Getting vertical

By Jessie Coello

Pre-Trip Planning

My weekend adventure started with a little pre-planning, because after all, I could crack my skull and die. Thankfully, the Centre won’t have any of that.

“Initially, we’re all about safety rules,” said Outing Centre trip leader and junior biological sciences major Derek Simpson.

After stepping into the Centre, which has hours of 2 to 6:30 p.m. Monday thru Friday, Simpson and other employees helped me fill out paperwork (liability forms and an agreement to be be drug-free while “tripping”), get my gear in order and fill me in on the trip agenda.

After my visit to the Centre, I was ready for Mother Nature.

Destination Palisades: My virgin climb

The Mississippi Palisades State Park is located in Savanna. The park includes a generous foliage of ferns and white birch trees, sits next to the Mississippi River and boasts camping, fishing, hunting (wild turkeys!) and climbing among its outdoors activities.

We arrived at the Palisades around noon and I was eager to attack the mountain with my 120-pound might. The first rocks our group sought to conquer were the 60 foot-high Twin Sisters.

Karen Rosenbloom – my trip leader and belayer and a senior art education major – helped me strap in and review knotting techniques.

It was easy climbing the first 10 or 20 feet of the rock. Then I stood on the large ledge facing the second half, the hardest part of the climb. I rubbed my hands together preparing to reach the top of the line.

After more climbing, I was suddenly stumped: I had no idea where to grab next. I looked down and quickly looked back up as I realized how scary heights are.

Team leaders and trippers shouted different directions at me, emphasizing the different natural footholds and handles to grab. I scraped against the rock until I swung over with my legs, slowly ascended, and did the splits.

I huffed and puffed and before I knew it, shaking, I reached the top and the old “Spiderman” theme song started in my head.

I was elated about my virgin climb – until I was lowered. When being lowered, a climber leans back as they push their feet on the rock and bounce off it while descending. I was so tense I grabbed my rope and swung Tarzan-style, back first, into a huge crevice. Everyone went “Oh” as the “crunch” sound followed.

That night we set up camp, ate range-cooked spaghetti and made s’mores until it started to rain. Then everyone went to bed.

Destination Maquoketa, Iowa: Spelunk!

Our camp woke up around 10 a.m. I could barely get up, even though we went to bed early the night before. My whole body ached like crazy.

Powered by oatmeal and a banana, we left for Maquoketa, Iowa.

I was hardly chipper when we arrived at the caves. I was tired from the day before, I hadn’t showered and I was not excited about getting dirty in a cave. But we had too much fun for me to stay negative for long.

Maquoketa Caves State Park includes six miles of trails along its 13 caves, with highlights such as a 50-foot “Natural Bridge.” The park is also known for its giant “Dancehall Cave,” which includes an electrical lighting system constructed during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration along a shallow creek.

We all changed into our nasty clothes. The temperature of the caves is around 50 or 60 degrees, so a sweatshirt was necessary.

I strapped on my helmet and headlamp, threw some kneepads on, and our camp split into two groups. I followed team trip leaders Rosenbloom and senior mechanical engineering major Rob Olszewski to my first spelunking experience: The Wye Cave.

The cave opens on an angle, and much like a rabbit hole, descends a few feet down through ledges. From that point, spelunkers must squirm through a series of openings where smooth rocks jut out.

As we squirmed through the openings (the climbing we did the day before came in handy), the cave opened up into a large pocket. We could stand again and congregated briefly and took a break. We turned off our lights and sat in the dark for 20 minutes and enjoyed the experience of losing track of everything in complete blackness.

My favorite cave was one which extended from the Dancehall Cave. Natural clay and the stumps of stalactites line the inner cave walls with a roomier fit than the Wye.

Our party took a break and sat in a giant pocket lined with clay, where we crafted dinosaurs, bowls and a Rastafarian head for those spelunkers who might stop by next.

After exploring, we changed into fresh clothes, gathered together, said our goodbyes and packed into our vehicles.

Driving home, I wished I could commune with nature for just a few more hours.

Special thanks to the Outing Centre, the trip leaders, and trip attendees Stevenson North D-8.