In the annals of rock climbing history, there are areas and crags that we as climbers recognize instantly: Yosemite. The Gunks. Eldorado Canyon … Sitting oddly in that group is an area that has a wealth of history and for a time held its own for the standards of the day, but is now relatively unknown outside of its local climbers, despite having historical luminaries like the Stettner brothers and John Gill leaving their mark. That area is Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin.
The argument could be made that at the time, Devil’s Lake climbers (and the few outsiders who knew of the place) felt their climbs were too short to be significant; that they were merely “practice” climbs for larger objectives at more famous areas like Yosemite or the Tetons. However, the hardest routes at Devil’s Lake from the ’60s to ’80s rivaled anything being done elsewhere difficulty-wise.
The impetus for this whole post came about in digging through some archival ’60s-era photos for use on our Instagram. We reached out to Rich Goldstone, a climber more famously associated with the Gunks, who had taken the photo in question. He provided many more photos and backstory that seemed too long-form for social media. The photo in question was this:
Rich informed us that the climber was Steve Sharnoff, who went on to a career as a nature photographer and, along with his wife Sylvia, did the photography for the prize-winning book Lichens of North America. The route is Darcy’s Wall (5.8), named after climber Ray D’Arcy.
He also pointed out five things of note in the photo: ” 1: Kronhofer kletterschue. Very flexible, with lug soles. About as ill-suited to Devil’s Lake edging as a shoe could be. 2: No chalk. 3: Tie-in via bowline on a coil. 4: Laid rope. 5: Upper belay from top of cliff—we never used a slingshot belay.”
Prior to Rich and his friends, Devil’s Lake climbing began in the late 1920s with the Stettner brothers Joe and Paul, who honed their craft before making the historic first ascent of Stettner’s Ledges on Colorado’s Longs Peak in 1927. While it is certainly likely that Native peoples had climbed or scrambled the easily approachable cliffs prior to this, their efforts have gone unrecorded. In any event, the following words and pictures are courtesy of Rich:
“Here’s a shot of Ray D’Arcy on something at Devil’s Lake; I don’t think it is Darcy’s Wall… [Ed’s note: After some sleuthing, it appears to be what is now known as Last Gasp (5.8).] Ray was a physicist with an appointment to the Fermi Institute in Chicago, which brought him to Devil’s Lake. He had done some good stuff in Yosemite, perhaps most notably the FA of the NE Buttress of Higher Cathedral Spire in 1959 with Dick Long and Terry Tarver. He was also the first climber to visit the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Below is another picture of Ray D’Arcy. This might be the start of Darcy’s Wall.
This is of me, probably in 1962-3, so I’d have been 19 or 20. It was on something we called Peter’s Project (5.7), which still exists under this name on Mt. Project. The shoes are a Gunks thing. They were called Solda’s and were produced by or at least named after Gino Solda, a prolific Dolomite climber who was a good friend of Hans Kraus. When new they were as stiff as mountain boots, but they broke down quickly. They had a top-stitched toe cap that blew out almost as soon as you took ‘em out of the box. I’m using an early kernmantle rope and apparently have run it out until this spot, which I suspect is past the crux. Note that the rope has been rotated around to the back, an extremely bad idea if you are going to take a leader fall. The 19-year-old me felt quite invincible so I had pushed the rope off where it was least in the way.
Another one of me leading something now called Ironmongers (5.7). Dunno what we called it. Again clad in Solda’s. Note the wide swami belt plaited from one-inch webbing. Probably a Goldline rope.
And finally, here’s a shot of a motley crew. Ray D’Arcy is the guy on the left and Steve Sharnoff is the guy on the right.”
Thanks, Rich, for this deep dive into your archives and sharing your memories and photos with us!!
For beta on climbing at Devil’s Lake, check out the climbing guidebook, Devil’s Lake by Jay Knower and appreciate the history for yourself!