Climbers Find Their Bliss Cliff Side

a beginner's guide to rock climbing

Cheri Dostal

Stout Adventures member Branden Michelkamp climbs a 5.9 route named PWB Arete, which is located at the Hillbilly Buttress just south of Coloma, WI.
Stout Adventures member Branden Michelkamp climbs a 5.9 route named PWB Arete, which is located at the Hillbilly Buttress just south of Coloma, WI.

I have man hands. At least I feel that way when I climb often, which is ... well, often. I never get manicures, mostly because that investment would be immediately rendered futile by my fetish for rock climbing. My nails stay short, calluses growing on each finger pad and along the edge of my palms. Once every several weeks, my fingertips molt. They peel and the fresh pink skin beneath begs to be toughened and strengthened by my next climb. My soul speaks the same language, desiring to get out into the wild, getting my feet dirty and my hands on the rock.

My first outdoor climbing experience was at Barn Bluff in Red Wing, MN, a mecca for Midwestern climbers in need of vertical spaces. I watched as my friends went ahead for the first climb of the day, a route called The Perfect Climb. The start looked pretty easy, with big ledges to hoist yourself onto and a hands-free rest to enjoy while you pause, feet firmly underneath you. Then the rock narrows into two opposing faces, with a place near the top that juts out from the right, forcing you to trust reaching up and over while pressing your feet out to either side, a technique called stemming, to steady yourself at each movement. 

One friend climbed, the other belayed and they together explained the technique of sport climbing. I soaked up every word and rehearsed his movements; all distractions faded. When they were both back on the ground in front of me they asked if I wanted to go next. I answered “yes” without hesitation and finished the route without faltering. A steadfast focus washed over me and I flowed from one move to the next, my soul calm and mind sharply attentive. Fully embodied, climbing became my moving meditation practice.

Climbing connects people to places. Exploring our natural, wild world gets us grounded again, breathing deeply and thrilled to be alive. Climbers create a sense of community, taking care of each other and veterans teaching newbies what they know. Strangers become acquaintances and turn friends through the rigors of taking another’s life in your hands. Trust runs deep. Scars and their accompanying stories keep us entertained until the next trip, heading out to a place we’ve yet met. We call our crag home for the day, offering our blood, sweat, and fears to create a relationship with this place. 

Know the curves, valleys, and trails of each landscape. Smell the fresh spring mud and feel the breeze on your cheeks. We share meals sitting on a log if we’re lucky instead of the ground, glad to have left the city and its sounds behind for several hours. It is quiet. Time as numbers doesn’t matter as you notice the movement of the sun along the sky. You notice the scent of each season, and watch as the earth blooms in spring and fades with fall. Each attempted climb peels away layers of pretention and pride. The rock forces us to be real. Authenticity flows easily when you hang from your fingertips, experiencing the classic human story of struggle, defeat – and sometimes – victory when you see above the trees in blissful solitude at the top before coming back to earth once again.

Great Regional Crags

Barn Bluff, Red Wing MN
Willow River State Park (just east of Hudson WI)
Taylors Falls State Park (border of MN and WI)
Castle Mound, Black River Falls, WI
Devils Lake, WI
Grandad’s Bluff, La Crosse, WI