Local Climbing History
Washingtonians first established Carderock as their climbing backyard in the 1920's, and to this day it remains one of the area's most popular and convenient climbing areas. This history is taken from the Carderock Climbing guide.
In the 1920’s Gustave Gambs (1868-1958) first introduced the sport of roped climbing to the area, and a new dimension of Carderock began to be explored. Gus Gambs, Donald Hubbard, and Paul Bradt were among the climbers who began to spend time at Carderock. They used heavy manila ropes, pounded pitons into cracks for protection, and in addition to bottom to top routes, put up traverses to get the maximum length routes on the relatively short cliffs. Climbers tied into the rope with a single loop around the waist and a bowline knot. Often belays were from the top, though bottom belays became more commonly used. Stiff mountain boots were worn, as were boots with tricouni edge nails or simply inexpensive sneakers.
During the war years, Carderock was approached by trolley from Georgetown to Cabin John, and then a 4 mile walk along the Canal to the cliffs. It was a much shorter walk to Lewis Rocks, now known as Camp Lewis. During the gas rationing years of the war, when Great Falls was visited less often, Carderock was used even more frequently. This was especially the case beginning in November 1943 when the last Saturday half-holiday for government workers was suspended. Between 1931 –1943, government employees had to work half of Saturday, leaving only Sunday free for climbing. Some areas upriver, such as Cupid’s Bower, were on restricted areas and opened to climbers again only after August 1945, a few days after gas rationing days ended. Carderock remained popular in these years, even after other areas became accessible again. By 1946 the Capitol Transit Bus System began running much closer to Carderock, although it was rarely used.
Climbers have been decending into the Mather Gorge to climb the dramatic cliffs below Great Falls for many years. This history, excerpted from the Great Falls Climbing Guide, offers insight into those who developed this amazing climbing area.
The great American poet T.S. Eliot wrote, "I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ is a strong brown god-sullen, untamed and intractable..." In this poem from the Four Quartets series, "Dry Salvages," Eliot was writing about the Mississippi River, but for those of us who are more at home on the Potomac, he could just as well have been talking about Great Falls.
No region of the Potomac is more sullen, untamed, or intractable than Great Falls. Only ten miles from downtown Washington, D.C., the Potomac roars through the Mather Gorge and historic Great Falls Park, 800 acres of protected natural beauty just outside the Capital Beltway, dividing northern Virginia and southern Maryland like a line drawn with white water.
Nobody ever mistakes Great Falls for calm waters. Nevertheless, Washingtonians and visitors to the metropolitan area find the park a relaxing break from the vortex inside the nation’s capital. Kayakers consider the rapids at Great Falls some of the best white water in the country. On weekends they show up like schools of sharp-finned fish in their sleek boats to test their skills and dazzle anybody who happens to be watching.
Rock climbers are out in force too. Almost anywhere on the trail skirting the river’s bend there are places to watch the climbers ply their trade. Across the gorge on the Maryland side of the river, you can find folks sitting on the rocks, taking a break from their hike along the Billy Goat Trail. "It’s better than TV," you can imagine them saying, especially as their applause fills the gorge after some acrobatic feat is performed on the rocks across the river on the Virginia side.
There are about 300 climbs listed in this guide, and they range in difficulty from the very easy, what are basically scrambles, to the very difficult or those that only a small group of talented climbers have been able to accomplish. Top roping is the preferred format. Leading has been discouraged traditionally so as to protect the condition of the rock. Anyone who has climbed in the amphitheater known as Aid Box can see the damage piton placements in the 1960s have caused. The route "Lost Arrow," named after a brand of piton, was virtually carved out by overzealous leaders practicing aid technique for their summer sojourns to Yosemite. In the late 1980s when rap bolting first came into fashion, word got around that someone was intending to bolt a route at Great Falls and disdain grew so loud that this individual was nearly forced to move away.
Many climbers have visited these cliffs over the years. The names of those who have made first ascents are listed when they are known, but unfortunately in many cases we do not know who climbed the routes first. It is probably safest to assume that tribes of Indians, mostly of Algonquin heritage, were the first recreational rock climbers along the Potomac. We can only guess why their stories about climbing, if they existed at all, never made it to paper from the oral tradition. The same appears to be so of the non-natives who inhabited this place, at least through the 19th century. Currently, no records have been found of climbing before 1900.
In that case, barring some unexpected revelation, it’s not until the early decades of the twentieth century that people finally admitted they climbed rocks for fun along the Potomac. The pioneering climbers of the Washington metropolitan area were a loosely structured band of adventure seekers, what today we endearingly refer to as "weekend warriors." Of the dozen or so who made up this area’s climbing community back then, those who did it regularly and around the calendar were a tightly knit group of folks. And well they had to be. In those days, when someone said he was going climbing for the weekend, people had to wonder whether he’d be returning home in one piece. Equipment consisted of a 7/16 inch rope made of hemp, crepe rubber sole shoes, steel carabiners, and, for advanced rockcraft, pitons and a small piton hammer for protecting oneself against a ground fall. It was a far cry from the technological marvels used by today’s climbers, marvels taken for granted as standard tools of the trade. Nobody wore a sit harness; the rope was looped around one’s waist and secured with a bowline knot. Without the stretch of modern nylon ropes, even a short fall could cause a fractured rib. Belay devices, spring loaded camming units, sticky rubber rock shoes, bent gate carabiners, gymnastic chalk-all these came decades later.
"We developed considerable skill and esprit de corps," remarked Paul Bradt, one of the best of this early generation of climbers. Perhaps more than anyone, Bradt rightfully deserves to be called the father of climbing in the Washington area. Others may have come earlier, but he was the most instrumental in bringing climbers together and organizing them, and the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, or P.A.T.C., was the vehicle through which he accomplished this. The P.A.T.C. serves as the regional branch of the Appalachian Trail Club, whose authority it was to build and now maintain the Appalachian Trail, hundreds of miles of trail stretching from Georgia to Maine. Bradt was on the P.A.T.C.’s board of advisors during the 1930s, and the P.A.T.C. seemed to him to be the most convenient means of bringing local climbers together. It was the most popular organization for outdoorsmen and women in the Washington area, and many of the climbers already belonged to it. With the organization’s seal of approval, Bradt was hoping it would be easier to attract and recruit new climbers.
One of his first recruits was Don Hubbard, who by the late 1930s surpassed even Bradt as the strongest climber in the area. As Hubbard described it, when he first found out about climbing from Bradt, he had done some exploring of the local cliffs on his own. "You don’t walk along the Potomac without running into rock," he explained, so when Bradt proposed the idea of climbing these rocks in the late 1920s, Hubbard thought it sounded like an interesting proposition, quite a contrast to the research he was doing on photography at the National Bureau of Standards.
Herb Conn, who started climbing in 1942 and was a protege of Hubbard’s before developing into a superb climber in his own right, composed a song about Hubbard that his wife, Jan, another excellent climber, sang while accompanying herself on guitar. "Jam Crack Joe" was a favorite on club trips and especially around the campfire.
He was tall and lean and lanky and his face was weathered brown,
And his clothes must have been slept in for a year;
With his two-weeks growth of whiskers you’d have thought he was a bum
If you hadn’t seen his brand new climbing gear.
That Joe he is a climber from his head down to his heel;
His attack there is no rock can long resist.
He is so tough and calloused and his muscles so like steel,
That he hammers in his pitons with his fist.
Conn wrote this in 1944, about the time Hubbard started complaining that he was too old to keep up with the younger climbers. No one ever took him seriously because even in his 40s and 50s he was still one of the best climbers in the area.
As the first person to attempt to compile a guide to this area, "Rock Climbs Near Washington," which he published in the P.A.T.C. Bulletin in July 1943, Hubbard must figure prominently in any history of Great Falls climbing. He said this about Great Falls in the article:
"The prospective climber must be warned that the vicinity has other attractions than ‘rock climbing,’ and if he is not firm with himself he may find that he has been lured astray, has dissipated all his available time in seeing the sights or has exhausted his rock climbing enthusiasm while planning future picnics, fishing trips or anticipating running the rapids as a swimmer, canoeist, or a foldboater."
While World War II was raging, Carderock was the crag of choice for local climbers. Unlike Great Falls, it was easy to get there. A trolley ran through downtown Washington and dropped the climbers off in Cabin John, where they hiked in along the towpath. By comparison, Great Falls was an ordeal to get to via public transportation. Keep in mind that far fewer people owned cars than today, and for those who were fortunate enough to have their own wheels, during the war strict gas rationing made travel anywhere a costly proposition.
But even with the end of the war and the elimination of gas rationing, Great Falls attracted far less interest than Carderock. In fact, it would not be for several decades before Great Falls received the attention of local climbers that Carderock was enjoying on the Maryland side of the Potomac. One of the reasons for this was that there was no readily available guidebook except for what Hubbard had to say, and that was only available if you had enough patience to hunt through the P.AT.C.’s archives. But all this changed in 1985, when James Eakin, then president of the P.A.T.C.’s Mountaineering Section, produced the first edition of this guide book. It took him almost two years to complete, as quite a few climbs had been added since Hubbard’s day.
"I started by taking notes and pictures all summer in 1983," said Eakin. "When I put together the draft, I gave it to a bunch of friends who I climbed with to review. Then I went back over it the next summer, talking with some more people. Altogether about 25 people read it and helped to fill in the missing information." Eakin and company were meticulous in detailing every route they knew of there, and then some were added at the last minute, as evidenced by one called "Stop the Presses, Mr. Eakin."
The first printing ran 3,000 copies, and it sold out in three months. The brisk sales indicated clearly there was a need for a guide to the area. For as long as people had been climbing at Great Falls, it seemed odd that no one had attempted to publish a comprehensive guide before this. Given the climate about guide books during the 1970s, it’s not surprising that one wasn’t published then. Climbing guides were controversial in the 1970s because it was believed they would expand the sport of climbing, and that was bad. "The more climbers out there on the rock the greater would be the strain on the environment," explained Eakin. Although the discussions weren’t nearly as heated as they were in the 1970s, the issue of whether to make information about climbing areas public and thus create an opportunity to expand their popularity still had currency in the 1980s. But by the 1980s most avid climbers were resigned to the increasing popularity of the sport. With advertisers exploiting images of men and women scaling mountains to sell everything from footwear to long distance telephone service, the commercialization of climbing was here and there was no turning back. In that same spirit, Eakin wrote the guide to make money for the Mountaineering Section, which at the time was strapped for cash.
Once the book came out, the flow of traffic did not change dramatically from Carderock to Great Falls, but there were plenty of people who were motivated for a change, climbing somewhere they didn’t have all the routes memorized. In the local scheme of things, Great Falls had never been as popular as Carderock, particularly with those who climb after work on weekday evenings, and it was not likely that this was going to change. At Great Falls, there is a much longer walk to the cliffs, plus one has to pay a fee to enter the park-climbers, remember, are notorious cheapskates. Great Falls is also a more difficult crag to find one’s way around than Carderock. Climbs are scattered over a wider area, and there is no marked trail as there is at Carderock that leads people to the base of the climbs. For this reason alone, despite the impact on the environment-and this is not something to simply shrug off-having a guide to the area is a sensible notion. Lots of people seem to think so.
Over the years thousands of copies have been sold and still there remains a steady demand for new ones. The explosion of interest in rock climbing, especially over the last two decades, has made a second edition inevitable. Onward and upward we go. Climb on, Washington!