Climbing in Thacher State Park: What to Know Before You Go
Sometimes moving forward can make you pretty sad about what you’ve left behind. Since moving to the Northeast I have found myself becoming a bit nostalgic about my old home crag.
Previously my two-hour away weekend crag was the beautiful Red River Gorge. Replete with sturdy sandstone, excellent and plentiful camping, and more memories than I could possibly replay when I go to sleep at night. The Red River Gorge is my favorite place on earth.
I moved away from Cincinnati in 2018 and today I live in Hoboken, NJ. It’s a short bus ride away from Manhattan. My sport climbing options have changed drastically since moving. Instead of the Red, I can now go about two hours to Birdsboro, PA, 6 hours to Rumney, NH, 8 Hours to the New River Gorge, and as of 2018 – 3 hours to Thacher State Park in upstate New York.
Days outside are limited in the Northeast in the Spring – between rain and work and increasing temperatures, if a day out is possible, you need to go.
With a high of 70 and no rain in sight, my boyfriend, Michael, and I headed to Thacher State Park in upstate New York for the weekend. Between the glowing reviews in the Climbing Magazine article, local recommendations that “It’s better than Birdsboro”, and clear communication from social media that glorious views were guaranteed, we booked an Air Bnb and set out on our quest to wrassle some Limestone.
It took us about three hours to get there from Hoboken – the drive was scenic and there was hardly any traffic.
For Directions, check out the Thacher Climbing Coalition website.
As we drove into the park the location of the Visitor’s Center was apparent and well marked with signs along the road. The buildings were new and the bathrooms were clean and very nice.
Note that May 1 – November 1 you must pay $6 for parking per day.
We had to sign a permit to climb there which didn’t take much time and then we were off.
Where to Stay
The most convenient option is to stay at Thompson’s lake Campground. I personally did not get to stay there since it does not open until May 1 and Closes October 13. It is about two miles from Thacher State Park and it looks like a nice place to camp.
There were plenty of affordable Air Bnbs to stay in around Albany – about 25 minutes away. Stay in one of these if you aren’t interested in camping or if you are climbing before Thompson opens. The one bedroom my boyfriend and I booked looked nice enough and only cost $50. Pretty affordable weekend trip, overall.
Enter Through the Squeeze
One of the many quirks of Thacher State Park is that to get into the climbing area you have to enter through The Squeeze. There is no other way to get to the crag.
Similar to Fat Man’s Misery in Hocking Hills State Park (for all you Ohio Folks out there), it’s a tight fit. In order to enter the crag you have to take your backpack off and slither sideways through 30 foot long seam in the rock. Here’s a video of someone else’s descent since I don’t have a video of mine.
As you go down, once you’re a few steps in, take your pack off and slide it along the top of the shelf, then bring it down. Don’t worry about your pack fitting. Between the rope, my helmet and my many snacks, my pack fit just fine.
Navigating the Crags
There is an app you can purchase for $10 that is comprehensive and it is a bit more helpful than navigating the crag using Mountain Project. However, Mountain Project has plenty of helpful details as well. An added benefit of the app is that your purchase supports funding for the Thacher Climbing Coalition.
Coming out of the squeeze, to your left you will see a waterfall and the crag called The Cave. Turn Right and you continue down what is essentially a single path below the cliffs that takes from Mahican all the way to the East End. Traversing the entirety of climbable cliff face takes approximately 15 minutes.
My visit was on the opening day in the spring of 2019. The weather was nice. It had rained a little bit overnight, but nothing exceptional. Conditions were ripe for a very crowded climbing area.
Overall there were people on many of the routes and in most of the dry areas, it was not overly crowded. However, due to the nature of the crags, there isn’t much space to move around or sit near the bases of routes. If this place became overly crowded, I could see it being a frustrating and potentially dangerous situation.
I’m just going to put it out there: I ripped a football off of the wall and it beat me in the chest. Unpleasant. This was on top of knocking off smaller bits of limestone and yelling “ROCK!” all day.
I would like to note that it was the first day of the season. I imagine that in the winter, as ice forms in and on the rock, freezes, and subsequently thaws more unstable rock forms. What was once a clean route in the fall probably gets a little hairier once the spring rolls around. I am sure it will get better and better as the seasons go on.
While I truly appreciate the work that has been done to establish the area and I completely understand that cleaning up a climbing area takes time and traffic, visitors should expect to climb on choss and should be prepared for holds to break off at fairly regular intervals.
In comparison to Birdsboro, PA – a rock quarry turned climbing area, I would say that that Thacher is much more chossy. However, my sample size of time spent at each area is somewhat limited – so take my opinion with a grain of salt.
In short, helmets are highly recommended.
Everything is covered in a thin layer of dry mud. This makes foot placement a bit more precocious. I am not sure if this will clean up with more rain, more traffic, etc. A comment on mountain project clarifies that this usually happens after a spring rain which in consistent with my experience that day.
I only have a couple of comparison data points to work with: myself and my boyfriend Michael. However, at the time this is being written I would say that typically Michael can easily onsight 11c/11d. And personally, I regularly onsight 10d.
Michael tried putting up an 11c in Mahican and after about 30 minutes of hangdogging, we packed it in and headed to a new area. Perhaps many key holds have broken off since it was graded. However, it has been a very long time since I have seen Mike abandon something. I am not fully convinced that the route was 11c.
We headed over to the East End where we put up a slabby 5.10a. I did not enjoy it much since I am not a huge fan of slab; however I would say the grading on this one felt accurate.
Overall, the grading is a bit inconsistent and I plan to send some formal feedback to the Thacher Climbing Coalition – for whatever my opinion is worth.
“Save our Gear”
I then hopped onto the 11c next door: Pearlvana. The guidebook touted an 80 foot route, but in reality the route was really 35 feet up from a large ledge that has a bolt in which a belayer can secure herself.
I was extremely intimidated by a fairly blank section of rock on slab above the third bolt. However another group who had somehow been told that this route was a 5.10d had started the route, clipped three out of four bolts, and was looking for a gear rescue if possible.
I slapped around on the face of this wall for a pretty long time, putting in probably 15 burns in total. I wanted to save their gear, but I was unsuccessful. Considering that my hardest redpoint was 11d at the time and I had sent a couple of other 11cs, this route may not be sangbagged, it might just be tough. However, comparing to the other 11cs through 12as that I have worked – this crux seems like the hardest thing I’ve ever tried.
“This is 5.10d?!”
Determined to get some fluid, continuous climbing in, Mike and I headed over to a 5.10d we had seen earlier in the day. My objective was to finish out the day by doing some outdoor endurance training by getting some laps in on this 5.10.
This notion is hilarious because after working the crux of this 10d for a pretty frustrating amount of time, I went ahead and had my boyfriend bale me out. Lame. I know, but it was getting dark and we were both ready for a beer.
Mike too, was stopped by this crux and did not bag the onsight. I looked at him and said “I think that’s the first time you haven’t onsighted 5.10 in three years.”
Comparing this to Tweaked Unit – a somewhat similar route at the Red River Gorge I would say this one is a bit harder. Truthfully I would give this “5.10d” more like 5.11b or maybe 5.11c. However, I am 5’4″ and there were some very height-dependent moves on the route.
Overall, the grading is somewhat misleading and inconsistent.
The Bolting and Anchors
The bolting is generous and thoughtful and for all the choss, the bolts are very solid. From what I could see, most of the bolts were glue-ins.
Additionally, cleaning is made extremely easy due to the many pig tails at the anchors. Bolts and anchors are shiny, new, and intelligently placed from what I experienced.
The Climbing here isn’t world class, so don’t come in expecting to be in Oliana. However, the views and aesthetics of the environment were lovely. It really is an awesome area to hang out outside.
We ended our day in Thacher by headingover to a little restaurant in Albany. Shout out to the Methodist Church in town – we definitely changed clothes in the car in their parking lot. It was date night, after all. We needed to dress up! But onto the food.
The fried chicken was amazing, so was my Reuben, and the ramp pesto we had as an appetizer was delicious.
On top of that, the beer selection was local and had plenty of variety. For my second drink, I had an “Albany Sour” which is basically a whisky sour topped with a wine – a red blend if I recall. With that amount of alcohol, I was doing a fabulous job at forgetting that I had yanked five pounds of limestone pebbles into my shirt that day.
Despite the somewhat underwelming climbing experience, Capital City Gastro Pub was a true delight.
Would I recommend Thacher to a friend?
Personally, I will not be back. I would prefer to drive two hours to Birdsboro or drive 6 hours to Rumney, or go to two hours the Gunks (no sport there, but the bouldering is fun and hopefully I’ll learn to place gear soon).
However, there are a few situations where my risk reward analysis would lead me to recommend this place.
- If you don’t have much outdoor experience and you just need to go learn to to sport climb and belay.
- You live close by, it is a convenient day trip and you can get some time climbing outdoors here very easily.
- You’re in the area for some other reason and you have some time to kill. E.g. my parents live in Albany and I was going to be up there anyway.
I am pretty hardcore about getting outside however and wherever you can. However for me, the effort, money, and time it takes to get to Thacher could be spent in other ways.
With Respect and Gratitude
Although Thacher is not my cup of tea, I saw countless groups enjoying the outdoors and I witnessed a couple of young ladies put up their first routes on the sharp end. They were so stoked and I was so stoked for them and that was really cool to watch.
Sure, I don’t love the climbing there, but it will clean up eventually. Either way, all the hard work that volunteers have put into the place is certainly appreciated. Those two girls will remember the feeling of clipping their first anchors forever and that is priceless.
I want to thank all the volunteers that have put time and effort into developing the area and fighting for the right to do so. Many people will get to test their limits and enjoy the great outdoors because of their efforts.
What do you think? Have you been to Thacher? What was your experience? Was there a route you enjoyed that I may have missed? Leave a comment or shoot me a note – and please feel free to share this post with anyone who is planning a trip there!
If you’d like to gain some insight into your strengths and weaknesses as a climber, check out my climbing theme song quiz! While it’s definitely a good time, it shines a light onto the aspects of your training and climbing that might be holding you back and keeping you in a plateau. And once you get your result, I’ll also send you some tips and tricks to help your training and climbing more effective and efficient!