Climbing when no one wants to climb with you
by Jim Settle (VJ4 winter '99)


 Without a steady partner, my first climbing pursuits focused on bouldering. I pulled hard and flashed my way to many summits. After a couple months, though, I grew dissatisfied with 10-foot routes and began to climb higher on the rock. A marriage and a child later, I began to think twice about the whole soloing thing.

I started looking for advice on self-belay techniques. This turned out to be both entertaining and confusing. One climber (this is the truth) said his self-belay rig included two slings, two biners and a clothespin! Other (more sane?) climbers were using ascenders, prussiks and clove hitches.

Eventually, I gave up and shelled out $100 for a Rock Exotica Soloist. I bought a chest harness and thoroughly read the instructions, trying to figure out how to rig the thing. Giving up (seemed like part "A" wouldn't really fit into part "B"), I decided to just go to the crags and try it out.

It was at this time, my wife was suggesting a family weekend to the North Shore. Now my wife doesn't climb, and we have this general understanding that a "family vacation" means that I don't take off by myself to play. However, I had this new toy, you see, and I had heard about this bit of rock known as "Section 13". Since my "family weekend" would be spent in Schroeder, Minnesota, just north of Section 13, I figured I could certainly escape for a couple of hours.

We arrived Saturday afternoon. My plan was to sneak away early Sunday while everyone was asleep. The evening was jolly and no one suspected my scheme.

The next day, I retrieved my hidden climbing gear from the trunk of the car, turned the key in the ignition, and headed toward Section 13.

For those of you unfamiliar with this area, it can be found off Highway 1 near Finland, Minnesota. Currently, access to Section 13 involves only a short walk on the Superior Hiking Trail. My story, however, takes place before this section of trail was installed.

After a short drive, I turned down County Road 6 and made my way to the gravel pit highlighted in the guidebook. There I checked my watch. I was making good time.

I pulled on my backpack and consulted the guidebook. "From the back of the gravel pit, follow a faint trail that runs slightly east of north." No problem.

After scrambling for a couple of minutes to find the "back" of the gravel pit, I entered the woods opposite of the pit entrance. My search began.

I hiked the faint trails for an hour and eventually found myself standing in a swamp. This was good, however, as my guidebook said to cross a wide marshy area. I figured that this must mean swamp.

After escaping the muck and Cattails and skirting the real wide marshy area, I found that I was gaining elevation. I continued, and eventually found myself on the top of Section 13.

I checked my watch again and was sure that my family had already eaten breakfast and were, in fact, probably getting hungry for lunch.

"One climb," I told myself. "Just to check this thing out."

I anchored my rope on the western section of the cliff and followed a ramp to the bottom. There, I anxiously put on my harness and rigged my Soloist.

The first few moves were easy and after 10 feet or so, I stopped to tie a back-up knot (as per instructions). The device worked well and my rope was smoothly feeding through it.

The moves were straightforward and fun. I soon lost myself in the moment and just climbed. I forgot about the time and was almost to the top of the crag when I ran out of holds. Realizing that I was off route, I decided to simply down-climb a bit.

I reached down to move the Soloist along, but it wouldn't slide. It was clasping hard onto the rope and I was stuck.

I hung helplessly, slowly slipping into panic. A large crow flew past, perhaps eyeing me for a future meal. Morbid thoughts raced through my head. When does hunting season start again? How cold is it supposed to get tonight? Do crows really peck people's eyes out when they're stuck hanging from the end of a rope? Another crow swooped by.

Scared numb, I stared at my new piece of gear and deeply pondered my descent. After some hard thinking and many attempts, I somehow used my teeth, one hand and my chin (don't even ask) to hold some slack. I fed this through the device and it coughed back to life, slowly but smoothly crawling downrope.

After making my way back unto the route, I quickly finished the climb. I hastily gathered my gear, threw a rock at a crow and got out of there.

Peeling out of the gravel pit, my thoughts went back and forth between two subjects: First, what was the long drive home with my wife going to be like? And second, that self-belay device worked pretty well until I messed up. Maybe I just need to practice a little more.

Then I started planning my next climbing trip.