Hidden Gem. For you climbers out there, you’ve heard of them. The crags that seem to exude all that is quality, yet remain shrouded to the masses. Some of you may be baffled that they aren’t more popular, and some of you are just happy they aren’t. I’ve always considered Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills, SD to be a hidden gem. However, I have redefined my outlook on the over-used, over-exhausted proclamation of crags as “hidden gems” in my recent wanderings of the heavily forested northeast.
I once submitted an article to Rock and Ice magazine in an effort to make it into their “Best 5.10 I’ve Ever Climbed” section. I wrote about The Needles Eye, Fenton Variation 5.10c. A famous line in the Needles, standing tall and proud above the Needles parking lot, it’s a must do test piece of the aspiring Black Hills hard-man. The burly, friction loving, crystal crimping, runout climbing crushers of the Black Hills will say it puts hair on your chest and then run across the top of a bus disappearing into the orange pines to go wipe their ass with a pine bough and solo a 12b slab (you may only get that if you’re from there). And that’s the girls. But I got a response back saying my classification of the Black Hills as a “hidden gem” was an over-used phrase that made editors throw up in their mouth and move on to the next article without a glance at the rest of your hard work and effort (so I’m a little bitter). Unfortunately, that asshole editor was all too correct, and I ate my words as I read blog after blog and articles amassed about some silly climber and their silly hidden gem in some silly forest somewhere and that everyone else was silly for not being there. I was just another face in the crowd, but now I write to you with a hidden gem in my pocket, and for lack of a better phrase, I’m gonna use it anyway damnit!
Since my move to the DC area I assumed I’d find good climbing here or there but have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of available stone within reach of the overcrowded DC metro area. To name a few well known areas there’s South Mountain, Morgan Run NEA, and Northwest Branch, and a recently introduced area the “Levitation Boulders” of Patapsco State Park. All which are sitting right under the noses of thousands of climbers but of course, it’s too hard to juggle your big boy/girl job and find any time to get away from the gym, plus, it’s cold and your fingies might get hurt! For those proud few who venture out to play on these beautiful (minus the grotesque graffiti) boulders nestled among a sea of brown leaves, my hat is off to you. Thanks for the work you have put in.
However, this heavy winded introduction is not for the climbing of Maryland, but rather, for that of the ole PA. Or Pennsylvania for you geographical, educational laymen.
Southwest Pennsylvania, or SWPA as the locals call it, is largely covered by the Allegheny Mountains and Pittsburg. Geographically speaking, its a rolling hills area with steep timbered valleys full of “runs” or small mountain streams I refer more to as a babbling brook. At the ridge tops of these valleys, ancient layers of rock have been exposed over the years revealing solid stone that has been dubbed PA Gritstone. A sandstone of sorts that reminds me a lot of a more textured, higher grit Horse Pens, or LRC. I was joined by my girlfriend Jessie, a newb to the life who is currently trying to get her Lead Belaying Badge and her Sport Climbing Badge. We stayed in Ohiopyle State Park, which I can’t say without a guttural southern drawl for some reason. Ohiopyle actually lists “Rock Climbing” as one of the available activities of their park, which is refreshing to see that a public is accepting of us chalk wielding rock junkies. They even mark the climbing on their state park maps and have little signs in front of each wall naming the wall which makes things really easy if all you have is the Mtn Project app. We first went to the Schoolhouse Crag, a steep wall overlooking the Youghiogheny River (Yawk-uh-gay-nee). This wall is packed with roof over roof over roof, very resemblant of Horseshoe Canyon ranch. The longest line being 90 ft, but its a small concentration of good climbing, not a destination, but really solid climbing nonetheless. We spent most of that chilly day there and ventured to other walls in the area (there’s three really good walls, about 15 worthwhile lines total). Jessie caught her first falls, and clipped her first bolts before we left. Her Elvis Leg is as fresh as a baby giraffe but she’s hanging in there.
Day two we ventured out to what appears to be a small area on Mtn. Project, called Coll’s Cove. Listed solely as a bouldering destination I was sucked in by the few pics I saw. On Mtn. Proj the developer listed that there were access issues to the parking area, and that if you wished to climb there to email him first so he could get you permission to park in a nearby landowner’s yard. I did so and he referred me to a facebook page with ~200 likes or so for updated parking info. Amazingly enough, this backwoods landowner had allowed parking in his yard for a $5 fee dropped into a metal toolbox nailed to a fence post with a hole just big enough for a rolled up dollar bill to fit into.
A short hike down a Public Lands access road leads past a few small areas to an expanse of beautiful moss covered gritstone boulders nestled in among a tangle of green thorns and rhododendron trees growing out of anything with a wee bit of soil. This green oasis among an ocean of brown sucked me into its calm, quiet, uninhabited radicalness. Not another soul was in sight and the temps couldn’t have been better. I spent the entire day getting on anything I found aesthetic below a V7 so I could keep the mileage rolling on these ultra classics. I left wishing I could spend months here, but Pennsylvania’s popular rifle bear hunting season was just a few days away and climbing closure’s sweep the state to keep in good graces with the other 98% of the population.
This place doesn’t have a legit guidebook yet, a kind gentleman and his crew of crushers have been cleaning, developing trails, making landings, chalking holds and taking pics for the rest of us. They currently have an online pamphlet available with the area’s classics. There is still room for development, in just my short one day stint I found a handful of problems completely untouched, and uncleaned ready for an FA. This place has truly showed me that regardless of how many new climbs are going up and how quick the population of developers is going up, there is still a lot of climbing out there that is yet to be found, good climbing.