Photo by David Fasulo

On an idle winter morning, Alex Taylor is driving around western Connecticut’s Candlewood Lake. With one eye on the road and the other peering into the leafless forest, he notices it — a hillside of boulders across the water. These are the big ones, he excitedly thinks, and then veers onto the first dirt road that seems to lead toward them.

Surrounded by a thick, snow-blanketed forest, the road ends and the trailhead begins. He sets out on foot, wandering hopefully toward the pile of massive rocks. After an hour of fruitless searching, he goes back to his car and drives to the original vista, longing for springtime when he will find someone to give him a boat ride across the lake. “They were covered in snow but I could tell they were huge,” he recalls. “It blew my mind. I was so excited to return.”

Taylor is a rock climber from Warren who specializes in a style of climbing called “bouldering.” He’s surveyed the woods of western Connecticut for 15 years in search of that next great boulder, and thanks to the glacial activity of past ice ages, there are plenty of them strewn about the forest. “They’re all scattered, but when you find something, it’s freaking awesome.”

Alex Taylor lunges for a handhold. Photo by Hunter Pedane

This spirit of exploration speaks to the essence of rock climbing in Connecticut, which has a deeper history and richer scene than most people know. The borders of this small state contain not only climbable boulders, but also the Metacomet Ridge — one of the largest trap-rock ridgelines in the nation. This swath of volcanic rock, mostly consisting of basalt, rises up from Long Island Sound in New Haven, cuts through the center of the state and extends into Massachusetts, boasting expansive cliff faces along the way. Furthermore, these cliffs (called “crags” in climbing lingo) were among the first ascended this side of the Atlantic.

Back in the 1920s and ’30s, climbing legends Fritz Wiessner, Roger Whitney, Betty Woolsey and others pioneered the pursuit in the U.S., ascending Southington’s Ragged Mountain and Hamden’s Sleeping Giant, among other crags. At the time, these were some of the most difficult established climbs in the country.

Even as the sport and climbers’ skill have progressed, the small cliffs of Connecticut (the tallest of which are in the 100-foot range) remain a challenge for the most experienced climber.

“Every route requires a number of different techniques to negotiate the climb,” says local climbing authority Bob Clark, who lives in East Hartford, “and so you become well-rounded and well-versed in climbing.”

What Connecticut cliffs lack in height, they make up for in technicality. Trap-rock cliff faces are intricate, featuring tiny hand and foot “holds,” long, vertical cracks and other rock features. They are steep and sustained, often with overhanging outcroppings.Clark has been climbing for more than 40 years, and is credited with many local climbing discoveries — he estimates around 175 first ascents (first successful, documented climbs) in Connecticut alone. Now in his mid-60s, Clark is still an avid climber. The Connecticut native has been around the world, with particular interest in Europe and South America. Lately he’s been establishing routes in Brazil (about 25 so far), where he spends about a month a year.

Beginner’s guide to rock climbing

1. Find a climbing gym.

Don’t assume you’re nimble and knowledgeable enough to go scaling up cliff faces. Some of the state’s indoor rock climbing facilities include:

Rock Climb Fairfield 85 Mill Plain Road, Fairfield

Central Rock Gym 259 Eastern Blvd., Glastonbury

Stone Age Rock Gym 195 Adams St., Manchester

City Climb Gym 442 Winchester Ave., New Haven

Prime Climb 340 Silversmith Park, Wallingford

2. Stretch out.

Rock climbing can be an intense physical activity that stretches and contorts your body. Flexibility is key for both completing difficult climbs and avoiding injury. Similarly, Alex Taylor, who specializes in boulder climbing and is a staff member at Central Rock Gym, urges climbers to listen to their bodies and to take frequent rests.

3. Have the proper gear.

To effectively and safely climb, you must have the proper footwear. Climbing shoes are intentionally tight for precise footwork and rubber-soled for extra grip. If you’re climbing ropes, a harness is necessary and helmets are highly recommended. These and other pieces of equipment are available for rent at climbing gyms.

4. Know the knots.

The most fundamental knot is the “figure 8” (named for its shape), and is used to tie into the harness. Gyms will teach this knot as well as other safety protocols. Learn from a guide if going outside!

5. Double-check.

David Fasulo, experienced climber and author of Rock Climbing Connecticut, says: “Prior to starting a climb, always double-check the safety systems (helmet, harness, rope, anchors, belay devices, protection, etc.), and check that your partner has the skills to safely utilize the systems.”

6. Learn the lingo.

Climbers use a series of commands to communicate to the belayer below. A few of the basic commands include:

“Belay on” means the belayer is ready for the climber

“Climbing” means the climber is ready to begin

“Take” means the climber wants the belayer to remove “slack” in the rope so they can rest and put their body weight on the rope

7. Take it outside … with a guide.

If looking to take your climbing to the next level by going outdoors, our experts Bob Clark and David Fasulo urge climbers to seek out training from a certified guide or experienced mentor. Qualified instruction can be found at amga.com.

8. Do your homework on the area.

Fasulo says: “Research the intended climbing area/climbs with updated information. Access, parking and available protection for lead climbers changes over time.

9. Have fun!

Don’t get discouraged or angry. They’re only rocks!

| MICHAEL ROULEAU |

“I’ve been lucky to still be doing first ascents,” he says, acknowledging the inherent risk of rock climbing. “I used to be young and foolish. I’m no longer young.”

Clark recalled a surprise, and potential danger, when climbing a crag back in the ’80s in the Hanging Hills of Meriden. With no gear (called “protection”) bolted into the cliff, it appeared to be a virgin line, a beckoning first ascent.

He scaled the cliff without incident, until attempting to crawl over the edge and complete the climb. There were two copperhead snakes, coiled, bathing in the summer sun. “I peeked over the edge, and one of them lifted its head, 15 inches from me.”

Sensing the venomous snakes were not aggressive, he mustered up the courage and climbed around them. Clark yelled down to his buddies below, who had urged him to climb on: “You’re right, they didn’t move!”

All jokes aside, Clark is as knowledgeable and safety-oriented as they come. “In truth, climbing is dangerous, but it can be done safely. What I do might seem foolish to you, but it’s not foolish to me. I’m very aware of what’s going on and where I am and what I’m doing.”

David Fasulo, author of Rock Climbing Connecticut, has found himself in a number of perilous climbing situations as well. “When you get to a point where a fall would be dangerous, it is not the time to panic,” he says, recalling instances when he was clutched to the wall, lactic acid building up in his forearms, his hands on the verge of letting go. “When the clock is ticking, you need to quickly assess the anticipated moves, concentrate and make a commitment. It’s an adrenaline-charged feat that takes complete focus.

Despite the inherent and potential dangers, the joys of climbing carry more weight. “When you do that climb, it forms a bond between the two of you,” says Clark — the two being the climber and the “belayer,” the person who handles the ropes below. “It’s something that you will share with that person forever. It’s something that can’t be duplicated. It’s like a vertical dance. And if you watch a really good climber, they make it look effortless. It’s a neat sport.”

In Connecticut, the majority of the rope climbing is “trad” (traditional), a style in which climbers place gear along the route to protect against falls, and then remove it when the climb is complete. A sensitive subject in the local scene, this practice dates back to the 1990s when people removed the “fixed protection” that was permanently installed in many of the state’s most popular crags — for moral or environmental reasons.

In order to install fixed protection, one must drill into the rock and hammer in steel bolts on the route — a practice some feel defaces the rock. In other parts of the country, however, fixed protection is commonplace, enabling “sport climbing,” a style in which climbers simply hang gear (aka “quickdraws”) from the bolts and “clip in” their rope as they go.

With intricate trap-rock cliff faces, Fasulo says, “The climbing as well as the protection in Connecticut is very technical and thought-provoking.” Furthermore, Connecticut’s small crags also lend themselves to top-roping — a style that requires the climber to build an “anchor” at the top of the cliff (usually tied around a tree) from which the rope can hang.

The necessity to build an anchor or place gear means the Connecticut climber is knowledgeable, versed in climbing techniques as well as safety. “You learn how to place gear in Connecticut,” says Clark. “Sometimes it’s hard to place and requires a lot of work, so you learn how to place good gear, which is not always the case at other areas I’ve been to.”

Millions of people rock climb in the United States, and the number is growing — some reports estimate the number to be around 9 million. In Connecticut, a new generation of young, enthusiastic climbers is developing new areas and bolting/installing the fixed protection that was so resisted decades ago.

“The biggest change in Connecticut climbing is the recent addition of sport climbing,” says Fasulo. “It’s a welcome addition by many, adding to the diverse climbing opportunities in the state.” Newer sport areas include Killingworth’s Chatfield Hollow, Waterbury’s White Stone Cliff and Southington’s Firewall. Still, “fixed protection continues to be tampered with,” warns Fasulo. And Clark cautions climbers that there most likely are not bolts at the top of cliffs to use as anchors.

If Connecticut’s climbing scene is so rich, how come it’s not more well known? Similar to how out-of-staters may see Connecticut as the land between New York City and Boston, it also sits between two climbing giants. The Shawangunk Ridge, known internationally as the “Gunks,” with its 300-foot cliffs and miles of world-class climbing in upstate New York, is a little over an hour from Danbury and about two hours from Hartford. Rumney Rocks in New Hampshire, with its numerous sport routes, is a few hours away.

But while we may be in the shadows of more-towering destinations, Clark says, “Connecticut is a hidden gem. A lot of people don’t realize how good the climbing is here.” He adds, “People don’t perceive Connecticut as a destination place. We have over 2,000 routes, some of them are world-class, but they’re mostly trad. People who are traveling around the world, they skip right by Connecticut.”

Our proximity to these nearby destinations is yet another asset to the Connecticut climber. Not only are we within striking distance of the Gunks and New Hampshire, Clark insists “there are literally a dozen cliffs within 10 minutes of your car.” He adds, “Connecticut is an amazing place to climb and train,” even if that means hopping on the crag for a couple of hours after work. “It’s very accessible here.”

Popular crags in the state include Ragged Mountain in Southington, Pinnacle Rock in Plainville and East Peak in Meriden, among others — although it should be noted that access is a tricky issue for certain crags, as they may lie on private property. (Always check or ask before climbing.)

Taylor, the avid boulderer, is a staff member at Central Rock Gym in Glastonbury, one of the largest climbing gyms in the Northeast. He interacts with hundreds of local climbers weekly, and has his finger on the pulse of the culture and popularity of the sport. “There’s no certain type of climber,” he says. “At the gym you could find an 8-year-old climbing next to an 80-year-old. It’s so universal. It’s welcoming to anybody. We were born to climb!” The community, he adds, is one of the best products of the gym. “It brings climbers together. People don’t expect the social aspect.”

• • •

The spring thaw and warm weather finally came, and Taylor returned to his coveted hillside of boulders at Candlewood Lake. He gathered a crew of friends, loaded a bunch of gear onto a boat and they floated across the water, their eyes wide with excitement as the massive boulders only seemed to get better the closer they got. “This is going to be amazing!” he thought.

They tossed ashore their crash pads (protective padding for falls) and hopped off the boat. The 15- to 20-foot-tall blocks were imposingly stacked upon each other. To their dismay, however, every divot they pulled on broke off. Their hearts sunk. Every boulder in this pile was flaky and crumbly, unable to support their climbing. “I had been looking forward to this for months,” said Taylor. “It was one of my biggest letdowns.”

But Taylor is not discouraged. “I know that mega block is out there. I may search for it for the rest of my life, but I’m OK with that.”

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