Gneiss, But Not Easy: Valley climbers protect their perfect crag

After 40 minutes or so of skirting around enormous boulders, hurling myself up steep dirt trails, and staring slack-jawed at gigantic slabs of granite, I finally track down the echoing voices of two climbers who are enjoying a rain-free afternoon at Erving’s legendary Farley Ledges.

“You’re not going to write about how to get here, are you?” the one who introduces herself as Ingrid asks. “Crowding here can be a big problem.”

It’s more than a fair question. After all, there’s an implicit conflict of interest in discussing cherished locations frequented by devotees of any outdoor pursuit, especially when such spots are both relatively unknown and relatively accessible. M. John Fayhee, editor of the now-defunct Mountain Gazette magazine, has repeatedly railed against the publication of “destination”-style articles routinely found in glossy magazines like Backpacker and Men’s Journal, which, he says, have ruined myriad wilderness locales by effectively advertising them as “secret trails revealed” and other such “oxymoronic” descriptors.

Indeed, there’s an embedded conflict of interest in any sort of outdoor journalism.

“No,” I reassure her. “I won’t write that.”

But the reality is that the not-so-secret climbing secret of Farley has been known for some time now, as the diagram showing how best to fit up to 16 cars in the dirt parking lot at the climbing site’s trailhead will attest. (To say nothing of the overflow parking lot across the street.) Furthermore, the success of Farley, from a climbing community perspective, has been largely dependent on harnessing (no pun intended), through media and appearances at climbing conventions, the energy and enthusiasm and passion the Ledges have long sparked in climbers since back in the ’70s, when legends like Hampshire College grad turned bestselling author John Krakauer began scaling, and falling in love with, the cliff’s countless crags.

“What has been successful at Farley,” Jeff Squire, founding member and current president of the Western Massachusetts Climbing Coalition ( tells me, “is we have been able to concentrate most of the crowds to a couple of specific walls, and have been able to preserve a lot of the natural beauty that comprises the whole area.”

A naturally beautiful area that ranks among the most cherished of climbing spots in the northeast, Squire might fairly add.

“On paper, Farley is a crag of perhaps a quarter mile in length with a maximum height of maybe 150 [feet] at its highest point,” fellow WMCC founding member Pete Ward writes in the current issue of Climberism magazine. “[But] in practice, Farley unfolds on itself into a labyrinthine of complex rock with top ropes on top of multi-pitch routes; sport climbs that deliver you to the foot of death trad leads; and boulder problems in hidden chambers. And that’s just the beginning. For those of us lucky enough to climb there in the early days, Farley was simply too good to let go.”

That nearly happened in the early 2000s, as local landowners clamped down on access to the cliffs. Facing an uncertain future and the distinct possibility of the Ledges being closed indefinitely, Valley climbers holed up over beers at Packard’s in Northampton, and hatched a plan to win Farley back.

“The WMCC was founded because of a closure at Farley in 2000,” Squire continues. “A group of locals became aware that the only way they would have an impact is by formalizing to represent a united front to landowners, the town, and other relevant parties. We continued to meet … in an attempt to resolve some of the issues that resulted in the closure, one of which was the availability of public parking.”

Getting access to Farley meant working with multiple landowners, including the First Light Power Company, as well as various government agencies, both at the national level, such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and the state level, like the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). Further complicating matters was the unique nesting habitat of peregrine falcons, which necessitates that a portion of rock at the Ledges remain closed from February 15 through June 15 every year.

Fortunately for the WMCC, a handful of its members have advanced degrees and/or careers in fields such as environmental consulting, trail maintenance, botany, biology, and land management.

While enrolled at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Squire wrote his master’s dissertation on Farley Land Management. His work was recognized in 2005 when the American Society of Landscape Architects presented the WMCC with a Land Management Award for the Farley plan.

“The idea is to focus the impact,” adds Pete Clark, unofficial assistant to the president, and self-described “especially enthusiastic” coalition member, “using a science-based knowledge of the area.”

I first met Clark over 10 years ago, when both of us were instructors at the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center in Boston. As a student at Hampshire College, he lived in Erving to be closer to Farley. Later he headed down to the University of West Virginia to pursue his master’s dissertation on the New River Gorge.

“I’m one of a handful of cliff plant specialists,” adds Clark, as we talk with Squire over coffee and lemonade.

Their coalition seems a perfect amalgamation of many aspects of the Valley: outdoors-based athleticism and higher education combined with organized activism. Now that the WMCC was formed, all the climbers needed was a chance to put their plan into action.

“In 2007 a parcel of land came up for sale that was immediately recognized as a potential development threat with houses planned for within 100 [feet] of the crag,” Ward continues in Climberism. “With a freshly motivated community, the WMCC raised $60,000 in donations and long-term loans that enabled it to secure a $300,000 bank loan that made up the purchase price. This deal was made possible through the efforts of the WMCC Board of Directors and membership as well as the Access Fund [a national climbing advocacy organization], Appalachian Mountain Club and a handful of grants from non-profit groups with shared goals.”

Today the coalition has about 100 paying members, says Squire, with another 400 or so who connect with the WMCC through email updates and social media. “In the 12 years of the organization’s existence, we have established ourselves at the forefront of local climbing organizations, of which there are roughly 90 nationwide,” he adds. “Without [such] organizations … many crags around the country would be closed and/or off limits.”

To be sure, a big part of that recognition came from the coalition’s purchase of the land that abuts the Farley Ledges. “Farley is looked at as a model by other climbing organizations,” notes Clark. But, the coalition’s president and unofficial assistant to the president tell me, a significant amount of their recognition in the climbing community was earned when they brought down the notorious Ken Nichols in 2007.

A devoted climber (and potentially over-enthusiastic Fayhee reader) living in Connecticut, Nichols made a name for himself by traveling throughout the Northeast, destroying (“chopping”) fixed bolts on crags from Massachusetts to Maine.

“He’d go out on really rainy days, on Thanksgiving, or Christmas, when no one would see him,” says Squire. “With a sledge hammer.”

“And Nichols wouldn’t just take out the bolts,” adds Clark. “He’d smash them, so they couldn’t be used again.”

Working with the various landowners of the Farley Ledges (the WMCC didn’t, and still doesn’t own any of the cliff wall), the coalition set up motion-sensor cameras, caught Nichols in the act, and brought him to court. A Connecticut judge found him guilty of trespassing and vandalism, and further threatened him with jail time in case he was planning any repeat offenses, adds Clark. Nichols hasn’t been heard from since.

Suddenly, the little coalition that could, a group from western Massachusetts, got national recognition from a climbing community that usually focuses its energy on infamous spots out west like Moab, Utah, and California’s Yosemite Valley. Even the climbing magazine Alpinist covered the story, says Squire.

“That judge really supported the climbing community,” notes Clark.

It must have been a confusing case to decide. On one side were a handful of climbers fixing multiple bolts into rock wall crags. On the other, another climber was going out of his way to chop them. Both parties were devoted climbers. Neither legally owned any portion of the wall.

But the coalition, which had already established working relationships with all the various landowners, held the upper hand. And in the process, the WMCC not only gained access to its most cherished crags, but successfully defended climbing at Farley as well.

“Climb gneiss,” the coalition’s motto reads. So far, that punned advice is serving Valley climbers well.

(Originally appeared in The Valley Advocate.)

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