AMC Outdoors > Features

On the Wall: Getting Back into the Swing of Rock Climbing; Plus, Top Trad & Sport Climbs

June 18, 2014
On the Wall
Ryan SmithAuthor Peter Tyson works his way up Baby Steps at Farley Ledges in western Massachusetts.

Within half a minute of beginning my first rock climb in years the best thing happens: I fall. I am just starting up the route called California Carpool (“as in everyone drives their own,” someone says). A bulge near the bottom arguably has what climbers would call this route’s crux, or hardest part, if only because it’s a little awkward getting underway. Or at least I make it seem so.

Having gotten myself onto the bulge, just a few feet above Geoff Nichols, the leader of this AMC Berkshire Chapter outing and my belayer, I suddenly peel—climber lingo for fall. I drop straight down 4 or 5 feet until the rope goes taut, leaving my toes barely touching the ground.

“I’ve got you,” Nichols says reassuringly, even as I pirouette around and slam unceremoniously into him. Only then am I able to put an end to that embarrassment of a start.

But here’s the rub: It’s the perfect way to start the day. The fall subdues that inherent fear of plunging—I’d fallen already, and it was no big deal. It humbles me fast, reminding me to take it slow and easy. Above all, it shows me I am in good hands. I can literally fall back on Nichols and the other experienced climbers in our group.

It is the first hint of what I would come to realize through the day—that, for me, rock climbing is all about people. This would come as a surprise. Having not rock climbed since my college days years ago, I’d been thinking the sport is really about getting away from others and coming face to face with rock on your own. It’s just you and the cliff, alone with your fears and frustrations, your solutions and satisfactions.

It’s that, too, of course. But what would catch me off-guard as much as that unexpected fall is just how much people—our party of seven, the other climbers around us, even the climbers who came before us in years past—would collectively make the experience a success.

The Wall of Early Morning Light
We are climbing at Farley Ledges in western Massachusetts. Rising 700 feet over the village of Farley, the long, southeast-facing escarpment is composed of granitic gneiss (“nice”), a kind of metamorphic rock ideal for climbing. Rock climbers consider Farley Ledges the finest venue for their sport in the state. One of our group told me it’s the best rock between the famed Shawangunks in southern New York State and Rumney Rocks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Climbs at Farley range in difficulty from 5.5 to 5.13—that is, from beginner to elite level.

Today is one of the first good climbing days of the season. We’ve come to the Wall of Early Morning Light, the most popular stretch of cliff at Farley, and it certainly is that this morning. Brilliant, direct sunlight leaves few shadows on the face. It was near freezing earlier this morning, but it’s heating up fast, and there’s not a puff of wind. Up against this warm rock it’s almost T-shirt weather.

The crag is already crowded, with most routes already taken, and more climbers arrive by the minute. Everyone is polite, in high spirits, their quiet banter drowned out only momentarily by loud calls of “Rope!” or “On belay!” echoing off the lichen-encrusted wall.

After my ascent of California Carpool, which went off well enough after my initial hiccup, I sit at the base of the cliff and watch Jen Smith, a fit woman in her early 30s, work her way up the route. As she nears the top, Nichols starts giving her “beta,” or advice, though I’m not sure she needs it; she’s doing beautifully.

“Pull over and mantel,” Nichols says, using the term for pushing down on a ledge with your palm to help yourself up. “Perfect,” he adds as she orchestrates the move flawlessly.

Soon Smith reaches the fixed anchor through which her rope feeds; the only way now is back down. Fifty feet below her, Nichols, his feet planted wide and his neck craning, calls up, “I’ve got you on a nice tight rope. Just lean back, and here we go.” Smith starts “walking” back down the face, Nichols feeding rope out slowly through his belay device. “Just as easy as that,” he says.

Laying the Groundwork
He’s right. It is easy, in part because of all the work over the past few decades that climbers have put into making this place accommodating for their kind. Some of that work was done by one of our own party—Al Rubin.

Little did I know when I shook Rubin’s hand down in the parking lot that he is a local legend. He has been climbing for 50 years (“51 now actually,” he quietly tells me, looking at the ground, when I ask). He first climbed at Farley in the 1980s, back when vines still strangled the cliff.

Ever since, he has been instrumental in helping to protect and manage the site. Rubin sits on the board of the Western Massachusetts Climbers’ Coalition in Hadley, Mass. (The lone ornament on his climbing helmet is a WMCC sticker that reads Climb Gneiss.)

The WMCC helps ensure that between February and early July, climbers and others keep away from a section of the ledges that hosts the only cliff-nesting peregrine falcons in the state. It urges climbers to avoid doing anything that might irk the private landowners who own the land the cliffs are on, and who graciously allow the climbers access.

The WMCC even got into the real-estate market when its main access point was threatened. In 2006, after a successful fundraising effort, the group bought a house and 9 acres at the base of the cliffs. It sold off the house and 2 acres, and built trails and a 16-car parking lot for climbers. Today, the coalition has close to 500 members.

“We retro-bolted some of these routes so we could have a few sport-climbing warm-ups,” Rubin tells me as we gaze up at California Carpool. “One of the advantages of Farley Ledges is that you have both sport and trad routes, and you have a big range of difficulty, from very easy to very difficult.”

Trad, or traditional, refers to those climbs in which you largely place your own protection. Sport-climbing routes, such as California Carpool, have protection already in place—leaders just clip into them as they ascend.

Rubin and I are standing at the base of Baby Steps, the easiest route at Farley. It is rated 5.5, which essentially means it has lots of good hand- and footholds and is suitable for beginners. That doesn’t stop Nichols, with all his experience, from preparing to lead-climb it while Jeffrey Daub, another member of our group, belays him.

“At the ‘Gunks this would be a 5.0,” Nichols says with a chuckle as he checks his figure-eight knot before starting to ascend.

“I call this a 5.fun,” says Daub, a genial, mustachioed man, grinning as he catches my eye.

I have to agree. In fact, I think that’s as good a label as any for our day at Farley itself—5.fun.

Top of the Line
At least I feel that way until I find myself an hour later standing at the bottom of Eye Opener, with Nichols behind me saying, “You’re on belay.” I’m staring up at a 70-foot sheer face. It’s so high I can’t see the top of it clearly, though I can see four or five vultures floating in the air not far above it. Are they waiting for one of us to make a fatal error?

Eye Opener is a 5.9. That’s about as difficult a rating as I ever attempted back when I was a lot younger and a lot fitter than I am now. I’ve just watched the fourth veteran of our group, Chris Dodson, who resembles a younger, thinner Robin Williams, make short, elegant work of leading the route. His feat is an unwitting taunt.

Who am I kidding? Can I really do this? I’ll just make a fool of myself.

The thoughts come fast and unbidden, and they’re no help. I know this, so I push them out of my mind and just start climbing.

As I begin working my way up the route’s main crack, I watch for white chalk powder on the gray stone above. Climbers use chalk to absorb sweat from their hands and thus provide a better grip. For me, the stains are welcome clues to decent holds.

A quarter of the way up the face I realize I’ve made a mistake common among green climbers. I’ve overused my arms, and they suddenly give out. “I’ve got to take a break,” I say to Nichols 15 feet below and then let go. Nichols has me solidly, of course, and I “hangdog,” or hang from the end of the rope. As I dangle, using my outspread feet to keep me facing the wall, I shake out my arms to revive them.

Soon my hands are back on the rock, and I’m ascending again. This time I’m more careful. I marshal the limited strength in my arms, letting my legs do most of the heavy lifting. Once or twice while frantically searching for a handhold above, I think, There’s nothing there, how can I do this? But then I somehow find something to grip.

Don’t think, just do. Have hope.

Before I know it I’m at the top, and I hear a congratulatory hoot or two rising from below. My breath is coming hard, my arms are tingling, my legs scratched, but I feel good. A minute later I’m on the ground, untying from the rope. The sense of accomplishment for getting up a tough route suffuses my being. I gaze on my fellow climbers with a kind of gratitude and a new depth of comradeship.

“This is a great place,” Nichols says as if building on my thoughts. “It serves a purpose. This is great recreation for people.”

Yeah, people. Climb gneiss.

LEARN MORE: ROCK CLIMBING IN THE NORTHEAST

AMC Outdoors asked AMC Chapter leaders* to recommend favorite sites in their region for trad and sport climbing. Below is a selection from their submissions, which range from lesser known to the famed ‘Gunks and Rumney Rocks.

*Contributors: Joan Aichele (Delaware Valley), Peter Barlow (Narragansett), Eric Engberg (Boston), Mary Folsom (Mohawk Hudson), Peter Gajdosik (Connecticut), John Grote (Worcester), Cheryl Lathrop (Southeastern Massachusetts), Sarah Long (Berkshire), Tom Sintros (New Hampshire), Kurt Zoner (Connecticut)

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Peter Tyson

Peter Tyson is the former editor in chief of AMC Outdoors.