Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ruminations about New Route Establishment in the Catskills

There is no doubt that the Catskills have a lot of new route potential. There are amazing lines that have not yet been led at nearly every major Catskill climbing destination. Some of them are leadable strictly on gear, some require frequent piton and spectre placements and there are still others that may require bolts.

So how does one go about establishing a new route in the Catskills? I think about this all the time. Is there a right way to do things? What about a wrong way? It's important to consider both the history of Catskill climbing, as well as the future of Catskill climbing. The Hudson Valley climbing scene is, in many ways, a bastion of traditionalism.  In the past climbers have used patience, experience and boldness when establishing new lines in the Catskills. Among the crowd of future visitors to the cliffs there will, no doubt, be stronger, bolder climbers. There will be climbers who decide that a line has enough gear on it to be led safely. This is a personal choice requiring solid self-assessment skills. Through a thorough understanding of conditions on a particular route year after year, protection and climbing ability one can mitigate some of the risk involved. All of us do this every time we drive, fly, climb, ski or do anything that is inherently dangerous. Climbing, especially ice climbing, is not safe. Anyone who says otherwise just isn't paying attention. We make it safer by belaying, using protection, buying modern gear and learning from others who are experienced.

Two other really important considerations are the rules established by the New York State DEC and certain areas' special ecological and sociological importance. Fixed climbing gear really isn't allowed anywhere on DEC land. Additionally, some of the areas are designated as wilderness areas which are in the backcountry and are meant to be kept pristine and unspoiled.

Let's not forget one of the most important considerations when deciding whether to add fixed gear to a climb that may be protectable for someone else - you can toprope every single pitch in the Catskills except for about 3 of them (pitch 2 of the following routes: the Curtain, That Climb and Sorenson's Smear in Stony Clove). There are no pitches longer than 70m and most are only about 35m or less.

I've ruminated about these things a lot recently. Perhaps too much actually. My partner frequently tells me I should spend as much time making the world a better place as I do thinking about Catskill climbing ethics. I'm not inclined to disagree; she's not wrong. That being said I'm going to offer some of my own thoughts about how to establish climbing routes in the Catskills.

  1. On-sight, ground-up with no fixed gear is definitely the best possible style - This is at times both daunting and dangerous. It's pretty hard to fish very small gear into an icy crack or hammer a pin in from a small, overhung stance. Alas, you can toprope everything here. This makes it easier to clean out dirt, find tool placements, or maybe pre-place some protection. You can even hang 4' or 6' slings down from above to the spot where your climb is less well protected for safety. Work as hard as you can to find gear on a route before you decide that fixed protection (bolts) are the way to go. Set your ego aside for a moment. Think about the past, future, and how important adventure is to climbers.

  2. For the record, the DEC has stated that fixed protection is not allowed. - Some of the rangers are frequent climbers, and all of them have climbed before. They're not too psyched about the number of bolts, especially in areas like the Black Chasm which is a designated "wilderness area" and the far left end of the Devil's Kitchen which is private property (the first cliff on the left when you look down from the stone bridge). Obviously the DEC has tolerated bolts thus far but it would be pretty easy for them to say "no more bolts" or "no more climbing" at these areas. Not good things for PR or future access between climbers and the public land management agency.

  3. AT NO TIME IS RETROBOLTING SOMEONE ELSE'S ROUTE WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION AN ACCEPTABLE PRACTICE - One is free to establish their own climbs however they choose but don't retrobolt other's routes. Thus far first ascensionists have been pretty tolerant of that behavior but it's definitely not ok to dumb down someone else's route. In other areas you might get run out of town or have your property vandalized. Again, set your ego aside and just toprope it if you feel like you can't lead it the way it was done on the FA. Gomorrah, Purgatory, and Rawdon's Roof have all been retrobolted by a person who didn't do the first ascent of that route and without the first ascensionist's permission. This means that you need to make sure that the route you want to establish has not been led by anyone before. How do you go about finding these things out when the guidebooks don't have this information? Spend some time in the area, ask local climbers and maybe wait a season or two to see if a route has ice in the same place every year. Along the way you will make friends, learn more about the history of the area and climbing, and perhaps learn a thing or several about yourself and your abilities.

  4. Well-placed anchor bolts have been tolerated by the DEC - Anchor bolts aren't a bad idea, and they help keep the top of popular areas from becoming too heavily eroded. We've all been out on a day when the top out isn't necessarily frozen. That being said, on most routes, and especially on FA's where one isn't sure whether a route will be popular, the top out is an integral challenge to all of Catskill climbing.

  5. Don't place bolts in areas that see a lot of traffic from other visitors or have special importance - The Kaaterskill Amphitheater is amazing. It's also home to NY's tallest waterfall and is a very beautiful, special place for many people (non-climbers included). It's not a good idea to place bolts in areas like this. Some of the ravines too are pretty unspoiled spots, and you can still toprope every single tier of every single ravine if you want.

  6. If you're going to place bolts to protect a section of completely unprotectable climbing do a high-quality job of placing them - This is a big one. There's a lot that goes into placing bolts well. I'm no expert but I've seen it done both ways - poorly so that it's still unsafe and so well done that you're safe and you don't even notice the bolts until you look for them.

    • Place bolts only where you feel they are absolutely necessary (to protect the unprotectable).

    • Bolted variations should be avoided, as you can toprope the variation. Squeeze jobs are not ok either. If you can reach right or left to clip gear on another route don't place any bolts in that area.

    • By visiting an area year after year you can ensure that a bolt is placed in a dry, solid section of rock so that it's exposed once the ice forms.

    • Toprope the route a lot, and with others who are not your size to see if the stance is good, and whether or not everyone can safely clip the bolts. Deliberately difficult clips make no sense and are an unnecessary danger.

    • Use stainless steel hardware so that the bolts don't corrode as quickly.

    • Lastly, paint the bolts to match the color of the rock so that they don't stand out to people who aren't interested in your route.
As usual all of the normal LNT stuff also applies. Clean on weekdays if possible, be considerate of other visitors, watch your stuff and your mouth, and be both civil and friendly. The spirit of adventure, comraderie and independence is one of the things that attracts us all to climbing.

This list of considerations is my own, not necessarily comprehensive, personal list. I neither condone indiscriminate bolting nor disapprove outright of bolting in the Catskills and haven't personally placed any as of yet. If I do you can bet it will be low key. Everyone can do as they please but always try to keep history, future, access to our precious cliffs, and the environment in mind when establishing new routes in the Catskills.