Bluff Country draws in more thrill-seekers as climbing culture c - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

Bluff Country draws in more thrill-seekers as climbing culture changes

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WINONA, Minn. (KTTC) -

The natural bluffs of the Upper Mississippi River Valley were carved out by the river tens of thousands of years ago.

Now, they give us some of the most dramatic views of Southeast Minnesota and Wisconsin, and for rock climbers, an adrenaline rush close to home.

One such thrill-seeker is 17-year-old Isaac Duncan. He's been scaling bluffs since before he could read, and he's now one of the best young climbers in the country.

It's not uncommon to see him dangling from places like Red Wing's Barn Bluff - about 70 feet from solid ground.

"This route is a lot of feel of what we call 'exposure' in the climbing community, since it goes out over a roof and you get nothing between you and the ground,” Duncan said before climbing one of 200 routes on the popular crag.

We watched as he chalked his hands, and nearly effortlessly, clambered up the rock face. Barn Bluff is considered one of the best sport-climbing spots in the Upper Midwest.

It's usable year-round, especially if you have someone willing to - quite literally – show you the ropes.

"It's such a sport that's learned from someone who's experienced showing someone who's less experienced, and that's how I learned,” Duncan said.

That's what Eric Barnard does. The 20-year climbing veteran runs the outdoor program at Winona State University.

He somehow convinced NewsCenter's Devin Bartolotta to harness up and climb Sugarloaf Bluff one September Saturday, and the interview took place more than 600 feet over the city of Winona.

He said he's seen the climbing culture change and become more acceptable and accessible in the last few decades.

"I've seen it grow from more of a counter-culture, where the climbers were kind of under the radar, don't ask, don't tell, don't confront the land manager or any kind of officials, and now we're coming to the table saying, hey this is a viable sport, it's growing nationally. It's becoming more of a mainstream sport, we're becoming a user group more like the hikers,” Barnard said.

It hasn't been easy to get in the good side of all city officials, but a good place to start is taking care of the space.

So, one Saturday at Sugarloaf, local climbers rolled up their sleeves. They scrubbed spray paint off the rock face, cut down invasive buck thorn, and picked up cigarettes, trash, and litter.

"These people are out here today, they view this park as their own land, and they're willing to take a Saturday to come and do labor because they care about it because it gives them something,” said Barnard.

Building a relationship with the land also builds relationships with city officials. In Winona, they're happy to let them climb.

Chad Ubl is the director of Winona's Community Services Department. He, too, has noticed a change in the climbing culture.

Recently, community activities have expanded from things like softball and kickball leagues, to an increase in demand for hiking trails and climbing facilities.

He welcomes the climbers, especially since they're willing to put in the work to help improve the space.

"It's nice to have a user group that cares about a facility, a natural facility like this, and wants to take ownership and see it used correctly and kept clean,” Ubl said.

Removing the negative stigma that sometimes surrounds climbers will allow younger generations, like Isaac, to continue growing the sport in the future.

"It's kind of a well kept secret, I think, the climbing in this state. It's there, you've gotta find it,” said Duncan.

Pulling himself up to the first clip on the wall, about 15 feet high, he's nervous to fall – and rightfully so.

"Alright, here's the first ledge system we're going to get to,” he describes.

"I think that fear is what keeps you alive as a climber. You know, if you don't get scared to climb, you're either lying or you're stupid."

If you're interested in climbing, most climbers would recommend you start in a gym. There is one in Rochester open now, and another opening in December.

You can also contact the Minnesota Climbing Association on their website.

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