This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 243 (July 2017).
As we emerge from the Columbus Circle subway station, the city greets us with its fevered restlessness. Sirens reverberate off skyscrapers in all cardinal directions, and the scent of salted pretzels from vendor carts drifts through the frenzied streets. Briefcases, steam, the patter of high heels, tourists—it’s all part of the charm. We are going bouldering in one of the biggest and most beautiful cities on earth, New York City. While this is not your typical approach, it is equally wild and stimulating, in its own urban jungle, city-wildflower type of way.
While the volume of boulders in New York City pales compared to other areas, if you’re a climber and visiting the city, you’d be remiss to leave your chalk bag and shoes at home. The bouldering is accessible, with plenty of moderates, and chalking up below skyscrapers is beautifully novel. You can visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Times Square, and, in a few minutes’ walk from there, top out on a classic. But don’t be fooled, you can get strong on these boulders. Manhattan schist, after all, is responsible for creating Ashima Shiraishi, the first female and youngest person to boulder V15.
Weaving our way through the crowds into Central Park, we are greeted with quizzical looks and questions from passers-by, curious about the foam suitcases strapped to our backs. If you’ve ever bouldered in a popular hiking area, you know the routine.
“Massage table,” we say.
“Oh.” Puzzled faces.
I first visited the infamous Rat Rock, central to Manhattan climbing, in April 2012 with the local climbers Lorenzo Montañez and Bill Piehl. Piehl had been climbing in the city for around 25 years, and Montanez for about a dozen. I hoped to climb and document the boulders for a guidebook I had recently begun writing, now called “NYC Bouldering.” As we neared the boulder, I noticed a young girl effortlessly traversing the perma-chalked crimps and rails. Placing the pads below one of the area’s most sandbagged problems, The Polish Traverse (V5), a scrappy left-to-right pumper on slopers and rails, I realized that the girl was none other than Ashima Shiraishi, an 11-year-old prodigy who just a few years later would become one of the strongest climbers in the world and one of the most recognizable faces in climbing.
As I crammed my feet into my shoes, we exchanged greetings, and I set about decrypting the moves on a project I’d been working on. It was a crimpy line that traversed the entire boulder, and I thought it would be a great addition to the dozens of established lines at Rat Rock. After watching me flail repeatedly on the small crimps at the crux, Ashima informed me that the line I was attempting had already gone. She had done it some time ago and named it The Wave/Ashimandala (V11).
Though slightly disheartened that my project had been swooped by an 11-year-old, I was hardly surprised. New York City is packed with strong climbers and even stronger visiting climbers, and has a rich history of climbing. An urban legend has it that in the early 1920s Sir Edmund Hillary had a scramble in Central Park.
Given the constant ebb and flow of climbers frequenting the boulders since the 1960s, the area philosophy on first ascents is a refreshing “Who cares? It’s been done.” Yet there are still projects. Just last year Hans Sachs polished off what was known as the “old Harlem River Monolithic Project,” now called Degenerate Matter (V11), a steep and sharp arête requiring titanium tendons and the ability to heel hook by your chin. Brian Kim’s YoYo Jimminy (V11) is another must-do on the higher end. For moderates, Rat Rock has plenty, and those willing to travel to the northern reaches of Central Park will find the Worthless Boulder and its V2-V3s, also some of the best V6s in the area.
Central Park, where a lot of the bouldering is, almost wasn’t. In the mid-1800s, creation of the park was up for debate, and for three years its cost,
feasibility and location were hotly discussed. For many, setting aside upwards of 700 acres for recreation in a rapidly developing city wasn’t the
most “economical” use of the land, not to mention the fact that a few thousand residents, mostly German immigrants and Irish pig farmers (who were lower on the economic spectrum), called the swamps and groves their home.
Ironically, one of the factors in securing the tract of land—sandwiched between 5th and 8th avenues and 59th and 109th streets—was the outcrops of dark schist peppering the landscape; they rendered the possibility of development marginal, if not impossible. Thankfully, in 1853, Central Park became the first landscaped public park in the United States.
Modern climbing history in the park dates back some 50 years. Homemade hangers from the 1960s remain on the boulders, and some aid lines from a prior era can be found throughout the city. Rusted pitons, such as those on the Corner Route—a dihedral up a building—in Riverside Park are still visible though you’d have your sanity questioned if you clipped them.
Bouldering in the city, however, wasn’t without access issues. Early on, climbers were considered graffiti artists, given as they were to hanging out in dark shadows in the park, behind boulders, making noise. In the mid-1990s, access problems came to a head with what was perceived as “harassment” from park enforcement, and so a group of climbers, including Nick Falacci, who in 1988 wrote “A Climber’s Guide to Popular Manhattan Boulder Problems,” established the City Climbers Club of New York for advocacy. The plan succeeded, and the majority of areas were granted official approval for climbing. They remain open today, with just a few exceptions. Should you come across Falacci’s old guide, notice that it is by Lester LeBlanc, a pseudonym used by Falacci; he feared being sued should some hapless beginner backslap and get injured.
While Central Park gets most of the attention, “Back in 1988, it was obvious the future of Manhattan bouldering lay well north of 110th Street,” says Falacci. He was right. Other developed areas now include Fort Tryon Park, Inwood Hills Park, St. Nicholas Park, High Bridge Park and Morningside Park. Grab the guide and hail a cab!
Waves of Development
The documented history of NYC bouldering is undocumented. According to Falacci, himself an early developer, an early bouldering “influencer” was Yuki Ikumori, a Japanese gardener who established some of later 1990s’ hardest lines. Ikumori was aptly known as the sensei of Rat Rock. Ashima, then just beginning, would take an early liking to Ikumori, wherein he was reported to have said to a friend, “I have to translate our climbs to the hands of a 6-year-old.” In fact, a video of Ashima at age 7, hiking the Polish Traverse, with spectators’ jaws dropped, can still be found on YouTube. After Ikumori
came a Polish “crew” and other Eastern European contingents.
Development of climbing in New York is ongoing. The city lures climbers away from the mountains to the concrete jungle with promises of success and the American dream. Millions of tourists pass through on business and leisure each year, and within that statistic lurk the vertical addicts who can’t leave home without their shoes packed, just in case. Well-known climbers including Sasha DiGiulian, Kevin Jorgeson, Daniel Woods, Paul Robinson and Lynn Hill, among many others, have all spent time pulling down on Manhattan’s schist formations.
So next time you’re in New York on that Christmas shopping spree or simply visiting to enjoy its incredible sights and sounds, grab your shoes and experience one of the world’s most unlikely climbing destinations.
[ VISITOR INFORMATION ]
New York City has thousands of hotels. Most are spendy, but there are reasonable options.
1. 6 Columbus. Located beside Central Park, this hotel is a stone’s throw from some of the best climbing. At $200, it is one of the more affordable places in central Manhattan.
2. The Manhattan at Times Square. About $175 for a single.
3. The Row. Near Times Square and walking distance from most NYC landmarks. $185 for a single; Shake Shack right across the street.
There are 24,000 places to eat. Two favorites:
1. Shake Shack. Burgers under $10. About a block west of Central Park, near the American Museum of Natural History.
2. Café Amrita. A great place to grab a coffee and a bite when you’re on the move. Within walking distance of Central and Morningside Parks.
WHILE IN NYC
You can live in the city and never see everything, but from Central Park you are just minutes from:
1. American Museum of Natural History
2. Metropolitan Museum of Art
3. The Museum of Modern Art
5. Central Park Zoo
6. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
NYC BLOC BETA
SEASON: Spring and fall. Winter tends to be brutally cold, and summer can be humid.
DOGS: Allowed in the park on leashes.
GEAR: Shoes and chalk. Many boulders in Central Park have wood-chip landings. GUIDEBOOK: NYC Bouldering by Gareth Leah.
Brooklyn Boulders: You have to cross the bridge, but this is the go-to place on a rainy day. About 45 minutes from Central Park.