Cliffs are common along Missouri’s many rivers, where meandering waters carve the landscapes along each sinuous bend. Lush, tree-lined banks often shroud theses soaring formations from unsuspecting eyes, however, and as a result, many remain unexplored and undeveloped.
While hidden from most, a topographical map provides a seasoned orienteer all the necessary clues for the hunt for the vertical.
One such pursuit unearthed Robinson Bluff more than 20 years ago. The sheer, varicolored scarp towers hundreds of feet above the Big River near the rural community of Tiff. Today, after decades of sequester, Robinson Bluff stands ready to take its place as the premier climbing destination close to St. Louis.
Buying the Bluff
When renowned route-setter and climbing enthusiast Jim Thurmond and his wife, Nicky, “discovered” Robinson Bluff in 1995, it was privately owned and climbing was prohibited. After many years of patience, Thurmond one day hopped into a canoe and paddled back to the bluff, where he found the property abandoned and on the market.
“World-class climbing is worth the wait,” he said. “Plus, I was determined.”
Thurmond has developed dozens of climbing areas and bolted thousands of routes, many in Missouri. He knew that turning a cliff into an inviting and formidable destination would be an undertaking that commanded the skill and fortitude of many.
So, in 2016, he unveiled the available bluff to Bill Weishaar, a climber and business owner known for his enthusiasm for the outdoors and laudable capacity to make the impossible happen. Weishaar did not, however, share the same positive first impression of Robinson Bluff.
“Jim was visibly excited, but I wasn’t exactly impressed,” said Weishaar.
“We paddled in upstream on a hot and humid July day without a cloud in the sky,” Thurmond recalled. “There was no trail. It was an ugly bushwhack. It just didn’t show well. It was obvious that my excitement for Robinson Bluff’s potential equaled that of Bill’s reservation.”
But Thurmond persisted. He and colleague Dan Rapp bolted a moderate line on the prominent, rusty-hued Picasso Wall — a single route that changed everything.
“I decided that if that route was representative of what climbing at Robinson Bluff could be, then climbing at Robinson Bluff would be really solid,” said Weishaar.
By July 2017, Weishaar and his brothers, James and Chris, had purchased Robinson Bluff.
“My exciting, yet unreasonable, ambitions were in good company. We thought we’d have a hundred routes up within six months,” Weishaar said with a laugh. “Nowhere near realistic.”
“While volunteers were setting routes, I was focused on constructing the grand staircase,” Weishaar continued. “Originally, the approach was treacherous, requiring a rappel or bushwhack.”
Drastic grade changes made construction a constant battle. The result is an impressive, stilted approach that divides parking above from trails, belay stations and river below. At 200 steps, the descent into Robinson Bluff is nearly three times that of the famous Rocky Steps at the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Making Picasso Proud
Robinson Bluff’s ordovician dolomite composition is a far cry from the fractured limestone bluffs that line the Mississippi River. Thurmond calls it the “champagne of rock” and likens it to the famed French limestone, which he’s climbed extensively.
The quality of rock at Robinson Bluff is equaled by its height, potential for growth and proximity to St. Louis. Located only 60 miles south of the Gateway City, the crag promises to satisfy even the strictest of self-imposed “pitches-per-hour” requirements (the idea that the quantity of pitches must exceed the number of hours it takes to reach the crag).
Currently, climbers have their pick of approximately 40 sport routes, but with a cliff line that stretches over 2,500 feet, the bluff’s ample latitude promises new routes for years to come. In fact, Weishaar’s plan calls for an estimated 200 routes. To put that into perspective, Mountain Project currently lists a total of 336 sport climbs in Missouri.
“My goal is to set up a climbing destination based on concepts like Horseshoe Canyon Ranch and Muir Valley,” Weishaar said. “Robinson Bluff’s beauty, in my mind, rivals the sandstone of both Arkansas and Kentucky. Its shorter drive makes it that much better for all of us diehard, drive-anywhere-to-climb climbers.”
The Picasso Wall, for example, is a canvas of surreal, tawny-colored rock scattered with crystal-lined pockets and interesting features. Its edgy and aesthetic routes challenge experienced climbers to defy their affinity with gritty sandstone and master new techniques, while more moderate routes are characterized by deep pockets and fun movement.
“Many Illinois route-setters have come to bolt here simply because of the rock quality,” Weishaar said. “The character and appeal of the rock are the makings of classic climbs.”
Rising more than 100 feet from its base, the towering escarpment dons many of Eastern Missouri’s tallest climbs. While some require a hefty 16+ quickdraws and a 70-meter rope, others beckon climbers looking for the rare, Missouri multi-pitch.
Reverie Made Reality
For now, Weishaar’s focus is route development. By summer, Robinson Bluff will be equipped with primitive camping, guided climbs and camps, more hiking and a riverside swimming platform. Early next year, cabins will be available for rent. Long-term plans call for competitions, ice climbing, canoeing, horses, a lodge, restaurant and even a brewery.
Robinson Bluff has become Weishaar’s reverie made reality. It’s where he’ll retire. As for now, he is simply looking forward to the crag’s March 2018 grand opening and welcoming the community to a place that both he and Thurmond know climbers will love.
“Robinson Bluff is a game-changer for St. Louis climbers,” Thurmond concluded. “People are going to write songs and poetry about it.”
Learn more about Robinson Bluff’s March 2018 grand opening at robinsonbluff.com.
Author: St. Louis-native Corrie Hendrix Gambill is a rock climber, mountain biker and entrepreneur. She is the founder of Apple Core Creative and a contributing writer for Terrain Magazine. Whether climbing or pedaling, the thrill of falling still alludes her.