Last weekend my semester ended and I made a trip to Minnesota to sample some of the finest bouldering in the Midwest. Having been raised in Michigan it was great to return to a scene that has many of things I greatly enjoy about bouldering. Motivated locals, quiet climbing areas, and beautiful north woods scenery. I was hoping to climb a V10 in the state, but more importantly to see some of the classic problems that have been established over the years by the dedicated locals and as always, try to find some new rock!
After scouring the internet I found a ticket to Minneapolis for $100. I flew in on Thursday and local strong man and guidebook author Nic Oklobzija picked me up from the airport. We went straight to the town of Sandstone, and met up with a crew of motivated locals, some of whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years! Sandstone is the hopping off point for a number of zones in and around Banning State Park. We went first to Elden’s, an area originally found and developed by Organic owner Josh Helke. Elden’s was closed to climbing for years, but thanks to a welcoming landowner and the hard work of the local climbing scene, the area is now open to the public for climbing. Nic gave me a great tour. The area is small, but the rock is good and the setting was calm and peaceful along the Kettle River. The most outstanding problem there is Oklobzija’s The Raven V12. The Raven, previously referred to as the 30 Degree Wall, was a project for years until Nic finally unlocked the devious sequence. It would be classic anywhere in the world. Excellent rock, perfect starting hold, flat landing make it a must do for the visiting climber and a possible four star problem. I failed to do the crux move, but our crew was laughing and having such a great time it didn’t matter. I am motivated to return in better conditions to try and climb the line. Traveling climb Paul Nadler was there as well, and had climbed the line the previous day.
On such a short trip I much prefer to see as much as I can instead of trying to send something hard. My V10 or harder in every state remains a challenge and MN, WI and MI are all missing from my list. The Raven would be en excellent candidate for my MN tick.
The next day local Tyler Thurmes and I drove up north, towards Duluth and the north woods. The weather was unseasonably warm, but we were resting and it just felt great to be outside. We crested a hill just outside of Duluth and the massive blue presence of Lake Superior dominated the skyline. For those that don’t know, Lake Superior is enormous. It is the largest of The Great Lakes and is generally considered the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world, with a maximum depth of 1300 ft.
Tyler is super motivated and we ran up and down the rocky coast line. Thunder rolled in the distance, while crystal clear water waves lapped along the shore. We found a number of nice unclimbed boulders, that would best be climbed in winter, when the water freezes. That was hard to imagine as the temperature moved impossibly into the 90s but we continued exploring. We decided on a new locale, this one now deep into the dense mixed forest. Wolf scat dotted the trail. We checked out some established problems, including the incredible and bold Mad and Rich V7. The sky reddened and the forest closed in. I hoped for the lonely howl of a wolf that never came.
We camped along the Baptist River and that night the temperature dropped dramatically. We woke in the morning to good conditions and the smell of the fresh pine forest filled the air. Coming from the dry and often desert like conditions of Colorado, Minnesota felt fresh and cool. Motivation was high as we drove down the road towards what is probably the best bouldering area in MN, Sawmill Creek Dome.
Sawmill is a small rounded dome made of polished anorthosite tucked into a dense forest along the Superior Hiking Trail. Climbers have been bouldering there for years, and Andy Raether and his father were two of the first to visit the area. The area is reminiscent of Cresciano in Switzerland, although it would be unfair to compare the two directly. Perhaps the most well known of Sawmill’s lines is a big, beautiful overhang on one of the largest boulders. The stand start to the line was established in 2002 by local legend Jim Merli. Jim has kept a fairly low profile over the years, but that hasn’t stopped him from repeated any number of classic and hard problems around the country. Jim has incredible finger strength, and lucky for him, the crux of The Amateur revolves around two of very small and miserable crimps. To put Jim’s first ascent in perspective, the only problems of this difficulty that were established at the time were a handful of V12s. I first heard of the Amateur in 2005 when I met Jim and Brian Camp in Joe’s Valley.
But the real prize is the full line. In June 2014 Jim linked the entire line from a sit start, establishing one of the hardest problems in the country L’Etoile du Nord . No one really knows for sure how hard this problem is because no one else can do the moves. It adds an estimated V13 into the established V12 with no real break. It’s an incredible testament to Jim’s strength and persistence, as he worked the line off and on for over 10 years. It certainly one of the hardest problems I’ve seen in the US and I can’t imagine it would be any easier than solid V14. And best of all, it is an absolute classic, much better in fact than many of the V14s you’ve probably heard about here in Colorado. Jim filmed hundreds of attempts and his hard work paid off with uncut footage of the first ascent:
To me this ascent represents many great things of climbing.
Jim joined us at Sawmill that day, a day that finally saw the second ascent of the Amateur, 14 years after it was first established. I tried the line for a while to no avail, climbed some easier things and again got a great tour of everything from Nic. It was a beautiful early spring day in the north woods.
We camped again that night along the Baptiste River and made our way back south in the morning to Banning State Park. It was a rest day for me but we got to see a new area and a great new roof recently established by Tyler Thurmes, The Wheel of Banning V10.
For my final day, Nic had something special in mind. He had been to a remote corner of my home state of Michigan and seen a massive boulder, on a tip from some locals who had been there previously. We left his house at 5:15 AM on Monday and made the nearly 5 hour drive deep into the Upper Peninsula. It was a long way for a day trip but sometimes motivation can supersede just about everything. The roads worsened and finally we came to a dead end in a thick deciduous wood. Stepping out of the truck, we were immediately engulfed with bugs. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Nic and Tyler both had at least 100 bugs swarming them. Fool hardy motivation got us moving, and as we stepped away the bugs appeared to die down, giving us hope for the day. We marched through the forest on a faint trail with massive packs, finally cresting a hill to a dramatic vista of northern MI. Breaking off the trail we descended steeply to the front of the massive and broken cliff, stumbling along the uneven and rocky terrain for a while before finally reaching our destination. The bugs were hellish, but we stayed and cleaned the boulder for several hours and built up the landing. I hope to return in the fall. Perhaps this boulder will produce a tall and classic new problem for the state of MI.
After all these years it was wonderful to finally come full circle, and have the hunt for new rock bring me back to my home state. As my life has changed so much since I began, climbing for me has also changed. But in a way it has remained the same. My love for the outdoors, finding new rock and spending time with good down to earth people I don’t think will ever go away. Climbing is an amazing thing, and it continues to bring unexpected joy and meaning to my life. For that I am ever thankful.
If you are interested in visiting the area, pick up a guidebook here.