Cheap thrills come from short climbs in bouldering

Posted: Friday, April 15, 2005

ALBANY, N.Y. — Greg Beaudet drives into upstate New York's Shawangunk Mountains on weekends, meets up with a partner and climbs boulders all day.

They don't go much higher than 20 feet, a far piece from the storied cliffs that surround the boulders and draw alpinists from around the world. But they do face difficulties that would make some traditional climbers cringe.

Bouldering, with its low overhead, easy access, sociability and limitless challenges, is the big trend in their sport, climbers say. It generally requires only thin-soled climbing shoes, a pad, a bag of chalk and a partner to spot you. Sometimes, all it takes is the nearest big rock — like Rat Rock in the southwest corner of Manhattan's Central Park.

''I think it's the combination of hard moves in a short area, and also when you're climbing with your friends, you've got a lot of energy and you can feed off the energy,'' Beaudet says. ''It creates a good atmosphere for climbing.''

Bouldering primarily draws young men, though there are some strong female climbers, says Andy Gilpin, a guide and 34-year-old owner of Electric City Rock Gym in Schenectady. It requires a high strength-to-weight ratio, he says: ''You have a lot of holding your body weight with just your arms.''

Another factor that makes bouldering popular is cost.

''Pretty much what attracted me to it was it's cheap,'' says Beaudet, 18, who began climbing six years ago in an Albany gym. ''Kids don't have four thousand bucks to drop on a trad rack.''

The trad rack — climberese for ''traditional climbing rack'' — includes belaying rope, helmet, harness and a variety of hardware for securing the rope high on a cliff face. Gilpin says climbers can pick up a package for about $2,000.

A day on the boulders is often noisier than one on a cliff, with partners right there calling encouragement or advice and climber shouts of frustration or elation on hard moves.

Routes are identified sometimes by the white streaks left by chalked hands, showing solutions to problems that can appear unconquerable — long overhangs that tilt climbers' backs toward the ground, micro-cracks that barely allow fingertips, wide spaces between handholds that demand sudden power moves to reach the next one.

''It's more of a free climb. You've got no ropes, nothing holding you down. It's just you and the rock,'' says Ken Murphy. ''It's holds like you shouldn't be able to hold onto. Gradually you develop the energy to do crazy stuff, and it's, like, wow.''

It's also less dangerous than climbing a cliff.

The foam ''crash pads,'' about six inches thick, can cushion ground that is often rocky. Spotters push falling climbers toward the pads to avoid a broken ankle or wrist or head injury. Some people go solo, though Gilpin doesn't recommend it.

Climbs can be as short as four or five moves in 30 seconds, or involve hard problems and prolonged sideways traverses over a half-hour — if you're strong enough, Beaudet says.

''You get so pumped out, you've got to take a rest or just get down,'' he says.

On a good summer day in central New York, you can find 30 or 40 climbers on the gray boulders and short cliffs by the Mohawk River at Little Falls, Murphy says. The 21-year-old carpenter from Broadalbin likes to go with his partner to Caroga Lake in the southern Adirondacks, a place he calls ''pretty much untouched.''

An Outdoor Industry Association survey showed 4.6 million Americans climbed outdoors at least once in 2003, and 659,000 identified themselves as enthusiasts.

Murphy, who says he tries to go four or five times a week, trained hard in a gym all winter. He's had some sprains and cuts and landed on his back outdoors.

''Nothing too brutal yet,'' he says. ''You've got to trust your spotter.''

Beaudet started his spring outdoor season April 1 in the ''Gunks,'' one of the Northeast's most popular climbing and hiking areas. In February, he visited west Texas' Hueco Tanks Historic Site.

''I was amazed at how many strong climbers went to Hueco. There were hundreds and hundreds of climbers staying at this one ranch and chilling out,'' he says, adding that they came from around the world and ranged in age from 18 to perhaps 60.

Outings usually end at dark. But with headlamps and flashlights, climbers can keep bouldering until late at night.



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