For many activities this time of year, it’s fall you want, and falls you don’t.
And for some, autumn’s beauty in Vermont is best appreciated by staring intently at a rock, and figuring out, how do I get myself up that?
Two of the best and most popular climbing places in the greater Stowe area are the cliffs of West Bolton, and the boulders around the twisting Route 108 through Smugglers’ Notch in Cambridge. They are popular with advanced and beginner climbers, which is one of the great things about getting into the sport — expert-level climbers can find something to challenge them on the very same rock that a beginner is proudly powering through.
Rock climbing isn’t much like fishing, or backcountry skiing, where the location of one’s favorite riverbend or hidden fall line is guarded with tightlipped secrecy. There are secret stashes of boulders and cliff walls, but often the best places that are actually accessible to the general public are quite visible.
You can see climbers on the West Bolton cliffs from Interstate 89. And in the Notch, drivers will frequently find climbers clinging to the very roadside boulders they’re trying to navigate their cars through.
“There’s so much here,” said Sam England, a New Hampshire woman who visited the Notch for a weekend of climbing with her husband, Dylan. “Just everywhere you look. Like, there’s one right here, there’s a bunch over there.”
The couple was warming up on Workout Wall, and taking a little more time there because some other boulders were rendered temporarily inaccessible after a truck driver managed to wedge his tractor-trailer between some of them.
Workout Wall is one of the more prominent roadside boulders and popular meet-up spots for climbers.
Sam said she likes climbing in the fall because both she and the rock have a better grip on each other.
“In the summer, the rock, the rock tends to be a little bit sweatier. Your hands tend to get sweatier or you get sweatier, so the friction on the rock isn’t ideal,” she said. “In the fall, the temperatures are cooler, so the rock’s cooler. You know, just feeling the rock, you can grab onto it better.”
Dylan said he and Sam found out about the Notch via Mountain Project, a smartphone app that lists popular climbing areas in every state.
It’s packed with routes that could keep climbers going in one spot for days and days without repetition. The Notch has more than 240 climbs listed, between boulders and cliff routes.
Some of the classic boulders include Moon Tower, Wheaties, the B.F.B. (you’ll know when you see it) and Baby Pac Man, of which Mountain Project has to say, “This is not the place to go if you dislike being gawked at by tourists.”
If you really, really want to be gawked at by tourists, you can try some of the eight different routes of the Quartz Crack Face. That’s the one that literally everyone looks up at when they park in the main parking lot at the top of the Notch. If you were able to hear them, the tourists’ oohs and ahhs would either knock you off your game or boost your confidence.
Learning the ropes
Each cliff or boulder can have anywhere between one or two routes — easy problems on otherwise cruddy boulders, or just one really tough cliff — to more than 20: Bolton’s Lower West Wall has 21 routes listed, among nearly 700 in the general area.
However, the Bolton map may soon need to be updated — during the last weekend of summer, Sept. 20-21, CRAG-VT (Climbing Resource Access Group of Vermont) held its first Vermont Climbing Festival, and part of the excitement came from the first taste of what could soon be a brand new bouldering field.
The area, Black Barn boulders, is on private land on Bolton Valley’s Joiner Brook. The property is packed full of water-eroded schist boulders, and the property owner said none of it had ever been touched by climbers.
More work needs to be done, but the owner, Michael Hunter, hopes to have it open by next summer.
Dylan said the Notch and Bolton offer five-star rated climbing.
“They’re some of the best around,” he said. “Those are the two big ones in Vermont that I’ve always heard about.”
Bolton’s Lower West Wall is where countless Vermonters learned to climb with ropes. The number of routes is varied enough for beginners and experts, the latter of whom are typically lead climbing so the beginners can get on belay and climb up the route without worrying about placing gear.
For those who want to learn to climb, or want to get some moves in if it’s raining out, Stowe Mountain Resort offers the indoor Stowe Rocks, just a couple of miles from the Notch area.
It’s a showcase feature in the resort’s 108,000-square-foot Adventure Center.
Stowe Rocks features a bouldering area and a 30-foot program wall with marked routes, much like those you’ll see in climbing gyms all over the country.
What you won’t find in those other places is the 40-foot tower designed after Elephant Head, a prominent feature in Smugglers’ Notch, with many routes popular with advanced climbers.
Petra Cliffs, a Burlington rock climbing gym, has been operating since 2000, making it the go-to for many climbers. Its Mountaineering School offers all kinds of programs, and uses both Smugglers’ Notch and Bolton for many of them.
There’s introductory rock climbing at Bolton and introductory bouldering in the Notch, and classes in traditional climbing — where a lead climber goes up with the rope and sets anchors so others can climb hooked into that rope — advanced technique, top-rope setting, and special women-only climbing retreats.
And if Mother Nature abruptly ends autumn like she did last year, you can start plotting your ice climbing adventures, too. Smugglers’ Notch offers some of the best in New England, as evidenced by the scores of Army National Guard Mountain Division soldiers training up there.