Why you should care

Because on this rock, Mother Nature supplied some others. 

There’s a bustling madness reverberating throughout New York City that often makes it hard to feel “outdoors,” even on a literal jaunt through one of the many lush grids of urban green space. But, here in Manhattan and its outer boroughs, the great outdoors — and its many opportunities afforded to city dwellers — does exist. Even if rock climbing is what you crave.

That’s what I went in search of on a recent Saturday romp through Central Park — Gotham alfresco. On the park’s southwest end, adjacent to a large playground and several hot dog vendors, sits Rat Rock, an outcrop of metamorphic bedrock atop which my climbing guru, Adam Watters, sits. “I’ve climbed all over New York state,” he says. “I don’t need a huge rock face to enjoy the climb. I’m here to practice and focus on the task at hand.”

Soon, I’m dangling from a thin crack in the rock face, the tedious battle with gravity my only focus.

At just 15 feet tall, a Rat Rock fall hardly intimidates. But the modest site offers several unique routes on which climbers of any skill level can practice. Soon, I’m dangling from a thin crack in the rock face, the tedious battle with gravity my only focus. On a quest for an adequate foothold, I jam three chalk-covered fingers into a new crevice and nervously contort my hips in search of footing that, this time, proves absent. Admitting defeat, I kick myself off the rock and — for a split second — that wild falling sensation I’ve only known in dreams becomes reality. It’s thrilling. Luckily, my blue safety mat of a savior rescues me below. After two more tries, I make it to the top.

Atop the list of Rat Rock’s advantages: accessibility. Local climbers flock to the location at all hours of the day, at anytime of year — absent rain or snow — just like they do at Indian Cave in Upper Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park. According to Nick Falacci, author of A Climber’s Guide to Popular Manhattan Boulder Problems, it’s this access that makes Manhattan bouldering special. The rocks are far from giants and the number of opportunities is limited, but the chance to hone your skills is never far. “There are few major cities in the world that offer more or better climbing than what is found right in the heart of Manhattan,” writes Falacci.

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Boulderers at Rat Rock in New York City’s Central Park.

Source Joshua Pestka Photography

Of course, city climbing has its detriments. While Rat Rock’s steep incline and sharp Manhattan schist provides plenty of challenging holds, experienced climbers may not be impressed. Plus, the heavy foot traffic ensures that children and sunbathers almost surely stake claim to the summit. Still, Watters finds solace in the real estate. “There’s great camaraderie here,” he tells me. “You get to know the other climbers. People passing through come check it out and ask questions.”

When I arrived, Watters and two other climbers were the only folks treating Rat Rock like an athletic venue, but soon their enthusiasm spread to two young boys. Lucas, a 22-year-old Argentine student on holiday in New York offered to help, showing them a simple route to start. “It’s your rock too,” he says. Soon, the braver boy is 10 feet high, well on his way to Rat Rock’s peak and a potential lifetime love affair.

That’s what you’ll find at Rat Rock: a host of folks you’ve never met, searching for a hidden escape inside the heart of the big city. Maybe one day, you’ll scale Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. For now, a few hours at Rat Rock will do. One thing’s for sure: Your form needs work.

Then again, so does mine.

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