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Obsession and Ingenuity, Part IV: Kansas

Will Pass (left) and Noah Hoelscher are two climbers stuck in the middle of Kansas. They have no local crag, but that doesn’t seem to matter. [Photo] Adam Hofmann

Editor’s Note: Part IV of this series again answers the question: “If going to the climbing takes too long, why not bring the climbing closer?” See the October 17, October 24 and November 28, 2007 Weekly Features to read other creative means of building the vertical.

Pass working his project, Kansas Reality, which includes two stretches of roof cracks ranging in size from perfect hands to fist jams. The crux is the pillar traverse. [Photo] Adam Hofmann

Lost in a Sea of Plains

By Will Pass

You’re from Boulder, eh? Front Range. Nice. Local crag? Where’s our local crag?

Noah and I glance at each other and grin. What in the hell do you mean? We live in Lawrence, Kansas, my friend, a small college town lost in a sea of plains. If by local crag you mean a two-hour drive to some crumbling, dripping limestone in Missouri, then sure, that’s our local crag. But I’ve climbed more interesting routes out of bed in the morning. Real climbing? Well, for real climbing, we travel. Six hours to the good stuff. Pack a lunch. And bring some of that delicious Boulder falafel.

It’s been a long, flat winter, and–if the Kansas horizon thaws in a couple of weeks–we’re going for it. We’ll blow out of here like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, our quickdraws cocked, hearts pounding, cams firing, blood spilling, into the sunset. It’s going to be a spectacle, and it’ll feel like a miracle.

But today, it’s just pull-ups. Two-arm pull-ups, three-finger pull-ups, two-finger pull-ups, offset pull-ups, fast pull-ups, slow pull-ups. Rinse and repeat. Then it’s L-hangs, leg lifts, dead hangs, bent-arm dead hangs, one-arm lock offs, attempted front levers, attempted human flags, attempted one-arm pull-ups. Then it’s crunches, push-ups, stretching, flexing, eating. Then it’s grip ball, climbing videos, beers. Then it’s talk. How to do an emergency rescue with an unconscious partner. How the double bowline is a better knot than the figure eight. Where Ouray is in Colorado. How Metolius is making a cam to replace the Alien. How Steve House isn’t human and trains in Gym Jones, where all the other members are, in fact, ninjas.

Of course, there is the climbing wall at the Rec Center, but one of the reasons to climb is to be outside, to feel the wind on your fur and rock in your paws. Plastic don’t scratch that itch.

On the odd warmish day (anything above freezing will do), we converge on The Climbing Garage. Well, technically, it’s a parking garage.

Pass aids a sketchy unnamed corner (A1, 4m), The Climbing Garage, Lawrence, Kansas. [Photo] Noah Hoelscher

The Climbing Garage offers roughly 60 feet of crack climbing. There’s a squeeze chimney, where I first learned what a squeeze chimney was. There’s a short vertical stretch, but for the most part, it’s a roof crack. And by crack I don’t actually mean crack, in the traditional sense. The Climbing Garage is a relatively sound piece of construction, and the dispersed roof crack is actually just a seam where a concrete roof meets a concrete wall. The crack varies from around two inches up to about four, offering a wide variety of jams. I’m thinking about sending a letter to the contractors about uniformity, as we would have preferred longer stretches of solid hand jams. But contractors don’t seem interested in our desires, nor do the police.

Not too long ago a couple of Kansas climbers were at The Climbing Garage when a police officer arrived on the scene. Picture a police interceptor rolling up on two shirtless climbers on a crash pad in an empty parking space. Innocently they are tying their shoes and taping their hands. The following conversation takes place:

Officer: What are you doing?

Kansas Climber 1: We’re kickin’ it.

Officer: No, what are you about to do?

Kansas Climber 2: We’re about to have a good time.

Officer: Don’t lie to me. You’re about to climb.

Kansas Climber 2: I didn’t lie. We’re gay acrobats, and this is our sex mattress.

Gorilla Brad Miller shows off his slacklining skills on the KU campus. [Photo] Courtesy of Katrina Mohr

Apparently, this old bouldering line just doesn’t cut it anymore. The police officer let them off with a warning and told them not to come back.

Currently, I am working on linking two stretches of the roof crack. Connecting them involves a pillar traverse. The cracks range from good hands to fists and then a bit wider than that. If I send it I’m going to name it Kansas Reality.

But I am not a pioneer of any sort. Mutual friend and KU alum Jake Wolf showed us The Climbing Garage. He and a few others probably have climbed my project. A few times. Kansas climbers have been around for quite a while.

Ben Reader spots Brady Karlin. The KU campus’ older buildings offer traverses, highballs and numerous other problems. [Photo] Ashton Martin

A man was arrested a few years back for roping up and climbing an offwidth up the side of the University’s Memorial Stadium. Rumor has it that Fraser Hall used to be bolted, and someone free soloed the 80-foot Mallott Hall. Supposedly an old issue of Climbing has a picture of a Kansas climber atop a light post on the KU campus [Figures. –Ed.]. A few weeks ago two climbers were warned not to builder on campus. The police still refuse to slackline with us.

The point is this: Kansas climbers exist, and they naturally occur. Flat land doesn’t preclude climbing; it modifies it. They say a person is never more than 50 feet from a rat. I’d argue the same is true of climbers, even in Kansas. We’re not just climbers, though–we’re completely obsessed. Even without a mountain in sight we drool at the thought of beating our personal bests. Kansas climbers understand the sacrifices it takes to live lost in a sea of plains. If time is money, then we’re taking out second mortgages just to get to decent rock.

Hoelscher on Robot 11 in The Climbing Garage. The roof crack is R-rated due to its proximity to a large glass window. [Photo] Adam Hofmann

Last fall break I drove with the KU Rock Climbing Club to Moab, Utah, for a three-day weekend. It took four of us about twenty hours longer than the rest of the group when a rock on I-70 ran in front of two of our cars, shredding two wheels and two tires on each car. That’s ridiculously unlucky. It’s ironic too, as the oily tow driver pointed out, that a rock should stop us from rock climbing. We were stranded in Salina, Kansas (picture tumbleweeds), two hours from home, and twelve-plus hours from Moab. But we pushed on. We stayed the night at a highway-side motel, drank beers and called insurance companies. The next morning we rented a car and continued on. In Denver that car broke down, stranding us for another four hours in a parking lot, watching the sun set in the west and the cars stream by for what felt like eternity. We finally got a replacement and dragged into Moab far past midnight. I’d rather epic on a climb than on I-70. After all, driving is inherently dangerous.

But it was absolutely worth it. And I would do it again tomorrow, car trouble included, if you asked me. We climbed at Indian Creek the first day, and I bagged my first desert tower the second. Ultimately, the positive experiences in climbing always outweigh the negative.

I think there is something to be gained from considering the Kansas climber. Climbing is an obsession that runs deep and red in the veins. It’s not something that will simply go away, even if you move (heaven forbid) to a place where there is no climbing. This is because climbing is not simply a sport; it’s a form of thinking, a way of approaching difficulties.

As for the Kansas climber, imagine a carrot at the end of a thousand-mile stick that lures us through the worst of it just to climb for two days. Maybe one day you’ll see us chewing happily away. But please, don’t ask us about our local crag.

Pass (left) and Hoelscher get in a few last reps at the University of Kansas Union parking garage, aka The Climbing Garage. [Photo] Adam Hofmann