Short Pitches

Posted on: March 1, 2008

The approach trail to Farley Ledge, Erving, Massachusetts. The crag contains a couple hundred routes, both sport and trad, and some fifty developed boulder problems. Between Farley Ledge and the nearby Mormon Hollow, Connecticut climber Ken Nichols has destroyed some 500 bolts in the last three years. [Photo] Peter Gill



AT FIRST THE HEAVYSET, mustachioed man in snug nylon running shorts made an odd picture against the near-splitter, off-hands seam of Supercrack. It was thirteen years ago: I was an impressionable young climber, and Ken Nichols, this middle-aged guy I'd just met in Connecticut, had offered to give me a tour of the Shawangunks. As he high-stepped to cam his toe into the bleached white stone, the pale flesh of his gut and thighs spilled out of his Whillans harness. But he paused only long enough to chalk up and set a tight .75 Camalot, before continuing up through the small roof with surprising grace. It was as if the porn star Ron Jeremy were sending 5.12+.

Later that season, Ken cleaned my first 5.10 and advised me not to worry about runners on such a straight line—that is, unless I wanted to fall farther. While I felt grateful for his mentorship, older members of the Connecticut climbing community had begun urging me to "stop giving Ken belays," and I learned that the Mohunk Preserve had temporarily banned Ken from the Gunks for chopping routes. Although some climbers shared his feelings about bolts, most were shocked by the destruction he allegedly left behind: hacksawed and flattened glue-ins; bent studs protruding from chipped and broken rock; Rawl five-piece sleeves plugged with electrical staples. On the day we went to Skytop, I'd hidden with him in the underbrush—to avoid the fee, I'd thought—as a ranger's truck drove past. He'd clearly been enjoying himself, and so, in truth, had I. Now that memory seemed to have something damning to it. I began to heed the older climbers' advice.

KEN AND I GREW APART, but over the next decade I heard tales of his role in the Northeast bolt wars. There was the rumor that he kept a locked war chest in his basement, filled with mutilated bolts and hangers. And there were his own words, quoted in a 1991 Climbing Magazine article: "Once I chop a route, it will remain chopped, no matter how many times I have to return to keep it that way. Until the bolting stops, apparently the cliffs will have to be destroyed in order to save them."

Perhaps no area suffered more scorched earth offensives than Western Massachusetts. As you walk on the well-maintained approach trails to Farley Ledge, the last few ash trees part to reveal some eighty feet of gently overhanging white and orange gneiss. And then you look more closely: the trademark smashed metal, the stripped hangers and posts, and the shattered rock around them make a glaring blight that would be hard to clean up.

Such scars had appeared in regional crags several times in the 1990s, and now in 2005 they'd returned, evidently during the peregrine falcon ban, when other climbers were avoiding Farley. In Mormon Hollow the anchors protecting the fragile vegetation along the tops of the cliffs had also been destroyed. After a climber driving past the Farley parking lot on a rainy Wednesday morning snapped a photo of Ken's lone truck, local climbers canvassed the area with a picture of Ken. A neighbor identified him as the man who'd asked to park on her lawn.

The "Sasquatch Picture": Ken Nichols (circled) exiting post-haste the scene of the crime. Suspecting that Nichols chopped most of his bolts during inclement weather, the Western Mass Climber's Coalition sent out search parties when it rained, in the hopes of catching him in the act. At 11:05 a.m. on April 27, at Farley Ledge's Wall of Early Morning Light, this photographer found Nichols on a single-line rappel, smashing the third bolt on the route Mass Production. When the photographer yelled out to him, Nichols dropped to the ground and "hauled ass up that gully"—so fast he left his rope behind. Charges were then filed against Nichols, who on Monday, July 16, 2007, pled guilty to trespassing and no contest to willful destruction of property in Orange County Court in Orange, Massachusetts. [Photo] Western Mass Climber's Coalition collection

The Western Massachusetts Climber's Coalition (WMCC) quickly obtained no-trespassing orders against Ken at Farley, Mormon Hollow, Rose Ledge and Chapel Ledge. Several Western Mass climbers asked Ken to cease destroying the bolts. Ken maintained his innocence, saying he hadn't visited Farley since the 1970s.

Initially, one optimist quipped, the only positive effect was that locals, unable to climb the damaged routes, began pushing the bouldering standards of Western Mass. But gradually these attacks by an outsider galvanized the community—both climbers and non-climbers—behind the WMCC. By now, Ken seemed like just another schoolyard bully, and I'd joined the effort to stop him. The chopping forced the WMCC to talk about fixed anchors with landowners, all of whom gave permission for bolts to remain. Neighbors kept pictures of Ken and an eye out for his vehicle. In April 2007, inspired by this outburst of support, the WMCC purchased nine acres adjacent to Farley to provide permanent public access.

Meanwhile the chopping and re-chopping continued. By 2007 the smashed fixed-anchor total was just under 500, and all clues kept pointing to Ken.

Last spring, one unwitting climber found himself at a smashed bolt on a route's second pitch, twenty feet out from his last piece. He sketched his way up the remaining forty feet of 5.9 slab between him and the anchor—and discovered it had been removed as well. Now sixty feet out, the climber manteled on wet rock to reach a small tree, where he could at last tie off. As the story spread, it became clear how easily a serious accident—even a death—could occur unless something were done.

Finally, on the morning of April 27, a local climber caught Ken on a single-line rappel, tools in hand, destroying bolts on Farley's Mass Production. When the local called out, Ken dropped to the ground and sprinted away in his harness, leaving his rope behind. The Erving Police—at the request of landowners—filed charges of trespassing and willful destruction of property against Ken.

In July, eight of us WMCC members arrived at the Orange County Courthouse in Orange, Mass. Ken sat quietly in a cheap, new suit, his hair combed back with an ineffective carefulness. He didn't seem to recognize me anymore, and despite my anger at his actions, I felt a little sad for this aging man. The district attorney likened Ken's acts to cutting a brake line in a car, and WMCC president Jeff Squire testified that landowners allowed climbers to place anchors. When Ken began to argue that sport climbing destroys the cliffs, the judge told him that there is nothing ethical about sneaking onto private land and destroying property.

As part of a plea deal to avoid possible jail time, Ken had to admit in open court to chopping the bolts, pay a limited restitution and submit to probation. He was also banned from entering five Western Mass crags and ordered never to chop another bolt anywhere. While the last stipulation would be difficult to enforce outside of Massachusetts, Ken will definitely go to jail if he's caught chopping in the county again.

As I sit typing this story, my hands ache from a day of helping restore some of the last remaining Western Mass routes that Ken had vandalized. Bolt-war debates often seem to dwindle down to the same simplistic arguments about individualism: if you have a right to place a bolt, I have a right to chop it. But does any one person, local or not, have the authority to dictate rules for everyone else? This verdict supports the assertion that ethical and legal decisions are best made by the entire community. And I'm no longer that young climber who eagerly hid in the bushes to save five bucks.

—Rob Sullivan, Erving, Massachusetts



WHEN I WAS YOUNG, in those days before the Internet, my brother and I would pour over the photos in the early Chouinard Equipment catalogues until we simply had to go climbing or burst. As we all know, such desires can easily turn into obsessions. Particularly in your teens and twenties when work and family are distant distractions, spending your days pushing your grades and your experiences can seem like the ultimate pursuit. Unless you’re Fred Beckey, though, societal obligations tend to loom ever closer until one day you end up with the proverbial real job. All former dirtbags currently stuck in water-cooler hell have probably fantasized about working for a climbing company that allows their employment to revolve around their passion. To them, a place like Black Diamond Equipment, where climbers make the toys the rest of us use on our adventures, must seem like heaven. Since I live in Salt Lake City, where the company is based, I decided to pay a visit to see whether such workplaces really do offer the perfect gig.

On a Monday morning, when I drop by, the corporate headquarters are humming with a palpable energy. Voices float between departments and flutter over partitions; laughter rises and falls.

"There's a pattern to working here," says Kolin Powick, director of global quality. We sit in a meeting room that would be like that in any corporate office (long folding table, metal chairs) if it weren't for the climbing posters on the wall and if Powick and the others weren't dressed in jeans and T-shirts, as though we were just sitting at the base of some crag instead. "It starts on Monday, when everyone's buzzing about the climbing they did over the weekend. The first hour is useless; people can’t stop talking."

Work hard, play hard: Black Diamond content manager Jonathan Thesenga on an early ascent of the Forrest Route (V 5.9R A4), The Citadel, Mystery Towers, Utah. One of the boons of Salt Lake City is its proximity to an abundance of great climbing and skiing, a location the employees of Black Diamond use to their advantage. [Photo] Andrew Burr

Within a few hours, the caffeine wears off, and the high-octane tension gets redirected to the business of designing, making and marketing gear. Midweek is for unpacking, returning borrowed cams and resting up. But "Wednesday hits," Heath Christensen, sales operations manager, says, "and everyone's partnering up. They're sending emails to make plans, checking on weather forecasts. You can feel the energy starting to build."

By Friday, vans and trucks replace many of the cars that filled the parking lot during the week. Coolers are loaded, plans cemented: the Tetons for alpine climbing, the desert for cracks, southwest Utah for hard sport—all within a few hours' drive. Around 3 p.m. people begin grabbing their sunglasses, avoiding eye contact and sliding out the door. By 4 p.m. the place is empty. Brad Barlage, one of the sales representatives, sums up the weekend getaway thus: "I've only missed two weekends between February and the middle of November, and one of those was for the Outdoor Retailer Show."

"The thing about Salt Lake and Black Diamond is that there's a lot that goes on you don't ever hear about," Christensen says. "There's constant access to climbing partners here, and you're never at a loss for rock. I think we're all better climbers because of that."

Indeed: the company directory is full of legendary climbers' names; the manager of the warranty department has a "head of steel"; and retail clerks climb 5.13 trad in Indian Creek, with cams borrowed from their boss. The resulting psyche is so contagious that, at the end of the day, even the beginning climbers are often heading up the canyons when most SLC commuters are driving home. As Barlage says, "you have to have that passion inside of course, but it's a lot easier when you're around other people who feel the same way."

"I think the energy stems from the top," Powick says. "You know, Uncle Pete (CEO Peter Metcalf) is still getting it done—"

"Yeah, Peter and I did the Incredible Hulk together this summer," Barlage says.

Black Diamond retail-store clerk Melissa Lipani coming off Vulcan Crawl (5.13a), Logan Canyon, Utah. "The move to our digs at the base of the mountains in SLC was done 100 percent because it would put us in the heart of the largest and most vibrant climbing/alpine/ski community in America, yet still give us a city for vibrancy and logistics and cost and work force," says Black Diamond CEO and co-founder Peter Metcalf. "This spot is a major part of our success." [Photo] Andrew Burr

To the outsider, it might sound as though there's a bit too much punch being circulated. But Uncle Pete is also usually at his desk by 5 a.m. Along with the hard-core manipulation of angles and material strengths and the perusing of photo submissions comes the crunching of sales numbers and the unavoidable parameters of corporate life. "It's almost 7 p.m.," Powick emails midweek. "I was here [at the office] at 6:30 a.m. I was supposed to meet my wife at the gym at 4 p.m....”

Christensen sends me his own analysis. "It takes sacrifice to maintain a career that fosters a climbing lifestyle. For some, the reality hits hard when you realize you've sacrificed your flexible schedule to collect a paycheck.... It's not uncommon for hardcore climbers at BD to eventually let climbing fall by the wayside. We've all seen 5.13 climbers apply the same drive, focus and zeal that got them up hard routes and direct it toward other aspects of life. The lucky ones maintain their climbing level, but it's a tough paradigm to swallow when you're suddenly fighting the weekend crowds at the local crag."

But even if you're stuck traipsing back and forth to the office microwave on a bright weekday while full-time dirtbags are outside enjoying the products of your labor, the conversations, at least, are far more entertaining than in other offices. "Just the fact that your vocation so closely aligns with your avocation helps immensely," Christensen emails. "Often times people are stoked to talk about climbing with co-workers instead of last night's NFL game." And there's the more serious side to their motivation: the quality of climbing gear has real consequences. BD employees, Christensen explains, "try harder at work so people don't die."

When you walk out of the office on a Monday afternoon—ears ringing with stories of last weekend's sends and epics, mind packed with images of clean granite or desert sandstone or shimmering ice—and you stand at the doorway of this Swiss-chalet-style office and gaze across the miles of Salt Lake City sprawl, beneath the lavender-gray smog that rolls out to the edges of the mountains, you realize how rare the atmosphere of this place is: you're with a bunch of great climbing buddies in what Christensen calls, "Six and a half acres surrounded by suburban and corporate reality."

But it probably still beats working at Xerox.

—Eddie Sender, Salt Lake City, Utah

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