Monday, August 16, 2010

A Weekend in Rumney

(Photo: the weekend crowd at the Bonsai Wall, Rumney, NH)

I expected not to like sport climbing at Rumney very much.

I'm a Gunks guy. I like trad climbing. I like multi-pitch routes. I like the unknown.

Sport climbing is different. It's about exertion. It's about efficiency, and power, and the moves. Now, I have nothing against efficiency and power and movement-- I work all the time at these things in the gym. These things are all a part of trad climbing too, of course, but to me trad climbing is about so much more.

I associate trad climbing with peace, nature, and adventure. Sport climbing? It's fine, but to me it's closer to the gym experience than the trad experience. It just isn't my preference. Don't get me wrong, I like climbing in the gym. Actually I like it quite a bit. But if I couldn't trad climb outside, if the gym climbing weren't done in the service of the outdoor trad climbing, I don't know that I'd bother with it. The gym/sport experience is fine on its own terms, but I don't think it'll ever be the point of my climbing. That's just me.

Because of my bias towards trad, the customs of sport climbing are foreign to me. I couldn't care less whether your ascents are redpoints or pinkpoints, for example. Honestly, does anyone actually care? And for the love of God, I don't want any of your stinking beta. Sport climbers seem to have an incurable predisposition towards spewing beta in all directions, and it drives me insane.

I actually coined a term a couple seasons ago for my anti-beta position, which I hope to popularize. I want all my climbs to be "VHS." Do you follow me? Here, I'll show you an example of the proper usage:

Raul, would you shut the fuck up? I'm doing this climb VHS. That means NO BETA!

Please, everyone, start using my terminology. Do your climbs the VHS way. No beta! Stop the spew, I'm begging you.

But I digress. We were discussing Rumney.

There's this great, inspiring web site put up by a couple named Eric and Lucie, about their years spent touring North America's best climbing areas full-time while living in an old bus. These two have been all over the place and they prefer long trad routes that follow natural lines. In the course of their travels they've climbed world-class routes in Red Rocks, Yosemite, all over Colorado and Wyoming, you name it. Well, they spent a few hours at Rumney on their way to the Gunks and this was their verdict:

"We stop on our way at Rumney, the premier sport climbing venue in the Northeast, located near the small college town of Plymouth, NH. Very popular and crowded crag. We climb a few routes there, but basically hate the place. Steep jug pulls on very uninspiring rock... Let's face it, we are not sport climbers."

I am no Eric or Lucie. I have not climbed all over the place, full-time, for years. But I think I share their preferences. And so I expected not to like Rumney very much.

To my surprise I liked climbing there.

First of all, overhanging jug hauls can be lots of fun. We spent a good part of our first day at the Bonsai wall. This wall has a looming overhang, and some of the climbs that ascend it have one big, positive jug after another; the only challenge is to hold on long enough to get through it. These enduro-fests are fun. They have their place.

Secondly, the routes aren't all like that. Up at the Jimmy Cliff, for instance, there's a 5.10a called Lonesome Dove that's a beautiful, delicate slab climb requiring careful footwork. And there's a very similar 5.8+ right next to it that's just as nice.

And while the cliffs are not huge by any standard, they are appealing most of the time. I can see why the rock at Rumney might seem uninspiring, especially if you don't go far from the parking area. We began our climbing at a convenient crag called the Parking Lot Wall and while it does have the advantage of proximity (and some crimpy face routes) it is not nearly as impressive a cliff as others like the Main Cliff (which actually has some multi-pitch routes on it), Waimea (a hardman crag full of 5.12's), and the Hinterlands. The Hinterlands cliff was a particular favorite of everyone in my group because it features an imposing knife-edge arete with a fun 5.10a climb on each side; on one side is a climb called Jolt, and on the other is Dolt. [2015 update: the arete holding Jolt and Dolt fell to the ground in May of 2013. Those climbs no longer exist.]

No, Rumney isn't a place that will take your breath away, but it does have some nice-looking rock, in a pleasant wooded setting.

I was climbing 5.10's at Rumney, so obviously the ratings must be soft, although I don't think they're soft for sport. On the first day I didn't lead all that much; I wanted to get a feel for the climbs first. By the time we left on Sunday I'd led a couple 5.10a's (along with a bunch of easier stuff) without a hitch and my best top-rope performance was a clean 5.10c. I was happy with this.

But while I enjoyed the climbing, and had a fantastic time with the friends with which I came, there is definitely a dark side to Rumney.

The weekend summer crowd at Rumney is insane. It was worse this weekend than I have ever seen it in the Gunks. It was as if you took the Uberfall crowd on an October Saturday and multiplied it by ten. And you couldn't walk away down the cliff, like you can in the Gunks, to get away from the hordes. Rumney isn't big enough for that. The crowds are everywhere. You can't escape. The climbs are occupied no matter where you go. You're either waiting for a climb or someone else is waiting for you. The path at the base is an obstacle course of people, ropes, dogs, and diaper bags.

Worse than the crowding itself is the type of crowd that seems attracted to Rumney. People new to climbing like to come in large groups. I don't know where they come from. I'm talking about a dozen, maybe two dozen people in one group. You'll see a few people coming up the trail and then they keep coming, and coming, and coming, as if they are emerging from a clown car. And then they'll park themselves at a crag and hog the climbs for hours. One or two "senior" members of the group will have some idea what to do and will set up the climbs for the others, who are waiting like sheep to flail away at them, assisted of course by oceans of spewed beta advice... and on and on and on, as every climber in the group is invited in turn to try every climb simultaneously being held by the squatters.

This type of crowding creates an oppressive atmosphere. I remember when my wife and I visited Prague back in 2002. We liked the city very much but after a couple of days we gave up on the central, preserved, pretty part of town. It was ruined for us by tourism, and it wasn't just that it was crowded. It was the tour groups. These groups would tramp blindly down the street in such numbers that you had to struggle to get by them. Sometimes it was a battle not to be swept up into them. And after a few days of physically fighting through these groups just to cross a pretty square or get to the door of a church, we were ready to give up. It wasn't worth it. And sometimes this weekend, Rumney remined me of Prague.

I'm sure I must sound elitist. I have nothing against new climbers. We've all been there. I'm really criticizing the leaders of these parties, who should split the goups up into smaller units, and not shamelessly hog the best climbs for half a day. The group I was climbing with was actually pretty big. It included seven climbers. But in contrast to these massive climbing parties we were seldom, if ever, all in one place at the same time. We'd stay in touch, mix and match, go up and down the crag, get together and drift apart. We weren't doing it to be nice. It just sort of happened without anyone planning it, but it worked out in such a way that we got to climb in a variety of places without holding anyone else up for hours and hours.

That's the way to do it, people.

A final observation about sport climbing, and this is not specific to Rumney. I found that it leads to a scary complacency. Bolts provide an illusion of security, yet climbing is still a dangerous sport, even with bolts. Of course we all know this. But one must be ever vigilant about observing the basics in climbing, and something about the ease of sport climbing seems to wreak havoc with one's concentration. Things are assumed that should not be assumed. Plans for the lower-off are insufficiently discussed and then miscommunication can occur when the leader reaches the anchor. I saw such developments in my own group and in numerous others, and I am just as much to blame for it as anyone else. No one got injured this weekend but with all the obvious, oblivious newbies floating around a place like Rumney on a busy weekend, and all the stuff I saw going on, it's kind of remarkable no one did. Personally, next time, I'll try harder. I'll be discussing more in advance, watching more, speaking up more.

My verdict: I liked Rumney well enough. I'd gladly go back. But during the week. And only after fully exploring NH trad options like Cannon Cliff and Whitehorse/Cathedral Ledges. I can only compare Rumney to one other sport climbing area, Red Rocks, NV, and Red Rocks is so far superior to Rumney in every conceivable way it is difficult even to begin to discuss it. The climbs, the rock, the scenery, the crowds, plus the availability of world-class trad climbs... and when you think about it, Red Rocks is nearly as convenient as Rumney to NYC so long as you are willing to pay for the flight. But the weather is brutal there in summer so I'd recommend Rumney over Red Rocks in August. In the Spring and the Fall, however, I'd seriously consider flying to Vegas over driving to Rumney, even for just a couple days. If I lived in New England, on the other hand, I'm sure I'd go to Rumney all the time.

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