The Ledges are a special place, even in the winter, for those looking for a challenge.
GRAND LEDGE, Mich. – Steven Suckow glared at the gritty stone wall.
It was sunny, a rare winter sight in Michigan. He was back at the only true outdoor rock climbing wall in lower Michigan.
“This route is called ‘Reflections’,” Suckow, 44, of Lansing said. “I’ve never completed it.”
Of all the routes at The Ledges, which can be found just past downtown Grand Ledge, Suckow has only four that have yet to be done.
All routes are rated by the Yosemite Decimal System, ‘Reflections’, one of more than nearly two dozen routes along the rock face, is a 5.12 rating on the scale, with anything above five being considered very difficult.
The Ledges are a rock face that spans about 200 feet facing the Grand River. The highest climb is roughly 60 feet, although not many make that climb.
“Seventeen years (ago he started climbing) … a buddy got me out here,” he said, studying each crevice of the stone. “His dad had just passed away, actually. This is what he wanted to do and so I did it because his dad had passed away and I didn’t really care (about rock climbing at the time).”
“He brought me out here and we were both hooked.”
Suckow gripped each rock of ‘Reflections’ with his cracked, dusty fingertips – the last 14 years, he has never conquered the route and he couldn’t explain why, but this time he wanted to make sure it happened.
His right foot slipped. But he didn’t call off the attempt, as he gripped on to the centimeters of rock that were available to his four limbs.
Reaching the pinnacle for the first time was finally in his sights.
“F*** YEAH,” Suckow shouted, as he completes the route.
At this sliver of time, everything outside of the space Suckow occupied seemed to vanish with a single scream of success and completion.
Relief fell upon those watching as Suckow descended 30 feet to the dirty path below, Suckow and his climbing partner Jacob Bahl fist bumped with a grin that reflected the setting sun behind them.
“It teaches you all sorts of stuff,” Suckow, who works for McLaren Health Systems as a nurse, said. “It’s hard to explain … being able to see yourself grow and do things better. It’s kind of like a musical instrument, you can watch yourself do something that you couldn’t do before. You can actually see the growth.”
The sport of climbing – as nuanced as it is taxing on the body – is a reprieve for Suckow and Bahl.
“It’s unbelievable to just see yourself progress … I actually have two other projects and I couldn’t do ‘em today and you’re kind of like, ‘damn it, I couldn’t do it today’. So I came down here, this (route) is a way bigger deal to me than those two. It’s been on my list for 14 years,” Suckow said.
They both have families, so the duo isn’t able to go out west to Colorado, Nevada and other western regions that are far from the small town of Grand Ledge like they used to.
Bahl and Suckow settle instead for Oak Parks’ rock wall as soon as it’s a nice, sometimes joined by friends.
“I’ve done a lot of things. But climbing is the one thing that’s kept me healthy,” Bahl, 41, of Lansing, said. “For me it’s the best thing. I like seeing where a hobby takes you and this has taken me everywhere from climbing in Nevada, Colorado, down South, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, you know just kind of all over. It’s been wonderful.”
Bahl said that climbing, aside from keeping him healthy as he advances through life, has been “more enriching” to his life than any other sport that he’s participated in.
“You start realizing how you approach (things), my approaches to climbing, I start doing the same things at, like, work,” Bahl said. “It gave me a good insight into how I learn and how to use that elsewhere in my life.”
Bahl, bouldered without a rope support, pads lined the ground beneath him as he climbed up a short route farther down the path. He hung a mere only seven, eight feet off the ground.
He escaped to his own world separated by chalk, tightly laced climbing shoes and sandpaper-like rock.
“When you finish … there’s so much joy in it,” Bahl said, as he fell again onto the mats below.
He stood up again and walked over to the rock face. For the first time in a while, he didn’t have to wear a mask outside.