On a beautifully crisp day in July, during an unusually rainy New Hampshire summer, Andy Tuthill stood at the base of Boltline just off of Parking Lot Wall at Rumney Rocks. One of the longer climbs at the Meadows at nearly seventy feet, it’s a classic slab with the first bolt a good five meters off the ground. Tuthill patiently belayed my lead up the 5.8 route, encouraging me past my visible fear. We both breathed sighs of relief when I reached the ram’s horn anchor. “When we first started, there were only three bolts,” he chuckled (at present, there are eight). “You just tried your best not to fall.”
Andy Tuthill, a born and bred New Englander, boasts of a world class repertoire. He considers himself mainly an alpine and trad climber, from Half Dome and the Nose in one day to new routes on Kichatna Spires in Alaska, a Link Sar attempt in Kashmir, and first ascents on the Aguja Nevado III in Peru. He has climbed with great mountain men such as George Lowe, Chris Ellms, and Steve Larson.
Despite New Hampshire’s long history with rock climbing, as recently as the 70s, Rumney saw very little action. It wasn’t even called Rumney until the 1990s – for years it was simply known as Rattlesnake Mountain. “I’ll meet you at the Snake,” was what one would say.
Tuthill’s main contribution in the development of Rumney was Giant’s Chimney, a runout trad route at Summit Cliff. “The guide book lists the first ascent as 2001 but it was actually much earlier, about 1978,” he says.
Along with early history makers such as Chris Hassig, Bradley White, Ted Hammond, Scott Stevenson, and Tom Bowker – all climbers invested in Rumney as early as the 70s, before the coinage of the term “sport climbing” – they have witnessed the rapid evolution of New Hampshire climbing. Ward Smith (author of the definitive Rumney Guidebook), his brother Chris Smith, Ed Esmond, and Mark Sprague adopted a methodical approach, scrubbing the place from top to bottom, developing entirely new cliffs in addition to adding routes to existing crags.
“Rumney served as a great training ground, helping us get up the harder routes on our favorite trad crags such as Cannon and Cathedral. Rather than pushing our difficulty limit at Rumney, we preferred to log mileage, counted in total points for the day,” he explains. (A 5.10 pitch equaled ten points, 5.8 = eight points, etc. Tuthill says they aimed for up to one hundred points a day).
Development exploded in the 1990s as gym-honed climbers took advantage of rap bolting despite some controversy in other New England areas. Many of the up and coming free routes (e.g. Technosurfing 5.12b, Silver Surfer 5.12a) were scary – a far cry from what are now considered “sport” climbs. Previously, only the bare minimum of bolts were placed; natural gear placements and at times questionable pitons were used in place of drilled anchors. Modern rap bolting allowed themselves to push their limits grade-wise and fall with far less consequences.
A wave of younger superstars followed. Climbers Luke Parady and Joe Kinder invested in the development of Rumney’s crags, easing grades up to 5.15. Maine native Dave Graham established FAs such as China Beach 5.14b, Livin’ Astro 5.14c, and The Fly 5.15 all within his first three years of taking up the sport. These collective contributions started putting Rumney on the map, making it a crag easily accessible for locals and visitors alike.
Looking back, I wish I had worked less, spent more time adventuring and with my family.
In 1987, Ed Webster’s Rock Climbs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire publicized the area for the first time. Activity shifted to steeper and more intimidating rock at Rumney. Increasing coverage of Rumney in climbing media publicized the area, bringing in the likes of Dean Potter and Chris Sharma.
In 1993, the Rumney Climbers’ Association was formed to purchase the 31 acre parcel of land on which popular crags the Meadows, the 5.8 Crag, Monsters from the Id, and others were on (many high cliffs exist on National Forest land) and keep the climbing open and accessible. The non-profit has since joined forces with the Access Fund and is dedicated to preserving one of the northeast’s prime sport climbing destinations in tandem with the US Forest Service and the American Alpine Club.
At age 82, Jed Eliades has been climbing outdoors three days a week on average for over 50 years. “I’m happy on anything that’s 5-easy,” he says. He taught students through the Dartmouth Mountaineering Club (DMC) for years, including Freddie Wilkinson. Folks like Eliades have seen remarkable changes to both the gear (both sticky rubber shoes and spring-loaded cams were game-changers, as were actual harnesses instead of over-the-shoulder belaying).
Even in his more youthful days, Eliades never aimed to do much more than 5.10s – it just wasn’t his thing. “We used to set aside Thursday for bouldering every week,” he said. “Most of us had day jobs and met up after work. Looking back, I wish I had worked less, spent more time adventuring and with my family.” Encompassing the true spirit of adventure, he always has eyes open for new cliffs to try. “I’ve lived in the Upper Valley for most of my life but there are still hundreds of things to discover.”
But as people entered different phases of their lives, priorities shifted. The group drifted apart as families and marriages took shape. Few old-timers consistently anymore; many took up cycling or other hobbies.
“That’s just life,” says Jim Shimberg, dubbed the “Custodian of Cannon Cliff” on the Whitney Gilman Ridge, having developed trails, upgraded anchors, and cleared loose rock in Franconia Notch for over 20 years besides being another early developer at Rumney. Shimberg founded Rhino Guides in 1985 and has climbed all over the world, including expeditions to Denali and trips spanning Iceland and Bulgaria to China and Thailand. A specialist in ice climbing, Shimberg regularly participates in the vaguely masochistic Michigan Ice Fest.
Today, Rumney boasts of more than six hundred quality routes. The moratorium on new bolting as part of the 2015 Forest Service management plan helps to maintain a quality climbing experience at “climbed out” crags while allowing development of worthwhile new routes on cliffs that still have potential. Thus, most of Rumney’s development history is likely past. “It is an amazing place to climb though and will continue to hone the skills of many climbers for years to come,” says Tuthill. He attributes a successful navigation of land use and management issues at Rumney to a proactive climbing community and their responsible interactions with reasonable people from various management and government entities.
Beyond route development, the landscape in terms of climbing community and style has changed just as much. Early Rumney frequenters were more local and homegrown, folks who probably never imagined how popular the place would become. As ‘weekend warriors’ types driving up from Cambridge proliferate the scene, the double-edged topic of opening up participation and inclusivity while maintaining a handle on peacefulness and sense of community gains relevance.
While some foundational members of the Rumney scene – the very ones who worked to methodically scrub the place from top to bottom, investing personal funds in establishing new routes– may be happy to pass the touch down to younger generations, complex dynamics from increasing encroachment invariably arise.
Climbing’s spiking popularity means that those who have anchored the sport hold more responsibility than ever, whether or not individuals have signed up for such accountability in keeping pace of growth while respecting the natural environment.
Safety is one of the most prevalent topics in the context of climbing’s booming popularity. “I saw a girl belaying her father lying down once,” Tuthill remarks. “I usually try not to say anything, but in this case I suggested that she stand up so that no one gets hurt if he were to fall.” However, considering the volume of climbers at Rumney, Tuthill believes that the accident rate is amazingly low due to safe bolt placement and the typically steep to overhanging walls. The conditions are diametric to the “good old days” when first ascents were typically mostly done from the ground up, uninspected, carried out with a minimal trad rack.
Rumney lies in stark contrast with the Holt’s Ledge fiasco. A long, rising escarpment in Lyme, New Hampshire, Holt’s Ledge was a wonderfully accessible cliff for both rock and ice climbers over many decades. In 2017, it was brought to the town’s attention that a number of bolts had been placed without permission to establish twenty-seven sport routes. Title deeds were traced back; the property where the offending crag sits actually belongs to Dartmouth College, Tuthill’s alma mater. Tuthill followed this case closely through public meetings and writing several impassioned letters to the Lyme Select Board.
“I first climbed at Holts as a Dartmouth student in 1975,” Tuthill penned on January 29, 2018. “Since then I’ve seen huge changes as the sport evolved from a small gang of rough-hewn “trad” climbers to the more mainstream and civilized sport climbing scene of today.”
“Aspects of the recent bolting are unfortunate, the greatest being the lack of permission. The dilemma is that the new routes were brilliantly done; well thought out and well protected, in short the work of a craftsman. This is often not the case in the development of a sport climbing crag. With the creation of these top-notch sport climbs, the Town of Lyme inherited an amazing recreational resource… An analogy would be a craftsman who builds a fine piece of furniture and donates it to the town. When it’s discovered that the wood he made it from didn’t belong to him, what does the town do? Smash it up on the town square as an example to others? Like many things, there’s no easy answer.
I see the local climbing community as a mature and responsible group, in contrast to the rebels that seemed to dominate the sport back when I started out. I am certain that the local climbers can work successfully with the town and neighbors to address issues related to access, noise and potential overuse at Holts. I beg the town to give this unique local crag a chance, at the very least on a trial basis. It’s an amazing resource and, if the bolts are chopped, it’ll be gone for good.”
None of these letters were answered. Dartmouth also refused to stand up for the local climbing community despite its reputation as an outdoors space provider, likely due to pressures to remain on good terms with Lyme.
The bolts on Holt’s Ledge were removed in early 2018. Some local climbers still go there to quietly climb despite the lack of protection.
“Andy is someone you would call an anti-elitist,” commented Shimberg. “All we have in life and climbing is reputation. They had to hire climbers from out of state to chop those bolts.”
For 23 years, Shimberg ran the ‘Rock Barn,’ a true labor of love. Located in Plymouth, New Hampshire, the barn-converted bouldering gym saw the passage of many a good climber.
Shimberg credits his and Tuthill’s sustained love for climbing to a healthy view of what the sport means to them, what it provides: “We never really chased grades of difficulty. Easy or hard it was supposed to be fun. And it still is!”
Photos by the author.