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This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of our print edition.
I’m 50 feet up, and there’s a slight breeze whispering across the floodplain. Inhale. Pine trees, limestone, humidity. Exhale. High step, layback, cam placement. Beneath me, shiny spring-loaded trinkets poke out of white flakes and protect me from rolling down the face.
At the other end of the rope is Jim Karpowicz. At the other end of the rope is encouragement and belief. Twenty-five years ago, he was up here just as I am now, standing on these crisp alabaster edges, fully committed, laybacking off his fingertips from a one-inch-thick flake, with the sun beating down on his bearded face, as sweat soaked into his webbing swami belt and tube socks. Back then, the train ran just beneath the crag, called Providence after the nearby “town” (population: some). Back then, Jim had flowing brown hair reaching down to his shoulders and a bronzed body from spending his days on these bluffs. And now, white-haired and nostalgic, he watches me do the same moves with half the grace and twice the gear. Next to him is Mike Jenner, his faithful climbing partner then and now. They both still climb consistently, rarely without the other.
I hesitate a moment and place the cam just right—horizontal, outer lobes down, shuffled to the spot where the rail tapers tightest. Just in case, I place another one next to it. I gather them together with a single quickdraw. Back then, Jim and Mike placed hexes here. They weren’t purists, per se, but they were pure, if there is such a thing.
“Ground up, and no bolts unless we needed to to avoid dying. Honestly we had no idea what we were doing. Just surviving, really,” Jim says.
I admired their ethos when I first discovered climbing 20 years ago and began my own journey here in the rust-colored hills of central Missouri. It may be easy for many climbers to dismiss this place as just another patch of green in flyover country. And I wouldn’t blame them for assuming so. I doubt its merit myself sometimes, but I keep returning—and reliving the fun and fear of my early days.
Heroes were hard to come by back then. We all sort of did our own thing, climbing within our small circles, occasionally running into the random weirdo out in the woods with a rope and a pack full of weathered gear. But Jim and Mike had been at this longer than anyone I had met, and they had somehow found great satisfaction here in the Show-Me State. I wondered how then and still do. Are they blinded by their own nostalgia? Am I? I ponder this as I clip the rusted anchors on Prohibition (5.11a).
Jim tells me, “Missouri has the best climbing in the world,” and then goes on to qualify himself by adding, “Anywhere you fall in love with climbing is the best in the world.” He smirks at me with a twinkle in his eye, and we rack up for another of his old, magnificent routes. He and Mike enjoy watching another member of our posse, 24-year-old Dakota Walz, grunt his way up a steep 5.10 offwidth to hand crack they first climbed in the early 1980s.
I suppose he’s right that “the best climbing” is all in your individual perspective. Here we are smack dab in the absolute middle of the country, as far as you can be from the Rockies, or the desert, or the Sierra, or the Gunks, or anywhere the majority of American climbers dream of going. We might as well be on an island. Clearly those who adapt to island life thrive, and those who don’t, well, they move to Boulder.
Starting in the late 1990s, I began to find my own way here as a climber. I had sent most of the established limestone routes in the state, many of them multiple times over, and I started sniffing around for new rock. After many bouts with poison ivy, I figured out hiking in pants was best, and that a machete was just as important as a rope. I also figured out there was a helluva lot of unexplored rock in this mountain-starved state, if one was willing to bushwack, paddle, and hack their way to it.
My friends Jesse Gross, Sean Burns, and J.P. Sankpill joined me on these explorations, and somehow none of us died in the process. Sean was our patron saint. He showed us the ropes, loaned his gear and advice, and eventually wrote a book on Missouri rock, Missouri Limestone Select. He showed us how to be bold as developers but make good routes for other people. He also showed us how to work the trinkets and how (and, more important, why) to respect nature. Our game then was simple: Climb from the ground up, if at all possible. The only reason it sometimes wasn’t possible was because you chickened out and scrambled up a gully to come in from above (similar to Jim’s generation). We dragged a trail line behind us for pulling up a drill. If you couldn’t get into a stance, you hung on a hook or a crappy cam shoved into a rotten, delaminating rock scab. Eventually, with work and good fortune, you made it to the top. If you were lucky, your route got two stars—on a 10-star scale. And then, every once in a great while, a true three-star route emerged from the carnage.
Then, I left.
We all did at one point or another, scattering like roaches looking for a better meal. I lived in a 1988 Vanagon in Arizona and Colorado and climbed a ton of beautiful granite. I climbed desert splitters that shot into the sky. I tasted the sweetness of the West. But I suppose I just hadn’t received enough tick bites and bloody knees, so I ventured back every chance I got.
A hundred new routes later, I still find motivation to get out there on the rivers, watch the sun rise over the plains on the drive in and the bald eagles soaring just over your head as you hang over the water, and relish in the belief that this is the best climbing area in the world. Maybe that old coot Jim has something there.
This isn’t Rifle, or the Red, or Céüse, and that’s actually one of the best things it has going for it. Having something that is “yours” has a particular romance over having something that is everybody’s.
I once met the great alpinist Mark Twight, and after I told him where I learned to climb, he chuckled and wrote “Loose rock keeps you sharp!” as he signed the inside cover of his book for me. In the book he says, “No matter what I did, the suffering I experienced did not satisfy me. I had to have more.” That resonated with me as I found pride in my hard-earned ability to adapt to the occasional 40-pound loose block or detached flake. Climbing in Missouri develops a tenacity not found at “normal” crags.
I took the skills I learned on the (very) sharp end in my home state to the Rockies, the Sierra, and then farther and farther away until I had somehow tossed blocks over my shoulders all over the world. Loose rock also develops a dark sense of humor, and maybe that’s what Twight was imparting as well with his infinite wisdom. Crags like Missouri’s build character.
This type of rock is the norm at Trappers Camp—a crag in a town called Osceola. Osceola is locally famous for its cheese, and at the Osceola Cheese factory you can sample hundreds of different flavors, including jalapeno cheddar and a sharp chocolate (yes, sharp chocolate cheese). At the crag the 70-foot walls rise up where two rivers meet, the Sac (pronounced “sauk”) and Osage. Both rivers run north (the only two in the state that do so), and on their banks is good hunting and fishing. Local lore says white fur trappers were camped here at the fork in 1814, when a band of Indians woke them late at night by shouting and dancing around a fire above them on the cliff’s edge. The white men quickly packed up and moved to what would become Osceola just downstream. Along the base of this wall is a perfect strip of horizontal talus that allows for a hike or canoe approach, depending on the water level.
On a warm, low-water day some years ago, Jesse Gross and I were walking along at Trappers, eyeballing some of the nonsensical routes we had put up here over the last decade. Some were not worth the anchors that adorn them, but some of them were, as the legendary Peter Croft might say, “tear your hair out and howl at the moon” good. I’m lucky I’m not bald—they are truly that good.
One in particular was Ginsu, a 5.11 slab route that passes through a three-foot roof at its midpoint and had just enough knife-blade holds to make it hurt, in a good way. We got to the base, dropped our packs, and looked up. Where were the bolts? Were we lost? Jesse wondered out loud, “Did somebody chop Ginsu?” Assuming we had stopped too early, I reached down to get my pack, and out of the corner of my eye saw something shiny in the water below. It was Ginsu. Piled up just beneath the river’s surface was the slab with the bolts still attached.
Jesse and I stood there with our hearts in our throats, imagining ourselves attached to them still, pulled into the water by our own obsessions. We looked at each other, laughed in the sinister way only a climber can, put on our harnesses, and went to climb something else.
Not everyone here shared our dark humor or near-masochistic ethos back when we started new-routing, and eventually we got the hint. We found new crags in the state—steeper faces, cleaner rock, and better features. We started rappelling to clean the loose rock first, and then bolted full sport routes. Missourians rejoiced, and we basked in crag-developer glory—until spring. That’s when the S.H.I.T. (Snakes, Humidity, Ivy, and Ticks) really hits the fan. The smart climbers flee to the high country during the hot season (California and Colorado). Some just deal with it and climb all year long.
Now, in the southern tip of the state, climbers have proven that us old timers were a bit short-sighted when it came to finding new areas to develop. Over the last five years, they have more than doubled the boulder problems in the state, unearthing spectacular sandstone and new crag after new crag. The gem is Peters Branch outside the one horse town of Nixa. Deep in the woods, a couple hundred routes hide under a dense tree cover. The climbing is gymnastic and powerful with sloped exits on water-sculpted holds. Stand-alone boulders and caves line the small gorges. Gnomes and fairies seem to cheer you on from intricate earthen homes in the hillsides. Even the ghost of Missouri-born president Harry S. Truman spots you from below, and every time you hit the pad he says, “The buck stops here,” and then laughs. That may not seem so far-fetched once you feel how immaculate the rock is. Not like “good for Missouri,” but really, truly excellent.
Justin Frese and Lance Sitton are currently the area’s most active developers, pushing the envelope every climbable day, year-round. Starting with the obvious features, they continually grow stronger, both in tendon and vision. Now a number of double-digit problems exist in the state due to their efforts, with a constant flow of new projects on the horizon. Every time I talk to them, there’s a new crag in a new valley, or hanging over some stream in some place I’ve never heard of, and they say, “This is way better than the last one.” Where are we, Utah?
Both Frese and Sitton hail from Springfield, a college and mega-church city just north of the sparkle and glitz of Branson—the Las Vegas of the Ozarks. Somehow Springfield consistently generates a slew of motivated and talented climbers. It’s the home of another local hero—Clay Frisbee. Five-foot-six, fit, and tough as nails, Clay is in his mid-50s, a proud grandfather, and an insanely motivated first ascensionist. Training primarily on his grain silo home gym, Clay makes an annual pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley where he shows what a heartland climber with the right attitude is capable of. On his first attempt, Frisbee made the rare El Capitan, Half Dome link-up—in a day. But no one heard about this because Clay Frisbee doesn’t have an 8a.nu, Instagram, or Twitter account. He celebrated at home with his kids.
His training partner, Todd Johnson, lives in Springfield, too, and regularly solos the Nose on El Capitan, logging one of the fastest times ever. He’s currently working on doing the solo link-up. He trains on the grain silo as well. In fact, he built an office inside of it. This, in a state without mountains, just boldness-enhancing rock.
Back at Providence crag with Jim and Mike, they show me some new routes being established by locals David McGee and Jordan Horner. They are steep, pocketed, and long, and even look like legit three-star routes, maybe even the elusive four stars. We rope up again, and as I dip into my chalkbag in the middle of a steep 5.11d called Simple Math, I am startled by two large great horned owls that launch silently from a tree perched next to me.
“Nature!” I shout, and we watch them float across the floodplain beneath us on the edge of the mighty Missouri River. I continue on toward the anchors, Dakota belaying me attentively, and then lower back to the ground out in space.
Dakota has just returned from a month-long climbing road trip through Utah, Mexico, and Yosemite. As we walk back to the car along the now-abandoned gravel train tracks, he revels in the day of cragging with three generations of Missouri climbers.
“I just had no idea how much was available here,” he says enthusiastically.
Up ahead, Jim quips, “Told ya! It’s the best climbing in the world!”
We drive downriver past small waterside communities as the sun winds down and the fireflies come out like Christmas lights in the forest. At a sharp bend in the gravel road are 100 cars surrounding a small campground with a banjo and upright bass thumping in the background. Jim and Mike are astonished to hear that I have never been here. Cooper’s Landing is a campground and marina hidden on the banks of the Missouri.
“You can’t call yourself a Missouri climber without having been to Cooper’s Landing!” Mike says.
I grab a seat in front of a rousing band on a plywood stage with a plate of Thai food bought from a food truck. Next to me is a woman named Janet Moreland, who has recently completed the full Missouri–Mississippi River solo paddle, from source to sea. All 3,902 miles of it. It took her seven months, and she was the first American and first woman to do so. She tells me she used to date the great Yosemite Stonemaster Dale Bard. Where am I again?
All around me people are drinking, dancing, and telling their hunting, fishing, and, yes, climbing stories from the day on the Mighty Mo. Old friends give hugs, and dogs roam around snatching up food droppings. The band strikes into a frenzy as the sun hits the western horizon on the bend in the river. A curly, red-haired vixen croons into a microphone, and a beaver leaps from the river’s edge to catch dinner. We slap our knees and tap our feet. Jim looks at me and says, “Cooper’s Landing is like the Chamonix of the Ozarks.”
I gotta say he’s wrong. It’s way better.
Show-Me State Classics
The Saint (5.7)
Slightly under-vertical hand crack dihedral. Watch out for scolopendra heros (poisonous centipedes).
Andromeda Sprain (5.8)
The ultimate Missouri trad route—a 90-foot winding dihedral with plentiful face holds to keep it casual.
High Tides (5.9)
Maybe the most-climbed route in the state. A fun, low-angle but technical face with a roof finish.
Karp Tool (5.10a)
A newer route with gymnastic movement on beautiful white pockets.
Turn Your Head (5.10d)
Pockets! Bolts! Crystal pinches!
A classic old-school flake line with a couple bolts when there is no gear to be had.
Indian Drug Carpet (5.11c)
Steep Rifle-esque blocks and pinches hanging out over Truman Lake.
Saint Judy (5.12a)
Techy and sustained with a punch to the anchors that sends many flying.
Alpha Male (5.12b)
If you don’t have the precise ape index, you may come up short (as the author does).
Tiger Bill (5.13a)
An 80-foot-long overhanging prow with multiple cruxes, including a real nail-biter.
Missouri Climbing Beta
Missouri crags are spread all over, but the majority are plumb in the middle. Major hubs Kansas City and St. Louis are on opposite sides of the state, both off I-70. From either, you can be climbing in two hours on granite, limestone, or sandstone. Warsaw and Trappers Camp are both on Truman Lake arms. Boone County areas are primarily along the 240-mile Katy Trail that runs from Clinton to St. Louis. Peters Branch and other bouldering areas are closest to Springfield, near the central southern border. Northern Arkansas climbing is right over the state line. Kansas City has a local sport crag downtown and some bouldering in Swope Park. Check Mountain Project for more detailed directions to your chosen crag.
Mo’ Beta: Rock Climbing in Missouri, by Jeremy Collins with Ben Williams, Justin Frese, Ryan Gajweski, and Thomas Shpakow.
As most cragging in Missouri is a day trip, camping is not usually on the menu. However, if you must, there is an RV campground near the Truman Dam in Warsaw, an excellent cave at Trappers Camp, Katfish Katy’s near Andromeda, and of course, Cooper’s Landing along the Missouri River.
Winter is heavenly for rock climbing. With most crags existing on the water, a sunny day without a breeze can be T-shirt weather. The sun reflects off the water, and then the bright rock, to induce a pseudo solar cooker at the crags. Fall is excellent as it is in most places, and spring is nice, but can be humid. Summer is, well, hell on Earth. Get up early if you’re desperate.