July 23 2014 12:00 AM

The ups and downs of Grand Ledge’s rock climbing scene

Collin Roys is 15 feet off the ground and he’s stuck. His hands and feet are dug into tiny crevices along a vertical section of buff-colored rock. The rope attached to a harness around his waist is taut, stretching up to a metal clip tied to a tree above him and back down to the ground.

“There’s nothing to grab on to up there,” he calls down to Drew Vandegrift, who holds the other end of the rope. It’s looped through a belay device attached to Vandegrift’s waist that will stop Roys’ fall if he loses his grip.

Vandegrift offers suggestions. “Can you get your right foot up on that ledge?” he shouts. “There’s two holds right above that rock.” As president of Michigan State University’s Outdoors Club, Vandegrift has spent hours climbing here. Roys, a student at Grand Valley State University, is a first-timer.

Finally Roys finds niches for his hands and feet and moves upward, closer to completing the Building Blocks climbing route at the Ledges in Grand Ledge. He has climbed at indoor gyms, but never on a natural rock formation.

With Vandegrift’s help, he successfully navigates the final 10 feet of the cliff, then lets go and lets gravity bring him back to earth.

“It’s amazing,” he said after his descent. “It’s definitely more challenging than I thought. I’ve always considered myself a pretty good climber, but going up on these cliffs where you don’t really know where things are, how deep the holes are, where you’re going to put your feet — it’s exciting and it’s terrifying.”

The 22-year-olds are among dozens of rock climbers from across Lower Michigan who converge each week on a small section of sandstone cliffs along the Grand River in Grand Ledge’s Oak Park. This bit of exposed rock in mid-Michigan has spawned a close-knit community of Ledges climbing devotees. But the intense use and minimal oversight of the site raise concerns about the impact on the unusual community of plants and animals that call these rocks home.

The gateway drug

As a rock-climbing destination, the Ledges are mediocre at best. The cliffs are only 25 to 40 feet tall and the crumbly, damp sandstone is hard to grip. But in the vertically challenged Midwest, they offer outdoor adrenaline seekers one compelling advantage: They exist.

“The Ledges are the only place in Lower Michigan that you can actually climb on real rock,” said Dustin Bosscher, 33, a graphic designer in Howell who, like many area climbers, caught the climbing bug while studying at MSU.

Aside from indoor climbing gyms in cities like Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, the next closest places to climb are hours away in the Upper Peninsula, Ontario, Wisconsin and Kentucky. Serious climbers may make a weekend trip, but for the time- or cash-strapped, the Ledges are the place to go.

“The Ledges are simple and easy and cheap and accessible,” said Cooper Stansbury, general manager of Moosejaw in East Lansing, the main local source for climbing gear. “They’re the gateway drug of climbing.”

The Ledges may be small, but they offer a range of difficulty levels to challenge all but the most expert climbers. They also provide a convenient training ground to practice techniques and build strength for longer climbs elsewhere.

Unlike climbing gyms, the Ledges are free. And the ambiance is unmatched: Fish jump around kayaks gliding along in the river nearby, and birdcalls echo beneath the tree canopy.

“Even if you don’t want to climb, it’s just a nice place to enjoy,” Roys said.

History on the rocks

Geologists believe the Ledges are the remains of an ancient beach and sand dunes. At Oak Park as well as across the river in Fitzgerald Park and on private lands nearby, the Grand River has carved a path through the bedrock under the glacial debris that covers most of the state.

For years, the area was used as a quarry and a dump — carved initials from the 1800s and faint remnants of advertising signs painted by local businesses reflect other early uses of the cliffs — but serious climbing at the Ledges began in the late 1940s. Don and Victoria Borthwick were Michigan State College students who pioneered many of the routes, said Michael Hood, director and lead climbing guide for Vertical Ventures, an outdoor tour company. He said a few of the Borthwicks’ anchor pins can still be seen in the rocks.

Hood, 54, learned to climb at the Ledges in the 1970s, when the sport was growing in popularity. Veterans of this era, including Bruce Bright, a Grand Ledge resident who taught Hood to climb, provide a senior presence at the Ledges.

On a busy Saturday, 40 to 50 climbers, ranging in age from preteen to 60-plus, may swarm the cliffs, with two dozen ropes set up on various routes. The MSU Outdoors Club alone brought 100 students for its “learn to rock climb” day last school year, Vandegrift said.

The city’s unique geological feature is a source of pride for locals, but Grand Ledge City Administrator Jon Bayless is quick to point out that the city does not endorse the rock climbing for fear of liability. He doesn’t discourage the activity, however.

“Any time you have an attraction that brings people to the city, it’s a positive,” Bayless said.

Though the Ledges attract occasional visitors from as far away as Indiana and Ohio, climbers acknowledge that their impact on the city’s economy may be limited.

“A lot of climbers are pretty frugal,” said Cali Carpenter, 28, a physical therapist from Grand Rapids who climbed at the Ledges recently. She said they tend to patronize cheap campsites and stuff sandwiches in their backpacks rather than eating out. Many are young and have already invested their extra cash in $200 climbing ropes and $100 harnesses and shoes.

Momentum Adventure Sports, a Grand Ledge business that offered climbing gear, stayed open for only one season before closing in March. No known professional guides offer instruction or tours at the Ledges.

Controlled danger

The main type of climbing at the Ledges is top roping, in which the climber’s protection comes from a rope running through an anchor at the top of the route. (Lead climbing, in which climbers attach anchors to the rock as they ascend, is impractical in the soft sandstone of the Ledges.)

Each climber partners with a belayer, who takes up slack in the rope as the climber ascends, prevents the climber from falling a long distance and lowers the climber to the ground at the end of the climb.

A strong climber who has practiced a route and knows just what moves to make can “top out” at the Ledges in three minutes. That one quick trip, though, may culminate hours or weeks of repeated attempts. The challenge lies not just in strength and agility, but in strategy — knowing which protrusions or cracks to grab and how to grip them.

“There’s a lot of problem solving in climbing,” said Laurie Snedeker, 54, a veteran climber who regularly travels from Ada to tackle the Ledges. “You have to figure out what the movements are going to be to get up to the top.”

Bouldering is a newer climbing style that attracts some participants at the Ledges. Bouldering is about strength rather than endurance, said Mike Rathke, 33, a climber from East Lansing. Climbers focus on specific “boulder problems”: Difficult sequences of moves across a particular section of rock. They climb at low heights, using spotters and foam pads on the ground for protection.

“(Bouldering is) meant to be super hard,” Rathke said. “(I want to) find a climb so difficult that it pushes me to my limit.”

Bosscher said the appeal of rock climbing lies in the sense of “controlled danger.”

“You could get hurt, but the rewards of conquering it are so much more fulfilling than sitting around watching TV,” he said.

Bosscher compiled “A Guide to Grand Ledge Climbing,” a guidebook on rock climbing at the Ledges. It’s available for free at grandledgeclimbing.com, and de scribes more than 90 established routes up the cliffs. Fanciful names like Intergalactic Quaalude Trip, Fat Chance, Intimidator, Inappropriate Behavior and Under the Mermaid (named for an elaborate carving in the rock) reflect both the challenge and the ecstasy of the sport.

Bosscher said the first person to ascend a route typically earns the privilege of naming it, with many of the names dating back 40 years or more. Bosscher can vouch for the history of only one: He named Katie’s Korner after his wife.

Doug’s Roof, a six-foot overhang that dares climbers to claw their way out from under it, is “the most iconic climb” at the Ledges, said Randy Goldsworthy, 36, of Clarkston, who climbs in Grand Ledge with his wife several times a year.

“That’s the rite of passage here,” he said.

A crucible for friendship

At the Ledges it’s standard practice for climbers to let other groups climb on the ropes they’ve set up. A climber who’s mastered a particular route will frequently offer tips (known as “beta”) to someone just starting out. Rock climbers regularly trust their lives to people they’ve just met, so it’s unsurprising that camaraderie runs high.

“Everybody takes care of each other,” observed Snedeker. “It’s a friendly, fun community to be involved in.”

With the city taking a hands-off approach, Hood said many improvements to the park have been made by climbers. Friends of the Ledges, a climbers’ group, organizes cleanup days to remove trash and spread wood chips on the trails. Climbers also watch out for novices whose ignorance could prove fatal. Hood has personally confiscated clothesline, keychaingrade carabiners and other not-ready-forprimetime gear from would-be climbers.

“If climbers see somebody doing something stupid, they’ll say something,” Snedeker said. “They don’t want anybody to die.”

Climbers at the Ledges have suffered serious injuries and even a few fatalities, but Bayless said the last known death occurred more than 20 years ago.

The downside of going up

Hood knows Oak Park better than most people. Every tree is an old friend, each nook and cranny calls forth a story. His voice chokes with emotion as he describes the beauty of the Ledges in the spring.

For nearly 20 years, he spent up to 60 hours a week in this park teaching his beloved sport. But now he says rock climbing at the Ledges should be banned.

“Climbing and the environment are at odds here,” he said. “A lot of the activities climbers do in the park are inherently destructive to the environments and the ecosystems.”

Intensive climbing over the past 40 years has accelerated the normal weathering of the cliffs. Climbers point to spots where chunks of rock have broken away and cup-shaped depressions where hundreds of toes have sought a grip. Concerns about damage to the soft sandstone have prompted rules prohibiting rappelling and requiring climbers to place squares of carpet under their ropes to protect the cliff edge.

“We’ve seen the damage that used to happen and we’ve tried to minimize that damage as much as possible,” Rathke said.

Of course, not everyone follows those restrictions. Bayless brushed off one climber’s assertion that local police patrol the park and fine climbers who break the rules. He suggested that officers may have been enforcing the park’s curfew. But Hood sees an even bigger danger: Devastation of the fragile cliffside ecosystem.

In Fitzgerald Park, where climbing is not allowed, rock crevices burst with native plants like the harebell, which thrives on rock outcroppings where many other plants can’t grow. Cliff faces in the climbing area are dotted with white chalk smudges instead of vegetation. As climbers repeatedly trample the top and base of the cliffs, they erode or compact the soil, compromising tree roots and eventually causing trees to topple or die.

During his decades at the Ledges, Hood and fellow climbers reinforced embankments with timbers to stop erosion, planted saplings at the cliff edges and even rehabilitated a tree that had tipped over. But the constant traffic of hands and feet stymied their best efforts. Only two of the 200 trees planted by climbers over the years have survived, Hood said.

“For a lot of years we thought we could save this from ourselves,” Hood said. “But we were really putting a Band-Aid on a cancer patient.”

In 2003, Hood announced that he would no longer bring students to the Ledges, a move that put a significant dent in his business and raised the ire of some in the climbing community. One of the final indignities that prompted his decision: Climbers tore down a nest of fledgling cliff swallows that occupied a key foothold.

Ironically, Hood said, climbers are destroying the future of their sport by causing the deaths of the trees they use to anchor their ropes.

“This is such a rare ecological treasure,” he said. “We cannot be shortsighted enough to see it as just a resource for this generation.”

With no organized campaign afoot to close the Ledges to climbing, “outdoor recreational opportunity” trumps “ecological treasure.” The mermaid carved into the sandstone of Oak Park still sings her siren song, luring climbers to her rocks. Climbers can still get their quick fix, pitting their muscles against the laws of gravity. For now, anyway.