See the boulder, be the boulder
Published: May 18, 2011
In Gunnison, Colo., bouldering is like being in an art-music project in certain parts of Baltimore. You’re a part of it, or rather close to someone that is. Instead of hangovers, you see sprained ankles and bandaged fingers as collateral damage; a misplaced handhold can lead to the sudden absence of skin on a fingertip or a fall or both. Equipment: trade guitars and laptops for bags of powdered chalk, special shoes (like a rubber version of ballet shoes), and thick mattress-like pads (a modest safety measure in case you fall). And you might find an argument that bouldering is an art too: It’s a sport of muscle and problem solving, but only via creativity and finesse. Brutish it isn’t.
Some 10 years ago, Gunnison is where I was introduced to bouldering, in a wide patch of sage-covered high desert pocked with granite outcrops scattered about like they were hurled at the Earth from some giant fist. The bouldering “problems”—essentially shortish, nonroped climbs from nonlethal heights—were bottomless. Of course, bouldering was big. People came to live there for it—kinda like how people come to Baltimore to make music now.
But people don’t come to Baltimore to climb. It is likely that not one person has visited or moved to Baltimore to pursue climbing. Bouldering’s most public faces in these parts are indoor climbing gyms, notably the area minichain Earth Treks. The outdoor stuff is mostly hidden in plain sight, making it not so much an activity that begs entry. But you might find yourself walking in some woods in Patapsco Valley State Park some day and, on the side of a good-size boulder, spot that familiar smear of chalk dust—a gripping agent used by climbers—and wonder what gives.
Wandering through internet climbing bulletin boards reveals a 10-foot bouldering problem as close by as Herring Run Park, just off Harford Road. “[F]or desperate Baltimore climbers only” and “be careful of broken glass” a posting warns. But it turns out actual, good rock can be found not that much farther away, basically all along the Patapsco River in Patapsco Valley State Park and environs. (Though any attractive setting reasonably close to the 8-million-strong Baltimore-Washington metroplex will have broken glass. A venture to a tiny rock island in the Susquehanna River known for bouldering routes put my finger uncomfortably close to an unseen and quite large shard of beer bottle.)
Matt Elletson, a supervisor at the Columbia branch of Earth Treks consulted for local knowledge, explains, “Around Baltimore and Maryland [bouldering] gets a little difficult, because there isn’t that much of, ‘You go here and climb a bunch of stuff.’ What it is, you kind of have to hunt your way to find one or two really good boulders that are here and there.
“One of the places I climb once a week is up in Pennsylvania, called Governor Stable, right by York,” he continues. “It’s only like an hour and a half away, which is amazing. It’s a fantastic boulder field—they actually maintain all the trails, there’s over 300 problems there.” It’s one of those destinations that Maryland doesn’t have a lot of, the one-stop shopping sort of bouldering spots.
It turns out that bouldering in the Baltimore area is a lot of hunting, a downside but also one of the things that make it a bit different here, an asset even: the thrill of the chase. Indeed, a recent expedition to find a series of granite fins outside Sykesville resulted in a bit of exasperated backtracking and map-checking in the exurbs. There’s really no infrastructure for bouldering: no signage or well-established trails or icons on official maps. Outside of climbing gyms, it remains DIY, which, considering the liability concerns of fragile humans hanging in unlikely positions from rocks on public land, is probably well and good.
“It really seems like the stuff shouldn’t be there,” Elletson says. “We are a coastal state and surrounded by so much water. You wouldn’t think there’d be crag piles here and there, or cliff faces that are 40 feet high. You just don’t expect to see that. Before I was a climber, I would walk by and see mattresses on the ground by rocks, and be like, ‘Ew, people are having sex back here.’ But I didn’t realize it was people climbing. People don’t even think that climbing can exist [around Baltimore].”
Elletson recommends patapscorock.blogspot.com, a blog run by John Kelbel that’s beyond extensive, covering everything you could imagine for climbing along the Patapsco River—and a few elsewhere—from Ilchester to above Liberty Reservoir. “He’s looking at geological surveys for where there should be rocks, and he’ll be like, ‘I’m going to take a walk and see what I can find,’” Elletson says, adding that Mark “Indy” Kochte’s Climb Maryland book is likewise indispensable. Also indispensable, he adds: a good pad.
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