PHILY ROCKS

UR­BAN CLIMB­ING IN THE CITY OF BROTH­ERLY LOVE

Climbing - - THE PLACE - BY HAN­NAH GART­NER

Per­sis­tence is a pre­req­ui­site for any diehard climber, es­pe­cially those for whom large amounts of qual­ity rock are not im­me­di­ately ac­ces­si­ble. In Philadel­phia, a place bet­ter known for the Lib­erty Bell, Rocky, and cheeses­teaks than the out­doors, lo­cal climbers have long em­bod­ied such per­sis­tence, find­ing routes not only in the sur­round­ing ar­eas but even within the city it­self. For over half a cen­tury, climbers here have been root­ing out fun, ath­letic schist topropes and boulder prob­lems amidst one of Amer­ica’s most densely pop­u­lated re­gions. Though you may en­counter the oc­ca­sional bro­ken glass or dis­carded nee­dle, the rocks of­fer a mini-respite amidst pock­ets of green­ery—as well as un­beat­able ac­cess for Philly’s city­locked climbers.

In this me­trop­o­lis of over 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple, Wis­sahickon Val­ley Park, tucked away in Philly’s north­west cor­ner, is an es­cape from the fray. The park en­com­passes 1,800 acres, wind­ing its way from the al­most sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hood of Chest­nut Hill, through Mt. Airy and Ger­man­town, and ta­per­ing out at the Schuylkill River. Most res­i­dents hike, bike, run, or horse­back-ride the 50-plus miles of elm-, po­plar-, and mag­no­lia-lined trails; some fish for stocked trout in Wis­sahickon Creek, while oth­ers go bird­ing. How­ever, since the 1950s, a group of avid lo­cals has also been climb­ing.

Along with the Kelly Drive boul­der­ing area, rock climb­ing in Philly be­gan at Livezey Rock, a 30-foot schist for­ma­tion a half-hour from the city cen­ter in the heart of the Wis­sahickon woods—and right next to a mas­sive, five-foot-di­am­e­ter sewage pipe. The pipe not only pro­vides a handy be­lay spot but is the crag’s rai­son d’etre: In the 1930s, the hill­side was blasted to make space for the pipe, and the ex­posed rock now hosts a dozen climbs from 5.4 to 5.11+. Though climbers in­stalled toprope an­chors at Livezey in the 1960s, an ethic of free soloing per­sisted un­til the turn of the cen­tury.

“It was the same eight peo­ple who went out there ev­ery day af­ter work,” says David Row­land, pres­i­dent and owner of Philadel­phia Rock Gyms, who be­gan spend­ing time there in the 1990s. “And to boulder, we had no pads; we had rugs.” To­day, most climbers at Livezey toprope, though some, in the old-school tra­di­tion, will send the shorter, eas­ier lines ro­pe­less.

While Livezey is Philly’s most ven­er­a­ble area, the Henry Av­enue Bridge was cer­tainly the most cre­ative. In the 1980s, climbers look­ing to stay fit for week­end trips to the Gunks se­cured bolts and holds di­rectly into the frame­work of this 170-foot-tall, 330-foot-long bridge, which trans­ports Henry Av­enue over Wis­sahickon Creek and Lin­coln Drive. The routes ranged from 5.9 to 5.13, in­clud­ing one of Penn­syl­va­nia’s first 5.13s, Fuck the Po­lice, which was pur­posely placed where any cops who ven­tured un­der the bridge could see it. Some of the climbs on the bridge stopped just be­low its arched top, while oth­ers con­tin­ued up into the over­hang. Un­for­tu­nately, lo­cal po­lice chopped ev­ery­thing in 2011, con­cerned about the ef­fects of drilling holes in a mas­sive struc­ture peo­ple drive over.

How­ever, the boul­ders of the Wis­sahickon are go­ing strong to this day, thanks largely to Rich Shoe­maker, an emer­gency-room doc­tor at Chest­nut Hill Hospi­tal. In the early 2000s, Shoe­maker lived in nearby Ger­man­town, and used to run along the river. Dur­ing his for­ays, he no­ticed boul­ders hid­den be­hind dense vines. “Lit­tle by lit­tle, I started climb­ing and clean­ing off these ar­eas,” says Shoe­maker. Although he found some chalk, Shoe­maker was the first per­son to put con­certed ef­fort into the boul­ders.

Shoe­maker’s ef­forts pro­duced the 100 Steps Area, where you’ll find the schist boul­ders the Dan­ger Dam, the Funky Slab, the Ivy Over­hang, the Pre­cious Boul­ders, and the Nose. This area has the largest con­cen­tra­tion of climbs in Philadel­phia, with around 30 es­tab­lished prob­lems from V1 to V9. Most of the climb­ing is mod­er­ately over­hang­ing, although the Funky Slab is, log­i­cally, slabby.

FROM TURN­ING BRIDGES INTO SPORT CRAGS TO SKETCHY SO­LOS ON FLAKY ROCK, PHILADEL­PHIA’S CLIMBERS ARE PER­SIS­TENT IN THE FACE OF A LIM­ITED LO­CAL RE­SOURCE.

Though the area is not pop­u­lar yet, Shoe­maker hopes that this will change. He has started see­ing more peo­ple on week­ends and en­cour­ages con­tin­ued de­vel­op­ment, es­pe­cially within the lower grades where there re­main many un­tapped lines. (Those look­ing for harder climb­ing should head to Lorimer Park, out­side north­east Philadel­phia and con­ve­niently ac­cessed via re­gional rail. Here, seven prob­lems from V7 to V11, plus one un­sent project, tra­verse a 20-foot roof on the same high-qual­ity lo­cal schist.)

Shoe­maker also cleaned up the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Ridge Boul­ders near the Henry Av­enue Bridge and many other lesser-known rocks scat­tered through­out the Wis­sahickon. Most re­cently, he bolted three 20-foot 5.12s at the aptly named Uri­na­tion Am­phithe­ater, next to the Wis­sahickon bus-trans­fer sta­tion. How­ever, Shoe­maker at­tests, “It’s hard for me to say that I first as­cended any­thing,” be­cause the city’s long climb­ing his­tory makes nail­ing down FAs dif­fi­cult.

A plaque be­low the topout at Livezey serves as a re­minder of Philly’s long climb­ing his­tory, com­mem­o­rat­ing Ulysses “Lou” Lutz, “who loved this rock.” His long­time friend and fel­low climber Michael Co­hen placed it there af­ter Lutz’s death, from Parkin­son’s dis­ease, in 1982.

“Lou can be cred­ited with in­tro­duc­ing count­less peo­ple to climb­ing,” Co­hen says. Each man con­tin­ued to solo at Livezey late into life, only stop­ping when his health re­quired it: Lutz when his dis­ease made even stand­ing be­low the crag dif­fi­cult, and Co­hen only at age 79, at which point he had star­tled nu­mer­ous toprop­ers and re­ceived a signed copy of Alex Hon­nold’s book, Alone on the Wall, with Hon­nold’s sage ad­vice, “80 is a good age to stop soloing.”

This com­mit­ment to Livezey and its tra­di­tional ethics demon­strates a com­mon thread among Philadel­phia climbers—namely, a dogged­ness in the way they climb. As Row­land puts it, “We would go out of our way to climb what­ever was avail­able, no mat­ter what.” From turn­ing bridges into sport crags, to sketchy so­los on flaky rock, Philadel­phia’s climbers are per­sis­tent in the face of a lim­ited lo­cal re­source. Such ded­i­ca­tion may seem lu­di­crous to some, but these peo­ple prob­a­bly aren’t climbers who live in ma­jor cities.

2. The ER doc­tor and Wis­sahickon driv­ing force Rich Shoe­maker onRoof Ar• te ( V3) at the Kelly Drive Boulder, j ust off the Schuylkill River Trail close to the river’s fa­mous boathouses.

1. Ja­cob Lowe onSoulja Boy ( V10), Lorimer Park, Philadel­phia, one of the city’s hand­ful of hid­den boul­der­ing gems.

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