The Green Mountains offer some prime locations for scrambling up and rapelling down rocks. Unfortunately, good climbing topography and property boundaries don't always go hand in handhold. Some of the best spots for climbing are often privately owned, and those that are on public land risk being loved to death.
One climbing area that might be getting too popular for its own good is Smugglers' Notch, off Highway 108 in Jeffersonville. The area boasts precipitous cliffs and ice falls, breathtaking fall foliage, more than 20 rare, threatened or endangered species -- and swarms of human visitors. That's a concern for CRAG-Vermont, a volunteer organization that has been working since 1999 to preserve and assure access to climbing areas in the state.
Last Saturday, the group hosted a "Smugglers' Notch Bouldering Town Meeting" at PetraCliffs Climbing Center in Burlington to talk about the popular climbing area. Could increased recreational use in the area lead to restricted access? And did climbers believe CRAG-VT should be doing something to help preserve the cliffs and boulders there?
About 20 people, mostly in their twenties and thirties, attended Saturday's meeting. They looked like climbers, with heavily calloused hands and wiry limbs. Many wore climbing clothes. Had anyone from the state expressed concerns or issued warnings to CRAG-VT about Smugglers' Notch, they wondered?
"No closings are imminent," CRAG-VT President Travis Peckham assured the crowd. "We are just trying to be pro-active. We want to identify whether there is a problem, and if there is, is there something we can do about it?"
Brad Moskowitz, an associate professor of outdoor education at Johnson State College, talked about a past experience with the Agency of Natural Resources. Some years ago, the ANR closed a state-owned climbing site near Johnson to commercial groups. "People were climbing there," Moskowitz said, "and people were throwing beer bottles and television sets off the cliff. The State assumed that the former was doing the latter."
Moskowitz solved the problem by communicating with people at the ANR. "We teach backcountry ethics, Leave No Trace principles and stewardship," he explained to agency officials. Moskowitz's Johnson groups climb there now with the state's blessing.
Commercial groups are required to provide proof of liability insurance in order to climb on state land, explains Nick Caputo, a ranger supervisor who oversees the area that includes Smugglers' Notch for the ANR. Groups must also demonstrate their potential impact, and may be required to pay a fee, Caputo says. "As for recreational climbing, rock and ice climbing have been happening in Vermont and in the Notch area for years. Our agency is the steward of the land for use by Vermonters, and climbers make up a group of Vermonters."
On the other hand, Caputo warns, if a group's use causes problems, the ANR might put its foot down. "Several years ago, some hang gliders cut down bunches of trees to improve their take-off spot on top of Mount Ascutney," he recalls. "There were restrictions put on hang gliding there for a year as a result."
Even foot travelers, such as hikers and climbers, should worry about their impact on the environment, Caputo adds. Concerns include creating new trails, leaving trash around, leaving permanent equipment on cliffs, and disturbing peregrine falcon nesting areas. "In general," he says, "we just ask that people take responsibility."
The folks at Saturday's meeting talked about whether Smugglers' Notch is being trashed by overuse. They said they had noticed new trails around the boulders in the Notch, which are frequented both by climbers and tourists hiking in from the nearby parking area. They also see chalk marks on the rocks where people boulder.
Peckham asked if the group felt that a "chalk-scrubbing day" might be in order. The consensus was no -- new marks would just spring up the following day, and that rain washes the marks away. "I guess if any place gets bad weather," Peckham said, "it's the Notch." No arguments there.
The topic of Saturday's meeting was a bit of a departure for CRAG-VT. Most of the state's climbing areas are privately owned, and the organization has mainly focused on keeping those sites open.
"I've been climbing here for 20 or 25 years," says member Paul Hansen. "And some of my favorite climbing areas are closed. They were on private land, and someone bought them and built houses. In some cases, they didn't even know that people had been climbing back there for years."
CRAG-VT formed when an absentee landlord in Lower West Bolton sold 260 acres, including 10 acres of crags that had long been a favorite place for climbers. The recreational users couldn't bear the idea that access to one of Vermont's best -- and their most beloved -- cliffs would be subject to a stranger's whims. They mobilized as Climbing Resource Access Group -- or CRAG -- Vermont.
Founding members Heather Hibbard and Adam Sherman met with the new owner, Patrick Smith, to assess his attitude. Smith had no awareness of the resource in his backyard. Hibbard and Sherman gave him a tour of the cliffs. They also filled him in on his rights as a landowner, and the protections Vermont law offers landowners who make their property available for recreational uses. Smith was impressed by both the cliffs and the climbing enthusiasts. He became an immediate ally, and, in 2002, sub-divided his land and gifted the property to CRAG-VT.
The organization's other big success story is the Bolton Quarry, a major ice-climbing site. When liability concerns prompted jittery landowners to close the location, CRAG-VT set out to regain access. First, the advocates counseled climbers to respect landowner wishes. Then they began raising money through memberships, private fundraising and grants from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Vermont Recreation Trails Grant Program. They acquired the quarry in 2004, and reopened it to climbing.
The folks at Saturday's meeting concluded that there isn't a crisis at Smugglers' Notch -- at least, not yet. Several people spoke of the need to continue to try to raise awareness and to educate other climbers about issues, impact and stewardship.
Caputo feels this is a good course. "I have heard no talk about restricting access in the Notch," he says. "We will probably try to designate a few more trails in order to reduce impact."
Caputo also points out that the state's land-management plan identifies climbing as a relatively low-impact activity. "Periodic rockslides in the Notch cause far more impact than rock climbing," he says.