Climbing: Little Half Dome on the Prairie

Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.

Outside magazine, April 1996

Climbing: Little Half Dome on the Prairie

Rising from the bean fields, a big wall is born
By Kathy Martin

Basically I live like a spider,” Chris Schmick says, sounding oddly upbeat. Schmick, 27, and his wife, Pam, are the founders of Upper Limits, the world’s tallest climbing gym, which opened last January in a cluster of abandoned grain silos in Bloomington, Illinois. One of his chores there is dangling from a rope and drilling new, more challenging routes for his customers, many
of whom come from Chicago and St. Louis. The route he’s currently working on is 145 feet high–five times the height of most artificial climbing walls. “This one’s going to be a serious multipitch climb,” he says. “When you look down, let me tell you, you will be high.”

Indeed, the empty silos at the Funk Brothers Seed Company plant must have loomed like Yosemite’s big walls to the Schmicks, who bought the 13 concrete containers for $10,000 last summer. After scooping out rotten soybeans, the couple went to work with a pressure hose, rappelling the walls and blasting at the caked-on beans. The result, so far, is 80 routes, most of them inside
the silos, ranging in height from 30 to 145 feet. Last winter, the club even featured ice climbing, thanks to a hose and a long cold snap.

Urgent question: Is the Corn Belt slowly undermining Joshua Tree as the place to go for good, clean, tendon-popping fun? Probably not, says Chris Schmick. “I know where I’m going when I take a vacation,” he says. “And it’s not a bean silo.”

promo logo