Climbing? Climb on! Story time? Tell on!

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Phil Watts climbs at Phil’s Hill in Marquette, which became his namesake after 40 years of dedicated climbing on rocks, ice and snow in the Upper Peninsula and beyond. This local climbing spot remains Watt’s favorite. Information for Phil’s Hill can be found on Mountain Project, a climbing online guidebook and app. Photo courtesy of Phil Watts

Cole Stefl

While ascending Devils Tower in Wyoming, Phil Watts and former NMU graduate student shuffled over the laccolithic butte, placing their chalky hands precisely in the square corner-cut cracks and smearing their feet horizontally on the igneous rock, inching their way to the top. After the 900-foot climb, they stood next to sagebrush on the rocky summit. Looking over the edge of the 1,300-feet tower above the Belle Fourche River, Watts then discovered what was lurking in the bushes.

For the last 40 years, Watts has been climbing on rocks, snow and ice in the U.P. and beyond. Climbing around the local Marquette crags, a steep hill or rock face, for decades, Watts became the namesake of Phil’s Hill in Marquette. At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27, Watts will tell of his years of tall tales on the mountain. The event will be held in the Shiras room at the Peter White Public Library (PWPL).

“I enjoy both trad and sport, but mostly sport these days. I am not above a nice top-rope ascent either. I enjoy all of [Marquette] crags, but in particular I like the wilderness feel of the AAA Walls and relaxed routes with friends at Cliff’s Ridge,” Watts said. “One of my old-time
favorite crags is Phil’s Hill, but I have trouble getting off the ground there these days.”

The newly retired NMU professor emeritus of exercise physiology is still a world leader in climbing and mountaineering related physiological research. Watts is the author of “Rock Climbing” from Human Kinetics Publishers.

Watts delivered the opening keynote addresses at the first and second International Conferences on Science and Technology in Climbing and Mountaineering in Leeds, England, in 1999 and 2002, and currently serves as an officer for the International Rock Climbing Research Association.

Watts “grew up” in climbing mainly as a mountaineer, a type of climbing that can extend from a few hours to a few days. The alpine climbing environment remains Watts’ favorite, though he does not get to participate in this much due to a back injury he sustained in 2008. Watts said he still enjoys rock climbing and it does not seem to cause problems for his back.

“I put together the route information for Phil’s Hill and Cliffs Ridge on Mountain Project, an extensive climbing online guidebook and app,” Watts said. ”I think Mountain Project has most of [Marquette’s] crags and routes listed, though there are a few that are less known.”

Watts’ presentation at PWPL is a celebration of three qualities of climbing that have been important to Watts over the past 40 or more years. They include compassion or “to suffer with,” friendships and community and beauty of the natural environment. Watts will present slides and a few tall tales from his decades of climbing in the high places.
The tall tales will combine self-deprecating humor of moments that Watts found himself in, accompanied by scenic photos from his climbing adventures. Watts will speak about a 12-day venture into the remote Northern Pickets range of the North Cascades National Park and an ascent of Hozameen Mountain, which involved a Canada-U.S. border crossing and two bivouacs, or cliff-side camping, on the peak.

The presentation will include an array of photos from Watts’ travels of mountains, rock, ice, alpine meadows, sunrises and sunsets. Admission is free while donations are accepted for the Upper Peninsula Climbers Coalition (UPCC), a non-profit organization that advocates for climbing access in the Upper Peninsula.

Rather than established regular meetings, the UPCC strives to maintain a presence at local climbing-related events and holds occasional crag clean-up events and fundraisers. Watts is the President of UPCC and the board consists of four local resident climbers and two representatives of the student-based South Superior Climbing Club.

The UPCC worked directly with the national-level Access Fund and local land managers to reopen the AAA Walls to climbing in 2015. The UPCC provides liability insurance, as required by the land manager, for the AAA Walls. This insurance costs around $800 per year.

“Most, if not all, of our expenditure-related activity has been limited to Marquette County climbing areas. Over the years, we have sponsored clean-up days at all of our local crags,” Watts said.

UPCC has been active in maintaining climbing access at The Pinnacle, Presque Isle State Park and Slugg’s Bluff in the community of Palmer. The UPCC also has ongoing dialogue with the Forest Service concerning access to Silver Mountain and promotion of climbing in that area.

The UPCC works to keep local climbing areas clean of invasive debris and trash through regular clean-ups.
“Climbers have a long history of defending natural areas from large-scale destruction by corporate interests,” Watts said.

The UPCC also posted signage at two area crags to inform users of Leave No Trace principles and any specific requirements of the crag landowner or manager.

The event will last for an hour, then Watts will hang around to answer questions about climbing in general and or specific mountains and routes in the stories or photos presented.

“If there is time, I may bring a bit in about my professional research on the physiology of climbing, but mainly I want to keep the stories fun,” Watts said.