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Freaky Folklore


The story of Connecticut bouldering is, in many ways, nothing more than a legend. Due to the secretive nature of Connecticut climbers, it is almost impossible to find accurate beta about many of the best areas and problems. First ascents and grades in obscure areas are poorly recorded, if at all, and even in better-known areas the information is patchy, debated and changeable over time. As rock weathers and holds break, as boulders are discovered and forgotten, new generations arrive claiming first ascents, sometimes renaming problems done many years ago by people not concerned with recognition, or without access to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and 8a.    

One well-known Connecticut climbing legend is that of the first ascent of The Book of Bitter Aspects, in 2003, by Dave Graham. At the time that Graham -- who almost single-handedly developed all the most difficult routes in New England in the late 1990s, and is renowned for having some of the world's strongest fingers -- sent the line, it was cloaked in mystique. No one knew where the boulder was, or even what it was called. But word spread that the hardest problem on the East Coast was somewhere out there in the backwoods of Connecticut, spurring climbers to look for and find it. Although no one disputes the super-human effort and strength required to first climb the line, Phil Schaal's and Max Zolotukhin's quick repeats have challenged the original rating of V14. Their stories twined with Graham's, and both combined with the community's interpretation of events, creating an entirely new story.

Since the beginning of storytelling, strange tales of eccentric personalities feed our desire for meaning and purpose. Over time, the truth changes as details are lost, names are confused, dates fudged and locations changed, but each story has an essence that remains.

Grades, for example, are always influenced by the storyteller's emotions, which usually lead to discrepancies from the original version. Often the most repeated and recent version of folklore trumps the old, but the great thing about tales and grades is that they do not affect the core of the story. The Book of Bitter Aspects remains Connecticut's hardest line seven years after its first ascent and it is incredible and inspiring that anyone, let alone three people, was able to climb it.   

The climbing in Connecticut is varied and widespread. Aron Back, a local climber and schoolteacher, says, We have a huge concentration of overhanging rock, technical face climbing, and endless problems to crush.  In Cornwall, located in the northwest part of the state, ancient 400-million-year-old gneiss boulders nestle in lush hardwood forests full of finger-wrecking problems like Hydro Cloud (V10) and Stings Like a Bee (V8).  In the southwestern part of the state, in the wealthy suburbs of Fairfield County, gneiss boulder fields straddle swamps and double as high-school kids' drinking spots, complete with angst-ridden graffiti and broken bottles. In central Connecticut, which contains the largest number of boulders, 200-million-year-old rust-colored trap rock -- with cool open-handed holds and subtle foot beta -- baffles the most technically gifted climbers. Further southeast in Ledyard are perfect granite eggs laid 14,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Tucked away in dense forests and parks, these lines were only found after a great deal of scouting by locals who have spent years looking at old guidebooks, studying GoogleMaps and topos, and wandering.   

Folk tales and legends, like challenging boulder lines, spark our imaginations and give us insight into who we are and what we are capable of.  As climbers, we see the natural world with more depth and relish the secrets and pleasures rock offers. While it would be easy for us to get caught up in the subjective details of bouldering, the Connecticut blocks are a microcosm that remind us that we can write those details for ourselves.


Legend of the Black Dog

Ragged Mountain has for generations been a testing ground for the strongest and boldest climbers. Fritz Weissner, Layton Kor, Henry Barber and many other now legendary climbers have frequented these basalt cliffs, putting up incredible naturally protected lines like Vector (5.9) and Unconquerable Crack (5.10).

Like the cutting-edge bouldering lines, these old-school classics have been revisited and retro-graded by a new generation with a different perspective. When Vector was first climbed, by Weissner in the mid 1930s, he did it in tennis shoes and with a hemp rope tied around his waist. A single piton protected the awkward and insecure crux moves. At the time, the route was one of the world's hardest, and it is still stout today, even with cams and rock shoes. Does Weissner climbing 5.9 two decades before the grade was consolidated make him more of a badass? Probably, but when you look at the essence of the story, the fact remains that climbing is hard and dangerous no matter what grade you climb.

When climbing on these strange rock outcroppings, especially in the nearby hanging hills of East and West Peak in Meriden, you should be aware of the legend of the Black Dog. There's a saying in Southington about this otherworldly spaniel: "And if a man shall meet the Black Dog once it shall be for joy; and if twice, it shall be for sorrow; and the third time he shall die." W.H.C. Pynchon, a Harvard-educated geologist, recorded the best-known encounter with the Black Dog in a 1898 issue of the Connecticut Quarterly. "Men have seen it bark," he wrote, "but heard no sound; and it leaves no footprint behind it on the dust of summer or the snow of winter."

Pynchon said he first encountered the dog while examining the vesicular lava flows in the area and was pleasantly surprised by its quiet demeanor. The small dog accompanied him all day on his studies and apparently disappeared into the woods as darkness fell. Three years after his first visit, Pynchon found himself back in Meriden with a friend and colleague, Robert Marshall, who recalled seeing a black dog twice on previous visits. The two men set off to summit West Peak with the goal of photographing the surrounding landscape. After a slippery and arduous climb up slick talus and icy ravines, the pair found themselves on top of the cliff ill-equipped for the bone-chilling weather. Horribly cold, they slowly descended the steep slope of loose blocks.  

It was then that Marshall noticed a small black dog high up on the cliff and turned to Pynchon, whispering, "I did not believe it before. I believe it now; and it is the third time." Just as he finished his sentence, the rock below his feet gave out and he plummeted to the ground. Pynchon scrambled quickly to the talus field below only to find the Black Dog greedily lapping up a pool of blood that had begun to form around his friend's head. The dog lifted his hackles and hurried off into a nearby ravine, making no noise and leaving no tracks.


Legend of Princess Tahmore   

Located in the densely populated suburbs of Fairfield, Samp Mortar Nature Preserve is named after the naturally shaped bowls on top of the main 30-foot cliff, once used by Mohicans to grind bushels of samp or corn. This compact area holds dozens of stellar moderate lines on radically overhanging gneiss.

Local legend holds that Tahmore, a Mohican princess, jumped off the main cliff in 1637. A few weeks before the incident, Tahmore had been hunting birds for a new headdress near the boulderfield when she was suddenly confronted by a rabid cougar. As the frothing feline leapt for her neck, she deftly drew an arrow and shot it through the heart. An English hunter named George heard the commotion from nearby, and ran toward the scene. In the shadows of a nearby rhododendron lay another salivating red-eyed cougar, ready to pounce on Tahmore. George spotted the oversized cat, took aim with his musket and blew the animal away. The girl looked like a vision of Gaia in the dappled forest light and he was immediately enraptured by her simple beauty and earthiness. She profusely thanked George and he boldly asked to meet her father to request her hand in marriage. Unknown to them, the mad Pequot Chief Sassacus had witnessed the events and now vowed to make Tahmore his bride.    

A few days later, while Tahmore was pounding corn at Samp Mortar, Sassacus crept up behind her and hysterically expressed his deepest desires. The princess kindly turned him down, but his fragile mind couldn't handle rejection. He reached for his knife, but Tahmore tossed ground corn in his eyes and jumped away from the unrequited Chief's swinging blade. Unfortunately, she had trapped herself between a knife-wielding maniac and a 30-foot drop. With no other recourse, she jumped off the cliff, landing on soft brush below and escaping unharmed. As she ran off, Sassacus raised his fists to the sky and yelled, "George is my captive! If you do not marry me by tomorrow, I will rip out his heart and eat it for dinner!" Afraid for George, she contacted the English forces that had been busy hunting down the Pequot for years, and revealed their hideout in the swamps of Fairfield. Captain Mason organized a bloodthirsty army and in a matter of days brutally massacred the remaining Pequot in Connecticut.


Jemima Wilkinson: Rising From the Dead

Located next to a historic graveyard in Ledyard, The Ghost Face (V9) follows a powerful sequence of crimps up a creamy-white granite egg. Phil Schaal, shown here, quickly repeated this gem at last light, just as the paranormal vibrations began rumbling throughout this dark woods.

A stronghold of the zealous Rogerine Quakers in the early 18th century, Ledyard was a bastion of religious fundamentalism, producing a number of well-known evangelists, including the controversial Jemima Wilkinson. Born on November 29, 1752, Wilkinson is purported to have "died" at the age of 24. As mourners gathered around her coffin, a friend lifted the lid for all to see her lifeless body, but instead she bolted upright and proclaimed, "I have spoken with our Father in the Land of the Dead and he has shown me the way to eternal life! I return as a second Redeemer, in order to bring the Heavenly Kingdom to this cruel and savage world!" Word of her "rebirth" spread throughout Puritan New England like wildfire and people came from afar to listen to the "Publick Univeral Friend" preach about peace, love and the creation of a utopia, which encompassed a society free of slavery, colonialism and sexism. Jemima convinced a small group of followers to pack up all their worldly belongings and trek into the uncharted wilderness of northeastern Pennsylvania (and later into northwestern New York) to fulfill their new world vision.

Wilkinson preached for approximately 43 years and was constantly questioned about her mystical powers and insights. One time she was challenged to walk on water to prove her divinity. She accepted the challenge, set a date for the event, and did some heavy promotion. When the day arrived, she appeared before the audience dressed in a long, flowing black dress, riding a white horse. She asked the hungry-eyed crowd, "Have ye faith?" Spellbound, the people responded, "Yes! We believe. We need to believe!" She said, "Ye need no other evidence, because ye have the proof of Faith," and rode off into the woods, leaving the audience gasping in complete rapture.


The Leatherman   

Near an abandoned service road in Southington stands a 30-foot basalt tower developed by the controversial, bolt-chopping Ken Nichols over three decades ago. Fortunately for highball connoisseurs, Nichols had the foresight to toprope Precision Control (5.12b), knowing that one day a group of bolder and stronger climbers would climb it ground up. The line was indeed soloed, by Dan Yagmin, in 2009 and is now considered one of Connecticut's best V5 highballs. On the day he soloed Precision Control, Yagmin spotted an even bolder line out left. He worked it ground up, and on his ascent, at 20 feet off the deck, a foothold broke. Yagmin teetered and spun horizontally over an exposed talus pit. Miraculously, he held the swing and finished the still-unrepeated The Grape Ape (V5).   

In the mid-1800s, there lived a wandering French vagabond, Jules Bourglay, who walked a 365-mile loop between the Connecticut and Hudson rivers. Bourglay wore a 60-pound patchwork leather suit and was affectionately known as the Leatherman. He never slept indoors and walked 10 miles a day for three decades. He sentenced himself to this lonely and harsh existence after ruining the leather-tanning business of his fiance's father in France. Poor and broken-hearted, he lived in the streets of Lyon for two years until one day he vanished and reappeared in Harwinton, Connecticut. From there he began his endless loop, seeking shelter in the caves that now make up Connecticut's bouldering areas. Kind housewives would prepare meals for him and were practically able to set their clocks by the regularity of his visits.

Although it is difficult to know exactly where the Leatherman slept, the graffiti cave in Southington, where The Book of Bitter Aspects (V13) is located, probably provided shelter for this lovable hobo. So well-liked was this drifter that 10 towns exempted him from an 1879 anti-tramp law and when he died in 1889 the New York Sun and Hartford Times gave him front-page obituaries. Having lived simply and honestly during a period of great economic instability, westward migration, and land shortage, the Leatherman serves as a reminder that materialism and hollow desires need not keep us from becoming wanderers ourselves.


Dudley Town Curse

Deep in the dark forests of the Appalachian Mountains of north-western Connecticut, right below a newly developed bouldering zone in Cornwall, lies the cursed ghost town of Dudley.

The story begins with the Dudley family in 15th century England, when Edmund Dudley attempted to overthrow King Henry VII. As punishment, a curse was cast on his family and he was beheaded in front of a festive crowd. Then his family was blamed for bringing the black plague to Britain. The entire Dudley clan was banished to Connecticut to spread pestilence and bad luck to the Native Americans.

For the last 400 years, the recurrence of dementia and murder in Dudley is infamous. Notable cases blamed on the curse include the massacre and kidnapping of the Carter family (then living in the old Dudley family home) at the hand of the Mohawk, the dementia of the Revolutionary War hero General Herman Swift after his wife was struck and killed by lightning on their porch, the failed presidential campaign of the editorial giant Horace Greeley and the subsequent death (perhaps suicide) of his wife.   

In the 1920s, a New York City physician, William C. Clarke, who founded the Dark Entry Forest Preserve, and his wife built a summer home in Connecticut. Falling in love with the wild forests of Dudley, they spent many summers enjoying the secluded woods in peace and qu et. One day, Dr. Clarke left for an emergency procedure and was dropped off at the train station by a visibly distressed wife. She clung to his coat and begged him to return as soon as possible.

That night, he found his wife laughing hysterically, completely unhinged and lost to the world.  

Even climbers have not escaped the stinging power of the Dudley curse. When the Cornwall area was first being developed, Dan Yagmin, John "Koots" Kuphal and Kara Duele fell prey to a territorial nest of underground hornets. On the day Stings Like a Bee was climbed, Koots' dog stirred a nearby nest and the unknowingly highly allergic Kara was repeatedly and viciously stung. The skin around the stings immediately turned into an itchy rash that spread all over her body. Her face, throat and mouth puffed, and she beg n to wheeze, barely able to breath. Koots carried the now dangerously incoherent Kara, rushing down the loose scree. He raced to the hospital in his Subaru and burst through the emer ency doors holding Kara and calling for a doctor. Kara was saved, but others may not be so lucky. The Dudley curse is alive and well.

Tom Donoso is a self-styled legendary photographer and climber based out of the greater New York City area.

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