Climbing is exploding around Vermont with new indoor walls at resorts and new outdoor sites opening this summer.
Two years ago, 18-year-old Sam Hayden was climbing boulders in a remote area near Readsboro, about an hour’s drive south from Mount Snow. A friend had invited Sam and his dad, Jason Hayden, to discover a new climbing area called “Rooftopia.”
The name describes the spot well. It’s a concentration of massive glacial boulders with large, gnarled planes—roofs—hanging over the ground. To most passers-by, the spot is nothing special. To these climbers, it was gold.
Sam arrived with a good feeling. There was one boulder problem he had tried hundreds of times that year. No one had managed to climb it yet.
Sam had competed at Junior Nationals for bouldering three times, and once placed seventh for speed. He’s put up more than 100 first ascents in the Killington area, and several in Rooftopia.
With his dad spotting him from behind and three mattress-sized pads below, Sam clung to the boulder like a starfish, stemming with his hands wide and legs spread-eagled. His feet gripped the rock on two credit-card-sized edges, called crimps.
His next move was the hardest—the one he had failed over and over. Pumping his arms in push-up form once, twice, three times, he launched his body almost entirely off the boulder, snagging a handhold up and to the right. With momentum and a few strategic foot placements, he pulled himself to the top.
In the winter, the Hayden family can be found up on the slopes of Killington. Sam, now 20, used to be a competitive snowboarder, and competed at Junior Nationals for eight consecutive years. Sam’s sister, 17-year-old Mazie Hayden, is already a world-class ski cross racer and three-time USASA Open Class National Champion. She was also invited to compete at the Mountain Bike World Championship in Australia last year. Jason, their dad, was a Division I Nordic skier at Bates College.
Sam Hayden works a project at Rooftopia. Photo courtesy Sam Hayden.
All of them climb. Sam and Mazie got hooked after attending a friend’s birthday party at the Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center, where Sam now coaches. The kids started taking clinics from the Rutland Recreational Center, and soon Jason found himself coaching.
“Climbing definitely has a strong tie to skiing—especially ski racing” Jason says. “It requires you to read a route and figure out what you need to do on each section, and that’s very similar to the ability to read a course. And there’s the mental aspect of overcoming fear, especially in competition skiing, which is very similar to the challenges of climbing outside.”
In recent years, Sam has put up more than a hundred first ascents at the DEKD Boulders near Kent Pond in Killington on a collection of glacial erratics. His favorite pastime, he says, is to explore the state with his dad, looking for new places to climb.
While you won’t find the big walls of Yosemite or the towering peaks of British Columbia in the Green Mountains, Vermont’s technical, scenic climbing can be just as fun, if you know where to look. Increasingly, ski resorts are setting up climbing walls so you can learn or practice the sport indoors before heading for the mountains.
“I love climbing in Vermont,” says Kris Fiore, president of the Climbing Resources Access Group of Vermont (CRAG-VT). “The climbing here is scrappy and sometimes dirty—and it takes some finding. But I travel to climb all around the country, and I’m never sad to come home and climb.”
In both mountain towns and cities across the country, participation in rock climbing has exploded in the last decade. According to Climbing Business Journal, 4.6 million people participated in sport climbing, bouldering or indoor climbing in 2016—beating out both gymnastics and track and field.
“We’re seeing trails more beaten out and parking lots get more full,” says Fiore. “When I go to the crag, there are more people than there used to be. It’s anecdotal, but climbers get good at climbing in the gym, and they want to go outside and see what it’s all about.”
The climbing community is growing for good reason, as members of CRAG-VT, the official keepers of Vermont’s crags, continue to expand access to the state’s best outdoor climbing. And in the past year, the organization has been working to open two of the largest cliffs in Chittenden county to the public.
Last December, CRAG-VT announced the opening of Lone Rock Point, a 55-foot limestone cliff in Burlington looking out over Lake Champlain that’s owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. “It’s some of the hardest climbing in the state,” Fiore says. “There are a few routes there that have never been climbed, and the limestone is very textured; it creates different holds.”
Bolton Dome, a 250-foot cliff in Bolton, had been closed to climbing for 20 years as access was across private land. But when the land and house on it came up for sale, CRAG-VT bought the property, and it will open again this fall. “For 20 years, we’ve been waiting,” Fiore says.
The state also offers some of the best bouldering in the Northeast, from the rocks at Jamaica State Park to Smugglers Notch to the Northeast Kingdom. n
“Bouldering is like a condensed puzzle,” Sam Hayden says. “I think boulders have more personality.”
For Sam Hayden, Kris Fiore and others, there are still plenty of places to climb and explore. Here are a few local favorites:
LOCAL FAVORITES (North to South)
If you want to discover Vermont’s best climbing, hire a guide (see p. 23) and consult Tough Schist, Travis Peckam’s guidebook to the northern part of the state, (also available as an app, at vermontrock.com)
“In Vermont, Lake Willoughby is one of the top ice climbing destinations in the country,” says Alden Pellet, who has made a number of Vermont’s first ascents and is considered one of the region’s most respected climbers. But that region is just as sweet in the summer. Wheeler Mountain is what CRAG-VT calls a “crown jewel” of Vermont climbing—granite with lots of cracks. Mount Hor offers multi-pitch climbs for experts. Practice your slab climbing on the south-facing Bald Hill, one of the most remote crags in the state, with routes that range from a beginner’s 5.6 to an expert’s 5.10.
Nestled between Stowe Mountain Resort and Smugglers Notch Resort on Route 108—the Notch’s giant schist, buttresses and hidden caves offer some of the best climbing and bouldering in New England. Climbs range from a 5.6 to a 5.14+, and the views are unbeatable. Many climbers have made the Notch their home base, including Pellett. “It’s a very mountain-like experience,” he says. “One of my favorite routes is the Quartz Crack Face. It’s got a lot of different features, it’s very exposed, it’s up high, and there’s a fun, dynamic swing that’s up off a corner of rock.”
If you’re looking for beginner climbs, look no further than Lower West Bolton, located 0.4 miles up Bolton Notch Road from Route 2. “Lower West is great because there are anchors there, and there’s a path around to the top, so it’s very easy to set up a top rope,” Pellett says. “There are 30- to 40-foot climbs there that beginners can get up. That’s really where I learned to climb.” Up the road, Upper West Bolton holds 200-foot cliffs for trad and sport climbing. The Bolton Quarry is a great spot for beginners, with a variety of grades and excellent ice climbing in the winter. For experienced climbers, try out the 82 Crag, home to Bolton’s best 5.9 and 5.10 climbs and spectacular views. This fall, CRAG-VT will open access again to Bolton Dome, a 250-foot cliff located off Route 2, and a climber’s dream. “There’s lots of boulders there, too,” Fiore says. “It’s got a little bit of everything.”
“There are more than 200 established bouldering problems in Groton State Forest [east of Montpelier],” says Fiore.“If there was a good bouldering guidebook to this area, people would stop driving to the Adirondacks.” There are also good cliffs such as Marshfield Ledge, a granite cliff that rises 400 feet out of forests and wetlands, with climbing that ranges from 5.7 to 5.14. “It’s beautiful—no street noise, no cars around, excellent beginner terrain, and a pretty easy approach,” Fiore notes. Owl’s Head, also in Groton State Park, is a large cliff with steep rock and expert routes.
In Killington, just above the Inn at the Long Trail, Deer Leap hosts more than 25 routes of sport and trad climbing. If you prefer to stay closer to the ground, walk about two minutes on the Appalachian Trail near Kent Pond in Killington to the DEKD Boulders, where Sam Hayden has put up more than 100 routes. Climb your way through the forest, with more than 80 problems already set, and many more that are currently unclimbed.
While you’ll find most of the state’s granite, schist and limestone up north, there’s climbing to be found in southern Vermont if you look hard enough. Head to Ball Mountain Dam in Jamaica State Park to find bouldering and a few top-rope routes with easy walk-around access. And, if you recruit Sam Hayden for private guiding, he just might show you the ropes at Rooftopia (please note: this area is not currently open to the public).
WHERE TO START
Before heading out, hone your skills on an indoor wall at a climbing gym. More and more ski resorts are building indoor climbing walls and offering introductory climbing lessons. Rental gear and an indoor climb cost, on average, about $20 for an hour up to $40 for a day.
Last winter, Jay Peak Resort put up its new 15,000-square-foot Clips & Reels Recreation Center, a climbing gym that houses 13 colorful climbing walls and rope courses.
Stowe Mountain Resort’s Spruce Peak-based Adventure Center is the site of Stowe Rocks, which has a 40-foot tower, a 12-foot high bouldering wall and 50 routes, some of which are modeled after outdoor climbs at Smuggler’s Notch. Just over the mountain, Smuggler’s Notch Resort’s Fun Zone 2.0 includes a double-sided, 30-foot rock wall. Sugarbush’s Health & Recreation Center is home to a rock gym, and Okemo’s 25-foot climbing wall has routes for all levels.
A number of climbing gyms often offer belaying lessons, fitness classes and guiding services to get you ready for an adventure. In Burlington, visit MetroRock, home to the state’s tallest walls. PetraCliffs offers professional guiding services for all types of mountaineering, plus lessons, classes and camps. In Rutland and Quechee, stop by the Green Mountain Rock Climbing Centers, where owner Steve Lulek will take you for a spin on the crags and expert coaches, like Sam Hayden, will make sure your skills are up to snuff. In southern Vermont, visit the brand new bouldering gym, the BrattCave, in Brattleboro.
CLIMBINB GUIDES: And if you are headed out, it’s a good idea to work with a guide to get to know the top spots around the state:
Adventure Spirit Rock Experiences, Burlington, adventurespiritguides.com
Killington Mountain Guides, Killington, killingtonmountainguides.com.
Kingdom Adventures Mountain Guides, E.Burke, kamountainguides.com
Lynx Mountain Guides of Vermont, Jay, lynxmountainguide.com
Petra Cliffs Outdoor Guides, Burlington, petracliffs.com.
Sunrise Mountain Guides, Stowe, sunrisemountainguides.com
Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center. Rutland, vermontclimbing.com Vermont Adventure Tours, Rutland, vermontadventuretours.com