New England Training Ground: A History of Rock Climbing at Crow Hill

From Intertwine to Tarzan to Cro-Magnon, Crow Hill features plenty of memorable, high-quality rock climbing routes. Nestled in Leominster State Forest, climbers have been visiting Crow Hill for over a century. And with first ascensionists like Sam Streibert, Steve Arsenault, Henry Barber, Ed Webster, and Tim Kemple, visiting climbers really shouldn’t be surprised that the area’s classics are super sandbagged.

Henry Barber in the film Uncommon Ground.
Henry Barber in the film Uncommon Ground.

The Beginnings

New England rock climbing as we know it today began in the 1920s when influential climbers like Robert Underhill brought the rope-handling techniques learned in the Alps back to the region. Crow Hill, as well as other Boston-area crags, provided Underhill—along with climbers like Lincoln O’Brien, Kenneth Henderson (Henderson Ridge), and O’Brien’s sister and Underhill’s future wife Mirriam—with a vital training ground to hone skills before tackling the region’s most challenging climbs: notable ascents include the first ascent of Cannon, the Eaglet, and the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle.

The bible of Northeast climbing history, Yankee Rock & Ice, describes Underhill as “calm, unhurried, and graceful on rock, one who consistently substituted finesse for strength.” Today’s Crow Hill climbers should take heed, even the crag’s more modern routes are usually overcome with technique rather than strong fingers.

Crow Hill’s close proximity to Boston made it an ideal training ground for early AMCers, like Underhill and O’Brien, and also made it a convenient location for educating troops. With Fort Devens just down the road, from World War II through the start of the 1970s, Crow Hill’s 100-foot cliffs were a place where the Army took soldiers to instruct them in the use of climbing gear and rock climbing techniques.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Renaissance

Crow Hill experienced a renaissance in the late 1960s when climbers like Steve Arsenault started frequenting the area, attempting to aid the crag’s numerous cracks. Among Arsenault’s prizes were the first ascents of Jane (1966) and the now-super-classic route Cro-Magnon (1967).

With the free climbing revolution in the early 1970s, many climbers had their eyes on the first free ascents of Arsenault’s aid routes. Among them was standout Boston-area, AMC climber, “Hot” Henry Barber. A year before bursting onto the national stage with his onsight solo of Yosemite’s Steck-Salathé Route, Barber had already made waves in New England, ushering Massachusetts’ first 5.11 with first free ascent of Jane at Crow Hill. According to Boston Rocks, the leading area guide book, Jane “may have been one of the hardest pitches in the U.S.” when it was freed in 1972. While Barber’s route Jane remains a testpiece today, his lasting legacy at Crow Hill is his ethic and style.

Barber’s cutting-edge climb came just a year after Connecticut climbing legend Sam Siebert and Dennis Merritt’s note-worthy contribution to Crow Hill—the first free ascent of Cro-Magnon (5.10). On another small New England crag, Ragged Mountain, Siebert and Merritt had the rare chance to upstage Barber, when their ascent of Aid Crack was re-graded from 5.9 to 5.10 making it, not Barber’s Subline, the first 5.10 in Connecticut.

Not merely adding cutting edge climbs, Barber, Streibert, Merritt, and Bob Anderson—a regular partner of both Barber (FFA of Airitation on Cathedral together) and Streibert (FFA of Cannon’s VMC together) that Yankee Rock & Ice called the most underrated rock climber of the 1970s— went on to add numerous routes to Crow Hill, including Intertwine, Topaz, and The Recidivist.

Ed Webster was another area legend who made his mark at Crow during this period. He scored the first free ascent of Thin Line (5.8), a classic finger crack, in 1973. That same year, he aided his way up Lizard’s Head (A2; now 5.11 free) and Hesitation (A3), logging the first ascents of each.

Tim Kemple in the film Uncommon Ground.
Tim Kemple in the film Uncommon Ground.

A Return to Prominence 

Although climbers in the 1970s picked many of Crow’s plumb lines, they didn’t get them all. A few decades later, two local climbers—Tim Kemple and Peter Vintoniv—put Crow Hill back on the map, setting a new standard for the crag and springboarding their climbing careers in the process. In fact, the duo’s ascent of Absolute, a 5.13 R/X route to the left of Jane inspired Barber to comment, “A guy I really respect is Tim Kemple. Because he’s taken bouldering and applied that control and everyday knowledge and ability of crimping on really small holds and he’s able to run it out very very difficult of 5.12, 5.13 sections with minimal protection…that’s a real progression of the sport.”

Barber obviously knows what he’s talking about; according to Kemple, the route’s name comes from the “absolute commitment involved” in climbing. Footage of his ascent, featured in the Northeast climbing film Uncommon Ground, is burned into the memories of New England climbers of a certain generation. For Kemple and Vintoniv, Absolute was one of a trilogy of hard climbs they sent at Crow Hill in the year 2000. They also ticked the first free ascents of Doesn’t Matter, 5.13a (which previously went at 5.10 A2), and Dune, 5.12-5.13R/X.

To Bolt, or Not to Bolt 

If Dune strikes a chord with New England climbers, it’s because the route sparked controversy a few years ago when a few bolts appeared on the route. Bolting has always been a tenuous question, especially at crags with rich histories like Crow Hill. Although the battle over bolts reached its height in the 1980s and 1990s, in 2015 it was thrust to the forefront of New England climbing when someone bolted one of Crow Hill’s proudest routes, Dune.

The history of Dune made the situation even more complex. The route was first sent after John Mallory added some bolts—but they were chopped quickly thereafter. In 1999, Mark Richey and Barry Rugo climbed Dune on pre-placed gear, and a year later Kemple and Vintonic sent it from the ground up.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Visiting Crow Hill Today

Every climber in the region should test themselves on the gneiss at this classic crag. Although the climbing season at Crow runs from late March through December, late summer and fall days after a dry spell are best. The area offers something for everybody, too—with beginner-friendly areas at both ends of the crag (End Crags on the left end and Practice Face on the right end) and plenty of fixed anchors across the cliff-top to set up top-ropes and sample classics before committing to a lead. Sending here will earn the respect of even the crustiest trad climber and leave you with the confidence to tackle harder routes and bigger objectives.

 

Have a favorite route at Crow Hill? Tell us which one in the comments!