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Philly Rocks: Urban Climbing in the City of Brotherly Love

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The ER doctor and Wissahickon driving force Rich Shoemaker on Roof Arête (V3) at the Kelly Drive Boulder, just off the Schuylkill River Trail close to the river’s famous boathouses. 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 city-locked 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.

Jacob Lowe on Soulja Boy (V10), Lorimer Park, Philadelphia, one of the city’s handful of hidden bouldering gems.Maxwell Hugh Snyder

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. 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.

Access Wins and Red Flags

The Access Fund (AF) has been lobbying for access since 1991. We’ve teamed up with them to present key victories and threats.

Big Wins

  • Access Fund (AF) just secured a Cooperative Agreement with the National Park Service (NPS), defining AF as a national partner for climbing management, research, stewardship, and policy development. This agreement will streamline AF’s work to improve climbing management and conditions at NPS areas.
  • AF, Upper Saco Valley Land Trust, and the local climber organization Friends of the Ledges partnered to secure nine acres of land critical for access to the historic granite climbing at Cathedral Ledge and Whitehorse Ledge in the Mount Washington Valley of New Hampshire.

Red Flags

  • The US Department of the Interior is moving quickly in an attempt to codify the illegal 85 percent reduction of Bears Ears National Monument by developing a management plan for the reduced monument units. This planning process is premature, and the issue of the size reduction needs to be settled in court before the BLM proceeds with development of a management plan. AF is pushing back.