Heaven Sent: How Hard Limestone Sport Came to Burlington, Vermont

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Erick Kopff heads toward “easier” ground after a steep, crimpy sequence on China Rose (5.13d), Lone Rock Point, Vermont.

Erick Kopff heads toward “easier” ground after a steep, crimpy sequence on China Rose (5.13d), Lone Rock Point, Vermont.

Maybe it goes,” thought Peter Kamitses, the co-owner of MetroRock Climbing Gym in Essex Junction, Vermont. It was spring 2014, and Kamitses hung from his rope, studying a limestone roof at Lone Rock Point on Lake Champlain. On the 60-foot-tall escarpment—then home to eight sport routes that Kamitses, Ivan Tighe, Ethan Garceau, Jeremy Dowdy, and Christian Gauderer had bolted—a subtle seam split the roof, with just enough crimps next to it. “Maybe it goes,” he thought again.

Over the next few weeks, Kamitses and crew tried the lines they’d equipped. Kamitses also added a steep 50-foot face in the center of the cliff that would become China Rose (5.13d); made the first ascent of Dowdy’s 40-foot Ginger Rude (5.13b); and bolted his roof-seam project, The Champ, a possible 5.15. Though small—the climbable part of the buttress is only 200 feet long—the area seemed primed to be Vermont’s hardest sport venue.

Less than a mile from Burlington, Lone Rock Point is a 130-acre peninsula protruding into Lake Champlain that’s owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. On the peninsula’s westernmost side is a 4,000-foot-long exposed section of the Champlain Thrust Fault, which extends approximately 200 miles between Canada and the Catskill Plateau in New York. Along the escarpment, older Cambrian Dunham Dolostone has been deposited on younger Ordovician Iberville Shale, forming the overhang the climbers focused on. Century-old white pines, hickory, and northern white cedars grow around the gold-colored limestone, which overlooks New York’s Adirondacks across the water. As Kamitses puts it, “You’re at the merging of this vast dynamic body of water and frozen geology of overhanging limestone.”

For decades, locals had gathered on the outcropping, watching the sun set over the Dacks, cliff jumping, and partying, leaving broken bottles and charred cedars. While they did not technically have permission to be there, the ease of accessibility from Burlington’s adjacent public beach made it difficult for the diocese to manage use. Unregulated trails cropped up, resulting in environmental degradation.

Climbers had always written the cliff off as too chossy. Then, in 2013, Tighe, Garceau, Dowdy, and Gauderer decided to have a closer look. Garceau and Tighe placed six bolts on Crystal (5.10d), a 50-foot right-facing weakness. Tighe also bolted Destiny (5.11b), which branches left into an overhang. That same year, the climbers bolted The B.I.B.L.E. (5.13b/c), Proto Sloth (5.13b), Donkey Slam (5.12a), Aquatic Redneck (5.12a), This Ragemeter Goes to 11 (5.12c), and Bring Da Ruckus (5.11+) before concluding that the climbable rock was tapped out. While the cliff band extends farther on both sides, the remaining rock is poor.

Then, just a year later as Kamitses with local climber Eli Worley worked the roof project, Chuck Courcy, the property manager for Lone Rock Point, approached the shore in his kayak during a morning paddle and informed the climbers that climbing was not allowed. Though climbing had never officially been permitted at Lone Rock, it had gone largely unnoticed until Courcy spotted the bolts from his kayak a few weeks prior.

“I was crushed,” recounts Kamitses.

Climbers reached out to the diocese to obtain permission to climb. Courcy eventually contacted CRAG-VT, the local climbing-advocacy group, to learn more about climbing, its ecological impacts, liability concerns, and how to work with the climbers to formalize access. “We told [the diocese] that if they manage appropriate use, you can actually increase users and decrease land impact,” says Kris Fiore, president of CRAG-VT.

 Colby Yee powers through the roof on The B.I.B.L.E. (5.13b/c).

Colby Yee powers through the roof on The B.I.B.L.E. (5.13b/c).

In autumn 2014, Peter Clark, the then president of the Western Massachusetts Climber’s Coalition, and today the liaison between CRAG-VT and the diocese, helped facilitate discussions between the diocese and the climbing community. By November 2017, CRAG-VT and the diocese had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU). They agreed that 2018 would serve as a trial period during which eight climbers would be allowed to access the cliff at any given time and no additional routes would be developed. CRAG-VT utilized a sign-in kiosk to keep tabs on user numbers, and began providing the diocese with an annual report.

Craig Smith, the Rock Point director of operations and programs for the diocese, was originally concerned with the ecological ramifications of increased land use in what he describes as a “goldmine of rare ecological species.” In addition to the uncommon Mesic Maple-Ash-Hickory-Oak forest, the peninsula is also home to walking ferns, purple clematis, yellow lady slippers, and other rare herbaceous plants. Northern river otters, endangered Indiana bats, coyotes, black-throated blue warblers, and even the occasional moose inhabit the woods and surrounding wetlands.

However, climbers were only one of the many user groups Smith had to consider: Geologists and universities also visit, not to mention the other locals who come to recreate. While none of these user groups were initially regulated, partnerships now exist with groups like the Crow’s Path nature school and a local YMCA camp. In addition to monetary donations, the groups participate in volunteer trail days and are involved in developing and maintaining a land-use plan dedicated to the longevity of the property.

Since the partnership with CRAG-VT, Smith is optimistic about climbing’s future at Lone Rock Point. “The climbing community is interested in caring for things in such a way that they will continue to be a resource,” says Smith. “[CRAG-VT is] … the kind of building-block partner that will make this a successful community.”

Today, the cliff boasts 17 routes from 5.10d to 5.14a to undone projects, with The Champ potentially exceeding 5.15. With perhaps the exception of Rumney, Lone Rock may possess New England’s highest concentration of 5.13-on-up sport climbs (10 at a cliff) for a wall its size. The diocese has agreed in a newly revised MOU to allow climbers access indefinitely and has increased the number of climbers at the crag to 14 at a time, given that CRAG-VT will continue to monitor and assess usage.

In a state with much less quality rock than New Hampshire or New York, it’s important that climbers remain the “adults in the room,” as Clark puts it. Since climbers have been given stewardship over Lone Rock, the partying, fires, and garbage have diminished—we’ve proven our merit as stewards. “CRAG-VT made a lot of big promises on behalf of the climbing community,” says Fiore. “And the community delivered.”