BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: The Florida Climber’s Plight

By Kaleigh Bush

Florida gives rise to a fairly ubiquitous vision: flat sandy beaches mopped by the broken waves of the Atlantic; highway medians adorned with strips of sweeping palm trees; and toe headed, heat intoxicated sunbabies riding their ocean Cadillacs to shore dressed to the nines in sunburns and wetsuits. The vision does not yield mountainous terrain. Nor does casting this landscape likely fortify the climber’s penchant for brisk arid climate and good friction. I’ll also go ahead and assume that the last thing you’d reasonably anticipate from the balmy swamps of Florida is the emergence of a laudable rock climbing community fit to foster the kind of dude whose dexterity on a rock face can hold a candle to that of the most championed climbers on an international scale. But chances are if you’ve visited just about any crag or boulder field in the US and maybe even worldwide, you’ve probably met a handful of Florida climbers. There’s even a good chance they were kind of strong. Maybe not the prized heifer at the county fair, but, arguably, we’ve generated a couple of those as well.

BRG's own (and FL native) Maxim Zoltukhin making an embarrassing spectacle of himself (but crushing none the less) at ABS nationals.

Nick Sherman is from Orlando, but now resides (and kills it) in Boulder, CO.

I was born and raised in Gainesville which is located in north central Florida where, ironically, I started climbing three years ago. It’s worth noting that, less ironically, my loosening ties to Gainesville and the beginning of a disparaging relationship with my home town simultaneously erupted inside of the Gainesville Rock Gym which still stands more than a decade after its inception. The gym is located on the outskirts of downtown within close reach to the bulk of the University of Florida’s student population inhabiting the nearby historic district. Before I started climbing, Gainesville catered almost perfectly to me. Now, I’m hoisting my sails after uniting with a throng of peers who anticipate more enriching locales in the foreseeable future.
It’s no surprise that Florida flaunts several quality climbing gyms, though, because the great enabler for Florida climbers is plastic as there is literally no real rock actually fit for climbing anywhere in the state. Tornado Alley is all the flatland rage, but Florida is in fact the flattest of all the fifty United States. It’s PANCAKE FLAT. The peninsula’s mean elevation is a negligible 100 feet (the highest point being 345 feet at Britton Hill, located near the Alabama border). The closest thing we’ve got in Peninsular Florida to real rock aside from the limestone bedrock that we’re founded on is some naturally occurring limestone exposures just west of Gainesville where privately owned quarries feature some gorgeous walls masquerading as climbing potential. Unfortunately, this limestone makes for second-rate climbing because its quality has proven to be poor and too chossy to scale seriously.

FL native Randy Hill on ABSOLUTION (v12) in Idaho.

Tomfoolery as Gainesville, FL climber John Reger takes the 1st place in Men's Advanced at the Triple Crown Bouldering Series

Matt Segal is from Miami. But is now a well-known climber, North Face athlete, and is pushing the limits of hard trad climbing out in Boulder, CO.

The impossibility of local Florida climbing aside, climbing is habit-forming regardless of where the skill is honed be it outside or indoors. But the general consensus among climbing enthusiasts is that the chief purpose of the climbing gym is its utility as a training implement; the concept is appealing in that it lends climbers a facility for training when the option of climbing outside isn’t available due to adverse weather, being too hard-pressed for time by school or work to spend a day at the crag, or whatever. But I’ve climbed outdoors and indoors enough to realize that the rigid dichotomy between the two environments is as apparent as the contrast between the fibers of plastic and of stone. In the face of this realization, reconciling with the fact that I have to drive for at least seven hours to get my hands on some quality sandstone or granite is quite the cross to bear. Consequently, us Florida climbers who are passionate about what we do are left feeling like salt water fish in a fresh water aquarium when we’re giving it the ol’ college try with nothing at our fingertips but a decent training tool. And when we do get to rock climb, our callouses are sturdy as brick houses but quick weekend climbing trips are too fleeting for our tender fingertips to restore any previous durability. So more than a few good burns on an ultra-crimpy problem and our tips are left pink, shriveled, and nearly deprived of sensation. I won’t even get into the dilemma, regardless of how substantial it may or may not actually be, of how indoor grades stack up against outdoor grades as a system for measuring progress. Is it precise to call yourself a V4 climber if you’re a solid V6 plastic climber but have only topped out V2 outside? Or are indoor grades entirely null and void since indoor climbing is barely even comparable to rock climbing? The debate is probably as contrived as the concept of climbing grades to begin with.

So how do we Floridians satiate our appetites for climbing, then? We train hard inside for brief weekend respite fit for voyaging to the prominent southeast boulder fields and crags that rally flocks of climbers from all over, performing at all different levels of difficulty, most notably during the three months that encompass the popular Triple Crown bouldering series. But the unrelenting desire to touch real stone doesn’t subside during the off-season which is a truth that remains self-evident in climbing documentaries like SubtleSqueeze’s Summer Sessions series. Aside from Horsepens-40 (Steele, AL), the Stone Fort (previously Little Rock City, located in Chattanooga, TN), and Hound Ears (the private boulder field open to the public one day a year for the Triple Crown competition), we’ve got an adequate supply of other options available to us within reasonable distance. (The main difference between the Florida climber and anyone else is probably the concept of a “reasonable distance” for traveling to climb, I suppose.) Rock Town is located nearby in extreme northwest Georgia between Atlanta and Chattanooga. A recent favorite to a crew of Florida climbers is Rumbling Bald situated near Chimney Rock, NC which flaunts the best winter climbing in North Carolina because of its perfect southern exposure. Also, there’s a plethora of boulder fields and crags supplying the climbing community with plenty of first ascents that have yet to be achieved in and around Chattanooga, which largely remain locals-only hotspots for now. But the crown jewel of the climbing season for me and my friends is the annual new year’s pilgrimage to the bouldering mecca of the US that is Hueco Tanks located outside of El Paso, TX. My first year as a flatland climber, I was unfit for the approach into the boulders that Hueco accessibility demands. I wasn’t prepared for my first plunge into the sheer western beauty that is Hueco until last year. This indian reservation cradled by its own delicate history is littered with countless perfect boulders crafted from unusual rock formation and is nothing like anything climbable anywhere I’ve yet to visit on the east coast (pseudo-primitive desert camping in a three season tent was reminiscent of Florida when I woke up covered in sand following every blustery night, though). Floridians faithful to this tradition drive for almost twenty-four hours to the border city of El Paso every year, unless they opt to fly. This trip, to me, is a significant source of motivation for inspiring another long year of gruelling indoor training and a handful of familiar southeast climbing excursions.
So, there are rock climbers in Florida. There are definitely surfers in Colorado. We’re undoubtedly among the unorthodox and would probably rather be somewhere else more conducive to our respective lifestyles, but we all get by finding a way to do what we love. And we love climbing as much as the next guy. I would also argue that being a Florida climber and having friends locally who are pivotal in the greater climbing community fosters a unique brand of pride that emanates from all of us who know what it’s like to have to set aside entire weekends for climbing in order to rock climb at all. Most of us either put climbing on the back burner when real life kicks in at the onset of real adulthood, or we move out of Florida and build our lives around climbing as a priority. Regardless, one day I will move out of Florida and build my life around climbing as a priority, which speaks volumes about the powers of passion. And my parents’ ceaseless wonder about where the hell they went wrong.


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2 responses to “BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: The Florida Climber’s Plight

  1. brunoplim

    I really enjoyed the read! Thanks Kaleigh and hope to see you on the rock!

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