Vertical Heartland, a chance at Draper’s Bluff

Vertical Heartland, a chance at Draper’s Bluff

By Caleb Motsinger

Eric Ulner owns property that could easily be considered a climber’s paradise.

Ulner, an SIUC alumnus of Murphysboro, said when he purchased Draper’s Bluff — the property where he now lives with his family — nearly 16 years ago, the opportunity didn’t seem real.

“It was a chance to buy and preserve one of my favorite climbing crags,” Ulner said. “To build a garden, throw


some chickens down and make a home for my family below cliffs that have been around for thousands of years.”

With sandstone walls that rise higher than 100 feet, Draper’s Bluff sits above the village of Lick Creek in Johnson County. In years past, it’s been a popular destination for climbers throughout the Midwest.

In 2005, a change to the Land and Water Recreational Use Act of Illinois made Ulner more liable when allowing public access on his property for recreational use.  Upon hearing of the change in 2009, Ulner had to close Draper’s Bluff to the public.

After 13 years of public use under Ulner’s ownership, the site’s closure left only Vertical Heartland, Ulner’s guide business and climbing school, insured to climb the property.

Thaddeus Portz, president of SIUC’s climbing club, said he remembers the bluff’s closing to unsupervised public use as a sad time.

“It (Draper’s Bluff) used to be my favorite spot,” said Portz, a senior from Effingham studying engineering.  “It was a sad day. I had to leave a lot of unfinished projects behind when it closed.”

Phillip Carrier, a climber from Carbondale, said because of Draper’s elevation, what makes it different from places such as Jackson Falls is that it is the only location in southern Illinois where multi-pitch climbing, or climbing with more than one belay point, is available.


Carrier said he has known Ulner all of his life, and though he rarely climbs at Draper’s anymore, he has helped Ulner and his wife Kathy guide an assortment of groups up the cliffs.

The two led a group of Girl Scouts from New Baden and a group of Boy Scouts from the Memphis area on a guided tour recently to climb the boulders and cliffs that surround their property.  Ulner said guide business for Vertical Heartland consists of mostly youth groups and middle aged white-collar guests. His climbing school, also located at Draper’s, used to teach technical skills to climbers who wish to venture out on their own.

“We don’t get many experienced climbers out here anymore,” He said.  “Most college-aged climbers and guys who climbed out here previously aren’t interested in a guided tour.”

Ulner said before his buyout, the cliffs future accessibility to climbers sat in a constant state of uncertainty.

Now, the only legal way to experience Draper’s Bluff is through Vertical Heartland’s guide service and climbing school.

Ulner said he had no intention of ever having to close the land to public use, but as teenage Boy Scouts scaled the rock walls of Draper’s Bluff on what they called “their mission to become man scouts,” the look of satisfaction on their faces on their recent trip testified to the enduring power of Draper’s Bluff over the years and under the circumstances.