Tucked away in the quiet woods of western Maine, Shagg Crag is an unlikely setting for the latest dilemma in sport climbing. Here, a crew of Maine climbers outfitted the routes with 80 PermaDraws, a gesture they saw as community service. Not surprising to those familiar with New England’s traditional heritage, the draws also created the region’s latest controversy.
Across the country, as accidents become more common from sun-bleached slings breaking and deeply grooved carabiners cutting ropes, many sport climbers are fixing steel gear on popular climbs. Steel is more durable than aluminum, which can groove sharply in a matter of weeks or days if left up on popular sport climbs. The ClimbTech PermaDraw, a burly swaged cable with a steel carabiner, joins chains as being one solution. Fixed steel hardware is convenient, long lasting and safer than fixed aluminum.
So why, given these benefits of fixed steel hardware, are some New England climbers so opposed to the changes at Shagg Crag?
On June 14 the Maine Climbers’ Alliance sent out an e-mail to its members regarding Shagg: “Bill [Morse] has raised $500 and purchased 80 [PermaDraws]. Here’s an opportunity to improve climbing in this area. Hang draws, have a BBQ and meet fellow climbers.”
Erik Eisele, a 29-year-old journalist who used to live in Portland, Maine, but now lives near North Conway, New Hampshire, saw the proposal as no improvement.
“My first reaction was, well, as a Shagg climber, I don’t want to see it fixed,” says Eisele. “The people I know are a little more traditional than most climbers.” Many of his climbing friends, he says, were “disgusted” by the idea.
A number of Conway-area climbers quickly followed Eisele’s cc’d vote against the fixed hardware, and voiced their opposition. For instance, on June 15, Bayard Russell, a 33-year-old guide, wrote: “I would prefer to see a draw-cleaning barbeque, but I appreciate the time you’re putting in anyway. My experience with this kind of thing is that everybody has the best interests in mind, just different perspectives. I just want you to know that there are quite a few folks who don’t want to see fixed draws out there, and miss the way it used to be as a wild little crag in Western Maine.”
In the next 39 days, more than 60 messages were sent in an email thread that involved over 30 people.
Some climbers in the Northeast are sentimental about Shagg Crag, nostalgic for a time when there were no fixed draws. But at least as of last summer, many routes were “fixed” with abandoned nylon tat and quickdraws.
Eisele recalls rounding the trail on his first visit and suddenly coming upon the beautiful overhanging mass of blank white granite. “It was astonishing,” he says. “In my perspective, a fully fixed cliff takes away from some of the adventure. I’m not opposed to fixed draws and I know it’s sport climbing, but sport climbing can have adventure, too.”
With or without in-situ quickdraws, Shagg is widely considered to have a more exciting feel than the average sport crag. You drive down dirt roads, then hike 30 minutes through dense pine, and past a secluded pond where climbers swim on hot summer days, and over rickety makeshift bridges that cross deep puddles. You cannot see the cliff until the trail finally spits you onto a small bluff, facing the impressive profile of this 30-degree overhanging wall.
Shagg Crag is 5.12 heaven, with about 15 distinct and high-quality routes from 5.12a to 5.12d. There are about three routes of 5.9 and below, and a good handful of 5.10s and 5.11s. Counting extensions and link-ups, there are about 10 5.13s.
The routes are from 20 to 200 feet tall (with some two-pitch climbs that can also be linked in one excellent mega-pitch). Each route has unique features and distinct cruxes. The scenery is spectacular, stretching from Shagg Pond to tree-covered hills.
As a student at Portland’s Maine College of Art until 2003, Joe Kinder logged many days at Shagg. “It was amazing. I still consider it my favorite granite sport-climbing cliff,” he says. “It’s got the perfect climbing, perfect round holds. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s just one little gem that New England is lucky to have.”
Noting Shagg’s friendly routes, Kinder says fixed gear isn’t necessary there. “Shagg never had a big-shot connotation,” he says. “It was just a small locals’ crag that was really good. Hang your draws for the season, but take them down when you’re done.”
Randy Baker is credited with “finding” Shagg Crag. Sometime around 1990, he recruited Brian Delaney and together they plucked the first modern ascents. While scrambling up an easy and naturally protected route, they found an obscure piton, discovering that Shagg has an undocumented climbing history. Baker and Delaney established a 5.8 and a 5.10 ground-up and on trad gear (both routes have since been retro-bolted) before installing the cliff’s first rap-bolted route. They named the blocky and technical 5.12a It Ain’t Pretty Being Easy.
Word of the new cliff spread quickly, and soon other climbers swooped in. “I’m not sure we could have kept it a secret very long,” says Delaney. “Not that we’d want to.”
In 1992, Jerry Handren, a Scottish ex-patriot working as a guide in North Conway, drove over from New Hampshire and bagged the FA of Shaggin’ Wagon (5.12a), a powerful undercling route with smears for feet. In the same year, Bob Parrott, a builder from Western Maine who seems to have established at least one route on every cliff in the state, put up Ginseng Route, which may be the best 5.12c jug-haul in New England.
Erik Mushial and Nate Kimball—with the help of the then teenagers Dave Graham and Luke Parady (both raised in Maine)—established Diesel (5.13d), Fat Lady (5.13b/c), Aggro Shagg (5.13c/d) and The Ritual (5.13a) during the 1990s.
Between 1995 and 2004, Bates College students and recent graduates such as Dave Sharratt, Greg Shyloski and Taki Miyamoto became fixtures at Shagg.
Since 2003 Bill Morse, who has lived and climbed around the country with his wife, Nora, has probably spent more time climbing at Shagg than anyone. “Shagg is what kept me in New England,” he says.
For a few years after 2004, Morse noted that Shagg’s traffic dropped. He says, “I felt like I was one of the new people pioneering Shagg again—climbing this place again. [Today], there’s a lot more people rediscovering Shagg. That’s one of the reasons why I hung the PermaDraws.”
Morse’s reasons for installing PermaDraws at Shagg were, first, to give back to a place he loves, and with the cliff’s increasing popularity, he thought fixed hardware would be safer and make everyone’s lives easier and more fun.
“[Morse] was trying to do a good thing, something generous. That shouldn’t be lost,” says Eisele, “but it was from his own perspective of what a climbing area should be like.”
One part of the perspective, Morse admits, is that many of his regular climbing partners—especially those balancing babies, spouses and dogs (sometimes all three at the crag)—appreciate convenience.
“We all have kids and our time is limited,” says Morse. “The sport-park mentality has been really appealing to us in the past few years. It’s like, hike up—that’s a good warm-up—climb, and then blast back out of there without having to go back up for our draws.”
Ironically, for the last five years, Shagg has been equipped—with unsafe and deteriorating hardware. PermaDraws, Morse and others reasoned, reduce the threat of draws failing or ropes being frayed.
For a wider perspective, in Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado, for instance, at least two sun-bleached nylon quickdraws on separate routes have snapped in the last three years. Recently at the Red River Gorge, Kentucky, a climber sustained head injuries in a ground-fall when a deeply grooved carabiner on the first bolt of Tapeworm (5.12d) severed his rope. There are other examples of ropes becoming core-shot or “sheathed” on sharp rope-worn carabiners.
Tom Armstrong, of Rumney, New Hampshire, says that a fixed nylon draw recently broke under a climber’s body weight. Guessing that half the draws at Rumney are “ticking time-bombs,” Armstrong feels that the rugged all-steel PermaDraws would be a welcome addition there and anywhere else where nylon draws are hung and left.
“When someone gets killed or seriously injured,” he says, “this whole ethics argument will seem pretty weak.”
The heart of the matter at Shagg, though, was respecting different perspectives concerning a crag that everyone thought was worth fighting for.
“I felt Shagg is the only place worthy of hanging draws like these,” Morse said. Some other climbers, he says, “felt the polar opposite—that Shagg is the only place worthy of not hanging fixed draws.”
Morse got an earful of opposing perspective in the days following Erik Eisele’s initial response. As in many online spats, some adults that had never met slung regrettable insults. By mid-July the e-mail attacks were scaling up and becoming increasingly personal and hurtful. Some people called Morse “arrogant,” and “an ass,” and he volleyed back with caustic messages of his own.
One concern involved whether visual impacts of the PermaDraws could threaten access at the cliff. Some took particular offense to the prominent translucent blue rubber sheath that covers the steel swage. Those in favor of the PermaDraws thought they were an aesthetic improvement over the previous assortment of nylon draws and two-foot slings.
Both sides of the argument contacted the Access Fund. On July 22, Brady Robinson, AF executive director, weighed in with the organization’s official opinion.
“We are impressed with the discourse we have seen so far,” Robinson wrote, referring to the communication he’d received. “There are unfortunately many examples of other groups of climbers handling similar situations with far less civility. We suggest that this be resolved within the community with a mind to reduce visual impacts while taking practical realities into account.”
And the community did, thankfully, find a peaceful resolution.
“We avoided a war,” says Eisele. “We avoided an explosion at Shagg.”
In a compromise, both sides of the argument agreed that PermaDraws are safer than ratty nylon draws and should remain on the routes that are the hardest to clean and the most popular. However, both sides agreed that it’s not necessary to equip every route and that the blue casing on the draws should be spray-painted a neutral color to reduce visual impact.
Morse says, “[Eisele] was big in initiating the compromise. Everyone felt so relieved. All of a sudden a lot of apologises went around.”
“Everyone gained,” says Eisele. “I don’t get exactly what I wanted, they don’t get exactly what they wanted, but we all get to climb at Shagg.”
Pat Bagley, a former Rock and Ice intern, lives in Boston and is inching his way toward medical school.TICK LIST
The Great Escape (5.10c/d): Does 5.10 get any better than this? Wrapper jugs traverse up and right through the central white wall. This route got its name because it’s an easier and shorter variation of Bob Parrot’s original line, the burly Zag Shagg (5.11c).
Shaggin’ Wagon (5.12a): Make a hard move off a flat boulder, then work the obvious left-arching lieback/undercling flake to a juggy finish.
Ginseng (5.12c): Steep jugs with interesting moves and a wicked pump. Classic.
Shagg It (5.12c/d): One of the longest and proudest lines on the cliff. Recently led on trad gear (not recommended) by Chris Deulin, a bold and talented local.
Aggro Shagg (5.13c/d): Probably the best hard route at Shagg. Difficult snatches down low lead to a technical headwall and a slabby glory romp to the chains.LOGISTICS
Season: Shagg Crag gets sun from late morning to last light, plus the steep white rock can act as a solar oven. Fall is best. Spring is great before the bugs come out. Winter is pretty good if it’s sunny and you’re willing to post-hole up to the cliff. Shade from trees makes summer better than expected.
Driving: Shagg Crag feels remote, but it’s just three hours from Boston. It’s about two hours from both North Conway and Portland. Google “Shagg Pond, Maine” for directions. Shagg Pond practically laps the approach road, Shagg Pond Rd. From the small, sandy boat launch, you can see Shagg Crag on the side of Bald Mountain across the pond. From the pond, continue up the dirt road for less than a mile. At the top of the steep, short, and partially paved hill, park in the obvious but modest pullout to the left. Please leave as much room as possible for other cars.
Approach: A 30-minute hike. Walk along the wide, relatively flat trail for about 10 minutes. When you reach a small pond (Little Concord Pond), take a sharp right up a steep single-track trail. Follow this over a series of rocky slabs, and almost to the summit of Bald Mountain. About five minutes shy of the summit, take a right onto a subtle climbers’ path and descend to the cliff. While this trail is obvious enough once you know where it is, it is also easy to miss. You may find it easier to spot the trail by walking to the summit (the view is great) and looking for the climbers’ path on the way down. Climbers currently enjoy a great relationship with the landowners. Please keep it that way.