I have a confession: I love Midwest bouldering.
Although I live in Dubai, I squander my leisure time researching boulders on America’s grand prairie. My bookcase has an entire shelf dedicated to my collection of Midwest climbing guidebooks. The first guidebook I purchased was Sandstone Warrior: Bouldering Southern Illinois by Matt Bliss. Today, you’ll find it stained, marked with personal notes, and dog-eared from years of trips to some of the world’s best sandstone boulders. Unfortunately, just as I left my Midwest roots for global pursuits, the bouldering of Missouri and other heartland states experienced a resurgence, something that pains me to this day.
On trips back home, you’ll find me asleep in the back of my parents’ Ford Escape after climbing in whichever Midwestern state I’ve sojourned to. While friends try to convince me into extended drives west or south, I’d rather drive down familiar roads navigating the hometown crags of Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, or Indiana.
What makes bouldering in the Midwest seductive? Two things: The elusive nature of the boulders and the camaraderie of local, land-locked climbers.
Upon entering the Front Range of Colorado, the bouldering potential is painstakingly obvious. In contrast, boulders residing between North Dakota and Ohio require an Easter egg hunt. This means parking your car on the highway to bushwhack after catching glimpses of some distant cliffs. It means neglecting your loving wife by spending hours on Google Earth, then convincing her to drive hours at the possibility of finding something. When nothing is discovered, it oftentimes means buying back her love with a trip to Dairy Queen. It can even mean dragging your 70-year-old father into the backwoods of redneck territory only to realize that even if you don’t find anything, you two will always have a memory together in America’s nature.
Heartland climbers are indefatigable. For a week during the summer of 2011, my old climbing partner, Zach Rose, and I crammed into his Subaru Impreza with two mountain bikes racked on top, three crashpads stowed in the backseat, and clothing littered around the car emitting a stench only college freshmen boys could conjure for an 800 mile roadtrip around Kansas. Did we find a hidden mountaintop midst the Flint Hills of the Sunflower state? Nope. However, buried between the golden wheat valleys, we found a top-notch roof climb in the middle of Salina and possibly the only sizable boulder field in western Kansas at Cedar Bluff State Park. You must really love climbing deep down to live on the prairie and remain hopeful.
So, as you’re hunkered down reading this, you’re probably wondering what bouldering gems keep me salivating from abroad?
First are the blocs in Iowa. The growth of bouldering in Iowa perhaps encapsulates the Midwest’s mysterious nature the best. Iowa climbers have known about the limestone cliffs in the eastern part of the state for decades, but it wasn’t until the discovery of spots like Joinerville Park, Hoot Bluff, and Lake Red Rock that boulderers had something to call their own. The Iowa Climbing Coalition has taken steps to protect these new areas, and has partnered with Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources to clean them and make safe for all.
The rise of North Dakota climbing exemplifies when a climbing community refuses to accept a state’s stereotype and how hard work can pay off. North Dakotan native and Midwest adventurer Dakota Waltz gave Roughriders their first glimpses of faith by parting with North Dakota’s Tourism Division to compile the state’s first recorded list of climbing destinations. Now climbers across the state have boulders and cliffs to share, and hopefully attract others to test their strength on.
If you find yourself in Missouri, you’re located in one of the nation’s best-kept climbing secrets. Peter’s Branch near Sparta is home to one of the largest bouldering caves I’ve seen, Paddy Creek Wilderness is littered with first ascent possibilities, and Boiling Springs, nestled along the Big Piney River, is perfect for those looking to dodge crowds. All were established by a dedicated crew of Springfield climbers led by strongman Lance Sitton. Yet the Midwest climbing legend, Jim Thurmond, assured me Missouri has MO boulders to harvest also in the southeast with the emergence of zones like Amidon, the Silver Mines, and Millstream Gardens.
Illinois has meccas, too, like the Holy Boulders, the Beach, and Jackson Falls. Climbers can also rejoice at new spots emerging annually, such as Pere Marquette State Park, and small, angelic pockets of rock, like Gum Springs. Currently, I’m psyched by the development in the northern states, particularly by that of Ian Cotter-Brown and his crew in Wisconsin. Now, Wisconsin and Minnesota finally have their own long awaited guidebook, Minnesota & Wisconsin Bouldering.
I know most of you Midwesterners will mock me and gladly cross state lines, but maybe take my advice once in a while: Climb a boulder near home. Almost a decade of climbing around the world under my belt and I’m still mystified by Middle America’s boulders. Midwest bouldering and climbing isn’t for those satisfied with the status quo; for those who only climb for Instagram; or for those who don’t wonder what’s around the next bend. It’s for the diehard, the eccentric and the community builders. It may not be Hueco, but it’s better—it’s ours.
And, honestly, it could be worse. You could be in Florida.
Allen Kenneth Schaidle is a faculty member at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. A diehard Midwesterner hailing from Metamora, Illinois, Allen considers the creeks and forests of central Illinois his eternal home. To see more of Schaidle’s work, visit akschaidle.com/.