Day Out: Rock climbing at Devil’s Lake

Chelsey Lewis
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A turkey vulture glides in a large circle overhead, lazily riding one of the thermals that rises between the 500-foot bluffs surrounding Devil's Lake. I'm trying not to take it as a sign of doom, but when you're plastered against a smooth, vertical rock wall 50 feet above the ground with only your miniature doll feet and tiny T. rex arms holding you there, it's difficult not to.

It's a sunny Friday morning, pleasantly mild for early August, and I'm slowly making my way up a route on Two Pines Buttress, a popular spot for rock climbers on the East Bluff at Devil's Lake.

Below, Devils Lake Climbing Guides owner and guide Nick Wilkes is on belay, securely holding the other end of the rope that has already saved my life a few times.

"Can you grab that hold right above your head?" Wilkes shouts from below. I put all of my trust in the nearly invisible hold my left foot is perched on and reach with my right hand for a slightly-more-visible one above me. But there they are again, those T. rex arms letting me down. I do an awkward half hop in an attempt to reach the hold. My hand slips and I fall a couple of feet before the trusty static line catches me again.

Rock climbers must have coined the phrase "hang in there." Or at least beginner rock climbers.

But there's no better spot in Wisconsin — or perhaps the Midwest — for "hanging in there" than Devil's Lake State Park, home to about 1,800 climbing routes of varying difficulty.

Whether you've been climbing for decades or never ascended a rock in your life, Devil's Lake is the perfect spot for testing your mental and physical strength on a rock face.

But if you are a beginner, there's only one way to safely climb: with an experienced, professional guide. I had met my guide, Wilkes, 34, and another seasoned guide, Kevin Bergstrom, 36, along with two other beginner climbers in the CCC parking lot in the southeastern part of the park at 7:30 that morning. The weather — mid-70s and mostly sunny — was perfect for a full day of top-rope climbing.

While the Wisconsin DNR "neither prohibits nor promotes" rock climbing at Devil's Lake State Park, people have been scrambling up the boulders, cracks and crags there as early as the late 1920s, when legendary climbers Joe and Paul Stettner brought their technical climbing style to the lake. The 1940s saw the creation of the Chicago Mountaineering Club, and in the '50s and '60s climbers like John Gill and Pete Cleveland pushed the boundaries of climbing there. Today, Devil's Lake is a rock-climbing mecca for not just Midwestern climbers, but adventurers from across the country.

"I knew about Devil's Lake long before I moved here," says Doug Hemken, who started climbing in Kentucky in the '70s and has been climbing at the park for the past 25 years. Hemken, a statistical consultant on staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is on the board of directors of the Friends of Devil's Lake State Park. He is also active in the Hoofers Mountaineering Club, an offshoot of UW-Madison's Hoofers Outdoors Club.

One reason for Devil's Lake's rock climbing fame is its unique geology. The smooth, pink-brown quartzite at the lake is an anomaly in southern Wisconsin, where sandstone dominates. And while the glaciers bulldozed most other hope of climbing across the state, the quartzite remained just beyond the ice's reach. The rock has a low coefficient of friction, which makes for a more slippery surface and challenging climbing.

"Devil's Lake has some great things about it, and there are a lot of climbers who have climbed all over and still think it's awesome," Wilkes says.

Wilkes, like many Midwestern climbers, learned to climb at Devil's Lake, scaling the bluffs there throughout college with Hoofers. After graduation he headed West to guide with Zion Adventure Co., where he had worked over summers as a student. Wilkes guided and grew Zion for six years, then, after getting married, decided to move back to Madison in 2010 to raise a family.

Last year, itching to get back into guiding, Wilkes — who holds a master's degree in secondary education and is also a web designer and photographer — started Devils Lake Climbing Guides. He ran 14 trips in 2012 and is on pace for nearly 80 this year. As the sole head guide in his company, this summer he's had to turn away nearly half of the calls he receives, which is why he had brought Bergstrom along on our trip — a sort of on-the-job interview.

Wilkes says a guide should not only be experienced and safety-conscious, but also be an educator and relate well to people. Bergstrom, a Mineral Point native who guided with the National Outdoor Leadership School for nearly a decade, easily meets all of those criteria.

"If they can win your trust in that first three minutes, that's the hardest work of the day," Wilkes says, of guides.

It doesn't take long for both guides to earn mine. They expertly set the anchors for our ropes at the top of the bluff while maintaining a genial conversation with us and carefully checking each other's work. It's clear safety is their priority, but not at the expense of fun.

Anchors set, we retrace our steps a short distance on the CCC trail to the bottom of the bluff to tackle three routes on Two Pines, Brinton's Buttress and Gill's Buttress. The routes we're climbing are graded 5.3 to 5.7. Vertical climbing routes are rated on a five-point scale, from 5.0 to 5.12, with more difficult routes given letters: 5.12a, 5.12b, etc.

After a quick review of tying into the ropes and belaying (which we'd all done before), we're off to the walls.

Bergstrom's on belay for my first climb, a 5.5 chimney route called the Grotto. He's patient and encouraging as I nervously try and scurry up the large crack in the rock.

I climbed indoors at a local gym a few times this summer, but climbing outdoors is an entirely different beast. There are no brightly colored, multidimensional holds guiding your way. You learn quickly to love bumps, bulges, cracks, ledges and any hint of a hold on the unforgiving quartzite.

Even experienced climbers like Hemken still find challenges at Devil's Lake.

"This kind of mix of crack-climbing and face-climbing techniques and the little variations are what make it fun," Hemken says. "It's not climbing a ladder, it's much more varied than that. Sometimes the rock is hard to read, meaning you can look up and you're just not quite sure — even after 30 years — you're just not quite sure what to grab and how to move."

I'm also learning rock climbers have a wry sense of humor when it comes to naming routes. If you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, I think maybe I shouldn't judge climbing routes by their names. But it's hard not to. Mouse's Misery? Literally over my dead body. Slut for Punishment? Nope. Schizophrenia? I prefer sanity. Boy Scout? As long as it's not an Eagle Scout.

But Wilkes chose good routes for our abilities, and I scale the first two — the Grotto and Boy Scout — without much of a problem, and the last one — Full Stop — after a couple of tries.

The entire morning we've had our slice of rock to ourselves, spotting only one other climber at the top of the bluffs earlier in the day. This is rare for summer weekends at Devil's Lake, and fairly uncommon for a beautiful Friday, Wilkes says.

By early afternoon, we're all pretty exhausted. It's amazing how quickly limbs get sore — and more amazing how long they stay sore.

On my fourth and final climb, a man-made bird now hovers in the spot I saw the turkey vulture earlier. I'm standing on a small ledge so I'm able to release my death grip on the wall and wave as the helicopter swoops closer, the thump-thump-thump drowning out the screams and laughter of kids playing at the south shore beach below.

Although the bluff I'm climbing is less than 100 feet, I'm at least 500 feet higher than the lake, and once above the tree line, the views are stunners. If a few days of sore arms is the price to pay for views like this, I'll take it. I think more time spent hanging out at Devil's Lake is definitely in my future.

Difficulty level: Routes that match abilities are the key for making beginners comfortable, Wilkes says, and Devil's Lake has plenty of 5.3 to 5.7 routes for beginners.

"You don't have to have a certain amount of strength, especially at a beginner level, or any amount of technical knowledge," he says. "Most people when they have a rope on, that harness on, they're much less afraid. The important part is they have to be on a route that's reasonable for their skill level."

Wilkes will take out kids as young as 6, with no other restrictions on age and weight as long as everyone can safely climb.

When to go: Wilkes guides trips from mid-April through mid-November, with fall providing the added beauty of the changing leaves. And although Hemken says he's seen people climbing in the winter, Wilkes says "once the temperature's below 50, climbing's definitely uncomfortable; the rocks are too cold."

Devil's Lake is "by far the best" place to go climbing in Wisconsin, which means it can also get busy, Wilkes says, especially on weekends. Go during the week or early in the day to have your choice of routes.

How much it will set you back: A guided climbing trip starts at $85 per person for a group of six and includes harness, shoes, helmet and all technical equipment, plus a certified guide, of course. If you're parking a car in the park, you'll also need a state parks admission sticker: $7/day or $25/year for cars with Wisconsin plates.

While you're there: It's harvest time at Ski-Hi Fruit Farm in Baraboo. Stock up on apples, pies and jams at this more than 100-year-old farm. E11219A Ski-Hi Road, (608) 356-3695

Blast into the future at Baraboo's Dr. Evermor Sculpture Park, home of the 300-ton, 50-foot Forevertron sculpture. Built of salvaged scraps by Tom "Dr. Evermor" Every in the 1980s, the sculpture evokes the fantastical world of steampunk and is a sight to behold. S7703 U.S. Highway 12, (608) 219-7830.

For another natural diversion, head a few miles east to Parfrey's Glen (on County Highway DL), a state natural area considered part of Devil's Lake State Park that features a beautiful sandstone-and-quartzite gorge. Floods destroyed boardwalks along the gorge in 2010, but you can still hike beyond the trail into the gorge as long as you follow the streambed.

More information: Devil's Lake State Park is about two hours west of Milwaukee via I-94 and WI-78.

For more about Devils Lake Climbing Guides and to book a trip, call (608) 556-1135.

For more about Devil's Lake State Park, call (608) 356-8301.

Day Out features day trips within a two-hour drive of the Milwaukee area.