While I’ve been escaping to the outdoors for as long as I can remember, I started climbing regularly only a few months ago, after trying out for my University’s competitive climbing team. I rapidly fell in love with every aspect of the sport. Other athletes, whether on our team or competitors, were friendly and helpful, rather than loudly beating their chests, they’d simply ask if you needed beta, a climbing term for assistance on a route. The attitude is one of combining efforts against gravity and with nature, rather than against each other.
Rock climbing is an inherently dangerous activity, no member of the community will attempt to change your mind about that. But what’s life without risk? The fun of adrenaline “on rails” is dwarfed by real adventures. Rock Climbing’s American heritage dates back to the Yosemite Valley in California, where rebels and hippies fled from the safety of the suburbs to seek their own adventures. Notable early climbers include Royal Robbins, who completed the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome (the face of “The North Face” fame), and Yvon Chouinard, founder of the equipment company that became Black Diamond, and later founder of Patagonia. These men had a strong belief in climbing as a way to commune with nature and saw a first ascent of a wall or mountain as artistic expression comparable to a painting or song.
While the Yosemite Valley is 3,000 miles away, there's fantastic climbing opportunities all across the country. Along the scenic Susquehanna River, only 2 hours outside of the heart of Philadelphia, lies the Safe Harbor climbing area. This area offers more routes than I could possibly handle over Winter break away from school. I used Safe Harbor as the hangout for break, due to it having the highest concentration of sport climbing in this part of Pennsylvania. Some classics for beginners on the North area, where I climbed, include Crack-a-lackin’ (5.8), a short route with a wide variety of different moves, It’s a Fine Line (5.9), a very slabby run, and Catfish Cleft (5.8), a fun route with a crux (the hardest move in the route) that includes a long reach with a high potential for an exhilarating but generally safe, short “whipper”, or fall while sport climbing.
You won’t see the rocks when you first arrive at Safe Harbor. Parking is available for the North area at the Turkey Hill Nature Trail, and the South Area at a tunnel next to an unmarked climber’s trail. Dirtbags rejoice! The park is far enough out that you shouldn’t expect to experience any interruption if you spend the night in the parking lot. Ambitious campers could probably set up tents in the forest above the rocks, although I’ve been unable to find any regulations on it, leading me to believe it is prohibited. Bring a bike with you, it will make the several mile walk-up much quicker.
The summers in South Central Pennsylvania can bring incredibly humid heat, and winters can bring bitter cold, so late Spring and early Fall are the ideal times to visit. The rock quality is low, and high rainfall levels combined with freezing temperatures have caused 3 major rock slides in the last few months, so high awareness is a must while navigating these walls. It should be noted that climbing wet rocks is dangerous for several reasons. Not only does the water make it significantly harder to grip the rock, but the rock is considerably more likely to break while wet, as it soaks in and can exacerbate already existing cracks and imperfections. Be courteous to other climbers, don’t potentially destroy routes by climbing less than 24 hours after rain.
Between the North and South areas, Safe Harbor’s walls hold over 270 routes, well documented on Mountain Project, a website for climbing and mountaineering routes. Safe Harbor climbs range from 5.4 to 5.13a. In the meantime, however, cell service should be sufficient to access the internet to make sure you have the right climbing route. The two areas are separated by a 15-minute drive, or a 6-mile bike ride, with routes split evenly between them. Sport climbing, the hefty majority of the climbing at Safe Harbor, involves what is called leading: tying the rope to your harness and climbing upwards, following the route. The climber then clips quickdraws, two carabiners attached with a strip of nylon, one carabiner through bolts mounted in the wall, and rope through the other side.
Without a climbing outfitter nearby, you’ll have to ensure that you have all necessary equipment before you arrive. Black Diamond, Mammut, and Petzl are some safe options for top-quality equipment. The essentials for sport climbing are climbing shoes, a rope, a harness, a belay device, and quickdraws. All of these can be bought online, but try on shoes first to ensure a proper fit. The rope should be one specifically made for climbing, your life isn’t worth saving a few bucks by buying other, less expensive ropes.
If you’re looking to enjoy the local culture when the sun goes down and it’s too dark to climb, Lancaster offers more urban activities. With an active local music scene, Lancaster is the perfect place to relax after a long day at the crag. Local music venues include the Chameleon Club, the area’s premiere metal and punk venue that’s recently branched into other genres, Tellus360, an Irish Pub with everything from Irish bands to hip-hop, and the American Music Theater, an orchestra house.
Climbing has become more than a hobby in the past few months. It isn’t just something I do on the weekends, it’s become what I look forward to, what I talk about with old friends, and where I’ve made new friends. As I learn more about myself and improve my skills, I can only imagine I’ll be doing more of it. The more I climb and improve my skills, the more I learn about myself and the way I interact with the world. That alone is enough to bring me back to the crags.
Ryan Mitchell is a Pennsylvania native and naturalized Texan who prioritizes life in the fast lane and will be interning for SOFLETE in the summer of 2019. Email Help@soflete.com with ideas on how to apply his talents and better torture him.