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A growing fad in ‘flat’ Michigan: rock climbing

LANSING – Rock climbing might be a new tool for conserving the public land that bolsters Michigan’s annual $20 billion tourism industry.

The sport is gaining traction as outdoor enthusiasts look to experience nature differently, especially after indoor climbing gyms closed during the pandemic.

Already, there are 7 million climbers in America, and the sport’s popularity is growing.

For the first time, sport climbing appeared in the August 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The word “climbing” peaked in popularity on Google during that event.

“The nature of the outdoors user continues to evolve over time,” said Brad Garmon, the director of Michigan’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.

“We shouldn’t get stuck in certain ways, where certain activities are legitimized and others not. Let’s figure out what people want to be doing in the outdoors and how we can support it,” Garmon said.

Rock climbing isn’t widely recognized in Michigan because most people don’t expect to find exceptional rock climbing there, Garmon said. That’s one thing that makes rock climbing so exciting: It can reshape how people perceive the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities.

Michigan’s outdoor recreation industry is responsible for 110,000 jobs and $5 billion in wages and salaries annually, according to Garmon’s office.

“The outdoors is part of Michigan’s heritage. It’s part of our economy and our communities. We’re an outdoorsy state,” Garmon said.

Just this year, Slugg’s Bluff in the Upper Peninsula became the first climber-owned area in the state.

The popular crag – climbing lingo for a climbable rock face – is about 20 minutes southwest of Marquette.

People have been climbing there since the 1970s, said Bill Thompson, a board member of the Upper Peninsula Climbing Coalition, a nonprofit group protecting sustainable climbing.

The Arbelius family, who had long owned the 10 acres that is Slugg’s Bluff, recognized that climbers maintained the land and donated it to them, Thompson said.

 

Climbers clean up the trash – anything from broken bottles to fridges – that local nonclimbers toss off the ledge.

Craig Kasmer, a park interpreter at the Department of Natural Resources and a former rock climber, said the heightened awareness that climbing demands lends itself to a deeper connection with nature. That means climbers can play a key role in conserving an area.

“Climbers are aware of their surroundings. With, say, a cyclist, it’s exercise. You need to go from point A to point B and you’re passing by trees and you’re not even looking at them.

“The slower the activity, the better. You have to be slow and meticulous when you’re rock climbing. And so you have time to stop and look at things, to be involved with the nature around you.”

As climbers ascend a wall of rock or ice, their focus is on finding the route. They must be extremely present in the search for different holds, whether with their hands exploring the rock or an ice tool testing the ice.

It’s this awareness and connection to nature that has led organizers of the popular Michigan Ice Fest to set a goal of net zero emissions over the next three years.

The event, held in Munising, initially had 10 climbers in 1991. Now, it attracts over 1,000 from around the world.

“Our passion relies on consistently cold weather, and that’s being threatened by climate change,“ said Matt Abbotts, a co-organizer of the Ice Fest. “If winters are milder or shorter, that means less ice climbing.”

 

The festival takes place an hour east of Slugg’s Bluff, and ice climbers of all levels have come for the past 30 years to climb on the banks of Lake Superior.

“Climbers might not be the biggest community, but it’s a group of strong-willed, passionate individuals who are never afraid of doing the hard work,” Abbotts said.

The U.P. has the most climbing opportunities in Michigan, with over 300 documented roped routes and a myriad of boulder problems – climbing without ropes at lower heights. But the Lower Peninsula is home to some crags, too.

In Grand Ledge, west of Lansing, climbers try to protect one of the only crags in the Lower Peninsula. The part of the park that allows climbing – Oak Park – is city-owned, and officials aren’t good about managing the area, said Ben Poulson, a Grand Ledge climber.

There are competing demands for public dollars, so city management at the ledges has fallen onto the back burner, said Bruce Bright, a member of the Grand Ledge Parks & Recreation Commission.

“In some respects, I would characterize the management of Oak Park as being one of benign neglect,” Bright said.

So, who maintains it?

Climbers.

“If you ban climbing, you’re banning the best environmental stewards from that area,” Poulson said. “If you allow climbing, you’re allowing people who very much care about that area to be there and to police it.”

Bright said members of the climbing community put down wood chips and topsoil and even installed makeshift wooden rails to prevent erosion.

 

People who spend time outdoors feel a shared responsibility to protect it. That’s why it’s so important to get people outside, said Chris Winter, the executive director of the Access Fund, a Colorado-based land trust protecting and preserving climbing crags across America.

“When you connect to the larger landscape, you start really caring about conservation and stewardship,” Winter said.

Still, some landowners with crags on their property resist climbing.

A section in Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act protects landowners from liability for those injured on their land if they were there without paying and for recreation. It mentions activities like hiking, hunting, fishing and camping, but lumps remaining outdoor activities as “any other outdoor recreational use.”

The vague language fails to mention rock climbing, thus raising questions of liability.

The climbing coalition’s Thompson said rock climbing is often perceived as dangerous.

But it’s one of the few activities that has never seen injury or death in Presque Isle, one of Marquette’s most visited parks. Other allowed activities – scuba diving, kayaking, hiking, mountain biking – all had injuries and deaths there, Thompson said.

The Grand Ledge Climbers Coalition and the Upper Peninsula Climbing Coalition partner with the Access Fund to conserve local climbing crags.

The fund’s Winter said, “It’s not only the specific places we like to spend time as climbers, but also the larger landscapes around those places. It’s those larger landscapes that are so inspiring.”

Like any outdoor activity, climbing can adversely impact an area. But instead of banning an activity, management efforts to accommodate it should be bolstered, Bright said.

“Sometimes I think people are overly critical of our visitors. If the rock is damaged by overuse, is that really such a crime compared to what’s taken place over the last 100 years?” Bright said.

Winter said climbers have always played an integral role in protecting the lands that all people – climbers and non-climbers – love and enjoy.

“As we look to the future, in the bigger picture of conservation, we have to be tackling these big environmental challenges of our time,” Winter said.

“We have to do that both to protect outdoor climbing but also to protect the environment more broadly.”

Camryn Cass reports for Great Lakes Echo.  Cameryn is a third-year student at Michigan State University, where she will graduate in May 2023. She has an endlessly curious mind, which helps her tremendously in her pursuit of journalism and reporting. She’s open to writing about anything and everything, appreciative of all opportunities to hone her writing skills. Outside of writing, she loves reading, hiking and teaching yoga. She intends to continue growing and learning throughout her career at MSU and well beyond.

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Cameryn Cass

Cameryn is graduating in May from Michigan State University. I’ve long enjoyed any and every activity that reminds me I’m alive; it’s no wonder I’m entranced by rock climbing. The connection you feel to everything — the rock, nature, yourself — when climbing is unparalleled and I’m so lucky to be able to write all about it.  In 2023 I will be embarking and a new adventure to Sydney, Australia where I will be sharing with readers the hot Australian  climbing scene and techniques making its way to the U.S.   

Steven Hu

Self-Taught Austin Street Photographer

Jason Chang

I’m Jason Chang, R32 dad, and Southern Cal dude, and I run the instagram account @theshortbeta. 

Edgar Martinez

Team Texas Climbing Dad and Sports Photographer

bouldering indoor rock climber

Andy Moss

Andy Moss is a traveling photographer currently based in Ohio. Her work focuses on landscapes, outdoor adventure, and lifestyle. 
Outside of photography, Andy loves rock climbing, backpacking, and drawing. She works as a route setter at a climbing gym and as a park guide for the NPS.

Troy Bassham

Troy is the primary instructor for high school and collegiate athletes at Mental Management Systems.  He works with players ages 13 and up.  Troy has been teaching Mental Management since 1995 and has been working with competitive golfers since 2004.  His main focus is helping players develop mental consistency during play, perform under pressure, build self-image of a winner, and training principles that focus on developing the mind and body at the same time.  Troy’s clients have won local, state and national events using Mental Management.  

Matt Dendy

Matt has been around for a long time in the Texas climbing community and started out working as a route setter and assistant manager at the Summit Carrollton location (currently Team Texas Training Center) when it was called Exposure in 2000. He then was a head route setter of a few different gyms around town over the next several years. 

In 2006 he started a business as a contract route setter where he set for many of the gyms in the metroplex commercially and for competitions. While coaching and setting part time Matt earned an Associate of Applied Science degree from Brookhaven College in 2008 and passed his registry exam for Radiography which he still maintains his certifications. Matt’s passion has always been coaching kids and helping them grow as climbers and most importantly helping them become better people. Matt has been coaching competitive climbers since 2004 and has been a coach with Team Texas starting in 2011. 

Matt has worked with climbers of all ages and abilities either during practice times, camps, clinics, or through private lessons. Matt has many athletes he’s coached over the years have success at the local, national, and on the world stage. Matt has coached notable climber Delany Miller who has won many National level events in youth and adult and who is now a professional climber and writer. Matt also coached a former local youth climber Grace Mckeehan who won the overall at the 2015 Youth World Championship in Arco, Italy. 

Matt is currently focused on preparing the the youth climbers of Team Texas and some adult climbers for all different levels of competition or training for outdoor pursuits. Matt also has a passion for developing new bouldering outside and has established well over 200 first ascents and counting in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Matt started documenting and writing guidebooks for local outdoor areas around 2003 and has written several published books already and has plans to write more in the future. When Matt isn’t coaching, route setting or writing guidebooks he enjoys spending time with his wife Amy and is always trying to keep up with his two boys Jackson and Carson who are also developing into great climbers. 

Matt’s oldest son Jackson earned a spot on the U.S. National Team this past year for the first time at the 2022 Youth Nationals placing 3rd in bouldering. Matt’s current role at Summit and Team Texas is coaching and route setting for the youth climbers either through commercial/competitive means, clinics and or camps to prepare them for high level competition.

Noah Hardwick

Noah has a Bachelors of Science, NASM CPT, MAT Jump Start and 15 years training experience with elite and professional athletes of all ages with a focus on biomechanics and injury prevention.

Marisa Michael

MSc, RDN, CSSD

Marisa Michael is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of Nutrition for Climbers: Fuel for the Send. She serves on the USA Climbing medical committee and has a private practice in Portland, Oregon. Find her online at nutritionforclimbers.com,  download free fueling guides, or follow her on Instagram @realnutritiondietitian for nutrition coaching, workshops, and writing services.

Merritt Ernsberger

My name is Merritt Ernsberger, and I am 22 years old. I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma which is where I found my love for climbing. I began climbing at 13 years old, which is very late when compared to the average competitor, in an old, outdated climbing gym that had been converted from a grain silo. Throughout my entire life my parents had been plagued by financial struggles, but they still sacrificed a huge amount of what they had to support my brother and I through our youth careers. I began competing in USA Climbing youth competitions in 2014. 

I quickly moved to Dallas to increase my training regime and to become a coach for Team Texas, which I am now the head speed climbing coach for. After years of hard work, in March 2021, I finally took my first victory in any USA Climbing event, local or national. Since then I have competed more regularly in the international circuit. For the vast majority of my climbing career I considered myself a nobody, but I never stopped believing in myself or working as hard as I could to make my dreams come true. I still have many more dreams that I will not stop working towards until they have been achieved.

Selah Taylor

Selah is the Director of Youth Programs as Summit Gyms in Plano, Grapevine, Denton and Carrollton.  

Mariana Steelsmith

United Rocks Story: After receiving the news that our newborn baby Jake had down syndrome, we were concerned of what the future will look like for him. We started thinking about what we can do to create a legacy for him and other kids like him so they will excel in their lives and be accepted, included and respected. Having extensive experience and support with our oldest son Gabriel in the rock climbing community, we decided to pursue the idea of creating a rock climbing team for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

Practicing and competing in the sport for over 7 years, coaches and teammates not only helped my oldest son to get strong and fit they also helped him with developing and improving his confidence, problem solving skills, focus, trust and social skills. I believe that the sport of rock climbing will help my son Jake and other kids with disabilities improve their physical skills, focus, confidence, independence and social skills. I am also confident that the rock climbing community will help us create awareness and inclusion so they can shine in their lives and in their communities. 

That’s how “United Rocks” Unity with Community came to life. We have come a long way in one year. From the inspiration that rock climbing might be a way to support our son, Jake, who was born with down syndrome… To the vision for a rock-climbing community where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities could not only be safe and accepted, but where they could also grow and thrive… 

To the creation of a non-profit organization with a business plan, forward-thinking goals, a governing board, and a physical location where it could happen. Our Grand Opening took place on November 14, 2021, with around 50 people who supported and shared our vision: participants, vendors, and volunteers. On February 6, 2022, we had our first practice with 5 participants. From there we have grown steadily in numbers of participants, in support persons, in volunteers, and in guests. Our goals and dreams are growing as well.

bouldering indoor rock climber

Niko Romero

Niko is the Head Coach of the world renowned, Team Texas competitive climbing team. Niko has been coaching for 6 years and was an accomplished climber himself for 16 years.

Niko was a member of the Youth National Team in speed climbing, a youth national finalist many times over, and has competed in France, Ecuador, Chile, Italy, and Mexico representing the US in youth and adult competitions.

As head coach of Texas Texas, Niko has led the team to the top of the podium in every regional and divisional championship, and at the Youth National Championships, has won bouldering and speed in 2021, and bouldering and lead in 2022.

Mitch Hagy

Mitch grew up in Indianapolis, IN and after ventures into aviation, music and auto racing, Mitch moved to Denton, TX in 1992.  

Mitch attended Indiana State University and Purdue University and is a graduate of the University of North Texas.  Mitch received his M.B.A. in 2004 during the year of the birth of his first born, Nathanael.  

His youngest, Paisley was born in 2010, the same year Mitch founded FOTOSPORT, a sports photography and publishing company.  An entrepreneur at heart, Mitch innovated the use of a green screen to create team composites for high school football teams.  His efficient format allowed football coaches to avoid the 3-4 hour dreaded picture day, and complete the process within an hour.  Word spread and his reputation grew to many other schools and teams, 

In 2014, Mitch began to publish sports media guides that were sold during high school football games.  Recognizing an industry increase in the cost to print as well as the limited ROI for advertisers, Mitch created some of the first digital sports magazines for high school sports teams.  

After ten years, nearly 200 high school teams and over 17,000 images a year taken,  Covid-19, closed all the schools and Mitch was forced to shut down operations of FOTOSPORT and seek other opportunities.  

Today, with the 2022 high school graduation of his son Nate, Mitch has embarked on a path to help his daughter reach the highest levels of competitive sport climbing.  Recognizing the limited support and media coverage of the sport, Mitch has created SPORTCLIMBER, a North American media hub dedicated to the promotion of Youth Sport Climbing Athletes.  

Mitch has brought along some of the top coaches, trainers, fitness and health experts, olympic gold medalists and incredibly talented photographers to help promote and grow this great sport of sport climbing.