Rock-climbing site in Upper Peninsula reopens

Wall was closed last year because of liability concerns

By Christie Bleck
The Mining Journal (Marquette)

BIG BAY, Mich. (AP) — The historic AAA Walls have been reopened for recreational rock climbing.

This comes as good news for the Upper Peninsula Climbers Coalition and the Access Fund, which had been working with the landowner, the Marquette-based Longyear Realty Corp. Longyear owns the AAA Walls and surrounding timberlands.

The rock formations are in a remote area off Marquette County Road 510 outside of Big Bay, according to The Mining Journal.

The reopened areas include the main AAA Wall, first climbed in the late 1970s, and a smaller formation, Secret Crag.

The walls were closed in June 2014 because of liability concerns. However, UPCC and the Access Fund, a national advocacy organization, worked out a collaborative agreement that will allow individuals to use the rock formations for recreational climbing.

The license is valid through the end of this year, and if things go well, it will be renewed the following year.

UPCC President Phil Watts said the walls, which have a long history, were discovered by the group as a potential climbing crag in 1979, with Bud Place and Hazel Blandford joining him in the early years of exploration.

Watts said 4-H groups and Northern Michigan University, where he is employed as an exercise physiology professor, throughout the years have led trips in the area, which also has been used by many youth and school groups.

Climbers then began to use local crags and moved away from the AAA Walls, which Watts acknowledged is more in a wilderness setting.

Eventually, though, others found the walls to their liking.

“We started getting more students at the university that had climbing experience,” Watts said, “and they kind of rediscovered it. So then it got pretty popular, and it kind of remained that way.”

About a year ago, Longyear was having forestry work done in the area, which also was being changed road-wise due to the Eagle Mine in Michigamme Township.

Because of Longyear’s logging and the fact people had started camping at the rock, Longyear had some concerns, Watts said, although the company didn’t have problems with recreational climbing as much as liability.

UPCC Treasurer Bill Thompson said in a news release: “Rock climbing is a precious resource here in the U.P., so when it closed last year due to liability concerns, we knew we had to show Longyear that the local community was willing and able to keep the AAA Walls open.”

The Access Fund helped the UPCC and Longyear work out an agreement that stipulates the walls can be used for recreational climbing, but not professional guided climbing, Watts said, with the UPCC coordinating insurance.

“So in the end, it all turned out to be a real happy thing for everybody, unless somebody wanted to do guided climbing there,” Watts said, “but there never has been professional guided climbing there, so no one was really affected by that.”

Access Fund Executive Director Brady Robinson said in a news release his group could not have helped reopen the AAA Walls without the local leaders and a community-oriented landowner like Longyear.

Karen Anderson, administrator manager for Longyear, said the company supports climbing at the site according to the terms of the license.

Rules include:

— The site is for day use only between dawn and dusk.

— Camping and overnight use is prohibited at AAA Walls or adjacent Longyear lands.

— No littering is allowed.

— Commercial use, guiding or revenue-generating activities are prohibited.

— No ice climbing is allowed.

— Organizations and school groups looking to conduct noncommercial events such as climbing instruction must request Longyear approval by contacting UPCC more than 60 days before the scheduled event date.

The AAA Walls, Watts said, are made of a metamorphic rock called gneiss.

“And as climbers would say, it climbs like granite,” Watts said.

The routes, he said, range between 30 and 75 feet in height and are several hundred feet wide, and as individuals start climbing on the rock, they’ll find a particular route and record it in a journal, preserving it for posterity.

“Sometimes they’ll give it a little fancy name,” Watts said. “And I would say there are a dozen or more of these routes up there that people could climb.”
Watts said some of the routes are climbed — by experienced climbers — using a method called top roping in which an anchor system in set up at the top of the rock, so the rope is always above the climber and is the safest way to climb.

Another method uses sport-leading routes where permanent anchors have been installed along the routes. Longyear, he said, allows permanent anchors, although they are limited.

The difficulty ranges from low angle, which is good for children, he said, up to steeper climbs, even to the point of being overhanging, which he acknowledged would be strenuous to climb.

“Welcome language” on signage at the AAA Walls, though, cautions climbers the UPCC and the landowners do not maintain any fixed climbing hardware. They also are warned they voluntarily assume all “risk of injury or death” from using the walls, which includes slippery surfaces, steep unguarded cliffs and falling objects.

But what would rock climbing be without a few physical challenges?

Watts believes the AAA Walls are a premier destination for rock climbing.

“We have areas around town here, certainly, that people climb on, but AAA is kind of the big thing that local climbers would hit as a weekend kind of destination,” Watts said.