Fishing, kayaking, boating—there’s plenty of summertime fun to be had on the Susquehanna River.
But climbing boulders smack dab in the center of the waterway? Enter a group of “bouldering” enthusiasts. To them, the river affords a new way to find the perfect rock.
“If the river lets us, we’ll go,” said Brian McCall.
He’s talking about boating out to rocks on the river, inflating a pad, and climbing atop said rocks.
Bouldering, rock climbing without any equipment, in water is not a new sport. But the Susquehanna presents a unique challenge, in that the water is typically shallow, presenting a hazard for the inevitable falls.
For Chet Gross, bouldering began almost accidently.
“I started to go out there, swimming around and looking for stuff,” he said.
He and friend Sean Heisey then used Heisey’s boat to explore other options.
“We saw all this awesome rock, but the water was only a couple of feet deep—and we were like, ‘How can we do this?’” Gross said.
Their first attempt used a plastic floating dock, which they floated under the climber as their crash pad. It proved less than ideal. They also considered building a net on the back of the boat, but that idea was quickly abandoned. Finally, they contacted the water sports company Aquaglide, which provided them with an inflatable pad.
The 12-by-12-foot pad looks kind of like a small barge as it’s towed down the Susquehanna. It’s maneuvered with poles provided by a bamboo stand along the river. A favorite spot sits on the Lower Susquehanna between Peach Bottom and the Holtwood Dam.
Lined with fantastic river cliffs on both sides, and smooth potholes, rounded by the swirling of river water, this picturesque area is a climber’s nirvana.
McCall described the group as “river pirates” and explorers. But their treasure is rock.
“It’s a whole other subsection of the sport, searching and exploring,” he said. “You know, I spend just as much time exploring for rock as I do climbing a lot of the times.”
Potential climbs along the river are more easily seen through GPS than those hidden by rhododendron, trees and mountain laurel in the forested areas.
“They’re big-time trendsetters,” said fellow climber Kyle Stapp. “What they’ve done is they’ve opened up access to many boulders that were otherwise inaccessible.”
When they arrive on the river, they first ponder the “problem,” a term indicating a move or sequence of moves to reach an objective. They may climb existing bouldering “problems,” ones with names like “Twisted Sister” or “Kiss Project,” or they may create a new problem.
Climbing etiquette says, “You find it, you name it.” McCall said they have named about 200 problems along the river.
The team first makes sure to scope out a way back down. They then clean the rock of loose material and lichen with plastic or metal brushes.
Climbers summit each boulder using rock holds like pinches (pieces of rock you can pinch between your fingers), pockets (holes where fingers or toes can sit) or a sloper (bulges with no positive angle). It takes strength and focus.
“The brain is the most important muscle for climbing, ” said Gross, quoting famous German climber Wolfgang Güllich.
Bouldering also requires a climbable area. McCall said that the Susquehanna is unique in that it’s wide enough to climb the boulders. There are boulders in other rivers, but river levels would have to be very low.
And then there’s the inflatable pad, which really makes this type of bouldering possible.
“It’s pretty amazing having this really powerful, rushing river under you,” Stapp said. “It’s wild. You can feel the sensation of the water and stuff, but you’re just sitting on this pad like totally still. It’s really one of the coolest experiences.”
Climbers are a hardy bunch, so bouldering happens year-round—that is, as long as the river isn’t high or icy. Height, cold, ice—so is it dangerous?
“They say rock climbing is inherently dangerous,” Heisey said.
Stapp had another take.
“It’s actually more dangerous to drive to the rock climbing area than it ever would be [to climb the rock],” he said.
Dangerous or not, climbing on the Susquehanna River just about every weekend (though the COVID-19 pandemic has put the kibosh on that for the time being), has also allowed these climbers to become a part of a community of anglers, “old timers looking for arrow heads,” and others who frequent the spot, said McCall.
Fresh rock and discovering new climbing problems to find and name will continue to draw these trailblazers back to the river, with a boat and an innovative, unique floating pad technique.
“It’s opened up a whole new realm of climbing,” McCall said.
Learn more about local bouldering by watching “The Next Frontier: Pennsylvania Bouldering” on YouTube.