Silver Mountain: Northern Michigan's Hidden Gem

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Silver Mountain developer Paul Peppin on the cliff’s upper headwall, climbing Silver Sweetness (5.10d).

Silver Mountain developer Paul Peppin on the cliff’s upper headwall, climbing Silver Sweetness (5.10d).

We rarely think of rock climbing when we think of Michigan. Instead, “the Mitten” typically conjures images of lakes, potatoes, flat land, and Detroit. However, deep in the recesses of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) is a hidden 140-foot cliff with 40-plus stellar routes from 5.7 to 5.12d, including several two-pitch climbs. Silver Mountain, cleaved from the hills of Ottowa National Forest by the last ice age, is a stark black and gray basalt wall, with pink, orange, and white mineral deposits splattered tie-dye throughout.

Two hours west of Marquette and six hours northeast of Minneapolis, Silver is hidden far out in the northern woods. The next tallest routes in the UP top out at 50 feet (AAA Wall), and in the Lower Peninsula there’s only Grand Ledge, a 30-foot toprope crag. Meanwhile, the next nearest sport destination is the Red River Gorge—a 12-hour drive.

There is a creed in UP climbing that no one claims a first ascent. Climbers will often think they’re on an FA only to find a rusty piton or weathered webbing. It is rumored that people climbed at Silver Mountain in the late 1980s, but when Bryan Rajdlel first arrived in 1996, he saw no evidence of passage. At the time, Rajdlel was a student at Michigan Technical University in the town of Houghton, about an hour away.

“It was pristine, untouched, and the style me and my buddies did—we were all trad climbers,” Rajdlel says. “It was scary. It was hard to protect. It was thin. The cracks flare. It was, like, super adventure climbing.”

Rajdlel, along with a handful of other locals, put up 12 to 14 mixed free/aid lines at Silver in the late 1990s—routes titled no further than “That hard one over there.” They cut their teeth on these scary, ground-up traditional routes and practiced the aid skills they’d later take to big walls in Yosemite and elsewhere. According to Rajdlel, the ethic in the UP at that time was clean—no bolts, no anchors, and minimal chalk.

Enter Paul Peppin, a young, thirsty climber native to Marquette, Michigan, a few hours east of Silver Mountain. Peppin began climbing as a teenager and got strong on trips to the Red. There, he saw firsthand how sport climbing could unlock an area’s potential. After hearing of the mysterious Silver Mountain, Peppin made the journey in 1998. “When I came around the corner and saw this thing go straight up and down, I almost had a heart attack,” Peppin says. “It was an epiphany.” In that moment, Peppin saw what Rajdlel had seen just a few years before: an awe-inducing 140 feet of sheer, featured rock—in Michigan.

Peppin bought a power drill, and in summer 1999, he and another Marquette climber, Aaron LaBelle, bolted five lines at Silver, some of which unknowingly eclipsed existing trad lines. When Rajdlel caught wind—fearing access issues with the forest service and disgruntled that the original climbers at Silver had not had a chance to weigh in—he removed the bolts. Disheartened, Peppin would not return for five years. In the meantime, Rajdlel started a family and took a hiatus from climbing. During that time, Silver remained largely untouched—what Peppin calls “the lost years.”

“I didn’t really intend to [go back],” Peppin says. “But then I met [my future—now former—wife] Liz and I just wanted to show her the place.” In 2004, the two returned to Silver to find the rock overgrown. They toproped and trad-climbed at Silver for years, all while quietly scoping and cleaning potential new sport routes.

Paul concedes that he is second generation at Silver Mountain, saying that Rajdlel and his crew were pioneers and have “first rights.” However, for the Peppins, developing Silver as a sport area became a matter of accessibility: As Liz puts it, “90 percent of the current bolted routes on trad would be rated R and X—they really are dangerous, and most people aren’t going to climb them unless there are bolts.”

In 2012, the Peppins began bolting again, spending almost every summer weekend for the next five years brushing, cleaning, drilling, and blowing lichen boogers. During that time, the Peppins, along with help from various UP college students, established almost 40 sport routes at Silver. Meanwhile, as his kids have grown, Rajdlel has taken up climbing again and began guiding. He takes his children and clients to Silver because it provides a perfect training ground for young climbers to hone their skills, much like how he practiced aid climbing there years ago. “I totally get it … We’d rather more people climb it than not climb it,” says Rajdlel 20 years after he removed the first bolts at Silver. “[Paul and I are] gonna meet and try to bury the hatchet. It was a long time ago. We both really care about climbing here [in the UP], and I think we will work together moving forward.”

Bennett Slavsky and Emily Cabot climbing Anal Dwelling Butt Monkeys (5.11a), Silver Mountain, Michigan.

Bennett Slavsky and Emily Cabot climbing Anal Dwelling Butt Monkeys (5.11a), Silver Mountain, Michigan.

Today, any given fair-weather weekend at Silver draws young climbers from across the Midwest. With no buildings or facilities for miles, climbers camp off a dirt road 100 yards from the cliff. They set up tents amongst the trees, and in the evening hang out around the campfire, occasionally donning a headlamp for night climbs.

The off-vertical rock produces delightfully technical, heady climbing. A quintessential Silver route, Between a Block and a Hard Place (5.10d), works up 90 feet of large stacked blocks through finger-jams, sidepulls, crimps, and precision footwork. The climb is captivating, each move a new puzzle to methodically solve. For the strong, the 60-foot second pitch of Golden Heart (5.12d) is a sustained beast with monster moves to miniscule holds.

In mid-September 2018, Liz bolted what ended up being the Peppins’ final route at Silver, the second pitch of Anal Dwelling Butt Monkeys, a stunning 5.11a. Most of the crag’s potential has been unlocked, and it’s time to pass the development torch to a new generation. On the route, a heady start leads to back-to-back burly dihedral cruxes and a slabby finish. The climb is an interesting, multifaceted, instant classic. As you top out high above the trees, a 180-degree panorama of the endless, rolling green sea of the Upper Peninsula awaits you, spread out at the foot of Michigan’s finest crag.