RUMNEY — A cluster of cliffs off Buffalo Road, known as “Rumney Rocks,” has become a magnet for rock climbers over the past two decades. That increasing attention has come at a cost, though, and user groups are launching a campaign to protect the natural features.
“In the region, it’s a very unique resource,” said Mike Morin, Northeast Regional Director of Access Fund, a nonprofit organization that seeks to keep climbing areas open to the public.
Rumney Rocks boasts 38 cliffs with climbs that range from beginner to expert. It’s centrally located in northern New England, and is easily accessible via Interstate 93.
Those factors have made Rumney Rocks a must-visit for rock climbers in the northeast. On a weekend during the warmer months, the parking lots for Rumney Rocks are overflowing, with license plates showing how far people travel to scale the quartzite cliffs.
As those climbers trek to the staging areas, their footsteps have caused erosion on the trails, exposing tree roots and endangering the trees. On one steep section of trail, rocks are sometimes dislodged and rain down on climbers and belayers below.
The Access Fund maintains that the Rumney Rocks area is at a “tipping point” where increasing amount of human activity could ruin the very features that make it so attractive.
“If we come in now and shore those areas up, we can make sure they’re sustainable for the long term,” Morin said.
The Access Fund is working with the Rumney Climbers Association and the United States Forest Service – which owns the land – to raise money to build retaining walls and stairs and do other trail work to mitigate the increase in foot traffic at the site.
Morin estimated the total cost of the work to be $140,000. He hopes to get $20,000 from the National Forest Foundation and another $20,000 from various smaller grants, but the bulk of the project — about $100,000 worth — will be raised through donations from local businesses and the many climbers who visit the crags.
“We’re stepping up as a partner to the Forest Service to identify these issues," Morin said. "We as a community are showing that we can be a solid partner, [and] come to the table with the expertise and the funding to care for a recreational resource that serves the climbing community and is important for a vast amount of climbers, here around the northeast as well as nationally and internationally.”
Lots of people, small space
Jody Chinchen Matz, trail manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said the Rumney Rocks site covers about 150 acres and, with a land acquisition currently being discussed, could be growing soon. She has been in her current position for only two-and-a-half years, but she has seen activity in Rumney grow during that time.
She said the Rumney Rocks crags attract as many people as some of the most popular hiking trails in the White Mountain National Forest.
“There’s a lot of people in a small amount of space. Obviously, weekends are huge, but it’s busy every day of the week,” Chinchen Matz said.
She said the Forest Service’s role is to try to strike a balance between conserving the natural resource and providing a value to the public.
One example of that balance is the seasonal closures of the Rumney Rocks to protect peregrine falcons. As the trail work is being done, Chinchen Matz will monitor sensitive species in the area, such as fragrant fern, to ensure that they aren’t adversely affected by the activity.
“Recreation could easily have its tipping point, just like any other activity, if it’s not managed properly,” Chinchen Matz said. “We need to be prepared for that.”
Shoring up Rumney Rocks is are not just a matter of concern for rock climbers; it’s an effort that will also prevent erosion of the local economy, said Frank Cocchiarella, executive director of the Central New Hampshire Chamber of Commerce.
Rumney Rocks, like other outdoor recreational spots, brings a broad positive effect to the local economy, Cocchiarella said.
“I know it’s an absolute positive with businesses, not just within miles, but quite an extensive area. All of central New Hampshire benefits,” he said. People who come to climb in Rumney are also going to need to find a place to stay overnight, somewhere to eat and somewhere to refuel their vehicles. Those who come to rock climb might be visiting the region for the first time and decide to come back for other pursuits.
“As people come in, they’re looking for other things than just the activity they’re doing at the time,” said Cocchiarella. “They’re probably a biker or cross-country skier. They’re looking for other things to do.”
At The Last Chair in Plymouth, which serves wood-fired pizza and craft beer, owner Dave Sanborn has been surprised by how much of his clientele shows up after a day at Rumney Rocks. He gave his restaurant, now in its third year, a skiing theme, and it has caught on with skiers. He didn’t expect that climbers, who represent at least 25 percent of his business in warmer months, would be a significant part of his revenue.
“We get people from Canada, some people from out west. The Rumney Rocks is known all over. People will travel quite a distance,” Sanborn said.
Outdoor recreation in general, he added, accounts for nearly all of his bottom line. “We get a lot of people hiking that come in here. Having the lakes around, we get a lot of people that were out kayaking or fishing. The outdoor stuff is 90 percent of what we get here.”