Boltin’ with Bobby

by: Sean Foster

It was Sunday; the last Sunday of January. The forecasted high was 24 degrees. My phone showed it was 23 as I sat in the sun watching him jug up his static line. Clouds momentarily provided undesired shade before blowing by with the slight breeze that chilled my face. The waterfall was deafening, which was fine because we had said all we needed to say before setting off on our separate missions. The river rushed over the falls and through the ice. Hikers and skiers did not let the slick conditions stop them from coming to the park. They stopped to take pictures from the bridge just as we had done on our way in. There is nothing quite like this place, a Minnesota crag somehow located in Wisconsin. Didn’t they know when they drew the border lines that one day we would come for it?

Sheriff Bob and his classic Willow River photo moment.

A few days earlier, Minnesota Climbers Association (MCA) board member Robert Omann was looking for a partner who would be up for a bolting mission at Willow River State Park. I got in touch and asked what he was hoping to accomplish. “If it’s dry enough, I’m going to finish installing glue in bolts on Genesis [Effect]”, he replied, “I have half the bolts in.” We made plans to meet and make the drive to Hudson together and I decided to pick his brain along the way.

Bob came on board with the MCA specifically to tackle rebolting efforts and participate in access talks. You may never meet a more affable fellow and in his short time with our organization so far, he has proven the right person for the job. Shortly after joining the board, he was involved in discussions with the Wisconsin DNR that led to expanded climbing hours at Willow, a place where you cannot climb Saturdays and only until noon on Fridays and Sundays during the summer months.

Many people know him as Sheriff Bob. When I asked why, he replied that he “knows everything that happens at Willow.” And it’s true. Bob is a fixture at the crag spring through fall and can spray you down with beta for just about every route, assuming you want it. He also told me about a time he rescued a kid who busted open his knee on the mezzanine upriver. People are often putting themselves at risk in the raging river that flows past the climbing area and he has seen his fair share of mishaps and close calls.

Last year, at the annual Willow River Adopt-a-Crag hosted by the MCA, Bob installed two sets of anchors low to the ground on that mezzanine level at the request of the local fire department. They have been called in for river rescues over the years and often struggled setting up ropes quickly. Knowing Bob had worked with the DNR and having seen our bolts at the crag, they asked him for help creating a better and safer solution for fishing folks out of the river. The Sheriff abides.

Bob jugs up his static line on Genesis Effect

In 2016, Bob put in 46 hours of work at Willow. After Sunday, he hit 50. He does it because, “if I didn’t, no one would.” He imagined 10 more years going by without replacing the aging bolts he was so often clipping and how he would feel if he or one of his friends got hurt as a result. He knew he could do something about it and didn’t want to sit idly by. Now, Bob says, he “really wants to do a good job. I get psyched that these new bolts will be there for a long time. It feels good getting rusty bolts off the wall.” Plus, “it’s fun swinging around with all those tools.”

Bolts. And hand warmers for the chalk bag!

In years past, he had seen Jeff Engel, Tyler Hoffart, and myself bolting new routes in Jeff’s World, a hidden crag in the Canadian wild, and started to catch the bug. Tyler would go on to mentor him in the ways of bolting and the Sheriff found a new mission.

The 50 hours spent at Willow so far have resulted in complete rebolts of White Noise, Daily Grind, Midsummer Daydreams, Natural Selection, Genesis Effect, and new anchors on Tsunami. Sipping on his La Croix on the drive home, Bob told me about his plans for 2017; to completely rebolt Water Music/New Beginnings, Jar of Flies, Hurtful Pleasures, and Rejection of Mercy.

Next though, he says he needs to go back to Genesis and remove all of the old bolts, which includes the very first bolt ever installed at Willow by Jeff Engel, the godfather of Minnesota climbing. What a thing that will be, we both agreed; suitable for mounting for the sake of posterity.

On behalf of sport climbers from the Midwest and beyond, let me say thank you, Sheriff Bob, THANK YOU.

A new glue in bolt next to a hole from a removed old bolt.


MCA is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations to our organization are tax deductible. We work to create and preserve access to rock and ice climbing areas statewide and at Willow River State Park in Wisconsin.

At Willow River, we are replacing old bolts with new glue in bolts. Glue is about $20 per tube (about 12 bolts per tube); glue gun tips are $1 each (depending on weather conditions, a tip can be used for between 1-10 bolts); glue in bolts are about $7 each; drills, drill bits, and other tools are required; labor is volunteered. To date, Bob alone has replaced 50-60 bolts at Willow.