Seasoned Marquette climber ropes in memories

Seasoned+Marquette+climber+ropes+in+memories

Isabelle Tavares

Underwear. Completely soiled Fruit of the Looms underwear, stranded on the side of Devils Tower in Wyoming. Weaving through the crowd of 70 people, sporting a brown shirt with the words “born old” on it, Phil Watts recalled this memorable encounter while on the 900-foot climb.

“Very soiled underwear, with an odor,” said Watts, founder of the Upper Peninsula Climbing Coalition (UPCC) and retired NMU professor of exercise physiology.

“I was scared on that climb, but not
as much as that guy.”

It was a dreary evening for climbing, but an excellent evening to tell of his rock climbing adventures at the “A Geezer
Reminisces on the High Places” event where Watts presented to a packed-in group of people last Thursday at the Peter White Public Library (PWPL). Watts, who is “casually
active” on social media, was contacted by a friend to do a presentation on his
climbing photos at the library. He decided the event would be an opportune time to use the presentation as a fundraiser for the UPCC. The UPCC is a nonprofit
organization that advocates for climbing access in the Upper Peninsula and needs $800 for insurance liability to maintain use of local climbing areas.

Donations at the event and the UPCC fundraiser cushioned the club to gain more than half of the $800 needed to continue accessing the AAA wall.

“Hopefully we’ll get some help with our funding and people will leave with a better understanding than what they came with of climbing,” Watts said. “Maybe some youngster will be
inspired to try it out.”

The late 70s was a time of exploration. Watts got a call from a friend riding in an old “beat-up Beetle” off from 550 Road, shouting excitedly about a tall slab
of rock. What Watts didn’t know, was that he
was soon to develop one of the most popular climbing sites in the Marquette region,
the AAA wall.

“We were the early adventurers. The biggest thing I’ve discovered over the years is that every year I find something new, and there’s a lot more rock climbing here than people think about,” Watts said. “You can have a lot of fun in Marquette with just
a five-minute drive.”

The event lasted over the allotted hour, as community members, NMU students and grimy climbers alike kept Watt’s
story momentum going. For the past four
decades, Watts has been mapping routes,
caravanning to and climbing on rocks, snow and ice in U.P. and more. His
frequent visits to local Marquette craigs and passion for climbing has led him to
become the namesake of Phil’s Hill located by the Marquette Mountain Ski Area.

“I’ve developed a deep appreciation for Marquette,” Watts said. “I retired two years ago and friends ask me, ‘Well, where are you going to move to now that you’re retired?’ and I say, ‘Move? There’s no way. I’ve got everything I’m interested in here.’”

Along with being a world leader in climbing and mountaineering related
physiological research, Watts is also 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 he
currently serves as an officer for the
International Rock Climbing Research Association.

NMU students were in attendance, including president of the South Superior Climbing Club and
environmental science major Myles Walimaa.

“My favorite part of climbing in Marquette is
the community. Whatever you end up
doing, there’s a lot of support [for it],” Walimaa said. “Phil is responsible for
all the enjoyment I get from this activity here. I give him many thanks for that.”

Despite the chalky, bleeding cracked
fingers, searing ache of strained muscles and literal leaps of faith, Watts continues to climb for the community, beauty and
compassion he finds within the climbing world, he added.

Wildflowers in full bloom on alpine meadows, snow blanketed mountains, vast landscapes and sunrises were all seen through the zipping open of Watt’s tent over the past 40 years.

“It’s community. Some of my best friends came from it. When you’re working together, you’re a unified body,” Watts said. “It’s the beauty. Climbing has brought me into areas that haven’t been spoiled.”
Watts’ presentation at PWPL was a
celebration of three qualities of climbing that have been important to Watts over the past 40 years.
“Rock climbing is to suffer with. It’s
companionship, friendship and the
beauty of the environment. You suffer on
the mountain with no food,” Watts said. “When you suffer, you understand them.”