Staring down at the cover of climbing magazine I was intoxicated. A snaking shoreline in the distance. A couple feet of dark gray rock exposed from the vast, pristine, clear and fresh water. The rock acting as a boundary between two great seas. The other, a thick wood of green spruce and birch covering all visible land. The green sea washing down from small rolling hills to meet the water.
In the foreground, a man is halfway up a larger section of this rock boundary. A sheer granite cliff in shades of gray rising 120 ft out of the huge fresh water lake. Where is this magical place? Minnesota.
The state is known for its lakes, forests and tall, welcoming, Scandinavian people. Not for climbing, elevation or breathtaking rock features. Connecting all these pieces together, the climbing location immediately encapsulated me. In August, I closed the circle on that dream by climbing on The North Shore of Lake Superior myself. It was unlike any other climbing location I’ve gone thus far.
There are two main climbing areas on The North Shore. At Shovel Point climbing is a little different. You don’t hike to the base of the climb. In fact, you can’t! The granite walls plunge straight into the great waters of Lake Superior leaving no land for a belay station. Laying on a floating raft could be the best belay stance I’ve heard of, but you may find your belayer drifting off towards Wisconsin on a windy day.
Instead, each climb starts on a small ledge several dozen feet from the wet. It is really something to start your climb with the sound of nearby lapping waves filling your ears. To reach these starting ledges you must rappel down and then switch over to top belay to start climbing. If you are lucky you will find a little tree to attach to during the transition.
When you reach the top of a climb you will double take at its completely original anchor hardware. After years of wear from top roping from trees, the Minnesota DNR (Department of Natural Resources) actually installed bolts at top of most routes. Either the average Minnesotan weight has significantly increased or DNR is going to start requiring we start each route from canoe and haul it up in true Minnesotan fashion. These bolts were 8 inches in length! I could fit my entire hand through the eyelet!
Finally getting to climbing, I warmed up on the classic Dance of the Sugar Plumb Faries (5.8) but that was a bore. The real enjoyment came from climbing an overhanging 5.10b route sporting two roofs all while surrounded by gold lichen. I know that doesn’t sound that enjoyable, but trust me. It had great holds, flow, environment, and features.
At the Palisade Head its time to throw off the over engineered anchor bolts and break out the trad gear. The top of its main area, the Amphitheatre, is 20 ft from the parking lot and showcases several highly rated, steep crack climbs 100-160 ft in length. Like Shovel Point you have beautiful lake-side cliffs that require rappeling to the base of the route, but unlike Shovel Point you can actually lead climb back up from a talus pile.
The classic 5.8 offwidth here can be busy (I saw a party of five sit on it for four hours) but there are also two 5.9 hand cracks to be found. I found the crack climbing here decent but more varied than sustained so I couldn’t get a great flow.
Wow, Minnesota has great climbing. Who knew! Later in my journey, I discover the South Dakota Black Hills have been hiding a noteworthy collection of high-quality granite crack climbs with no crowding. But that is a story for another time…