Tension builds in rock climbing community over new gyms

Where to start climbing in New York City.
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— Some local climbers and experts are worried about a possible surge of new climbers that could overload the city’s outdoor climbing spots this spring as the novices head outdoors to test their skills on real rocks.

The possible wave of new climbers in the city comes after a series of events:  One of the largest indoor rock climbing gyms in the country opened two weeks ago in Long Island City, Queens;  another gym also opened on the corner of 97 Street and Lexington Avenue  on the Upper East Side, and the New York City Bouldering guidebook hit store shelves last fall.

Usually experienced climbers help guide novices with their first few outdoor climbs. A seasoned climber can show an amateur where specific climbs are, explain safety procedures, demonstrate how to minimize impact on the natural environment, and talk about how not to upset the local land management who decide whether or not climbing is allowed. But the history of climbing in other areas across the country has shown it’s going to be difficult to manage an explosion of new climbers. Climbing in New York is already under attack with no climbing signs now in Fort Tryon Park and a man suing the city for negligence after he was injured from a fall two weeks ago.

“Nationwide, gyms are popping up like mushrooms,” said Eric Murdock, policy director for the Access Fund, a national organization that negotiates to open and keep open climbing areas. “We have so many more climbers. At the same time, people aren’t being mentored.”

Murdock said education of the estimated 2.3 million climbers nationwide is one of the main issues the Access Fund is dealing with right now. Their Gym-to-Crag program helps climbing gyms teach new climbers things like how a backpack thrown in the wrong place could disrupt the ecosystem, or how loud music common in gyms can be inappropriate outside.

Another key to opening up and keeping climbing areas open, according to Murdock, is building strong grassroots relationships between local climbers and land management. The current shaky and cryptic access to climbing in New York City stems from those relationships, which have faded.

If this were global politics, then Nicholas Falaci and Ralph Erenzo would have been the ambassadors for the climbing community. They started the City Climbers Club of New York and a partnership with the Central Park Conservancy to allow climbing in Central Park through a waiver at their gym. But they don’t live in the city anymore. Their gym has been closed since 2009. And after a shift in New York City parks leadership as well, Jeff Morrison, a local climber, found himself in the unexpected position of negotiating for the climbing community, because he happens to know management inside New York City parks.

“I’ve been climbing for six years in Fort Tryon,” said Morrison. “For me it’s no fun if there’s risk of getting ticketed.”

New York City Parks Department’s official word is that climbing is not allowed in any of the city’s parks and they’ve put up “no climbing” signs in Fort Tryon in northern Manhattan.

Morrison said the signs that exist in Fort Tryon could be in connection with the death of Carlos Garcia, 23, who fell from a 20-foot boulder in the park on June 29, 2012. Even though he was not a regular climber, it could have called the parks’ attention to liability, he said. It hasn’t always been this way.

“Climbers have had to deal with so-called ‘bans’ in the past,” said Falaci. “These were never official bans.”

As part of an agreement to allow climbing in the city, the City Climbers Club only agreed to a climbing ban on Vista Rock, a part of Belvedere Castle in Central Park.

However, the parks department is not currently enforcing a ban on climbing.

“We’re not actively ticketing, but we reserve the right to,” said Phillip Abramson, director of media relations for New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Morrison said according to his sources, enforcing a ban of climbing in a place like Central Park would be a public relations nightmare for the parks department. This is the most popular outside climbing area in New York City. People have been climbing there for decades and it would be difficult to ticket regular climbers when kids play and climb on the same rocks. But Fort Tryon is particularly vulnerable to new climbers, especially since the new climbing gyms are farther north, possibly tapping a larger climbing population closer to the park.

The parks department is focused on making High Bridge Park the northern Manhattan bouldering spot, because it already has a liability system in place for mountain bikers. Morrison said this could be a cat’s paw into opening up other locations, but is worried that park officials don’t understand that this is an inferior climbing area and won’t appease people who have been climbing in Fort Tryon for years.

Minneapolis had a large gym open, Vertical Endeavors, but was able to work with the city to maintain and even open up outdoor locations to climbers. Climbers raised around $30,000 to help the Parks and Trails Council purchase a park in Sandstone, Minnesota to help ensure future climbing access.

When asked what has been the most successful strategy by climbers in securing access Phaydara, Pi, Vongsavanthong, a board member of the Minnesota Climber’s Association, said “I think the simplest thing has been the cleanups.”

Pi said these cleanups have gone a long way in improving relationships with land management. At Interstate Park, which is has an area that is in Minnesota and Wisconsin, Pi said even though climbers aren’t the majority of the visitors they contribute the majority of the cleanup efforts. Pi also said recruiting climbing leadership with different ages, experience, and background is essential. The climbers’ association actively tried to recruit gym climbers, ice climbers, as well as the seasoned old guard in Minnesota.

This spring, New York climbers will be testing themselves not just on the rocks, but with the parks department to see if they can demonstrate, like they have in Minneapolis, they won’t be a liability to the city.

“Climbers have to remind the parks people that they condone roller blading and bicycling in the park,” said Falaci. “Two sports with far more injuries.”

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