Last spring, the Lyme Selectboard began receiving complaints that Holt’s Ledge near the Dartmouth Skiway was under siege.
Law-flouting rock climbers were trespassing on town and private land, defacing the natural landscape, trampling rare plants and disturbing the hallowed nesting grounds of the peregrine falcon.
Hells Angels in Patagonia pants.
I didn’t put much stock in the complaints.
Lyme is one of the Upper Valley’s wealthy enclaves where town disputes tend to be much ado about nothing. They can turn personal and petty in a hurry.
Think back a few years to the dams built by beavers on Post Pond. Never mind the beavers’ handiwork was flooding the town beach and a nearby inn’s recreation area. Some residents acted as though the oversized rodents were an endangered species.
Hoping to discover what the fuss was about at Holt’s Ledge, I hiked the mile into the wilderness area last Wednesday. With Greg Hanlon, a rock climber who lives in Lyme, leading the way, we started at the Skiway’s parking lot.
Halfway up a ski slope, across the road from the lodge, we turned into the woods. The trail — if you could call it that — angled through a hardwood forest and over a couple of small streams.
So much for the easy part.
At the base of 250-foot high ledge, we veered up a steep embankment of loose rocks and wet leaves. I stayed on the lookout for mountain goats.
As far as the ledge and the land leading up to the giant wall of solid rock go, it’s a bit unclear who owns what. Dartmouth College, the town of Lyme and a loose-knit homeowners group off of Grafton Turnpike lay claim to parts. But the precise boundaries are fuzzy.
When we finally reached a spot on the embankment where I could catch my breath without fear of falling into an abyss, I asked Hanlon what was special about Holt’s Ledge.
“It’s high quality, steep rock,” he said. It doesn’t compare to what rock climbers find in the White Mountains, but by Upper Valley standards, Holt’s Ledge is in a class of its own, he told me.
The pièce de résistance: It’s been something of a secret. Well, at least, until the recent town flap.
Only about 20 climbers frequent the spot on a regular basis from May to October. Some ice climbing is done there in the winter months as well.
Now for the personal, and petty, part of the dispute: Nick Goldsmith is a 54-year-old Pomfret resident who makes his living as a carpenter and photographer. He started rock climbing as a teenager.
He got his first taste of Holt’s Ledge when ice climbing in the early 2000s. Like many Upper Valley climbers, Goldsmith said, he considered the ledge too dangerous for “traditional” climbing in months when there wasn’t ice to dig into. The ledge is nearly devoid of fissures, the cracks in rock that climbers rely on to hold them and their equipment during an ascent.
In about 2010, Goldsmith decided to give “sport climbing” a try at Holt’s Ledge. This requires drilling 3-inch-deep holes into the rock to install permanent bolts.
Goldsmith and others, including Hanlon, have placed roughly 175 small bolts into the ledge, creating some 25 climbing routes. While still not a place for beginners, the safety bolts have opened Holt’s Ledge to a lot more climbers.
Early on, Goldsmith said, Lyme climber Curtis Cote sometimes joined him. Cote and his wife, Tara McGovern, who also has a climbing background, live on Canaan Ledge Lane, a small cluster of houses in the woods that lead to the cliffs.
Cote and Goldsmith, however, didn’t stay climbing pals. Goldsmith told me that even with the bolts in place, Cote wasn’t skilled enough to climb Holt’s Ledge.
Cote told me that he soured on Goldsmith’s “bolting” project when he saw how extensive it was becoming. Without referring to Goldsmith by name, Cote said, “the problem is a person who doesn’t live in town decided to open a recreation area, and he had no permission.”
Seven of the eight homeowners who live in the woods closest to the ledge want the bolts removed, McGovern told me. “If it’s not climbable, become a better climber or find someplace else,” she said. But people “who have respected the land all these years with traditional climbing methods” are still welcome, she said.
The decision rests with the Lyme Selectboard, which shut down the area to climbing last summer in response to residents’ complaints.
On Thursday morning, the board held a public hearing, which drew about 50 people, to get input on its proposed Holt’s Ledge management plan. As it’s written, the plan would ban bolting and require climbers to remove the ones already in place. Goldsmith and Hanlon, who both attended the hearing, said they would remove the bolts themselves, if that was the board’s wish.
The three-member board seems worried the town could be overrun by unruly climbers now that word has gotten out about Holt’s Ledge.
At the hearing, climbers and their supporters said they don’t want that, either. They suggested the area be limited to Lyme residents and guests. They also made a convincing case that their presence hasn’t affected the peregrine falcon nests, but offered to put up signs to keep climbers away from that section of ledge.
Instead of immediately banning bolting, which supporters say would effectively end climbing at Holt’s Ledge, why not try something less drastic?
Climbers asked the board to give them a year or so of self-policing to see if they could make it work.
The board is expected to announce its decision in the coming weeks. I hope the rock climbers are given a second chance. Healthy outdoor pursuits should be encouraged — unlike those dam beavers.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.