Central Illinois rock climbers are pushing for more local outdoor climbing access
Illinois is typically known for its vast flatlands and corn fields, so many people are not aware of the rocky landscapes in the southern region of the state that is home to a community of outdoor rock climbers looking to test their skills on some real, hard rock.
Some of these climbing locations include Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton, Giant City State Park and Jackson Falls (both located in the Shawnee National Forest), and The Holy Boulders in Jackson County.
While these climbing locations are exquisite, beautiful regions for people to practice the sport, they require Peorians and other people living in central Illinois to drive hours just to reach them. The commute can be a big reason why many indoor climbers never transition their skills to the great outdoors.
Luckily, there are two organizations working hard to secure and preserve climbing access across the state, including right here in the heart of Illinois. Access Fund is a national non-profit founded in 1991 to secure not just legal and physical access to these climbing regions, but sustainable ones, too. Their work includes putting in belay platforms, paving trails, protecting tree roots, and much more to keep climbing areas safe and accessible for generations to come.
Jeff Jaramillo, of Peoria, is a community ambassador with Access Fund, specifically representing climbers in Illinois. He said climbing access ultimately comes down to one large barrier.
“Whether or not people can climb on rocks depends on who owns the land those rocks are on," he said. "There are a ton of areas…that sit on municipal city ground. Very reasonably so, there are always people in the municipality that go, 'People are doing what with their fingertips off of rocks where, how high off the ground?”
When it comes to rock climbing, many people don’t know much about it. Movies like Free Solo have tinted the perception of the sport to be incredibly dangerous and life threatening, even though most climbers always use some sort of harness or protective padding, known as crash pads, at the bottom of shorter cliffs.
Andrew Staff is the president of the Illinois Climbing Association (ICA), a charitable organization that works to conserve and preserve climbing access in the state through land stewardship, education, and proper climbing etiquette outdoors. He said rock climbing and skate boarding shared some similarities when it came to how they were viewed before being established as sports.
“Climbing back in the day in the '60s, '70s and '80s, even into the '90s, had a more of kind of a skateboarding feel…it was easier to ask forgiveness than it was permission in a lot of areas, and sometimes in the past climbers kind of flaunted that, but that doesn’t always work out so well,” Staff explained.
The reason being because land owners are ultimately responsible for determining who gets to climb where.
Climbing illegally on rocks without the land owners knowing is a main reason why climbing locations are shut down, ruining the chances of anyone else having a chance to climb in the future. This can be detrimental in a state like Illinois, when outdoor access already is few and far between. Staff said open communication and fostering relationships with whoever owns the land is a key part of climbing ethically, and making sure there is climbing access for future generations.
“The work that you put in on the front end to cultivate good relationships really pays off when it comes time for you to find a new area. We are really aware of how we go about doing those things…just being honest about if we use this area, this is what it's going to look like. There might be people here, it might be louder, people are going to have to park places, those are the things you have to be honest about and you have to be willing to meet people, especially if you’re dealing with private landowners,” Staff said.
This is exactly why Access Fund was founded — to serve as a bridge between climbers, land owners and managers to provide clarity and understanding about the sport, and the impact climbers have on the land.
In fact, Jaramillo is in the process of securing access to a new, closer climbing location in central Illinois. Lehigh Memorial Park in Oglesby is a bit of a hidden gem in the climbing community. Currently, it is illegal to climb the rocks there, and Jaramillo urges climbers to take this seriously until proper protocols and plans are in place at the location. While no one should be climbing there now, Jaramillo is optimistic about what could eventually develop there.
“My ongoing plan right now is working with the city of Oglesby to try to get them on the same page as us climbers and develop what we call a climbing management plan,” said Jaramillo.
This plan includes figuring out details such as parking lots, anchors for the rocks, trails, signs, and anything else climbers may need out of a climbing area.
For now, patience is key.
“There are open-minded folks there that I’ve already talked to. I think it’s just a matter of doing it the right way, doing it a little bit more slowly than some people might want. Keeping a level head and the open doors is definitely sort of the way that they’re approaching things so far, and I’m glad I was able to make this connection so that I can kind of help that out using the experience and the resources we have at Access Fund,” Jaramillo said.
In addition to securing physical access to the land, there are environmental impacts that come with rock climbing that the ICA and Access Fund seek to bring attention to. For example, if proper parking lots aren’t provided and many cars park consistently on the side of the road every weekend, farmers may have their irrigation disrupted. Jaramillo said human waste is another big issue.
“You put a lot of human waste into the soil, there’s only so much that it can handle before you’re going to get other impacts that happen with other bacteria that are not supposed to be in large amounts in that soil that are now in large amounts because that’s a bacteria that eats human waste,” he explained.
To solve this problem, Jaramillo teaches climbers the importance of learning how to use the restroom in a bag and properly dispose of it, rather than going off somewhere in the forest to take care of business. This can greatly reduce the impact climbers have on the land.
Staff said general climbing etiquette also is something to be aware of when climbing outdoors.
“Really, we want climbers to be putting the best possible foot forward…you can’t fault people if they don’t know but…there could be a tendency of people to kind of go outside in these big groups and they set up hammocks and they start blasting music…and it’s not the gym…whether you like it or not, you really become an unofficial ambassador for the climbing community and climbing at large by the way that you behave in the outdoors,” Staff said.
Cleaning up your trash, being mindful of where you’re standing, wiping off any marks you make on the rocks, and perhaps leaving your dog at home also are recommendations Staff makes in order to practice good climbing etiquette. All in all, he said climbers are generally a very respectful user base who want to give back to the areas that allow them to do what they love.
The ICA will be hosting a trail day at Pere Marquette State Park from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on May 7. Volunteers will be working on specific projects that will help maintain the trails and climbing areas at the park. For more information, visit the event Facebook page.