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Ithaca climbers make-do with road trips and indoor gyms


Dylan Herman Dunphy is a climber. He has dedicated his free time to the sport for the past eight years, and his pursuit of high quality climbing has taken him from crags in New Hampshire and Vermont in New England all the way to Potrero Chico, Mexico and Northeastern Ecuador.

Since coming to college in Ithaca, he said his climbing abilities have declined significantly. He simply can’t find anywhere to climb.

“It’s impossible to find,” he said.


Ithaca, N.Y., has established a reputation as a destination for outdoor recreation. Outside Magazine has consistently placed the small city on their annual list of “Where To Live Now” for the past three years. In October, Ithaca was listed as one of “20 perfect adventure towns,” ideal for single-track mountain bike riding at Shindagen Hollow State Forest and paddling and sailing on Lake Cayuga.

Climbers, however, appear to be left out of the picture, as many are forced to travel several hours in order to find rock suitable for climbing or practice at an indoor gym.

The primary reason is the type of rock in the Ithaca area, said Alex Wall, Assistant Associate Director of Outreach at the Paleontological Research Institution.

“Most of the rock around here is shale, which is formed from mud that was on an ancient sea bottom, and it is deposited in such fine layers that it’s quite flaky,” Wall said. “So if you’re trying to climb on it you’re much more likely to break it and have it come off on your hands.”

Breaking rock is dangerous rock and as a result, many climbers in the Ithaca area have turned to indoor rock climbing gyms. Lauren Deneke, originally from the Philadelphia area, competed for years in the United States American Climbing bouldering and indoor sport climbing series, all of which were indoors.

Deneke said climbing indoors could help a climber to a certain extent.

“It can help a lot and a little at the same time,” she said. “It’s like a treadmill. Even though you’re working out on it, it is different than the real thing. It still provides a workout of the muscles you need and the technique and it gives you a controlled place to work on your head and the mentality of it all.”

Dunphy agreed. As someone who prefers climbing outdoors, the indoor climbing gym scene offered a secure environment to practice his technique.

“When I was sixteen, I looked into gyms in my area. At first I didn’t understand how gyms worked and for a while I was pretty anti-gym because I saw there were a lot of climbers who had never experienced outdoor climbing,” he said. “They were good at climbing in the gym and climbed harder stuff but when they got outside they actually weren’t that good.”

For climbers in the Southern Tier area of New York, a commitment to climbing means a long car trip to the Shawangunk Ridge – “the Gunks” – in Ulster County, or an even longer trip north to the Adirondacks. But options for climbing outdoors still exist relatively close-by. The woods in northern Pennsylvania have a number of spots with large boulders located a short hike from a road, and Ithaca resident Brian Harrington found a number of these rocks while hiking.

“I was just hiking in the region, just an honest hike and I found boulders at eye-level and I found a lot more,“ Harrington said. “So I kept taking different hikes and carelessly bushwhacking and one winter day, I came upon these large 18-foot routes.”

Harrington has since been climbing in that area for the past two years, developing climbing areas and publicizing his exploits in PDFs available on his website. As an IOS developer by trade, Harrington came up with an innovative solution: make an app for smartphones that displays the route and the location of the crags. The software has just been released in beta on Apple for free download. And for every download, Harrington has agreed to donate a dollar to the Access Fund.

Harrington said the outlook for climbing in the Ithaca area is positive.

“Once a community knows, more people will go to these areas and experience them,” he said. “The word will spread and eventually we’ll have a community of climbers in the area. It’s about feeding the cycle. If you keep it to yourself, nothing gets accomplished, but if you share it, there’s the numbers.”

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