On-Sighting the Strip Joint

by Peter Pierson (VJ7 spring 2000)

Scooter was the archetypal climbing buddy. He was spontaneous, yet free from violent mood swings. He was slow to pass judgment regarding motives, but would brutally point out realities such as my rapid weight gain in the months following my return to an indoors job after seasons of paid adventure. In consummate climbing buddy form, I have not seen him for ages and have no idea where he is. But for two wonderful years, no muddy ledge, no fake-rock facade, no towering casino billboard went unclimbed.  

 Scooter was particularly fond of bouldering interstate highway rest stops. We broke the monotony of caffeine-fueled marathon drives with runs up the undersides of the 1960's-mod low-angle roofs of prairie and pine picnic stops. Wisconsin and Minnesota tuned our speed and stealth. On our way to and from southeast Wisconsin to catch the 'Dead between twenty-nine day Boundary Waters stints, the older waysides offered exposed vertical supports that were perfect for liebacks. The rest areas were staffed round-the-clock; we had to move quickly or were chased off by semi-retired Department of Transportation workers. Occasionally, we could boulder for hours in cool pre-dawn mornings before a half-awake host would take an interest in what we were doing and offer "just don't fall."

But during the winter we shared on northeast Minnesota's Iron Range I saw Scooter at his best. In the artificial landscape of the Range, deep abandoned mine pits create an island of every town. The massive cliffs that lead to these deep, blue reservoirs just fueled his appetite. We could stare through rusty fencing down literally three and four hundred feet of low-grade taconite and iron ore faces. At a distance, they seemed a climber's dream. But near the top of these cliffs, the ground becomes crumbly. The rock's inherent instability and the effects of minus fifty degree winter nights, compounded by decades of blasting, make for lousy, loose faces, impractical and unsafe to anchor or grip. So we turned to architecture.

Scooter's frustration with these unclimbable pits was let loose on the turn-of-the-century ornamental facades on the bars and stores that line main streets in Virginia, Biwabik, Aurora, and Mountain Iron. As we would step into the door of a bar, I would often turn to find Scooter fixed in place, eyes up. I'd shut the door and step back out. There he would be, staring, sometimes pantomiming a crux move from the sidewalk.

"I think if I can mantle that ledge over the door," he thought out loud, "I could reach the fake rock at the second floor."