“What’s that on your back?”

People who don the curiously oversized backpack-slash-mattress have answered this question before. Understandably so.

“It’s a crash pad.”

Gears turning, the still-confused observer calculates the new detail. “For sleeping?”

“No, for bouldering.”

The Main Attraction
Elephant Rocks State Park attracted about 175,000 people in 2019. Visitors come to see the greatest geological show on Earth, or at least one of the finest in Missouri. The peculiar entourage of textured granite boulders resemble the grandeur of circus elephants lining up to take the stage. These giants, of course, lend the park its name.

Quite dissimilar from other Missouri State Parks, Elephant Rocks’ nature-made playground invites the intrepid to wander amongst, scramble up, and hop across the unique, pink-hued outcrops. Its concentration of globular, granite mammoths draws a crosshatch of visitors, including the crash-pad-wearing type.

Layback Crack at Elephant Rocks State Park

Tamara McCarthy on Layback Crack, spotted by Kevin McCarthy. (Dave Chancellor)

For those who have wondered about the human-dwarfing cargo and the characters who carry them, they seek the same main attraction…sort of. Rather than hike and hop from one orb-shaped boulder to the next, they string together a vertical sequence of hand and foot placements that takes them from sit start to top out. In other words, they are there for the bouldering.

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing characterized by shorter climbs. Instead of harnesses and ropes, the boulderer’s gear is a minimal albeit large trio of climbing shoes, chalk bag, and safety mat (a.k.a. crash pad). Instead of routes, they climb problems.

E-Rocks Bouldering
Elephant Rock’s large-grained, friction-forward granite has been compared to Joshua Tree and Bishop, California — vertical, sharp, abrasive. In terms of texture and technique, it certainly differs from the Midwest’s more prevalent limestone and sandstone cliffs.

“It takes a different style,” said climber and BETA Fund board member Kevin McCarthy. “If you start throwing your body and dyno-ing, you are going to tear up your hands. Powerful, calculated moves through the sharp crystals will save your skin.”

Both Mountain Project and the Mo’ Beta guidebook recommend a lot of “climb the face, continue up the arete” and a few “follow the cracks,” but no intel rings truer than “grab nothing, stand up.” Thin though they may appear, don’t be deterred by the deceptively bare rocks. Elephant Rocks sports a healthy variety of slabby beginner lines and powerfully committing problems ranging in height from short traverses to the keep-your-wits-about-you highballs.

Then and Now
Climbers have taken to Elephant Rock’s iconic pachyderms for more than a half century. In fact, John Gill, who is credited as the father of modern bouldering, established a number of bouldering problems in the park in the 1960s.

“[John Gill] was an early pioneer at Elephant Rocks,” McCarthy said. “Developing in his era was much different than today. He’s probably climbed most everything there already, but never actually wrote route names down.”

Trojan Man at Elephant Rocks

Ian Anderson on Trojan Man at Elephant Rocks. (Ryan White)

Seven decades later, climbers like McCarthy still climb, curse, praise, and project some of the same boulder problems. One of those problems is Tablecloth, considered a “top 50 climb” according to Mo’ Beta. The 45 degree, overhanging boulder sits amid the park’s most developed and conspicuous spots, the Lower Picnic Area. It’s a four-star, V9-10 that, due to its location, often attracts an audience.

“When I first saw some friends climb it, I thought, ‘There is no way I would be able to do this thing.’ But I had to try. After that, I put myself to focusing hard on getting better,” McCarthy said.

Tablecloth demanded precisely three years and 30 seconds of McCarthy’s undivided attention. Three years of 5 a.m. workouts, weighted finger-boarding, gobs of practice, and changes to his diet. Just 30 seconds to seize the send.

“It’s pretty insane to think about the years of obsessing and training that goes into a few seconds.” He admits the sport lends itself to the obsessive types, pulling a single move over and over to perfection.

McCarthy says to expect more routes in 2021 and, fingers-crossed, a second annual E-Rocks Bloc Party bouldering competition. Thanks to continued enthusiasm from local advocacy groups, area climbers, and eager developers, Elephant Rocks is one circus that continues to entertain.

The Mayor’s Top Climbs

From lowball sloper masterpieces to the park’s signature ultra highballs, Elephant Rocks State Park has five-star climbs of every style and grade. These are the classics according to Ian Anderson, a 20+ year climbing veteran and local climbing gym owner, who is known as “The Mayor” of Elephant Rocks.

Crystal Method Slab (V2)
Kaya (V3)
Smoke (V4)
The Gill Crack (V5)
Rosin (V6)
Scary Mary (V6)
Consciousness (V7)
The Shadow (V8)
Trojan Man (V9)
Tablecloth (V10)

Author: Corrie Hendrix Gambill is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Lead Image: David Chancellor on Draining the Swamp by Ryan Phillips.