I was stuck on the cliff, spread-eagled on the warm, gray rock like a lizard. I had one foot wedged in a small crack, and I was feeling around with my other foot for any kind of toehold.
Then, I got some coaching from an unexpected source.
"OK, Mom! Move your right foot up," yelled my 10-year-old son, standing some 15 feet below. "A little higher. There's a crack right there. Just a little higher. You got it!"
It turned out that what I liked best about rock climbing was seeing my son in a new light. We were equals on the rock face. In fact, he turned out to be better at climbing than I was.
We had signed up for a one-hour "I Can Climb" session at Interstate State Park, an hour northeast of the Twin Cities in Taylors Falls. It's one of several free instructional programs offered by Minnesota state parks to encourage people to try new outdoor experiences. After creating beginner sessions for camping, fishing and paddling, the state piloted a popular climbing program last year.
The climbing sessions also are offered at Blue Mounds State Park, where a cliff of Sioux quartzite erupts from the otherwise flat prairie of southwestern Minnesota, and at Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore, where climbers are lowered from the top of a cliff to climb directly above the chilly water of Lake Superior.
Our climb was not quite so dramatic, but it still got my heart racing.
The stretch of rock we tackled was just down from the parking
MADE TO CLIMB
The same natural forces that created the potholes created the walls of gray basalt popular with climbers. More than 1 billion years ago, the Earth's crust split from Lake Superior down through what is now Iowa into northern Kansas. Lava poured out of the crack, and spread across the landscape like a giant pancake. As the crack closed and reopened over millions of years, more lava escaped and created new layers of rock. Imagine a stack of pancakes, in places 10 miles thick. Eventually the rift closed, and the area was covered by an inland sea and layers of sediment.
Now, fast forward to the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago, when glaciers covered much of Minnesota and Wisconsin. A huge lake extended beyond present day Lake Superior.
When the ice melted and the massive lake drained south, floodwater carved the cliffs along the St. Croix River. The current was powerful enough to cut through layers of the basalt bedrock, like a knife slicing through the pancake stack.
Interstate's potholes were created at the same time
"The rock at Taylors Falls is interesting because it tends to climb like a beginner might like to climb. There are little horizontal ledges every three feet," said Mike Farris, author of "Rock Climbing: Minnesota and Wisconsin" in the Falcon Guide series, which was just reissued. "In some of the easier climbs, you can climb it almost like a ladder, a very steep ladder, with very narrow holds. Of the places in the metro area, it's definitely the best place for beginners."
Interstate Park manager Ron Erickson estimates the park had 7,000 to 10,000 climbing visitors last year, based on permits, which every climber is required to sign.
The number of climbers has increased in recent years, due to the popularity of indoor rock-climbing gyms. Like most of the I Can Climb participants, my son and I got our first taste of climbing inside and wanted to try real rock.
My son was eager but leery. The last time he climbed, he broke his arm after falling 4 feet in the bouldering room at Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul and landing the wrong way. Our quick orientation allayed some of his fear. This time, he'd be wearing a harness.
"Any guesses as to how many pounds this rope can hold?" asked Pat Mackin, director of Vertical Endeavors Guided Adventures, which contracts with the state to lead I Can Climb.
Mackin stood on gravel at the base of the 45-foot rock face. He was wearing sunglasses, flip flops and a silver saxophone charm on a chain on his neck, a nod to his other job as a musician.
"Two cars?" guessed one kid.
"Well, let's call it one car," Mackin said. "The rope holds 6,000 pounds. So, the last thing you have to worry about is equipment failure."
The instructors fit each of us with snug, rubber-toed climbing shoes and a harness, a system of straps that slips through your legs and around your waist.
There are two ways to climb. In lead climbing, you attach a safety rope to the rock as you climb, using prefixed bolts or setting your own removable anchors. We would be using the second way, an easier method called top-rope climbing. The instructors had arrived at dawn and anchored a network of ropes to boulders, trees and crevices at the top of the cliff. Each safety rope passed through carabineers attached to the top ropes.
One end of the safety rope was tied to the climber's harness and the other end went into a belay device at the instructor's waist. The instructor took up slack as you climbed and the rope caught you if you fell.
By the time my son and I got our helmets on, a few other people were already climbing. A 6-year-old made it halfway up the easiest section before asking to come down. A few yards to the left, Gina Jarta of Lakeville was tackling a more difficult section while her husband and her two young boys, wearing matching Spiderman outfits, watched from below.
"We usually climb a lot harder stuff in the gym, but I think she's scared because we're outdoors," said her husband, Kevin Jarta. It's a big shift to go from colored, plastic handholds in the gym to the cracks and crevices on the gray basalt cliff.
HANDS AND FEET
Then, it was my son's turn. He scrambled up the first 15 feet without trouble. Then, he got stuck on a small ledge. After fumbling around for holds, he gave up.
"I want to come down," he said.
"Are you sure?" asked Jeff Fisher, who was belaying.
This seemed to be the standard response the first time someone asked to come off the wall. The instructors weren't pushy, but like good coaches, they encouraged us to move beyond our first instinct to quit.
"Yeah," my son said. "I'm not tall enough to reach anything."
"The trick is to think about your feet, not your hands," said Fisher. "How about that ledge by your waist? Can you get your foot up there?"
My son inched up higher.
"That's right," said Fisher. "Right leg up. Atta boy."
My son made it up another dozen feet and then he really did want to come down. A group of women walking up the trail had stopped to watch and clapped as he descended on the rope with a big grin.
He handed me the white helmet and it was my turn. I encountered a challenge six inches off the ground. Should I stick my hand into crack over my head? What if there's a wasp in there or a bat? Was this really a good idea?
As I inched upward, I realized what the instructors said was true. It's more about finding a place to put your feet and less about hauling yourself up with your hands. Then, I got stalled on the same ledge that had trapped my son.
And that's when he coached me through the next couple of moves. I was touched that my son was invested in my success. I followed his advice and felt a reassuring tension on my belay rope as I reached with my leg and scrambled up and sideways. It was not a graceful move. If the challenge of rock climbing hadn't completely absorbed my attention, I would have worried about how goofy I looked.
I got stuck about 25 feet off the ground, about the same place where my son decided to come back to terra firma. There was a well-worn nub of rock to my right, a ripple really. I slid my foot over it. I couldn't imagine transferring my weight onto something so insubstantial, and I couldn't find anywhere else to go. I was ready to go down.
"Keep your hands and feet in front of you and just sit back," Fisher said.
I leaned back, half expecting to topple off the wall, but the rope caught me and Fisher gently lowered me.
When I got home, I read about the section I climbed in Mike Farris' guidebook. Routes up the rock generally are named by the first people to climb them. This one was called Sonny and Juanita. It's an easy one, and Farris said, "Any difficulty you encounter stems from a lack of technique."
What can I say? I'm a beginner.
My son climbed a second time during our hour session, and he made it to the top of another climb, nearly 40 feet up.
We'd like to climb again. But it's expensive and daunting to continue the sport on your own.
I Can Climb offers follow-up sessions that teach some basic climbing technique and cost $35 for adults and teens age 14 and older. Vertical Endeavors offers a four-hour class for about $100 that teaches you to anchor your own top-rope system. But I wouldn't trust myself, after only one class, to set ropes for myself, much less for my children. Also, the equipment costs hundreds of dollars.
The other option would be to hire a professional guide who would provide equipment and instruction. Vertical Endeavors offers private lessons, which cost several hundred dollars per person. A less expensive option would be to gather several families for an outing. If you have 10 or more people, you get a four-hour climb for $70 person.
Apex Adventure Alliance based in Baraboo, Wis., starts at $75 per person for a day of climbing at Devil's Lake State Park, a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities. The cost is a bit higher for Interstate State Park.
At this point, I'm not willing to make the investment of time and money, but I see the appeal of climbing. Mackin described it as a mental game that requires solving a complex set sequence of moves.
"A beautiful thing about climbing is the self-discovery," said Mackin, who has led hundreds of trips over the years. "You learn about what you can and can't do, and then you take it wherever you want to take it.
Author Farris has been drawn to the problem-solving aspect.
"You don't have time to think about anything else," he said. "This is an activity that forces you to discard all those other things you're thinking about and concentrate exclusively on one thing. It requires 100 percent of your attention, and I think for anybody of any age, children or adults, that's something appealing."
I do have a friend who is getting back into outdoor climbing now that his children are old enough to accompany him. I'd trust him to set a top rope. I might ask if we could tag along some day.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: "I Can Climb" program
Where: Interstate State Park
Information: 866-857-2757 or dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/can_climb.html
When: Saturday, Aug. 4, at Blue Mounds State Park; Aug. 19 at Tettegouche State Park (age 10 and older only); Aug. 25 at Interstate State Park
Cost: Free program; vehicle permit is $5 day/$25 year
Target audience: Age 5 and older; 10 and older at Tettegouche
Crowd pleaser: Getting higher than you thought you could
Avoid: Fear. The safety-rope system in the I Can Climb program is overseen by experienced climbers.
Tip: Remaining summer sessions are booked, but the program accepts a handful of walk-up registrations each hour.