To the climbers here, hands caked in chalk, it all makes sense. But for anyone else who stumbles onto Rat Rock, a climbing area in Central Park, the first reaction is often confusion. Seeing grown men and women in the heart of New York City inching their way up and across a large boulder can sometimes strike people as unusual. And sure enough, as Li Yuxiang, 22, contorts his body to complete a difficult route on Rat Rock’s eastern face on a recent Friday, a group of teenagers assesses the scene with naked perplexity.
What looks somewhat inscrutable to an outsider is a narrow discipline of rock climbing called “bouldering.” Performed on short pieces of stone — Rat Rock, for example, is probably twelve feet at its highest point — the idea behind bouldering is to pack as much physicality, balance, and precision as possible into routes that may require just a few moves, but might still take months to master. If vertical rock climbing is a bottle of wine, then bouldering is a shot of whiskey.
Li is in New York visiting from Taiwan. And even with only a few days to spend in the city, he’s decided to spend one of them here, scrambling over a hulking eruption of Manhattan schist — a hard metamorphic rock that makes up the island’s foundation — just north of the Heckscher Ball Field, near 60th Street on the park’s west side.
Asked where he heard about this tucked-away corner of Central Park — an oasis for climbers in New York City for decades, but not exactly a top tourist attraction — Li, who is compact and solidly built, with veins pulsing out of his forearms, shrugs. “Oh, this place is famous,” he says. Even in Taiwan? Li nods. “Really famous.”
As Li negotiates the rock, Vadim Marcovallo gives him direction. After nearly 30 years of climbing at Rat Rock, which takes its name from the vermin that used to share the space, Marcovallo could probably do the climb blindfolded. He points to a thin crease in the rock, and Li places a toe there. He points to a tiny crevice, and Li fits three fingers inside. The white athletic tape wrapped between Li’s knuckles strains with the effort.
Asked if they’re regular climbing partners, Marcovallo, who just turned 65, shakes his head. “Oh, no,” he says. “We’ve never met before.” But strangers form a fast bond here, pursuing an odd, slightly unglamorous sport.
Climbing short sections of rock like this used to be considered just a way to condition for roped climbing. It was practice, really, something no self-respecting climber would do except on days off.
The sport only emerged in the late Fifties as a pursuit distinct from other kinds of climbing. It was pioneered, and maybe imbued with a measure of dignity, by John Gill, a Colorado professor, mathematician, and gymnast. He took a unique approach, devising routes that were dynamic and hugely difficult, but also with an eye toward aesthetics. Getting to the top was less important than moving gracefully over the rock.
Gill called his bouldering routes “problems.” (He was a mathematician, after all.) The term seems appropriate. Sometimes the key to completing a boulder problem is less about physical strength than ingenuity: combining holds in the correct order, placing a toe on just the right flake of stone. Move for move, the average boulder problem is often as hard as some of the most difficult longer climbs.
“People used to boulder just to keep their strength up during the week so that they could go climbing on the weekends,” Marcovallo says. But today things are different. There are bouldering competitions on ESPN, and indoor climbing gyms have entire sections of their facilities devoted to it. “Bouldering has become an end in itself,” Marcovallo says.
In some ways, it’s a more elemental form of climbing. There are no ropes involved. Just movement. Marcovallo says there may be something innately human about climbing like this, unencumbered by gear. “It’s a natural thing,” he says. “People love climbing rocks. You get kids here on the weekends, and they’re all over the place.”
Marcovallo is recovering from a minor injury, and, on this day, says he’s not planning to do much climbing. But he made the trip over from his home in Fort Lee just to spend some time here.
Anna Avrekh isn’t climbing today either. She’s sitting at a picnic table, tending to her infant son, while her husband, Misha, tries out some moves. He takes occasional breaks to rest, snack, and chat with his wife.
The stop-and-go pace of bouldering gives it a kind of social quality. Both in their thirties, the Avrekhs say they often sees familiar faces around, regulars who start to trickle in after work most days, and flood the place on weekends. Everyone seems to know everyone, and Marcovallo can rattle off some of the area’s earlier developers, like Yuki Ikumori and Nick Falacci, household names in New York’s small climbing community.
People have been climbing at Rat Rock since at least the Seventies, and probably earlier, but its popularity has grown as climbing has become more mainstream. Falacci, who wrote perhaps the first guidebook detailing New York City climbing, and now lives in California, tells the Voice that Rat Rock had a relaxed vibe when he started coming here in the mid-Eighties. (Falacci and his wife, Cheryl Heuton, are also screenwriters, and the creators of the NBC series Numb3rs.)
Back then, climbing was still a fairly obscure pastime, not the multimillion-dollar industry it is today. Falacci’s curiosity about the sport was piqued while attending college at New York University, when he saw a documentary about Mount Everest. He wanted to get involved with mountaineering but was advised to start small. “I spoke to some friends, and they said, ‘Work on your rock craft, learn how to climb first,’ ” Falacci says. So one day he wandered through Central Park looking for a rock to practice on. Any rock. “I was just desperate to find something to climb,” he recalls.
When he came upon Rat Rock, Falacci was confused, not unlike the teenagers at the picnic table. He saw people who looked, to him at least, like climbers. They wore thin-soled, specialized rock shoes and chalk on their hands. But what they were doing didn’t look much like the rock climbing he’d seen before.
“They were only a foot or two off the ground,” he remembers. “But because it was so low, and there was nothing risky about it, I knew it had to be hard…that’s the only reason a climber would bother with it.”
Over the years, as climbing grew in popularity, people began to establish ever harder problems at Rat Rock. Falacci’s book and blog document the various waves of development. The “Japanese contingent,” led by Ikumori, established some of the hardest climbs, in the early Nineties, and later a crew of Polish and other Eastern European climbers made their contributions. Problems on Rat Rock are now rated up to V11, and might take months to complete; the hardest problems anywhere in the world range up to about V15 on the sport’s specialized rating system.
Early on, Falacci says, there was some conflict with the park staff — mainly because they didn’t know quite what to make of what they were seeing.
“We would get hassled once in a while at Rat Rock,” Falacci remembers. To the staff, bouldering looked unsafe, or possibly destructive. Occasionally they were accused of writing graffiti. “They just didn’t have any clue what we were doing,” Falacci says. Every once in a while climbers would be chased off or even ticketed.
In the mid-Nineties, Falacci and a few others managed to achieve a kind of detente with the authorities. They formed a nonprofit climbing club, negotiated with the Park Conservancy to establish approved areas, like Rat Rock, and agreed to forgo climbing at some others. The rocks in front of Belvedere Castle, for example, used to be popular climbing areas, but are now off limits.
Just stepping up and explaining what they were all about made all the difference, Falacci says. Climbing might look dangerous, they explained, but it’s no more risky than biking or skating, or any number of other sanctioned park activities.
The Parks Department today says there are no specific prohibitions on bouldering, and their official statement to the Voice reads, in its entirety: “While bouldering is permitted in parks, damaging our rocks or your noggins is not.”
A spokesperson cited rules that prohibit climbing “upon any wall, fence, shelter, tree, shrub, fountain or other vegetation, or any structure or statue not specifically intended for climbing purposes,” which is a bit ambiguous. But by all accounts, the days of citations for climbing at Rat Rock are over. The city even provides a soft mulch base for the area.
And Rat Rock is hardly the only climbing place in the city. Worthless Boulder, at the north end of Central Park, near 110th Street, has half a dozen or so routes with names like Voodoo Bullshit and Flava Flav. And even beyond the park boundaries, boulderers have a habit of finding bits of stone tucked away behind bridges and in the unused portions of the city’s parks, Falacci says. In fact, there’s good bouldering all over the city, he says, if you know where to look. He knows of a boulder near the Museum of Natural History, and some cliffs tucked along the side of the West Side Highway. Inwood Hills and Fort Tryon parks have some climbing areas, too. If you keep your eyes peeled, Falacci says, you can see the telltale chalk marks all over the city.
“You’d never think New York has good climbing, but it really does,” Falacci says. “It’s like this little hidden world.”
One of the hardest problems at Rat Rock, known as Koma’s Roof (rated V10):