Seasons Magazines

Seasons Magazines

The Thrill and Challenge of Climbing Attracts the Brave

Fueled by the lure of the wild and untamed, and the exploits of notable personalities such as Alex Honald, rock climbing continues to gain in popularity around the world and Connecticut is no exception.

Honald’s free solo ascent at El Capitan in Yosemite Park has been called one of the greatest sporting feats ever. His amazing climb with nothing but his hands, feet and guile was detailed recently in the Academy Award-winning “Free Solo” documentary. Another climbing movie, “Dawn Wall,” captured the thrilling climbs of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson.

According to The Mountain Project, rock climbing in Connecticut dates back before the 1930s when college outing clubs such as the Yale Mountaineering Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club were on the edge with exploring these wild places to climb.

“Connecticut has a large concentration of rock to climb on,” said Keith Moon, climbing school manager for Eastern Mountain Sports. “The tallest cliffs are just over 100 feet, so it is a good place to start climbing. The most well-known are the cliffs at Ragged Mountain in Southington. People have been climbing on these walls for fun for nearly 100 years. Climbing has been growing in popularity for the past 20 years. Indoor climbing gyms have made getting into the sport more accessible to more people and have cultivated a growing desire to climb. In addition, mainstream media has put climbing in the limelight over the past five to 10 years with some noteworthy films and interviews.”

The central region of the state boasts the Traprock Ridge, which contains gems like the aforementioned Ragged Mountain Main Cliff, East Peak, Pinnacle, CatHole Mountain and tons of smaller areas. This area also has great potential for bouldering near the climbing areas. The South-Central region of Connecticut along the shoreline offers plenty of climbing opportunities. Most notable is Chatfield Hollow in Killingworth.

Bouldering is a form of free climbing that is performed on small rock formations or artificial rock walls without the use of ropes or harnesses. It can be found everywhere in Connecticut; there are glacial, erratic boulders strewn across the state thanks to the second ice age. Mystic, Haddam, West Hartford, New Haven and even Fairfield County offer notable bouldering areas. Hammonasset State Park has camping with facilities in a state beach park with some bouldering on the shore. There are several gyms that provide man-made indoor climbing. During the winter, some aficionados turn to ice climbing and ice sheets that form on rock walls.

According to Matt Conroy, managing director of Rock Climb Fairfield, the popularity of climbing is due to, “a combination of factors including the availability of quality indoor climbing facilities, the strong presence of climbing in the zeitgeist thanks to films like ‘Dawn Wall’ and ‘Free Solo,’ climbing’s inclusion in the Olympics, the general availability of well-made climbing equipment, and the simple fact that climbing is a way to get fit in a fun and social setting.”

“Connecticut is a great place to rock climb,” Conroy continued. “We have a variety of beautiful and challenging climbing areas like Ragged Mountain, Chatfield Hollow and East Peak just to name a few; six commercial climbing gyms including Rock Climb Fairfield; and exceptional guide services like Ascent Climbing and Ragged Mountain Guides.”

“It is not a destination location nor a mecca for multi-pinch or alpine routes, but it is still a great training ground,” commented Paul Maresca, a founder of Connecticut Climbers and Mountaineers. He mentioned that Connecticut has lots of small crags which have routes for all levels with relatively easy access. “It’s a good place to climb and great for getting a few routes in after work or to escape the weekend crowds at the out-of-state high-profile areas.”

Maresca has been climbing for over 30 years. “I have skydived into the jungle, traveled remote rivers in South America, responded to some of the largest disaster around the world, but nothing has ever equaled the thrill of climbing; there is something about leading a route and reaching the top.”

“To start climbing, you need to know how to tie a few basic knots, belay and set up a top rope,” said Maresca. “There are no formal certifications; there is no governing body setting standards. Still, nowadays, unless you have friends that climb, it’s hard to start without paying some group or someone for the basic knowledge. Beyond that, there is no need to invest large sums of money to learn climbing. Climbing is not rocket science; it’s pretty simple. If you want to progress, just climb, climb a lot, hang out with other climbers, watch, ask questions, join a club.”

“I’ve participated in more than one rescue of nascent climbers, convinced that the local outdoor store and YouTube were all they needed to get going,” Conroy stated and added it is wise to hire a guide if rock climbing outdoors. “Go to your local climbing gym and say, ‘I’m new to this. How do I start?’ The staff at any gym will be happy to help you get off the ground in no time.”

Apparently, access to outdoor climbing in Connecticut is always in danger.

“In fact, Ragged Mountain is the only Connecticut climbing area where climbing is a protected use,” continued Conroy. “Thus, in climbing, as in life, one should simply be polite and respectful. Don’t park outside of designated areas, don’t litter, don’t damage flora or fauna, don’t make a ruckus, leave the speakers and hammocks at home. Indoors or out, take turns, don’t spread your gear all over the place, and don’t shout unsolicited advice at other climbers.”

Kevin West is the owner of Stone Age Rock Gym in Manchester. He reported that Connecticut provides challenging and varied climbing outdoors.

“Connecticut is the junction of several tectonic plates,” said West. “This provides different geological types of rock in different parts of the state. Each type of rock—granite, basalt, gneiss and others—provides for different terrain and climbing holds requiring varied climbing technique. Connecticut’s indoor climbing gyms provide for easy access to the sport for all ages, and provides a gateway to an activity that seems, and is, complex. Only a portion of those climbing indoors climb regularly outside. Stone Age Rock Gym is one of the few facilities that offers a seamless transition to the outdoors for those so inclined.”

According to West, there is no requirement to climb indoors prior to climbing outside; however, the indoor training for the body and mind are helpful. Indoors, lessons on top rope knots and rope management (aka the belay) for new climbers are an ideal way to start. Climbers receive the advantage of fall protection from the rope, which is an important consideration in risk management. Climbers may choose to climb un-roped, as in “bouldering” or “boulder climbing,” and there are cool gadgets like auto belays to climb at height indoors. However, West said, both of those options are very demanding on the climber. Failure on a move quickly sets the climber on the ground; in the case of bouldering, it is an abrupt stop and impact.

“Climbing guides are teachers of the sport,” West expressed, adding that outdoor climbing should only be accessed with experienced climbers. Stone Age Rock Gym offers both an outdoor guide service and climbing school. “The public would be advised to hire a guide certified by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) or Professional Climbing Instructors Association (PCIA) to receive a quality rock climbing experience and proper, in-depth training when you decide to do it on your own.”

“The popularity of climbing is growing in Connecticut and across the U.S.,” commented Dani Hartshorn, a spokesperson for Central Rock Gym (CRG) in Glastonbury who has been climbing for almost three years. “After the premiere of rock climbing as an Olympic sport, I have seen so many more people interested in taking up climbing. I think the fact that climbing is an individual sport that you can do with friends is what makes it so popular. You can really push yourself as hard as you want to. The community is also so welcoming, and regardless of your ability or climbing preference, the community will support you.”

“I love climbing in Connecticut. Local groups like the Ragged Mountain Foundation make accessibility so easy,” continued Hartshorn. “We are also so close to other wonderful climbing in other states like New Hampshire and New York. When getting into climbing, one can treat it like a choose your own adventure. Do you want to start at your local gym or local crag? If you start at your local gym, you could get a day pass and boulder, or learn how to use auto belays. One could also choose to start with a top rope belay class and choose to learn the basics of climbing with ropes. If you were to start at a local crag, you could hire a guide for a day for guided top rope climbing. Alternatively, if you had some friends who climbed, you could join them for a day of bouldering at a local crag.”

Hartshorn explained the basic rules of climbing are to leave no trace, follow local guidelines, be respectful by sharing routes, be helpful by keeping the noise down, be courteous to other climbers around you, make sure you’re aware of your surroundings, speak up immediately if you see something unsafe and have fun while doing it.

“It is an ever-growing community amongst our many locations,” said Hartshorn. CRG is busy with indoor climbers and various abilities. “In Connecticut, we are the only currently operating CRG, but we have another location on the way in West Hartford. We are so excited to open the doors to another CRG location and give our community even more room to grow.”

“The popularity of rock climbing has grown more generally,” said Haim Noah Prever, president of the UConn Climbing Club, who has been climbing for 10 years. “I think it has to do with the mainstream media attention the sport has received from popular movies…Also, advancements in modern rock-climbing gear—like crash pads, cams, etc.—make the sport way safer today than ever before.”

“There are many access issues that make many of the best crags inaccessible or inconvenient to most,” continued Prever. “Connecticut also has a weird history with bolts, so sport climbing is a bit sparser than in other areas. However, if you’re looking to do single pitch trad on trap rock, then Connecticut climbing may be the way to go.”

“Just go out with someone who knows what they’re doing,” Prever advised new climbers. “My suggestion is to make some friends at your local climbing gym. Always wear a helmet.”

The UConn Climbing Club, which has a 5,000-square-foot indoor climbing center located on campus, has almost 100 members.

“This coming year, with me as president, I hope to revitalize the climbing club and make it a place for UConn rock climbers to meet each other and plan trips,” mentioned Prever. “We aren’t just for UConn students or grads; everyone is welcome.”

“Rock climbers seek to preserve the rock in a generally unaltered state, other than cleaning away debris and adding fall protection. Changing the rock by chipping or any other means is taboo,” said West, adding that rock climbers are stewards of the outdoors. “Climbers need to respect cliff closures whether they result from protecting a species or a recalcitrant land owner. Rock climbers must assume personal responsibility for their choice to do a dangerous activity like climbing and the risks, including injury and death. This risk assumption includes all situations, including, but not limited to, when climbing partners and gear fail to perform as hoped, and poor judgment or over-commitment by the climber. Climbers should use common sense like being honest about personal limitations, wearing a helmet when appropriate and seeking fall protection whenever a fall seems possible.”

Done properly and with respect to the environment, rock climbing can be a thrilling and deeply satisfying pursuit, and many Connecticut residents are tackling their own personal “Dawn Wall.”


John Torsiello, an independent writer/editor living in Torrington and part-time in Mount Pleasant, S.C., writes on a variety of topics.