With winter just around the corner, climbing season is wrapping up in Wisconsin. That makes this a great time of year to head south to some warmer weather. Just like last fall, I went with a big group to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky for some world-class sport climbing. The Red is full of overhanging routes with big holds, just the kind of climbing I enjoy for pushing myself physically. And the fact that many of the walls are sport-bolted means that I don’t have to worry as much about the consequences of taking a big fall.
Like last spring, our group camped at Lago Linda’s, which has a more relaxed atmosphere than the famous and crowded Miguel’s. After driving all night, it was a little disheartening to arrive at the gorge to a persistent drizzle. I talked to some other climbers and learned that the previous week had been very cold. Then, over the last few days, the temperature of the air had risen quicker than that of the rocks This caused the rocks to sap moisture from the air, similar to what happens to your glasses when you walk into a warm building on a cold winter day. Because of the sweaty rocks, almost nobody had been climbing for the past few days, and once again, everyone at Lago Linda’s appeared content to take a rest day on Thursday.
With only a short window for climbing, our group decided to go out anyway. We headed to a crag called The Chocolate Factory and were pleasantly surprised to discover that most of the routes were dry. On top of that, the rain held off all afternoon, so we got in a few fun climbs.
Despite a thunderstorm on Thursday night, by Friday morning the majority of the routes in the gorge were dry. The next three days were warm and sunny, allowing us climb plenty of amazing routes in Muir Valley. By the time we left the gorge on Sunday afternoon, everyone was sore. But we all had smiles on our faces.
A few weeks ago I went to see Elephant Revival play at the High Noon Saloon in Madison. The Colorado-based string quintet wowed a large Thursday crowd with their fiddle, mandolin, and guitars accompanied with stomp box and washboard percussion.
Josh Klemons asked me to take some pictures of the band for a review he was writing for relix and I happily obliged.
Last weekend I went on the Hoofer Outing Club’s annual whitewater fall colors trip. We camped at the club’s land called “Hooferland” in northern Wisconsin and kayaked different rivers each day. The trees were still mostly green and the water was a bit low, but we managed to find some fun rivers to kayak.
Most of the pictures I shot were at Monastery Falls on the Red River. The takeout on the Red was sad because for most of us, this will be our last time kayaking on rivers until spring. But at least we can still kayak in the swimming pool all winter. (Seriously.)
Hoofer Outing Club’s Website
I made a quick trip to Governor Dodge State Park, about an hour from Madison, with the Hoofer Mountaineering Club for some bouldering on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. We started at the Backbone, a beautiful wall with dozens of problems ranging in difficulty from V0 to V8. To end the day, we went to the Godfather Boulder, which is probably the most famous rock in the park. It’s tall, overhung, and has problems with names like Corleone’s Corner and Sleeping with the Fishes. This was a fun day to get outside while the weather was still warm.
Recently I went with on a trip with a group of nine to the Door Peninsula in eastern Wisconsin. After driving to the very end of the land (the tip of your thumb if you’re making the Wisconsin map with your hand), we drove onto a ferry to cross the open waters of Lake Michigan to Washington Island. This is a popular tourism destination full of little restaurants, shops and importantly, roads. We drove across the island, parked the car and carried our backpacks aboard another ferry. This ferry took us to remote Rock Island, where no cars are allowed.
The first thing we saw on Rock Island was the Viking Boathouse, which contained an entire table setting of beautiful, unique furniture carvings by Hallor Einarsson of Iceland. Each of the carvings on the chairs describes an ancient Nordic myth. The boathouse itself was constructed as a private vacation residence for Chester Hjortur Thordason. The island was converted to a state park several years after his death.
Our group had reserved a few of the backpacker campsites, so we carried our camping gear for about a mile along a lush green trail. Our campsites were at the edge of the forest, next to the ocean-like shore of Lake Michigan. We spent the next day exploring the small island, whose most popular landmark other than the boathouse is Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse. Our time on Rock Island was extremely relaxing, both walking through the quiet forests and being lulled into a peaceful sleep by the continuous lapping waves of the lake.
On the way home, we stopped at Nelsen’s Hall Bitter’s Pub on Washington Island. The bar was opened in 1899 and during prohibition, owner Tom Nelsen got a pharmacist’s license so he could sell a stomach tonic called Angustora Aromatic Bitters. He drank a pint of the 90-proof tonic daily and credited his longevity to it. Because Nelsen’s remained open during prohibition, it is the longest continually operated tavern in Wisconsin.
My stomach convulsed from the medicinal quality of my bitters shot, so I could understand why a prohibition-era judge ruled that there was no way anyone would drink such a thing for recreational purposes. At least now I’m a lifelong member of the bitters club.
By the time we finally fixed the flat tire after our Crestone Needle climb (see the video from my previous entry), the afternoon rain was upon us. Even as we drove into the valley, we could see that the storm wouldn’t let up, so there would be nowhere we could reasonably expect to climb in southern Colorado. Instead, we made a brief stop in Denver to visit some of Kim’s friends, then set out for an overnight drive toward Wisconsin.
We got to northeastern Iowa early in the morning and were only a few hours from home, so we decided to do some climbing at Pictured Rocks County Park in Monticello. None of us had been there, and it was refreshing to see a lush green forest amid the Iowan cornfields. Kim got in her first sport lead, Gokul climbed barefoot, and I struggled my way through a tough overhanging route. All in all, it was a fun day and I was glad to have gotten just a bit more climbing in on our long weekend trip.
Over Labor Day weekend, Kim, Gokul and I took a road trip to Colorado to climb the Crestone Needle. This mountain was featured in Fifty Classic Climbs on North America by Steve Roper and Allen Steck. We climbed the Ellingwood Ledges route, which contains several grassy ledges interspersed with rock scrambles and a few roped pitches near the summit. The climb went amazingly smooth, with our biggest problem happening once we got back to the car.
Rather than try to capture the whole trip in words, I have put together this video:
And here are my photos from the climb:
Crestone Needle Photos
I recently went climbing with three friends in Necedah, WI. After a nice sport warmup on a 5.6 called Air, I went for my first ever trad lead. It was only a 5.4, which I could normally climb without even thinking about it, but having to place my own protection made it a mental challenge. I started to get worried when I got about three-quarters of the way to the top and was almost out of protection – I hadn’t taken nearly enough with me. I ended up running out the last section, then spending about twenty minutes at the top of the climb trying to figure out how to build an anchor with the single nut and two cams I still had on my rack. Eventually I found a few good placements, built an anchor and enjoyed the panoramic view from the highest point in at least ten miles. Even though it was an easy lead, it was a great feeling to get it under my belt.
On the way home, our group stopped at Ship Rock. The easiest route to the top was low fifth class, but we didn’t know exactly what that route was. We walked around the rock and scouted it, then made our way to the top to the delight of several onlookers who were having a picnic in the park below us. When we stood at the summit, we discovered that there was a bolt anchor, so we could rappel instead of attempting a sketchy down-climb. Ship Rock had the feel of an alpine route, right here in Wisconsin. Soon I would be off to do some actual alpine climbing out West…
Madison, WI recently hosted its annual Couch Crash, where we invite members from CouchSurfing.org to come to our city for a weekend of festivities. It was an amazing weekend, with lots of interesting people in attendance and many amazing events to partake in.
Here’s a little video I put together which summarizes the weekend:
Here are some photos from the crash.
“A group of twelve, huh?” asked Smokey. He was past retirement age and seemed like a nice enough man to have as a campground host.
“Yes,” Ted said. “Is there enough space for us for two nights?” We were still in his car and had just pulled into the campground when Smokey stopped us.
“Well, you’ll need two sites for your group. I have two open sites for tonight, but only one for tomorrow. They cost nineteen bucks each. This is a real nice place. Lots of good fishing here.”
“I think we should keep looking,” I said to Ted, loud enough for Smokey to hear. “I don’t want to have to move tomorrow.”
“Don’t bother,” Smokey said. “Every campground upstream of here is already full.”
We had just entered the Poudre Canyon west of Fort Collins after driving through the afternoon and into the night. The four cars in our group had gotten spread out during our drive. There were several other campgrounds on the Cache La Poudre River, where we planned to spend our final days in Colorado, but we had agreed to meet at this one first.
Ted and I discussed the situation and he convinced me that we should stay put – even if Smokey was wrong about the other campgrounds being full, we wouldn’t be able to communicate with the other cars if we left because there was no cellphone reception within the canyon.
But something about Smokey’s demeanor seemed out of place.
“Did a car with boats on its roof stop by here tonight?” I asked, helpfully pointing up to the four kayaks that were on top of Ted’s car. Ken’s car should have arrived at least a few minutes ahead of ours.
“Nope, I just kicked two kids out for trying to poach, but that’s it. Nobody’s come through here with boats all night.”
“All right,” Ted said. “I’ll pay for both campsites for tonight.”
“Great, I’m sure you’ll love it here. You need to fill out this form,” Smokey said, producing a clipboard and a piece of paper. “But I can do it for you.”
Ted paid Smokey cash for our sites and we started to set up our tents. A few minutes later, Christophe’s car showed up, so only two of our cars were still missing. Just as I finished blowing up my air mattress and laying out my sleeping bag, Ken’s car showed up. There was a problem, though – Michelle was in the car, but Dave was missing.
The six of us who were setting up camp listened closely as Michelle explained their story. It turned out that Ken’s car had arrived first and they had already talked with Smokey. Knowing that they had some time before the rest of us showed up, they decided to keep looking at the campgrounds that were further into the canyon. They found two empty sites a few miles up the road and paid for two nights, leaving Dave behind to flag down the other cars in our group as they passed. Then Ken and Michelle returned to tell us the good news.
“But we already paid for our sites here,” I said.
“Didn’t Smokey tell you guys to wait for us to come back?” Michelle asked. “I told him you were just a few minutes behind us.”
“No, he told us he hadn’t seen anyone else with kayaks all night.”
It all started to click now – Smokey was going to pocket our money! Because we paid cash and hadn’t made a reservation, there would be no paper trail. Smokey’s generous offer to “fill out the form” on Ted’s behalf was further evidence. It was 10:00 PM and we were in a remote campground – nobody would notice if the host, instead of the state government, suddenly became $38 richer. It was the perfect crime.
But Smokey had gotten greedy. By not telling us that our friends were already looking for a site, he risked having us find out about his little side business. Because Ted and Michelle were the two who had talked with Smokey, they went to his trailer to demand their money back. Smokey was conspicuously missing, but his wife was there. She apologized for the mix-up and returned the money. That was the final proof we needed – if Smokey had slid our money through the slot of the locked payment box like he was supposed to, he wouldn’t have been able to return it to us.
Lesson learned: Get a receipt when you pay for camping or your money might conveniently disappear.
Dan’s car showed up a few minutes later, so we were all together. We drove a few miles up the road and set up camp on a section of the Cache La Poudre River called The Narrows. The river near our site was full of Class IV’s and V’s and therefore too burly for our group. Instead, we decided to kayak an easier section that was a little further upstream.
As soon as we got into our kayaks the next morning, we saw that the Poudre was different from the Arkansas because the river was so rocky. It looked like a more difficult version of the Wolf River in Wisconsin at low water. With the twelve of us ping-ponging off of the rocks and taking multiple lines for each rapid, it soon became apparent that our group was too big for its own good. We decided to split into two groups of six and I went in the first group with Christophe leading the way. We navigated around a few long stretches of Class II water, then hit a bigger Class III that led us through a tight S-shaped turn like a water slide around some boulders and dropped us into a large pool.
The river downstream of us was mostly obscured by a couple of boulders, so Christophe decided to get out and take a look. I soon followed and scrambled up the forest hill and onto the highway. It started to rain as we walked about 100 yards down the road, staring at the river. The rocks and whitewater below us created a maze of navigation with no places to rest. Then we spotted a drop with a hole that looked sticky. It would be easy to avoid if we picked a good line, but we wouldn’t be able to see it from our kayaks.
If the rapid had ended there, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but looking further downstream, the whitewater continued for a few hundred more yards before the river rounded a bend and left our view. The sheer length of this rapid made it a risky proposition for our group. If one of us swam, there would be a long and difficult cleanup effort, and with a group of our size and limited experience, someone was going to swim.
When our other leaders got out and saw that this was what our entire run would likely look like, they had a conference and decided to call it off before someone got seriously injured. As it continued to rain, we went through the arduous process of hauling all of the kayaks up the hill to the road with ropes, then someone ran back to a car so we could start packing our gear. I was disappointed to end the run so early, but we were clearly in over our heads. Unfortunately, river conditions can change from day to day, so you often don’t know how difficult a section of whitewater will be until you get on it.
It was early in the afternoon, so maybe we’d still have time for a short run, but the river was giving us “bad juju.” With the thunderstorm now beating down on us, we decided to call it a day and head to the New Belgium brewery in nearby Ft. Collins. As our group drove out of the canyon, we hit some muddy debris in the ground, then our lead car came back toward us, flashing its lights. The thunderstorm had triggered a mudslide and left the road covered in four feet of mud. Our bad juju had turned worse – our only realistic way out had been blocked. Luckily there was a gas station in the canyon, so we bought some New Belgium beer and spent the afternoon at our campsite, lest the river gods strike us down for good.
For our final day in Colorado, we got packed and headed downstream to another section of the Poudre. The rain was gone and the road had been cleared. Our final run was fun and short, taking us only two hours to complete. The only incident our group had was a broken paddle, but even that was due to years of wear, not from a single collision with a rock. It was just the run we needed to end the trip.
I probably encountered more rapids in a week than I had in my whole life of kayaking in Wisconsin. This accelerated my skills in both reading rivers and running rapids. Many thanks go out to Dan and the other river leaders who made this trip happen. They could have taken a small group of experienced paddlers and easily run these sections, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to join in. And I was especially happy that despite our setbacks, we all made it back home with no major injuries.