Rock-climbing on the horizon at Thacher

The Enterprise –– Tyler Murphy

Nice face: Rock climbers may scale vertical rock faces like the one here at Thacher Park next year if the park’s master plan is implemented. New York State Parks used to have a ban on rock climbing, but the ban was lifted in 1997 when Minnewaska State Park near New Paltz started allowing the sport.

The Enterprise — Tyler Murphy

Scale the sediment: Thacher Park has included rock-climbing in its master plan, but climbers won’t be able to do the activity above hiking trails, like this one. The state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has been working with the Thacher Climbing Coalition, a locally managed not-for-profit group.

The Enterprise –– Tyler Murphy

On the edge: Rock climbers may get the chance to ascend tricky rock faces like this at Thacher Park if the park passes its master plan. The sport used to be banned in all New York State parks.

THACHER PARK — For the first time in its history, there are plans to have rock climbing at Thacher Park.

Back in the mid-’70s, climbing was outlawed in New York State parks after a climbing accident in western New York. Over the next few decades, rock-climbing equipment improved, and the sport became more popular. In 1997, Minnewaska State Park implemented rock climbing as a result of the work of the Access Fund, a national climbing advocacy group.

Now, the Thacher Climbing Coalition, a locally managed not-for-profit group, is working with NYS Parks to make John Boyd Thacher State Park the next rock-climbing destination in New York. The activity is included in the park’s new master plan.

“There’s no real green light until the fall,” said Bob Kuhn, an assistant regional director for the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation that is leading the rock-climbing effort with help from the TCC. “This is all part of a lengthy master plan that needs to be digested by the public. We’re engaged and moving forward, but we’re not finished.”

The TCC is very excited about the possibility of climbing at Thacher Park, said its vice president, Mike Whelan.

“Besides just climbing, the plan has many positive features, which will revive the park and its usefulness to the public,” Whelan said in a statement he prepared in response to Enterprise questions. “It is important for NYS Parks to be flexible and responsive to the changing world of recreation. Mountain biking and rock climbing have become more popular in the last few decades.”

Thacher Park’s draft of the master plan says that rock-climbing will be opened in selected areas, and will be by permit only. The activity will be managed by the park in cooperation with the TCC. Details will be developed in a climbing management plan, focused around three main factors –– endangered species, accessibility, and rock-face stability.

“There’s no real disagreements with rock-climbing, but there are safety issues, and some areas of the escarpment might be off limits,” said Kuhn, who attended the first public hearing on the master plan last Thursday. “There’s no controversy with climbing, but issues need to be resolved with some internal leg work.”

For example, rock climbers can’t be above hiking trails.

The master plan is not explicit about climbing management, but the TCC could move plans further by working with the Access Fund and State Parks to make a specific plan based on models elsewhere. Minnewaska State Park would be a good example to follow and, Whelan said, the TCC is preparing to do so.

“There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work to be done, so we’ll be starting small,” said Whelan. “Thacher used to be anti-anything, but they’ve come a long way and been very responsive. It’s been great. The park asks us for information, and we’re able to provide and help them.”

Whelan, who splits his time between Voorheesville and Colorado, has been rock climbing for 14 years. He’s never been in any dangerous situations while climbing, and says that the national rock-climbing accident rate is low.

From Alaska to Mexico, rock-climbing has an average of 24 deaths per year; this can be compared to snowmobiling, which once accounted for 84 deaths in one single Canadian province over one winter season, Whelan said.

As rock climbing becomes more popular, the amount of injuries increases. In a Jan. 2013 report by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, rock climbing accounted for 1,258 injuries annually.

According to a study released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 70 percent of snowmobile driver deaths are alcohol related. Whelan says that rock-climbers are never drunk because climbing difficult rock faces requires knowledge and deep focus.

“I’m not trying to pick on snowmobiling, but that’s an activity that is very dangerous, but has been acceptable for a long time,” said Whelan. “Parks have to be conscious of what people want, and studies prove that climbing has become safer. I mean, hiking has more accidents because people are unprepared. Climbing has a controlled environment.”

Whelan said that rock-climbing mishaps almost always happen due to human error; equipment failure is rare. The sport has its share of “famous soloists,” who climb rock faces without anchors or rope, but Whelan says they account for only a fraction of a percent of the climbing community. Climbers usually participate in teams of two or more.

“The bureaucracy is very rigid, but they should be aware of the new trends in sport,” Whelan said. “There’s all different types of rocks, but climbing equipment has drastically improved. There’s better anchors and better rope.”

Rock climbers in the 1960s used steel equipment, but the engineering wasn’t up to par. Now, a good set of anchors and rope can hold up to 2,200 pounds.

“The problems aren’t the same,” said Whelan.

The Albany County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team has 12 trained professionals, so the rescue infrastructure is solid if there ever was a disaster on Thacher’s escarpment. The team has trained on the cliffs since 1994.

Kuhn said that rock climbing at Thacher Park could rival some of the best scaling on the East Coast. The escarpment has a shear, vertical face, and won’t be for beginners. It could attract serious climbers from around the country who want the challenge of a new climb. 

“It would have a tremendous benefit to the park and the surrounding community,” said Kuhn. “It could become a serious destination.”

The TCC has been critical in rock-climbing plans for Thacher Park, Kuhn said. “This would have never come up without them because they have all the expertise and experience,” he said. “They wanted to climb here, so they stepped forward. There’s a demand for the sport.”

Rock-climbing is a quiet sport; no ruckus. Some people see it as more of an art form than a sport.

“It’s a different thing for different people,” Whelan said. “We’re like little mosquitoes, who are all about balance, endurance, strength, and embrace. It’s a delicate thing, and the views are great. You enjoy nature while testing your abilities at the same time.”

With so many cracks and holes in the rock faces, climbing is like solving a problem.

“Everybody has their own style,” said Whelan. “You have to pull your head in.”

The master plan process is close to the end, Kuhn said. With the proper agreement, initiatives, and budget, the escarpment could be open to rock climbers in the summer season of 2014.

“It’s tough to put a time on it, but next year is in the back of our minds,” Kuhn said, adding, “But, the devil is always in the details.”

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