Climbers take flight at McConnell's Mill
Fred Gunter asked Cate Bressers to run her hand along the face of the rock near her right knee until she felt a bump.
That's all it was, just a bump in the rock that barely distinguished itself from the rest of the smooth sandstone surrounding it.
That is where Gunter wanted Bressers to put her right foot as she continued to climb slowly up the route at the Rim Road climbing area at McConnell's Mill State Park.
“It seems crazy, but that's where you put your foot,” he told her. “Remember, it's about the footwork, not the hands.”
Gunter owns Exkursion Outfitters in Monroeville and leads climbing trips to McConnell's Mill State Park through his store as well as Venture Outdoors. The park boasts two main climbing areas — Rim Road and the more challenging area near Breakneck Bridge. Both areas feature rappelling and roped climbing as well as routes for bouldering, in which climbers stay relatively low to the ground and do not use ropes.
The REI store in the SouthSide Works in Pittsburgh stocks a guidebook to rock climbing in the state of Pennsylvania that includes a section on McConnell's Mill. Amazon.com offers a few copies, new and used, of Bob Value's 1999 Falcon Guide entitled Classic Rock Climbs No. 26 McConnell's Mill State Park. The website www.rockclimbing.com also offers some information on the names and difficulty ratings of routes in the area.
“There's lots and lots of climbing there, and it's a great area, but most of it is more difficult,” said Gunter, who's been climbing since the early 1970s. “A lot of it is overhanging and there's lots of mossy stuff. The trees don't allow a lot of sunlight, and it stays shaded a long time, so if you get a little rain it takes a while to dry out.”
The Rim Road area is the most accessible to climbers. Located above the river across the covered bridge, the rocks are just a short hike down from the roadside parking area. There are some bolts in place for anchors as well as plenty of trees, and the routes vary in difficulty.
Bressers was one of several newcomers to the sport on Venture Outdoor's recent rain-shortened trip to the area. She had spent some time at indoor climbing walls but had never climbed on real rock.
Marc Brenner, 26, of Shadyside, was there with Jenny Jacobson, 25, also of Shadyside, as part of a birthday celebration. Gunter belayed, or secured the climbers on the other end of the rope, and provided hints and tips for their ascents up what's known as the Beginner's Block.
“Remember, look down first,” he said. “There are good footholds. Use them. Feet, then hands. Feet, then hands.”