Mecca of Massachusetts
Looking for fine climbing? Head for Erving’s Farley Ledges
It was nearly 30 degrees, but up they went. At 9 a.m. on a cloudy day in February, Jeff Squire and Ward Smith were strapping into their climbing gear and cautiously eyeing the 60 ft. rock face in front of them. Squire was the first one to go up.
On the ground, Smith held on to the other end of the rope, in case Squire slipped off the face. About 20 yards away, Smith’s baby daughter was sitting bundled up in a fluffy pink onesie, wrapped in a blanket, with his mother. His dog, Jazz, was pacing around, intent on defending them from airplanes by incessantly barking at any that dare pass the horizon.
“I don’t know how much longer I can stay,” said Smith, craning his neck up at the fast ascending Squire. “You know, baby stuff.”
The pair was trying to get in a final climb at the Farley Ledges in Erving before the ledges closed for the next two months during the peregrine falcons’ nesting season, which typically lasts from January 15 to June 15. The ledges in Erving play home to the only cliff nesting peregrines in Massachusetts. According to Squire, the restricted section measures about a quarter-mile radius of available climbing.
The line Squire was climbing is popularly known as Oosik. As he ascended, the cold rock began to take its toll on his hands. Soon they became numb.
Oosik goes straight up a wall about 20 feet to an overhang that runs parallel with the ground. To get to the top, the climber needs to traverse the bottom side of about 10 feet of horizontal rock.
At the lip of the overhang, Squire could not feel his hands. Did he have a firm grip? Or was his hand lifelessly flopped onto the rock?
Pulling out over the lip, his grip failed and down he went. The rope went taught and Squire was hanging 20 feet up in the air with a big grin.
“I thought I had it!” he said with a puff of exhaustion.
The road to Mecca
The Farley Ledges are considered the Mecca of Massachusetts rock climbing. Some even dare to describe them as the center of the southern New England rock climbing universe and for all of recorded history they have stood in what is now Erving, just beside what is now Route 2.
This masterpiece of gneiss rises nearly 700 ft. above the small village of Farley and is well known for providing an ample supply of bouldering, sport climbing and traditional climbing opportunities.
“Most places only have one or two styles of climbing that are worth anything,” said Squire, co-founder of the Western Massachusetts Climbing Coalition and a landscape architect at Berkshire Design Group, Inc., “but Farley, Farley has arguably the best stuff in the state for all three. Some of the best climbers in the world have been to Farley and that is a testament to how good it is” he said.
Since the 1960s, climbers who knew the exact location of Farley have frequented the ledges. However, this climbing Mecca was not on public land. Climbers, anxious not to lose access to their ledges, worked diligently to minimize their impact on the locals, but the high cliffs and winding trails attracted more than just climbers. Naturalists climbed the trails, local teenagers threw parties on the bluffs and hippies began to frequent Erving looking for the fabled Farley.
As the site grew in popularity, visitors would pile cars onto private lawns beneath the ledge and plod through private property swilling beer and ignoring the protests of distressed homeowners.
In the 1990s, a group of rowdy campers left a fire unattended, which blazed out of control and required the attention of “the fuzz” to get under control.
And that was it. Town officials, and homeowners set to the work of closing Mecca.
Squire started climbing when he was a kid by repelling off of the roof of his parents house.
After graduating in 1989, Squire and his college roommate set off across the country. With mountain bikes, climbing gear and a good pair of boots, they journeyed to Yosemite, Cranmore, the Canadian Rockies and spent two months bouncing from one national park to the next.
“That really captivated me,” Squire said.
Returning to the Cape where he grew up, Squire spent his weekends rock climbing. He would drive six hours up into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, traveled to New York, and became one of the few climbers to know the exact location of Farley in the 1990s.
This was eventually how he met his wife. Although they went to high school together, the two had hardly ever spoken to each other. Looking for a partner to climb with, Squire was pointed to her by a mutual friend.
So the pair began to spend weekends on the road and on the side of cliffs. Eventually they would go on to climb in New Zealand, Australia and Mexico.
In the late 1990s, they were climbing the cliffs in Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire. The cliffs rest on the east side of the mountain and out of the prevailing winds. However, this means that there is no advanced warning of weather to be seen on the horizon, coming from the west.
They were a few hundred feet off the ground when the rain began.
At first a light drizzle, the rain became heavier, thicker, until it was an endless wall, like someone was playing a cruel joke, dumping an Olympic swimming pool on them from above.
“As soon as you stepped around a corner, you just couldn’t hear yourself think,” said Squire. “The wind would hit your jacket and just howl.”
The path they were following up the cliff face prohibited returning back down and since they were doing a “traditional climb,” during which cams are inserted into rock crevices to form anchor points, there was no way to just repel back down. So they went up, fighting the cruel deluge.
What was meant to be a four-hour round trip became 12 hours. Once they finally reached the top of the cliff face, it took them two hours to work their way down the trail that led to the car.
A few years later, in 2000, Squire and two of his climbing friends where sitting at a bar in Northampton talking about their Mecca in Farley and how to reopen the cliffs. The problem, as they saw it, was there was no one to accept responsibility for the protecting the ledges.
“We realized that the only way was to organize a front of responsible individuals to represent not only rock climbers but to advocate for a natural resource,” said Squire.
So, they put together some fliers and went door to door.
“We went around telling people what we wanted to do and what we understood the issues as being,” said Squire. “That’s been how we operate. It’s getting to know the land owners, managers and agencies and working with them to establish relationships and gain credibility.”
The campaign worked. Acting as a legitimate front and nonprofit, the WMCC was able to assuage homeowner concerns and bring down the no trespassing signs.
Five years later, the group had grown to about 300 members, and in the fall of 2006, Squire was hiking around Farley when he noticed a “for sale” sign.
One of the homeowners was attempting to sell his house and nine acres. The land was to be divided into three new lots, with new houses, right at the base of the ledges. Having climbers in the woods behind your house can be an issue, having them in your back yard could be truly problematic.
“That was a flag for us,” said Squire. “The potential for the houses to come up right at the base of the most popular cliffs was a huge concern.”
Squire and the 300 members of the WMCC went to work fundraising to save their climbing haven. Applying for grants, holding benefit events, taking out personal loans and asking for donations, the group was able to raise $83,000 in six months, enough for the down payment and escrow account for mortgage payments for the $300,000 property.
To help pay for the purchase, the WMCC sold the existing house on two acres of land. They then began to build trails and a 16-car parking lot.
Now, climbers and naturalists alike have a place to park and maintained trails to use when visiting Farley.
During this time, they funded a biological survey of Farley. The ledges play home to the peregrine falcon, which was, until recently, was considered to be endangered.
The group continues to raise about $12,000 a year to pay for the mortgage and counts the purchase as a huge success.
“We were pushing two fronts together,” said Squire. “We were focusing attention and making people understand that it was not just about the climbing, but it was also about being able to go out on any given day and think you were miles from home. There are moss- covered boulders and a hugely diverse natural community, it’s a pretty amazing area.”
Now in 2012, the WMCC has 450 members and has a presence that reaches far beyond Farley. The organization and its members have offered to accept some of the conservation burden off of local and state officials in exchange for simply being able to be a point of contact should a “climbing- related concern” arise.
A more recent project is going on at Rattlesnake Gutter in Leverett. Efforts to protect the crag and its surrounding land have been ongoing. However, following a recent town purchase of some land at the top of the cliffs, some of the town residents attempted to draft legislation that would explicitly prohibit climbing. And while climbing is not explicitly prohibited or managed at the cliffs, the WMCC stepped in to ensure that if and when the land is reopened, the multiple recreational resources would be protected, including for climbers.
Following a community effort by the WMCC, efforts are being made to purchase and protect the land in a way that would allow climbing. No new purchases have been made to date and the discussion remains open and active between the WMCC and property owners.
However, the main cliff remains on private land and has been closed to the public since the 1980s.
Squire reports that the WMCC recently brought in $5,000 during the last of its two annual fundraisers. “This will go towards repayment of a loan we took out for the establishment of the Farley Ledge parking area,” he wrote in an email.” The last and final $10,000 on the loan will be paid down next year!”
The WMCC’s latest efforts have revolved around community interaction. To Squire, it is fundamental to change the image of climbers that was developed in the 1960s. The new push is not the image of adventure seeking hippies, but a legitimate organization concerned with conservation of the local environment.
“The only way we are going to be able to keep climbing is if it is protected and everybody values the same thing,” said Squire. “The challenge now is to get that younger generation of climbers and instill that sense of responsibility and make them aware that it is part of what we want to do.”
John Tilton is a former Recorder staff reporter.
Chelsie Field is a former Recorder intern.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.