Methodically, mathematically, the climber tucked his foot into tiny toeholds and slid his chalk-dusted hand across a rock wall at Arkansas’ Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. He’d been cruising the crag with ease all morning.
He paused. Directly above hung a horizontal roof of orange rock that blocked the sun.
With a dynamic upward vault, Jordan Horner stretched out for a hold. Then, he was in the air.
“Falling!” the Columbia climber bellowed, plummeting into space before his belayer yanked a rope and jerked him to a stop.
Rock climbing — with the occasional tumble — has for decades had a strong following in mid-Missouri. The state’s flaky limestone and rugged river bluffs have long captivated climbers, from the first-timers often seen rappelling at Capen Park to the more seasoned veterans, with experience levels spanning years and decades.
“Statewide, it’s a super vibrant and active community,” said Jim Karpowicz, a Missouri native who’s been climbing for 49 years. “We’re pretty tight with Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis. I don’t think (climbers out West) get together as much.”
On the rocks
The rock quality in Missouri — often regarded as poor in comparison to places out West — has caused it to be overlooked by some out-of-state climbers but beloved by those who do climb here.
Most of Missouri climbing is done on ancient limestone deposits along its rivers. On rock like this, handholds can be difficult to come by early in a route.
“A long reach to a hidden hold that you can’t see,” Karpowicz said, describing the way many routes begin. “It’s grey and flaky, but there can be some good sections.”
Climbers must use extreme caution on some of the more eroded sections, where seemingly secure rock chunks, or flakes, are actually detached from the wall.
“As you’re climbing some of these routes, you gotta do — I call it — the Missouri knock,” Horner, a Washington state native, said. “You give it a good knock to see if it’s a hollow flake. It’s this eerie sound. That’s how you know that you need to be careful pulling on it.”
But there’s a silver lining to the extra danger.
“If you learn to climb here, you can climb on loose rock anywhere,” Karpowicz said.
Some popular spots to climb are along the Missouri River at places like Providence and Wilton, as well as Capen Park. Most Missouri routes are enshrined in MO’ Beta, the de facto Missouri climbing Bible written by world famous climber and Missouri native Jeremy Collins.
Many local climbers also make periodic trips to Arkansas or out West.
Moving effectively up a crag, or a section of rock, requires athleticism, strategy and meditation all at once.
“A lot of people might perceive climbing as this adrenaline junkie activity. It’s not that for me,” Horner said. “When I get out on the rock, I kind of get into a flow state where I’m not thinking about anything else other than what I’m doing. It’s a game of strategy that you’re executing with your body.”
“I was intrigued by the adventure, the problem solving of it all,” said Dave McGee, a Pennsylvania native who’s been climbing since 1995 and moved to Columbia years ago.
“So much of what people consider to be good climbing is physical, but the challenges you face in aid climbing are more mental,” McGee said, referring to climbing that involves the use of protective gear for upward progress.
One of the things that originally inspired McGee was a poster he saw at a climbing gym in Springfield back in the day. It showed a climber on El Capitan, one of the world’s most famous climbing spots.
“I thought, if I could climb El Cap’, I would ‘arrive.’ I had such high hopes for being on the summit. I would be a real man,” McGee said. But when he got there, he said, it was a “hollow feeling.”
“It’s not really about winning, it’s about the process,” McGee said. “Being in the moment, enjoying the moment and making good decisions... it’s applicable to life.”
Karpowicz has a similar philosophy.
“The most memorable climb you did is the last one you had fun on,” he said.
An evolving tradition
Some of the pioneers of Missouri climbing include legends such as Ken Duncan and Karpowicz, literal trailblazers who set routes in the late ‘70s that still see ascents today.
“The best areas are some of those classic lines,” McGee said. He mentioned one nearby route called “The Outer Edge.” “It’s neat to climb a route that has history.”
While Missouri’s climbing community remains small relative to other states, it has grown with the sport’s popularity.
“It used to be a very oddball thing to do. Now it’s more mainstream,” Karpowicz said. He attributed some of that change to the rise of indoor climbing gyms.
Climbing itself has also evolved.
Better protective gear, shoes and training techniques have made it possible to climb routes that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.
For more than a century, “traditional climbing,” in which climbers placed protection as they ascended the rock, was the only form. In the last 25 years, routes with pre-placed bolts have proliferated, allowing climbers to simply clip into the bolts and not bother with traditional gear.
This more dynamic, free-flow version is called sport climbing.
“With sport climbing, you don’t have to worry about the placement necessarily,” Horner said. “You just figure, ‘These bolts are good.’ You can climb more at your limit, because there isn’t that strategy and skill needed.”
Climbing above the stigma
Horner said some Columbians are wary of climbing since the death of an MU student on a portable rock wall in 2003.
“Climbing in Columbia has a stigma that goes along with it,” Horner said. “It’s gained sort of a bad reputation... I think we would like to see that stigma go away. But I attribute that response to, they just don’t really know what it is we’re doing. And that’s OK.”
Some pushback against climbing has also come from the state level, McGee said.
“Historically, the state has been against climbing,” McGee said. It can be difficult, for example, to gain permission to climb in state parks.
McGee said areas with deregulated climbing policies, like Yosemite, are typically safer than more regulated areas like Missouri because all the liability is on the climber, forcing him or her to be extra careful.
“You can make climbing as dangerous you want, as quickly as you want,” McGee said.
A close call
McGee learned that lesson firsthand when he attempted “Bushido,” a route up Yosemite’s infamous Half Dome wall. The route was set in ‘77 by Jim Bridwell, a prolific climber renowned for his skill and to-the-edge style. Rolling Stone once called Bridwell “America’s most controversial climber.”
Even the daredevil Bridwell said he wouldn’t recommend the route “to his worst enemy,” McGee said.
“We wanted to do something hard and obscure,” McGee said. “We found it.”
McGee and his partner, Todd Johnson, had spent days climbing hundreds of feet up a traditional route on Half Dome. The rock was of “kitty litter” quality, with scarce holds and sparsely placed, quarter-inch nails, which were questionable even when they were originally placed in the ‘70s.
The two encountered one extremely tough section, or “pitch,” a 60-foot stretch with no protection, save for a few postage-stamp-sized metal pins pounded into “rotten-finger, nail-sized cracks.”
Then he lost his grip.
“As I start falling, I hear, ‘ping, ping, ping...’ The entire pitch pulled out,” McGee said. Each one of the bolts he had clipped into were popping out of the wall as he dropped, over 100 feet, on a “screamer” of a fall.
Then, his rope caught on a piece of protection attached to his portaledge — a deployable tent that climbers bolt to the wall on routes that require spending multiple days on the wall.
The two climbed on, and the terrain got no easier. Soon, McGee was exhausted and panicked, thinking about the 1,800 feet of air between him and the ground. A fall here would end differently than before.
“Any slip of these wires off of the roofing nails, and I was going to take a 100-foot pendulum, which would likely have the same ending as being hit by a truck on I-70,” McGee wrote in a Facebook post about the climb.
After clinging to the rock for dear life, he made a desperation move and lunged for the base of a small bush to his right. It held.
Now with a chance to place a sturdy piece of protection, McGee finished the pitch — and “crumbled into a trembling mass of tears.”
Since then, he said he’s been more aware of his climbing limits.
“Once you climb, you know clearly when you are and aren’t in danger. If you push yourself past your limit, sooner or later, it’s going to catch up with you,” he said. “I’ll keep climbing, but I’m going to stay within that range.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.