The route was vertical, which not an issue at all, what I was worried about was a lack of endurance. I mainly boulder and after 15 – 20 feet of climbing, my body tends to expect the exertion of energy to be over. I took a deep breath and thought, “well, here goes nothing.” The first six feet of climbing was easy, I felt really stiff in the chilly weather, and was grateful for a relaxed start to the route. The crux of the crack comes at about ten feet of the ground. The crack widens abruptly and there’s a think side-pull deep into rock. I learned quickly that if I used the side pull the next useable part of the crack was about six inches out of my reach for my right hand. There were zero options for feet besides smearing on the glassy rock face, and after reaching as far as I could with my right hand – wishing I could have arms like Stretch Armstrong – my right feet began to slowly side downwards. Uh-oh. As my feet gave way I plummeted a few feet downward in a not so graceful fall and cursed under my breath. After three attempts on the same crux move, it occurred to me that I might not need that flaky side-pull in the crack. The residual limb of my left arm is basically a built in camming device (I’d say a Camelot C3 or C4) that I could hopefully jam into the crack to hoist myself up to the next hold. The first time my stump popped, along with the second attempt, and third. “Shit,” I screamed, “This is bull….” The rest of my frustration was carried away in a timely gust of wind. Taking a deep breath and shaking my arm to relieve a very intense pump, I stuck my whole left arm and most of my left shoulder into the crack. I bent my arm to a 90-degree angle and put my elbow on the right side of the crack and my stump on the left side of the crack. I did a similar thing with my left foot and knee. In a less than graceful lurch, I managed to place my right hand securely about four feet above me in the crack, and crimped down on a tiny edge. I felt relieved and a surge of adrenaline coursed through my body, along with a healthy dose of lactic acid to completely reduce my right hand to a crude hook from a heavy pump in my arms. Damn, I really need to climb higher than 15 feet more often... The rest of the route went smoothly, and I was able to find a few spots to rest, although the pump would not leave my arms. After lowering off the top of the route I thought, “crack climbing is pretty fun.” I’ve never had to use my body before as a wedge on a climb, and I considering looking for an offwidth route, or planning a trip to Vedauwoo, Wyoming. Guess I have to learn how to lead trad now…and buy a rack. Awesome.
The bouldering around Devil’s Lake is interspersed along the cliffs and below them. Beneath the Birthday Crack was a huge boulder field, with monoliths of stone all piled on top of and next to one another. After scrambling around the field, and trying to identify some potential problems to try – there is no printed bouldering guide for Devil’s Lake – it occurred to me that one medium-sized crash pad might not help much. Not to be deterred, I hiked down the trail and out of the brush to the train tracks that run below the cliff line. Squinting into the midday sun, and back to my phone that showed a photo on Mountain Project of a particular triangular boulder. The particular bloc I was searching for had a line called Riptide (V3), that was a compression problem up a sort of slabby face. I spotted the problem way up in the boulder field on the right, and to my amazement, the landing looked flat and not filled with jagged rocks. After a good 10 minutes of scrambling with the gusts of wind turning my crash pad into a parachute, pulling me left and right, we arrived at the coveted route. To my disappointment, the landing was not clear and flat, a larger boulder in the foreground covered the many small, sharp rocks that lived beneath the bloc I was hoping to climb. Being the stubborn, hardheaded person that I am, I still placed my crash pad and started to change into my climbing shoes. Something didn’t sit right, onsighting has never been my forte, and I really could not afford a fall at any point on this route. Standing on the pad, which did not offer much protection from the toothy rocks below, my eyes kept darting from the pad, to the angle of how the pad lied on the rocks, and to a large, pointy boulder that the pad would bounce me into. Pad, angle of pad, and pointy boulder. Pad. Angle of pad. Pointy boulder. This might not be the “best” idea after all. After 30 more seconds of staring blankly, I slowly started to pull off my climbing shoes. No route is worth a serious injury, and from the angle of the boulder that I hoped to climb, my spine would be the general area that would attempt to fight that pointed rock…and I’d venture to say that my spine would not be the winner. For all that work, I was bummed that day one of this weekend trip was coming to a close and I could not send the line that I set my eyes on. Guess I’ll just have to come back – a slight smile spread across my face.
We woke up around 6am to get in as much climbing as possible before the drive back to Cleveland would begin at midday. Shoveling down some rice and beans, with instant coffee that was so acidic I was convinced I was developing an ulcer, we packed the gear and sped off to the north side of the Lake. I quickly warmed up on a stumpy little V0 (that I don’t know the name of), and the walked the 30 feet up to the higher bluff where my project stood. Big Bud (V2) loomed over me. My last visit out to Devil’s Lake, I couldn’t even start the line because of the humidity. This time I will wrap up my unfinished business with Bud. Considering the route is basically a giant pillar that grew 20 feet out of the ground, only one crash pad was not the best idea…yet again. I started to see a pattern as how bouldering in this area worked – bring more pads in the future is now etched into my brain. Since Big Bud did not have any sharp rocks or boulders beneath it, I still decided to climb the line that was before me. At about five feet off the ground, there is a hold that is completely useless for my left, since that side is without a hand, so I had to push off of a gouge in to quartzite to bump my right hand to the next hold. Just as I was closing my fingers on the crimp, my stump popped and I plummeted to the ground. My back was lovingly caught and cradled by gnarled tree roots that poked through the soil from a nearby tree. It did not tickle. Hauling my carcass – and ego – off the forest floor, I moved the crash pad over to the right eight inches. Second attempt I was successful by passing the previous spot I made it to and was relieved to send the problem without any more falls. This was the perfect way to end the trip. We still had about an hour before having to drive back to Cleveland, so we worked on Earth Mechanics (V5) till we absolutely had to leave. I have since learned that what I was projecting was not Earth Mechanics (it’s around the corner) and I’m still unsure of what I was projecting. After grabbing a quick lunch in Baraboo the time to return to Cleveland was upon us. The rolling hills turned quickly into flat farmland and I was already scheming a way to return before the harsh Wisconsin winter came in full force.