Climber's Guide to Devil's Lake

Publication Year: 1980.

Climbers’ Guide to Devil’s Lake, by William Widule and Sven Olof Swartling. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, Wise. 1979. Sponsored by the Chicago Mountaineering Club. 185 pages, maps, diagrams, photos.

It was with considerable doubt that I agreed to review this guide. It has been many years since I was a regular at the Lake, and have only made rare visits since. However, leafing through the book brought back many memories in clear relief.

Devil’s Lake is a formidable challenge for any guide writer with its large numbers of isolated outcrops and complicated buttresses. Such areas as the Devil’s Doorway and the West Bluffs are particularly difficult to describe in a comprehensible fashion. The authors have met these and other challenges in a successful, if somewhat dry, fashion. Making use of numerous sketches and baseline drawings with climbs numbered to key with the text, they locate and describe most of the Lake’s numerous routes in a fashion that should enable visiting climbers to find easily their desired climbs.

The authors build upon the work of previous guides, but for the first time include detailed descriptions of the many fine climbs on the West Bluffs. Unfortunately, they leave out the fine sandstone buttresses located just outside the Park boundaries. The climbs in this area are very distinctive and offer a contrast to quartzite of the main cliffs, so it is a pity they aren’t included.

Climbs are graded by a modified version of the NCCS, with subdivisions of A, B, C, in the F9 and F10 grades. I wish some caution had been included to warn first-time visitors that Devil’s Lake grades are considerably “stiffer” than those in most other climbing areas. A typical F8 at Devil’s Lake would be graded F9 elsewhere and the difficulty increases proportionally in the higher grades. I could find only one F11 listed in the text, but in reality many climbs of this difficulty exist in the area.

My greatest criticism of this guide is more one of style than substance. I found it much too clinical and dry. The authors apologize for excising the “exquisite prose” of Errol Morris which appeared in the earlier East Bluffs guide. It seems to me that most of Errol’s descriptions could have been retained without a significant increase in the length of the book. The authors include a fine section on the geology, natural history, and general history of the area by Patricia Armstrong. I wish they could have included an equivalent section on the Park’s climbing history and atmosphere. Devil’s Lake is isolated from the mainstream of climbing activity and has often had a climbing society of unique individuality. With such characters as the Stettner brothers, John Gill, Dave Slinger, the Terrible Trio, and the Racine Crag Rats there is more than enough material for a fascinating story which would bring more life to the guidebook, especially during Wisconsin’s long winters when most climbing is of the armchair variety.

However, as I indicated above, this omission is merely one of style. As far as the main purpose of any guide, to locate and describe the climbs, is concerned, this book does a fine job.

Alan Rubin