When we think of objective hazards in climbing, usually things like rockfall, avalanches, bad weather or even other climbers come to mind. At a crag just barely 10 minutes from the car most of these aren't even concerns. (Although you may remember a recent article in which I talked about a scary rockfall incident at this very crag) Of all things to worry about when cragging, hungry bears are not particularly high on the list. However, as you may have deduced, that exactly what we encountered the other day at the Beer Walls, a popular crag in the heart of the Keene Valley.
It was day two of the University of Vermont Wilderness TREK orientation, and my co-leader and I had a group of 5 students with us for a week of rock climbing in New York's Adirondacks. After a slow drizzly morning we eventually worked our way to the Beer Wall's. After some quick laps on the classic upper wall cracks, we worked our way over the 5.10 wall and set up at the base of Frosted Mug and Flying, Drinking and Driving, both four star classics.
We broke out lunch, PB &J and gorp, and started to eat when suddenly one student sitting on the outside of the group stood quickly, pointed down a bank and matter of factly stated "Bear. That's a bear." Low and behold, a mother bear and two cub had come up to investigate, and they were quickly working up to where we were sitting. At first, yelling loudly seemed to hold them back, but they quickly became unimpressed and were working closer and closer. Eventually, a few well placed rocks drove the family to turn around.
We assumed that they would continue on their way, and resumed our lunch, but it wasn't more than a few minutes before family was back, this time completely unfazed by seven yelling adults and a bombardment of incoming rocks. We had just enough time to gather our food and packs in our arms before running off, escaping to higher ground, ropes still hanging down over the routes no one had a chance to try.
But all was not lost, and for those of you who have done these routes know that there is an awesome ledge just above them. After lowering our group down to the ledge and setting them all up on a fixed static, we were able to top rope the routes, lowering the students down to the bears and having them climb back to us. Sort of like fishing, except for bears, and using people as bait. It was fun.
We actually never saw the bears again by the time we were set up to top manage the sites. But, not wanting to take any risk, we continued with this approach to avoid the area where they were clearly considering part of their home.
At the end of the no one was hurt, and this whole incident turns into a great story. Historically, Black Bear's are passive creatures, and hesitant to attack humans. However, a habitual bear with two cubs strikes me a likely candidate to display aggressive behavior. Thankfully we left only with an exciting story and a fun adventure. What started as another day of top-roping turned into an encounter with some spectacular wildlife and an amazing top roping experience in a stellar location.