South Freeport, Maine
I’ve dropped some mentions of this into my hiking posts once or twice, but it’s time to fully acknowledge my second obsession: Rock climbing. In the fall of 2020, I was a hiking newbie but pushing myself hard. The higher I climbed, the more I found myself scrambling over boulders. It occurred to me that rock climbing would be a good way to broaden my outdoorsy skill set, and it was something I could do indoors during the winter.
The last time I rock climbed was at my project graduation overnight in… well, a few years back… so obviously I needed a refresher. I took the belay class at Evo Rock + Fitness and spent a few hours messing around on the auto-belays (a device that allows you to rope climb without a partner) and the bouldering wall (a shorter wall you climb without a rope). Before I left the gym, I bought climbing shoes and a harness. A week later I signed up for a membership at Salt Pump Climbing Company and started climbing 3-6 times a week, every week.
An obsession was born.
Here’s what I love about climbing: It is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. You look at a route on a wall and think about how you’re going to make your way up. You picture the moves in your head, maybe even do the route-reading dance where you actually shift your body and hands while staring up at the holds. I haven’t totally mastered the reading skill yet, so most of my problem-solving happens while I’m climbing, which is a great exercise in decision making under pressure.
Another fantastic thing about climbing are the people who climb. I’ve met so many great folks at Salt Pump and learned tons from watching and asking questions. Two things became abundantly clear to me as soon as I started chatting with the regulars. 1 – climbing outside is THE BEST, and 2 – using dry chalk is also THE BEST. Since COVID, it’s been liquid chalk only at the gym (something to do with the fancy air filtration system they installed during the pandemic).
So, when I was invited to tag along while my friend Ara attempted to send a boulder problem he’s been working on, I jumped at the opportunity.
The boulders we visited are in South Freeport, less than 20 minutes from Portland. At the intersection of South Freeport Road and Pine Street, there is a small parking area (don’t block the fire hydrant)! There are big, obvious slabs visible from the pull off, but the well-documented climbs are about 300 feet up Pine Street. According to Mountain Project (a free, worldwide, crowd-sourced guide to outdoor climbing) there are four sub-areas of boulder groupings within the South Freeport Boulders. We spent our time in The Strip area, where Ara was working on a boulder called The Coffin.
I watched (in awe) and offered marginally helpful suggestions while Ara worked through the problem. Aside from this very challenging skeleton box climb that is currently beyond my ability, there are plenty of slabs for beginners to try out. Some routes have obvious cracks and crimps for fingers and toes to grab. Others are subtle and sneaky, forcing you to look carefully for surface variation and divots to use as holds. It’s much harder than indoor bouldering… because Mother Nature doesn’t make boulders with toe and finger holds in mind. It’s also far more satisfying to heave yourself up onto the mossy top of a massive rock than to complete a wall route and drop back down to a squishy foam floor.
Climber term: Send
To send a route means to complete it cleanly without falling.
If you’re heading off to explore these boulders—or any outdoor boulders, really—you should invest in a crash pad or find yourself an old mattress to drag along. Even if the forest floor around the boulder seems relatively soft, there are most likely going to be other rocks scattered nearby that you don’t want to land on or fall into. Chalk for your hands and the rock surfaces helps a whole lot, and expect your skin to get pretty chewed up. These are granite boulders, not plastic holds!
And… bring a friend. It’s no secret I’m a big fan of adventuring alone, but climbing rocks in the woods just isn’t safe to do solo. If you fall and hit your head… well, you could be in real trouble.
It’s pretty tough to go outdoor bouldering and not feel the thrill of adventure and the pull of nostalgia. How many times did you tromp into the woods when you were a kid and boulder without knowing you were bouldering? Kids climb rocks because rocks should be climbed. Queen of the mountain, king of the hill, first one to the top wins. That’s what it feels like to climb outside. Climbing routes in gyms are made for humans to conquer. The woods and all its limitless opportunities are not. We can’t conquer nature. What we can do is push ourselves to do incredible things in the places nature lends us and reach our full potential in the shadows of trees, mountains, and rocks.