Chicks Rock - Women's Rockclimbing ClinicI was giggling. So was Tali. We were in a tent at Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin and it was late at night. We both had traveled pretty far that day, she from Colorado and I from California so maybe we were overly tired. Or maybe we were having flashbacks to being in Girl Scouts.

It’d been awhile since I’d been on a chicks only trip, and it was my first women only climbing clinic where all the participants and staff were females. What were we giggling about? Something silly involving bikes and buses. It doesn’t really matter, it was fun and we were excited to be a part of the inaugural Chicks Rock clinic put on by Chicks with Picks, the folks who have been successfully bringing the Chicks with Picks Ice Climbing clinic to Ouray, Colorado and had decided to branch into rockclimbing as well. Tali (aka @cupcakemafia on Twitter) had won a contest from Pembaserves for her spot with the clinic, she’d submitted an essay on why she deserved to win and about Access issues. Her essay mentioned her volunteer work with women’s outdoor programs and I think she was a fine choice for the prize. My part at Chicks Rock was as an event / promo photographer first and a climber second. I “knew” Tali from Twitter (I’m @rockgrrl there) so the trip was also a fun chance for us to meet in person. We were getting along well, “too well” some of our nearby sleeping tent mates might’ve said. We soon quieted down though, we had a big day ahead.

And what was in store? Climbing of course! So far the Chicks Rock clinic had been very well organized. Participants arrived by 5pm to a nice big group campsite with provided tents and sleeping bags already set up for us. There were 8 total participants with varied climbing backgrounds ranging from a complete beginner to girls with years of experience. After an initial meeting we were assigned to our groups at a 4 to 1 participant / guide ratio and then we had dinner with them. Tali and our new friend Amanda (who had driven both of us from the airport) was in the first group with Marmot sponsored, Angela Hawse and I was with the second group with Patagonia sponsored, Kitty Calhoun. Kitty instructed our group to write down our long term and more immediate climbing goals. We were to bring a climbing journal (a piece of paper would suffice) and would read our goals the next day as well as keep notes of our own throughout the clinic. From the meeting I could tell that this wasn’t going to be a handholding group, Kitty wanted specifics from us and was willing to give them to us as well. I could tell the clinic was going to be good.

Tuesday, September 8th

Day 2 started with breakfast at 7:30AM. There was also a lunch and snacks spread where we packed our own food, though we also had a wonderful goody bag of things which included several Luna brand food items. Soon we were off on the approach hike to the cliffs. It didn’t take long, maybe 20 minutes, but it had some elevation gain which we surmounted by stepping up huge stone steps put in by the Civilian Conservation Corps decades ago. Though the weather was great (mid – high 70s), I had worked up a sweat by the time we stopped and was definitely glad for the shade cast by the many trees around the area.

On the approach hike

The first stop turned out to be a small boulder where Kitty demonstrated a no hands warm up. Each of us went up and got a good feel for the rock and then Angela demonstrated a few crack climbing techniques which we also tried. The two groups split off after this, for mine it was time to review our immediate and long term climbing goals. The other three girls in my group were from the Madison area and were looking to expand their outdoor climbing experience. They also wanted to learn more about setting their own anchors at Devil’s Lake since it was their local crag. Two of them were still getting over a fear of heights which sometimes still plagued them. I could relate to the conflicting emotions of a fear of heights and love of nature because that’s what spurred me into signing up for my own first climbing class.

My immediate goals were to work on strength conservation when climbing and to take photographs. My long term goal was to lead a 5.11 climb. I had a particular climb from my hometown crag in mind. It’s an overhanging route (in fact it’s actually a 5.11c in the guide book) so I knew strength conservation was going to be a part of achieving that goal. After our goal review we then started climbing on Two Pines Buttress.

Prior to the trip I’d looked up the Devil’s Lake area and saw the routes there being described as “slick” and “stiff”. I’d agree with the stiff rating as the first climbs we got on were rated as 5.7’s and 5.8’s but felt one grade higher to me. I later heard that they’d been rated in the old school way, probably similarly to how Yosemite, Tahquitz & some Joshua Tree climbs were. Fortunately I didn’t find the rock to be as slick as I had feared it would be. That’s not saying that the rock was as sticky as the quartzite monzonite at Joshua Tree, but for the type of rock it was I didn’t find it to be excessively slick. It felt a little like limestone. What I had feared was that it’d be like the ultra polished granite of some Yosemite climbs.

For me I was happy to take pics and also focus on footwork and technique, in fact Kitty insisted that my group work on footwork this day, and told us to recite out loud what we were doing as we did each route. I found out through this process that even though I do use my feet, I have a tendency to want to pull on my arms more than I thought and by knowing I was going to say what I was doing out loud, it made me switch to using my feet instead. It was an excellent drill to do on those routes because there was always a choice of using your foot instead of your hand so one had no excuse to crank on a hand hold. Climbs we did included “Full Stop” and “Vacillation”. We then moved onto “Chicago” and “Brinton’s Direct” which we each did twice for drill purposes. The other girls in my group also worked a little on learning about anchors.

On the photography side of things, I was happy to see that I could get some decent angles on climbs by just a little hiking up on nearby slopes. This was also fortunate because a local reporter and photographer had come out to do a story on Chicks Rock and I didn’t want to get in the way of the paper’s photographer since it was a great opportunity for the program to get some local exposure and I didn’t want to impede that.

After a good day of climbing and an excellent introduction to the area, I’d done 6 routes despite my scrambling between the two groups to get shots of everyone.

Kitty climbing and giving tips

After the hike back to camp we had time for showers. Yes, I said showers. Right near our group campsite was a bathroom with showers, running water and even electrical outlets near separate mirrors. It was quite luxurious though at times you had to trust your luck on which water temperature you’d get with which shower. My luck wasn’t very strong because I got a cold shower but after I adjusted I thought it was refreshing.

For dinner we all carpooled into downtown Baraboo, Wisconsin. Amanda, Tali and I were in Amanda’s rental car together, as we pulled into the town square area Tali exlaimed, “It’s Back to the Future!”  There was a white building with a clock tower that was eerily like the “Back to the Future” town square. There was even a movie theater across from it. Upon closer inspection though, we found that the theater was named after one of the Ringling family, and when we parked we found a plaque explaining that the Ringling Bros. Circus had been started in Baraboo. Who knew? Dinner was great, I tried a cheese soup for an appetizer, since I was in Wisconsin afterall, which turned out to be excellent. After that I had a salmon dish since their Walleye (a local fish) had sold out.

Wednesday – September 9th

Kitty had asked if I wanted to go up with the guides and one of the camp managers to help set up anchors and see the view from there, I’d agreed so I had an earlier morning than usual. After the hike up, I saw a slightly misty view of the trees and lake, quite pretty. I set up a chimney climb that Angela’s group was going to do (it looked like a lovely introduction to chimney climbing) and in doing so I had her double check my bowline knots. It’d been a long time since I’d anchored to trees using ropes and I wanted to make sure I had everything set up right. It was a reminder to me that one should try to refresh all skills every now and then even if you’ve been concentrating on other types of climbing. Cams and cordelette had made me lazy. Angela declared my setup “perfect” and I was good to check out photo opportunities from the tops of the anchors.

Climbing went well. We were still concentrating on footwork but now adding in other elements such as working body tension and using our hips, we were instructed to rest at every rest spot we got to, shake out both arms and either chalk up (or pretend to chalk up, thus taking more time). My group started on a climb called “Ironmonger” then went on to “Birch Tree Route”, a nice crack climb. Kitty also had me try “Ironmonger Direct”, a 5.10 variation which was fun though short. I spent a lot of that day at the top of the cliffs and going back and forth between them using a trail path and an access gully. I had some time to do this as the rest of my group practiced top rope anchor set up.

At the end of the climbing day, after the hike down, Amanda, Carrie (one of the ladies in Angela’s group), Angela, and I drove a short distance to the Lake so we could get a quick swim in before dinner. The water felt great and was really refreshing. I noticed rental canoes on shore, I think one could have a really fun rest day just doing water sports.

Dinner was catered Mexican food, quite yummy, and afterwards, around the campfire night we had a surprise desert of s’mores. Campfire time was also when Kim Reynolds, owner of Chicks with Picks, encouraged anyone to ask questions about climbing. Camp manager, Anne Hughes, started it off with a question about sending consistency, sometimes she could do it, sometimes she couldn’t and it wasn’t about not feeling ready. She got answers with training tips and mental tips and it set the conversation up for a thoughtful tone. The talk also moved to non climbing topics and we learned about some of the incredible stories the women in the group had gone through: some with relationships, some with children, and one having survived a boulder falling on her left side, leaving her with only gripping mobility for her thumb after much surgery. This trip was her first time back on the rock since her accident.

Listening to the women around me I was struck by several things. One, they had all been through so much, good and bad. Two, they were strong and unique. Lastly, I think I understood the draw of an all women climbing clinic for some of them, from the beginner just wanting to get out and do something for herself to experienced climbers wanting to get back on the rock but in the nurturing and structured environment of a guided clinic.

Thursday – September 10th

Crack climbing at Devil's LakeIt was another early day for my group, the others in my group were going to set their first top rope anchors and I also went up to check it out. The climbs looked like they were gonna be great. Back at the base of the climbs we had another guest, podcaster, James Mills from the Joy Trip Project, who I had also chatted with on Twitter. Aside from interviewing folks, he was also taking photos and so we had another “one ledge, too many photographers” situation. I took a few runs on the climbs instead. We climbed “Chicken Delight” and “Chicken Tonight”. Anne Hughes had also set a rope up on a nearby 5.11 climb called “Beginner’s Demise”. At one point another girl in my group asked if she could see Kitty climb it, as we all found watching her technique really informative. She did so, narrating as she went up and it looked like a hard but fun climb. As the day was winding down (it was to be an early climbing day to have time for a final meeting before everyone left) I asked if I could try the 11. Anne and Kitty were there to give me a spot (it was a swing out situation) and beta so I gave it a go. It was pretty hard, it needed precise foot placement and body positioning right from the start and I only got up a few moves before it was time to take it down. Still it was fun and the feedback I got was that I had made a good try at it, not flailing around mindlessly. They also said the climb was a sustained 11, right from the first move. I’d love to try it again some day.

Back at camp we had a final meeting in which the guides presented each of us with a certificate and in turn we were asked to say what we would take away with us. One woman’s story made us all tear up, she had come to the clinic partly to get away from an ugly divorce and she told us how great the experience had been for her and how she found all of us to be great women, going through little things about us. Of Tali and I she said, in her fairly thick Wisconsin accent, “And look at you two, all grown and you vote and all”. The woman who had had the boulder accident also made me tear up. She said, “We have a bouldering room and everyday my husband asks me if I want to go in with him and I say,’No’. Now I think I will go in.” My turn came last and I felt very humbled by all who had gone before me, these women who had such rich life experiences, the clinic just seeming to be an addition to already full lives. I told them they had inspired me, because they had. We had executives, business owners, stay at home moms, educators, a scientist, a politician, and survivors in our group.

After the certificate giving I gathered everyone for group shots, sad only that Anne Yehle, a member of Kitty’s group had had to leave already to catch her ride home. Then we all parted ways, but not before an email list was promised to us all and more than a few hugs were given out.

Amanda, Tali and I then headed off to Madison where Tali had graciously offered to let us stay in her hotel room for the night. We checked in then went to a place recommended to us as very Wisconsin, a place called “Old Fashioned” which turned out to be a fun bar with many local brews. Amanda and I split a Bratz sampler platter while Tali had the macaroni and cheese. We also ended up meeting with Daren (aka @canoelover on Twitter) and afterwards we went to an ice cream parlor we’d passed on the way. Unfortunately the carousel was shut down by the time we got to it, ice cream was still available though.

It was a fun end to the night.

Friday – September 11th

Waiting for the first of the planes that would take me home, I reflected on the trip. I had thought I was going as part of my re-invention of my self, with my new focus on adventure photography. Instead I came away with much more. I realized that though I had a lot of climbing “book learning” I was not applying as much of it as I thought I was; and on the flip side of that, even though I instinctually did many things correct, being made aware of it was also helpful in letting me learn from every climb, no matter what the grade. Meanwhile I found discovering the incredible stories of these women of different ages and experiences was really touching. They shared personal details, triumphs and defeats in a way that was open and non judgmental. The trip was a reminder that you can always learn something new, whether about climbing or life and you should take neither for granted.

Group shot

Link: full set of photos from the trip.