Free Falling: Rock Climbing in Wisconsin

The view looking down towards the northern shore of Devil’s Lake, in Baraboo Wisconsin. Photo by CrispAir at en.wikipedia

“Well, this doesn’t look too difficult,” I told Adam as we gazed up the rocky slope. Earlier in the day, we had climbed harness-free down an easily-navigated rock face and left to find a more interesting way to get back up. We ended up hopelessly lost among unmaintained climbing routes and were glad to see a way back to the path.

Wisconsin probably isn’t the first place you’d think of when planning a climbing trip, but if you look past the beer and cheese, you’ll find what we found: cliff-bound water at Devil’s Lake, just a 30-minute drive from the waterpark capital of the world, Wisconsin Dells.

We were lost, crabby, and tired.

“Alright, let’s do it,” I said.

The first 50 yards up were easy, with plenty of places to stop and gaze past the dizzying drop right behind us to the tree-lined expanse on the other side of the lake. The sun was setting, and the hills sparkled with its reflection.

The second half of our trek was slow going. The rocks were smoother and steeper, and my shoes had miserable traction. I let Adam go on ahead as I paused to glance at the scenery once more before studying the rock face for the easiest way up.

“Hey! I’d like to get out of here before dark!” Adam yelled. I must have been watching the sunset for a longer than I thought. When I turned back, Adam was already at the top.

“What’s the best way up there?” I asked, stumped on finding the easiest track.

Adam’s response of “right up the middle,” sent me on my way. I scrambled up the rocks, pulling myself up boulders half my size and doing my best to handle slippery shoes while crawling up boulders twice my size. I was almost at the top, already feeling smug at how I conquered the rock.

My personal celebration ended when I realized the problem ahead. The path had narrowed and dropped off on the sides right where I was standing. Either direction held an incredible drop. The only way up to Adam was a 12-foot boulder perpendicular to the ground. Scanning the face of it and finding no handholds, only a steep diagonal crack up the middle, I silently wished I had brought my rope and harness.

Again asking Adam for advice, he pointed to the crack.

“Chimney it.”

Chimneying a rock means to shove yourself into a crack, put your arms and legs straight out, push on one side with your back and push on the other side with your arms and legs. Then, you shimmy up the inside of the rock. I jumped into action. And I literally mean jumped. I had to leap into the crack in the rock to actually reach it.

My first mistake was not having a harness.

My second mistake? I went in upside-down. I was on my back, looking up at the rock, when I should have been on my hands and knees, looking down. But that was, by then, a moot point. I couldn’t get out of the crack or else I’d fall. There was no place else to go but up. I made it two-thirds of the way before I realized my third mistake. My shoes.

I was wearing worn-out hiking boots, not climbing shoes. Our original intention was to hike the path at the top, so I wore my boots. Now, in the crack, my feet were starting to slip. I tried to maneuver my ankles so my feet were facing a different direction, but that made the climb more difficult. I had no choice but to admit defeat and call for help.

“Hey Adam, hel– Oh my God!” was all I has time to yell before my left foot lost traction completely. It shot out from the crack and I began to slip.

I panicked. I pawed at the rock, trying to regain my traction. I could feel myself falling out of the crack and towards the edge of the cliff. My fingers quickly were raw and my shoes had lost all grip. I felt another slip, and then – nothing. I was out of the rock, staring straight down a rocky cliff and into the woods below. I was a cartoon character about to fall to my death, frozen in time, standing still in the air and contemplating this obviously fatal drop. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t think; all I could do was stare down at the trees.

The first thing I heard was Adam, yelling my name. I looked up at him and realized why I was floating. He was holding my wrist. I was literally just hanging off the cliff.

I bent my knees and found the wall behind me with my feet. Pushing all of my force backwards, I walked up the wall while Adam pulled up on my wrist. In almost no time, I was at the top, on flat solid ground. I wrapped him in a bear hug, kissed the ground, and said the only thing I could think of.

“That was awesome!”

Jennifer Billock

About Jennifer Billock

Jen the Managing Editor here at the Buzz, and you can also check out her Milwaukee travel blog at She is a wanderlustful travel writer, always looking for unique destinations to play in. She’s interested in traveling to the strangest and most far-flung locales, and living to write about it!