JJ Schlick: A Legacy Set in Stone

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JJ, Barley, and Roggen take a break on Mt Elden, AZ
JJ enjoys his route Dark Arts at the Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ photo James Q Martin
JJ enjoys his route Dark Arts at the Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ photo James Q Martin

If you’re looking for Jeremy J Schlick, you might start your search where high-quality rock abounds and unclimbed lines lay waiting.  When you hear the buzz of a Bosch hammer drill and the high-pitched howling of a pack of wild miniature Schnauzers, you’re in the right place.  JJ has been on the leading edge of crag development in Northern Arizona for 15 years.   Aesthetic sport pitches, bold gear-protected lines, and powerful boulder problems;JJ is an all-arounder and has established and repeated all varieties of classic climbs. This is the second installation of the GNAR Roots series, a collection of pieces looking at the influential climbers who are moving climbing forward in the GNAR (Great Northern Arizona Republic).  I met JJ a few years ago at a crag that is special to both of us; The Oak Creek Waterfall.  Since then I have had the opportunity to climb with him at several areas where he has put in hours of hard work, including Cherry Canyon, Higher Solitude Canyon, and Volunteer Canyon.  

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JJ Schlick bolting Northern Arizona limestone photo Dawn Kish

JJ is a developer in the true sense of the word; his routes are hand-crafted works that are chosen, cleaned, and bolted with a well trained eye and a patient hand.  He has been a major influence on me as a climber and I’m thrilled that he took the time to share his thoughts and history with us.  Thanks JJ for all of your hard work, contributions to the climbing world, and inspiration for so many people. Huge thanks to Wade Forrest and James Q Martin for the incredible photos of JJ and is artwork set in stone.  Check out James’ photography at www.jamesqmartin.com.  

Where did you grow up and how were you introduced to climbing? Like a lot of Midwestern folks I come from a long line of timber men, farmers, builders, and mechanics; hands on people. These were hardy folks, more than capable of living hard lives. I survived a childhood and adolescence growing up in southern Wisconsin, and at the tender age of fifteen found myself completely captivated by the idea of climbing. I don’t really recall what sparked it,

but never in my life, either before or since, have I been so moved to explore something.

So with a tenacity only the young possess, I pestered some seniors at my high school who knew how to set top ropes to take me climbing, and soon enough I was throwing myself at every challenge I could find on the scrappy decomposing dolomite cliffs above La Crosse, WI- a beautiful mid sized Mississippi River city. I found a needed peace of mind wandering in the deep, jungley folds of the river valley looking for routes, and my young mind reached a rare clarity while climbing. Thanks to my dad I had spent quite a bit of time in the outdoors, but climbing was different. More than different, this was my own way to the outdoors, and I knew it from the moment I topped out my first climb.

I bumbled around with friends of mine for a while testing the boundaries of our common sense, and we taught ourselves how to build anchors from “how to” guides and pictures in ratty old climbing mags. I spent hundreds of hours on those bluffs playing the “gear game” by myself, where I would run around and find placements in any fissure I could find right off the ground. Wire placements fascinated me, and it was during this time that I lead my first 5.10 trad route: Congratulations, an iconic line at Devils Lake.

JJ Schlick on The Loner, Governor Dodge, WI
JJ Schlick on The Loner, Governor Dodge, WI

Who were some of your early climbing mentors? Luckily I didn’t have to teach myself for long, and I met Dave Groth shortly after my seventeenth birthday.  Dave was, and still is a local hero in Wisconsin, and my only true mentor in the sport. He had been everywhere, and done a ton from establishing 5.13 trad lines to 5.13d sport routes. He could do it all, and under his guidance I was able to move pretty quickly through the grades as he showed me crag after crag, and line after line. One of his favorite sayings was:

“You don’t climb 5.12 by climbing 5.11”
 Dave Groth, a hard lines work, Palisade Head.
Dave Groth after a hard day’s work on a route at Palisade Head, MN Z

It was a good time in my life, and I relished this new sense of power, strength, and identity climbing gave me.

Dave Groth on Fire in the Sky, Necedah, WI.

Dave Groth on Fire in the Sky, Necedah, WI.

Even back then, I knew climbing was shaping my life, and I was more than willing to let it do so.

What climbing areas were important in your growth as a climber?

By the time I was twenty I had already traveled around the country climbing the classics all over the western United States, down in the deep south, and even a bit on the east coast. I turned 20 years old in Red Rocks, and celebrated my 21st birthday on the West Mt in Hueco Tanks, TX in 1997. These were good times when gas was 99 cents a gallon, and I could survive for six months on the road with only $1,200 in my pocket. We went with the weather, and tried to find the stunning lines.

Steve K., James Q Martin, Sam F., Dan Schwarz, Seth Dyer, and JJ Schlick at Indian Creek in the late 90's

Steve K., James Q Martin, Sam F., Dan Schwarz, Seth Dyer, and JJ Schlick at Indian Creek in the late 90’s

JJ leading, and Brendon McKeon and Danny Schwarz drinking beers. Carbs and Caffiene, Yellow Wall, Gunks, NY.

JJ leading, and Brendon McKeon and Danny Schwarz drinking beers. Carbs and Caffiene, Yellow Wall, Gunks, NY.

During my working stints back in Wisconson, I was still cutting my teeth and smoothing out my style at Devils Lake, WI.  That crag is a perfect traditional arena for either learning to keep your shit together or die trying. For years Dave and others of the mostly dismantled DLFA (Devils Lake F*ckness Association) had regaled my friend Seth and I with stories of fabled R and X graded leads done in the park. These were truly bad-ass ascents done by some truly bad-ass men, and were cutting edge for their times. As often was the case back then, the climbing backwaters produced some really big fish.

Seth Dyer takes it all in at Governor Dodge, WI

Seth Dyer takes it all in at Governor Dodge, WI

Since I was young and invincible, I thought Seth and I had better check some of these committing lines out, and so we did. I left Wisconsin for good at the age of 22, but before I left, I was able to redpoint such scare fests as Cul de Sac Exit 5.11d R/X, Hammercase 5.12- R, “AAA” 5.12 R, and Steak Sauce 5.12+ R at Devils Lake.  I established my own 5.12+ R trad route A Sinner’s Last Gift at Palisade Head in MN, which has since been “modernized” and tamed.  Before I moved to AZ I bolted and redpointed Secret Agent Man at Governor Dodge State Park, a classic 5.13- for the state.

JJ hand-drills the bolts on Secret Agent Man, Governor Dodge State Park, WI

JJ hand-drills the bolts on Secret Agent Man, Governor Dodge State Park, WI

JJ Schlick on the First Ascent of Fire in the Sky Necedah, WI

JJ Schlick on the First Ascent of Fire in the Sky Necedah, WI

Are there any experiences that stand out as turning points or pivotal moments in your climbing? There were plenty of out of body experiences which I cherish; States of Satori, or “doing without doing”. These are still a big reason I love climbing more now then ever: that natural surrendering of consciousness to pure action. Several near death experiences stand out to this day, but those are stories for another time. They all involved something going terribly wrong (huge rockfalls, rapping off the end of a rope, etc) and amazing “slowed time” reactions that resulted in me still being alive today. Again it amazes me what our minds and bodies are capable of if pushed to an instantaneous moment of life or death….

However, if i had to choose one fading memory from my early climbing days it would be from a climber’s party before I left Wisconsin for good. After cragging at Devils Lake all day many of us would retire to a private camp ground Away from the tourists. The DLFA had a permanently reserved site, way, way in the back. We would drink beer and burn pallets, and watch the stars turn in the sky while talking about mythical lines and sandbagged grades. We’d often try to keep the old boys up long enough and drunk enough until the stories started coming out of them; not that that was all that hard to do in Wisconsin.

It was a late night like this when Rich Bechlar, Tommy D., Paul and Sandy Wagner and so many more of us were doing our regular thing around the fire when an inebriated and swaying Dave Groth turned to me and said, “you’re doing your people proud”. And when he said it, I felt like he had just pointed out my life’s calling. Like a modern day shaman in a trance, he stared through me into the future, while I was still focused on enjoying the small victories of the recent past. He had taught me what he could, and I was moving on. And nothing had ever felt so right before in my life.

What brought you to Northern Arizona? I wanted more. I had spent roughly two years on the road looking for a new place to call home and eventually I found it. From my travels I knew that Northern Arizona had what I was looking for, namely amazing four season weather and tons of unclimbed rock. I spent three years in Prescott and climbed a lot of granite, but granite and I don’t always see eye to eye.

JJ Schlick on first ropeless ascent of Cranium Crack 5.12 Watson Lake, Prescott, AZ. 1999

JJ Schlick on first ropeless ascent of Cranium Crack 5.12 Watson Lake, Prescott, AZ. 1999

FA of Rapture 5.10 with John Burcham on the attentive belay, Volunteer Canyon, AZ

FA of Rapture 5.10 with John Burcham on the attentive belay, Volunteer Canyon, AZ

A myriad of trips to Paradise Forks, The Waterfall, and Volunteer canyon fueled my preference for the exactness of our local basalt. Some of my favorite red points at the Forks where Acid Test Crack, Shittin Bricks, Shotgun, and The Watusi.  I spent a lot of time repeating established classics during the late nineties and into 2000, and getting amped up for true grit onsight attempts. The crisp, positive nature of Northern Arizona basalt is hard not to love and with such solid gear it’s hard not too just go for it.

Matt Swartz stokes the fires for Pyrokinesis, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Matt Swartz stokes the fires for Pyrokinesis, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

One of your most valuable contributions to Northern Arizona Climbing is the second wave of development and modernization of climbing at the Oak Creek Waterfall.  You were among the first to use bolts to make possible the more difficult mixed lines there.  What was it like to lead that wave of development at the Waterfall? 

Amazingly enough the first lead bolt to be added at the Waterfall was placed by the hand of local legend Tim Toula in the early eighties. Then Darren Singer explored with the lead bolt option on a route called Blade Runner in the early nineties. By the time that we had done the established lines, I had already had a vision of what was to come. Dan Foster, Wade Forrest, James Q Martin, Seth Dyer, and I essentially had the Waterfall to ourselves for over a decade, during which time we savored the many First Ascents (FA’s) that we did there.

There was no rush, no hurries, or worries. We drank beer by the gallons and bravely set out on new terrain from the ground up, never knowing exactly what to expect. Cleaning line after line, we often chose them spontaneously at a moments notice. During those years, we added close to 40 full pitches with most of those falling in the 5.11+ to 5.12 range.   I myself have over 25 personal FA’s.  We cleaned up the old gear anchors and webbing, and created modern steel anchors. There was no need to shoo people away from drop zones or explain why we were dropping blocks. (Because there was no one else there). There were no trails, no rules, and no critics.

JJ Schlick on the classic Black and Tan, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ photo James Q Martin

JJ Schlick on the classic Black and Tan, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ
photo James Q Martin

Because of this, time seemed to abandon us to our whimsy. We were free. Looking back at the whole process I feel honored to have had such an opportunity. I have said it before:

“Establishing new routes brings together all that is good in me”
JJ on the first ascent of SuperChronic at the Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ photo James Q Martin
JJ on the first ascent of SuperChronic at the Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ photo James Q Martin

To be a part of the maturation of the Waterfall has also been a journey towards my own ragged sense of maturity and mortality. The struggles I faced on the cliffs and the eagerness to explore the scary steep walls helped grow a wisdom in me that eventually helped me face my struggles within. I truly grew up with the Waterfall, and in many respects I became a man there. I became a caretaker, a builder, a dreamer, and a guide.

The Waterfall has become one of the crown jewels of Northern Arizona Climbing and must hold one of the highest concentrations of quality hard gear climbs in the country.  Where do we go from there, and where do you see the future of climbing in Northern Arizona?

The future of Northern Arizona climbing is hard to predict, but I am looking forward to it.  New routes will continue to go in at old crags, while the truly industrious developers will find whole new crags tucked away in the folds and canyons of rim country. I think there is a ton of world class basalt to be found, but it’s going to take folks out there in trucks and on foot to find the truly amazing sections.. Exploring the rim country can easily be overwhelming when you are actually out and about…

JJ finds the stem on the first ascent of Phantasm, Volunteer Canyon, AZ Photo Wade Forrest

JJ finds the stem on the first ascent of Phantasm, Volunteer Canyon, AZ
Photo Wade Forrest

However, the current foundation of routes available here in NAZ is spectacular and only getting better. Someone working through the grades has every opportunity to become a strong and skilled climber. The variety and difficulty of routes we have now wasn’t always available.  The first decade of 2000 was as productive a time as NAZ has ever seen for developing new routes and I hope this trend continues as long as there is new stone to be climbed.

Putting up routes seems to open the developer up to critisicm of ethics, style and route quality.  What are your thoughts on the style and ethics of establishing new climbs.

Establishing routes is demanding work, time consuming, costly, and the final pitch will often be criticized one way or the other.  The rewards have to come from within, and they have to be personal. To me new routes are like a giant work of art, and i have really fallen in love with the whole process from the first vision to the final, redpointed pitch. in many ways i think i was designed for this from the inside out.

I  absolutely love sharing my new routes with friends. However, for every new route we establish, i have considered and let go of many others. It takes a lot of variables to come together to create an outstanding pitch. It’s best to be honest with yourself about your newest line. I try not to waste my time on anything that doesn’t add up for me and what I am looking for. Doesn’t mean someone else won’t love it, just means I don’t need to do it.

JJ takes one of the schnauzers for a ride.
JJ takes one of the schnauzers for a ride.

People talk about climbing “ethics” all the time, but what they are really talking about is their preference for a style. There is ultimately no right or wrong to the way a route is established, whether its ground up, top down, manufactured or whatever. There is only our judgment of that route and those that established it. That is not ethics, it is just plain old  run of the mill snobbery, and i am as guilty as the next. i avoid entire areas that are not my style or do not motivate me, and I don’t see why I wouldn’t.

JJ on his Fade to Black, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ  photo James Q Martin

JJ on his Fade to Black, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ
photo James Q Martin

And conversely If you don’t like my routes then i hope you dont force yourself to climb them. I love trad routes.  I love sport routes, so to me mixed lines done right are simply the best of both worlds.  Not everyone agrees with me on that, and thats fine, but if you are going to talk to me about how I establish a pitch , you had better have done it first. I don’t have time to listen to bitter old trad dudes tell me how I need to climb or establish lines.Trying to explain the future to some old men is like trying to teach history to some young punk. a waste of time. Criticism is really just someone trying to put their values onto your creation, and I just take it for what it’s worth if its worth anything at all. Personally I care a lot more about the quality of a finished pitch and whether or not it inspires me than I do about how it was established.

Every developer leaves a legacy set in stone.

And it seems that time is the ultimate judge of quality.

JJ and Wade Forrest on a bluebird day on Mt Elden, AZ.

JJ and Wade Forrest on a bluebird day on Mt Elden, AZ.

A lot of us, including me, can struggle with motivation in climbing at times.  How do you keep it fresh, stay psyched, and avoid burning out? Motivation is key, always changing, and you have to roll with it when you have it..  What motivates me may change from season to season, year to year.

I don’t fight it; instead I try to listen for whatever is calling to me the loudest.

If nothing is calling or inspiring in the climbing world, then take a break. Maybe it’s the people you are with or the crags you are going to. Nothing’s worse than clipping bolts when you would rather be torquing your fingers in a steep crack. I have gone through many phases where I would focus on one single genre for years at a time, but nowadays I am enjoying just mixing it up whenever I can. I look for lines that suit my style and my frame. I look for lines that inspire me.

The inspiration is crucial: I don’t climb hard unless I’m really into it, I’m just getting too old to scrap around on every hard pile i come across. Just because I see lines everywhere doesn’t mean I want or need to do them all. Some lines are better left undone, both first ascents and repeats.

JJ reels in the swing on the first ascent of Big Mouth, Northern Arizona.

JJ reels in the swing on the first ascent of Big Mouth, Northern Arizona.

Life happens, and fitness levels change because of all sorts of the reasons. The ebb and flow of performance can be emotionally overwhelming sometimes, especially in the case of long term injury. Being on the injured list just sucks, but these periods will often make you stronger or at least wiser in the end. Though the come back trail to climbing fitness is daunting (you ain’t riding a bike!) it can also be a good time to reexamine your priorities and goals and consider what types of routes you REALLY want to climb.

Your strongest years go pretty quickly. Don’t squander them.

I have been blessed with competent, hard working, and kindred souls for climbing partners throughout my career, and they are as important as the crags themselves. A good climbing partner and especially a route developing partner should never be taken for granted. If you lack one, keep looking. If you don’t vibe with your partner, it’s hard to vibe with anything else around you.

JJ and Wade enjoy another hard-earned first ascent on Mt Elden, AZ.

JJ and Wade enjoy another hard-earned first ascent on Mt Elden, AZ.

Which climbers have inspired you through your career and who continues to inspire you?

I have always admired the folks that can hold their own on sport, trad, or bouldering.  The likes of Ron Kauk and Lynn Hill were some of my early inspirations from the mags. If you want to progress as a climber you need to learn the secrets that can’t be taught- only learned. Limiting your experience to a single genre of rock climbing does just that. It limits your experience, and ultimately your satisfaction. Comfort zones must be dashed. Expectations and beliefs in what’s possible must also go…  There are lot of things your body can do that you may just not be aware of yet. Nowadays my heroes are the local folks I know and climb with whom i can share my enthusiasm with, good friends that have moved on, and the people who get me psyched to find that esoteric line, or even the next new crag which may be hidden around that next bend.

JJ handles the slopers at Kelly Canyon, AZ.

JJ handles the slopers at Kelly Canyon, AZ.

Any last stand-out lessons you have learned in your 20+ of climbing and development? After 20+ years in the sport and the pursuit of new routes I have learned a few things…. 1.  If you are new to climbing, try to find a mentor: someone who knows what they are talking about and someone you can easily get along with. A mentor is especially important in the trad-climbing game because there are a million ways get hurt or die. A mentorship doesn’t need to be a long-term relationship, but can be something to set you on the right path. Use your head though and try to avoid brain washing. Mentoring is as traditional as it comes and has been a part of climbing from the beginning. Don’t be afraid to outright ask someone if they have some time to spare. Many of the older climbers I know are willing to do this. 2.  Use your feet!

JJ holding the swing at Cherry Canyon, AZ

JJ holding the swing at Cherry Canyon, AZ

3.   Use your head! There is no substitute for common sense in the world of climbing. Check yourself before you wreck yourself…

JJ rappels after another day hard at work on the stone.

JJ rappels after another day hard at work on the stone.

2 thoughts on “JJ Schlick: A Legacy Set in Stone

  1. Great interview JJ! A friend at work who knows I climb said she got this from a relative of yours and I might be interested in reading it. It was weird to come in to work at 8AM and see your name in my work e-mail. What a trip!

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