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By Joe Block 

Around the Block


September 20, 2018

Teenage rebellion tends to follow the same script. I took mine in a different direction.

I drank alcohol exactly twice during high school: once, at my friend’s house, I tried tequila for the first time, and had to be carried into my house after curfew and placed in my bathtub. I woke the next morning and pulled an 8-hour shift on a stunningly hot summer day at a hot dog/pizza parlor. It was unpleasant. The second time I was working at that same restaurant and drank the beer that I was supposed to be serving. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon shift and I don’t remember much of it.

That was the extent of my traditional teen age abuse of alcohol.

I did, however, fall deeply into another activity that would, over the course of nearly thirty years, leave me with broken teeth, broken fingers, several concussions, and a sharp piece of metal sticking through my bicep. It started when I was 14.

I was a hysterically unathletic child. My parents forced me into T-ball, and in two seasons I reached base twice. In grade school, I was always picked last for football, and my teammates simply told me which direction to run with the ball. I never got very far.

My freshman year of high school I went rock climbing for the first time at Governor Dodge State Park. That was the beginning of a wonderful three-decade spiral.

I was never the most athletic climber. In college I weighed about 110 pounds, and at 5’11”, I was really thin. People described me as “one long tendon.” What I lacked in ability I made up with passion.

I’m not sure what attracted me to climbing. My father and I shared a love of the mountains our west and the desert of the southwest. I spent many vacations touring the west, scrambling around, but it never occurred to me to actually climb things. In high school my gym teacher ran an outdoor adventure group where he took students camping, climbing, kayaking, and backpacking. That was the seed.

Devils Lake, per its guidebook, has close to 1000 individual climbing routes. I’ve climbed close to 250 of them. Governor Dodge, known best for its crumbly stone and outrageous thickets guarding the base of cliffs, became my second home. I even managed to find a climbable quarry just a few miles outside Chicago where I could get my fill without driving far—as long as I didn’t fall into the slime-covered pits. There was also the issue with the gun range nearby.

My parents were remarkably lenient with my climbing. I was allowed to drive my trusty, beat-up, somewhat orange colored Ford Mustang from my home outside Chicago to Wisconsin nearly every weekend to climb. I took that car with me to college at Ripon, and made the 2-hour drive west to Devils Lake every weekend, and during weekdays, when class time allowed. The only limitation to my climbing exploits, as far as my parents were concerned, was that my mother was not to know what I was doing.

That was a good idea.

I spent those teenage and college years groveling up sometimes beautiful, more often than not teetering and incredibly unsafe piles of rock across southern Wisconsin. To make matters more interesting, I did not climb with a partner, and 99% of most climbers do. I rope-soloed, using a device strapped to my chest to catch my fall. I was alone, quite often far removed from anyone, as I preferred unknown and off the beaten path areas, and left to my own devices in the event of an accident.

That rebellion, however, absolutely saved me. I was a moody teenager, perhaps more clinical than most, and I needed an outlet. I also craved a fair amount of alone time, as even today crowds make me a bit uneasy. It was a relief to be able to hike in to the northern reaches of Governor Dodge and know that I was completely alone, since very few ventured out there in the winter when the gate was closed, and you had to hike/ski/snowshoe/grovel a mile or two to the bluffs.

There was a certain peace to the routine: drop the 75-pound pack, unload all the gear—including doubles of everything in my case, because I rope-soloed (that would be two nine-pound ropes, 30 or so carabiners, 15 pounds of gear to place in the rock to protect my fall). I’d put on my harnesses (waist harness and chest harness) and just start climbing.

Governor Dodge made me a climber. Unlike Devils Lake, where routes have been mapped and climbed for over 100 years, Governor Dodge was virgin, untouched rock. I’d do my best to scout the potential climb from the ground, but that never provided the full picture. Sometimes I’d encounter a wasp’s nest mid-climb, or dislodge a couple hundred-pound rock which would tumble to the ground and take out a tree. Other times I’d get stuck, a few hundred feet in the air, unable to go any farther. In those cases, I’d have to—frighteningly—unhook myself from the safety of the rope and reattach myself to a lower point in order to descend.

When I was wandering around Wisconsin at unknown areas, I suspect I backed off more climbs than I succeeded in climbing. I may have been a teenager, but I was not stupid. In retrospect, with 30 years of hindsight, I certainly did push things a bit. But the fact that I’m alive today shows that somewhere in that hormone-addled brain I was thinking clearly.

And when I didn’t think clearly, I would have epic adventures.

Like the time I didn’t pay attention to the fact that the tree I had anchored myself to was rotten. When I fell, and my weight hit the tree, it snapped, and I found myself sliding down the West Bluff of Devils Lake in the winter tired to a tree which was sliding next to me, and eventually, pulling me down the bluff. I survived, but not before my ice axe went through my left bicep, and I had to duct tape it to my arm and drive to the hospital.

I made what I suspect was my last technical roped climb two years, climbing one of the first “new” routes I ever put up. It’s a picturesque line up the corner of a prominent bluff, with good exposure, and a fantastic finish hanging about 100 feet clear in the air. I still go back to that bluff at times, hiking to the top and settling in for a day of reading. My climbing days are over, however.

It started as a teenage obsession, matured into a passion, and happily, waned into something I’m glad I did, but really don’t want to do any more.

It’s rare that we do something for nearly 30 years, starting from when we were but immature teenagers acting out in rebellion, and finding a good bit of closure in ending it when we’re at our best.


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