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Green Party

My senses sharpened, and I smelled the damp, pungent forest floor 20 feet below. The crimp bit into my fingertips with a fierce comfort, and I swung my feet out into space and then forward to high-step on the arete.

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My senses sharpened, and I smelled the damp, pungent forest floor 20 feet below. The crimp bit into my fingertips with a fierce comfort, and I swung my feet out into space and then forward to high-step on the arete. I looked at the top of the boulder and there, framed against the green canopy of birch and sugar-maple leaves, was a small quartz crystal in just the right place. I carefully absorbed the texture, closed my grip and pulled myself onto the face. Two more moves, and I was lucky to stand on top of the most dramatic boulder problem in Vermont, Ground Up (V9). Lucky to have escaped uninjured. Lucky to return to the other projects on the majestic boulder and mostly lucky to be in the right place at the right time — right now — during the discovery and development of Vermont’s best climbing.

The Appalachian mountain range stretches from Georgia to Maine and includes the Green Mountains of Vermont. Over eight million years, Vermont has seen glaciers come and go at least four times. These once-towering peaks have been ground and beaten, weathered, stretched and pulverized again and again to create today’s rolling hills and gently sloped mountains.

In many ways, Vermont’s culture is also a relic shaped by the past. People have a meaningful connection with the land, and many rely on it for more than just beauty and recreation. The forests and farmlands provide so much of people’s basic needs that there is a collective sense that good stewardship will provide sustainability for future generations. Vermont embodies both a progressive attitude for change and a reverence for the tried-and-true ways. Montpelier is the only state capital with no McDonalds; there isn’t a billboard to be seen on any of our roadways; and Vermont was the first state to allow civil unions for same-sex couples. Last March voters in two Vermont towns even approved a measure that would instruct police to arrest W and Cheney for crimes against our constitution. On the whole, life is a little slower, simpler and more liberal than elsewhere.

In the early 1990s, climbers assumed that there wasn’t any rock left to develop in Vermont and, for real climbing, you had to go over to the White Mountains of New Hampshire or the Adirondacks of New York. This, however, couldn’t have been further from the truth, and the past 10 or 12 years have seen the development of Vermont’s best climbing. To this day, only a few climbers live here, and fewer still come here of their own free will. As such, Vermont climbers are currently enjoying our own private slow-motion Golden Age.

Given our hunger for rad climbing in our own backyards, Vermonters would have gladly developed it all in one gluttonous gulp, but that’s not how it happened. There is a lot of choss here, and the quality rock is spread out and tucked away in forested nooks and crannies across the state. Most of the good stuff was damn hard to find. All of the best boulders and crags are isolated, and finding one never led to finding another. Each new discovery was like a gem, often kept in deep secrecy. Access issues have affected some of the crags, though the local access group, CRAG-VT, has been able to score major victories. Each year we think we’ve found the last of the great climbing, and each year Vermont gives up a few gems to keep us searching.

Smugglers’ Notch is the magical, if dark and foreboding, epicenter of adventure climbing in Vermont. Tucked behind Mount Mansfield, the tallest mountain in the state, the Notch is a distinctly alpine venue of fast weather, exposed cliffs and dubious rock: a particularly frictionless green schist laced with drill-bit-breaking hard white quartzite. Yet if one has the perseverance to hike up steep loose flanks with neck-high nettles, and search with enough clear-hearted belief among the seas of choss, a unique phenomenon occurs, and the rock eventually evolves to an acceptable state of solidity, with only a dash of choss for tang. Given the vast amount of work involved, only a handful of these adventurous, ground-up multi-pitch climbs have been established. The crown jewel is Ganesh (5.11), a four-pitch route that follows the right arete of the Elephant’s Head Buttress, the most striking rock formation in Vermont.

In 1971 John Bouchard solo aided the Elephant’s Head South Face, which he described as being quite dicey, with hooks and thin pegs. Thirty years later, Travis Peckham and Paul Hansen established the free route Ganesh, ground up, breaking the 110-foot overhanging third pitch in half with a hanging belay to make a five-pitch route. The next year Travis brought me up there to try to eliminate the hanging stance. In keeping with the tradition of a good old-fashioned Yankee sandbagging, Travis told me the thing was 5.11. My first attempt saw me pump out and fly off after 80 feet, too thrashed even for another effort that day. On my second go, I was one move from a rest when a hold broke, sending me flying again. On my third attempt, the thing let me through — barely. Since then, numerous friends have pumped out, or been chased off by weather, or swatted off when a hold decided to give up. Not until just last autumn was Ganesh finally sent as four pitches for a second time, when Dave Vuono snuck through without breaking anything. “I had just pulled the last pump crux and gotten to a stance where I could hesitate before the last techy crux bulge,” he says. “Then it started to drizzle, and I had to turn it on and punch it.”

I have been telling my fellow New Englanders about this route for years, trying to get someone to onsight it, but no one has come. In my opinion, Ganesh hosts the most exposed, adventurous climbing of any route in New England, yet I know of only one out-of-stater who has been on it.

Smugglers’ Notch also has the most concentrated bouldering in the state and offers better-quality rock than the cliffs. While there isn’t a huge number of problems, some great circuits keep even the most frequent visitors coming back. Notch local Bill Patton moved to Vermont at just the right time. “When I first started going up to the Notch, the place was like the Wild West,” he says. “While people had been climbing on the boulders for some time, pretty much all of the best hard lines just hadn’t been envisioned yet, and I was coming from Salt Lake with a fresh eye for what was possible.” Patton pretty much started the current bouldering revolution in the Notch and is still one of the most frequent visitors and by far the most psyched to show newcomers all his classic lines. New problems go up each year and recently the highest, hardest lines have finally been unlocked, including Patton’s highball testpiece Red Cross (V10) and Tim Heagany’s tall and serious Monarchy (V8), on the King Boulder. Balanced in the middle of the Notch’s saddle, right at the apex of the Notch Road, sits the immense Red Cross Boulder. This past fall Patrick Tracy deciphered one of the most mythical lines with Truth and Lies (V11) on the boulder’s steep east face. A fall from the upper crux would land you nearly 20 feet onto the road pavement and you’d risk a collision with a rubbernecking touron speeding around the blind corner. Truth and Lies represents the hardest piece of highball bouldering in Vermont.

The most drastic expansion in rock climbing during this Golden Age occurred around the town of Bolton in the hills just outside the state’s big city of Burlington (population 35,000). Along the interstate through the Winooski River Valley southeast of Burlington, big cliff lines and crags separated by countless small outcroppings and boulders stretch for miles. There are easily four or five Rumneys’ worth of rock hidden in little stashes throughout the forests of Bolton. Unfortunately, most of it is utterly useless for rock climbing. Still, Bolton holds Vermont’s highest concentration of high-quality sport climbs and boulder problems, 95 percent of them established in the last 10 years. The best routes ascend gently overhanging faces with small roofs and bulges, and offer a perfect mix of sustained technical climbing with bouldery sequences on beautifully sculpted schist.

Every time we found new stone worth bolting, we had high hopes of opening Bolton’s first 5.13, but the harder ones always ended up being 5.12. This past autumn, though, 20 years after 5.13 came to New England, Vermont’s most popular climbing region finally got one, a beautiful route with a tip-splitting crux called Steppin’ Razor (5.13a/b). While Vermont has had world-class climbing for some time, it wasn’t until this past year that our little state got world-class difficulty. Marshfield Ledge is a unique and sensitive ecological area — home to a rare and endangered species of hay sedge, an almost extinct species of bee, and every climber’s rowdy best friends, Peregrine falcons. Reminiscent of Whitehorse Ledge in New Hampshire, Marshfield is a granite slab almost a half-mile wide and 300 feet tall.

There’s amazing slab climbing at Marshfield, but the crown jewel is the Highgrade Wall, front and center at the top of the cliff. Situated two pitches up on a large ledge overlooking the rolling hills and mountains of Groton State Forest, this 15-degree overhanging golden granite face is covered with crimps, edges and slopers at just the right angle and spacing to make one of the best 5.13a’s anywhere, two amazing 5.14s, a few 5.13 linkups and a project of futuristic dopeness, all guarded by a don’t go there without a local approach.

Drive a mile to the east of Marshfield to the up-and-coming bouldering area of Groton and you’ll be greeted by granite that feels like Velcro-grip sandstone. This vein of granite extends north to Lake Willoughby, home to the baddest ice climbing in New England. Southwest of the lake lies Mount Wheeler, with its little chunk of splitter granite crack climbing. The best line, The Great Dihedral (5.10), was climbed more than half a century ago, then freed by Ed Webster in the 1970s. Since then, Randy Garcia and the Old Guard slab masters have put up over a hundred routes.

Vermont may not have as much great climbing as some other states, but I prefer it that way. When a precious substance is scarce, its value appreciates, and here in Vermont our rock is worth more than the market value. We have just the right ratio of motivated climbers to motivating rock climbs, and our state keeps doling out a few new routes each year. The climbing community is a tight-knit group of folks of all ages, without a pretentious person among them. The climbing is so spread out and hidden that crowded crags will never be an issue. There is no guidebook, and most people don’t want one. While most climbers here are secretive at first, they will show others their new discoveries, and might show you, too, if you actually come up here and ask for a tour — that is, as long as you’re not going to publicize it in Rock and Ice.

Burlington resident Peter Kamitses has been climbing in Vermont for 13 years.