One Man’s Choss, is Another Man’s Treasure

Zach Peabody took this photo. Josh Villeneuve is the climber

Zach Peabody took this photo. Josh Villeneuve is the climber

I’ve heard a lot of climbers make comments about whether climbing areas are fantastic or chossy. Often the comments sound so similar you have to wonder if the place really is that remarkable or that horrific, or if they are merely spewing the feedback of pals. Truthfully, a lot of climbers do not necessarily know what makes something world class or chossy by rock quality. They just know what they like or don’t like to climb. Now anyone can go to a cliff where the holds tear off, the rock feels like more dirt than solid rock, and easily call it chossy. Similarly we recognize that unbreakable feeling that rock has and that beautiful look and texture that wows us. The middle area can be a bit more complex.

First not all boulders or cliffs are going to feel the same in an area. We’ve been to areas where some of the boulders are outstanding, and some are, obviously, useless, choss. How can they exist together? Let’s look at the Red River Gorge for an example. Here is a paragraph from an article written by Bill Strachan, and reviewed by Professional Geologist Bruce L. Kells.

“The texture of the Corbin Sandstone varies from fine to coarse grain and sometimes
contains quartz pebbles in layers of sandstone conglomerate. Dependent on the
grain size and the amount of cementation the quality of the rock varies widely. In
many places the rock is solid, featureless, and thus un-climbable. The upper part of
the Corbin Sandstone especially tends to be of the solid and featureless variety
except where dissected by crack systems. This is why a majority of routes at the Red
do not top out. In other places the cliffline contains vertical bands of sandy, chossy,
breakdown where only the grunge climber dares. The best rock exists between the
extremes of solid smooth and sandy choss where the effects of weathering have
created ideal features for climbing.”

red river gorge

As you can see a particular area can vary widely and sometimes it is not really the quality so much as the effect of weatherization we are actually drawn to. Sometimes, the impact of climbers over the years has an effect as well. There are certain areas where the rock is very slippery, smooth, and polished. Sometimes this is from so much climbing traffic. Similar to how holds at gyms get really greasy and polished over time.

There are types of rock some people favor over others. This could lead to personal views about which is superior. Different rock types are also more prone to weakness. However, another matter of opinion may come from the fact that different rock types are better for different forms of climbing. Therefore, someone’s view of a great climbing area may have to do more with the rock catering to their individual climbing needs and desires, than actually being more or less solid.

Sandstone is easily eroded, fragile, and often soft. It might not be super sturdy rock, but it makes excellent climbing because of the high level of friction it provides and the climbing features the erosion creates. Limestone is strongly resistant to erosion, which keeps it solid and sturdy. However, it breaks down with acid, including the acid in rainfall. The slow dissolving from acid, makes limestone known for having lots of pockets and overhung cliffs. These are aspects many climbers love. Granite is one of the US favorites. This could be because it is a very solid rock. Granite has quartz and feldspars that are very hard and resistant to erosion. There are some weaknesses in vertical joints of granite, which when met with erosion create wide cracks. Granite makes excellent crack climbing.

Josh Climbing

There are many other types of rock, and many locations are actually a mixture of different rock types. However, from these examples of some of the more well known rock forms, you can start to see how different rock types would be better for different climbers. If you are someone who loves to climb caves with varying pockets, you will probably seek out limestone climbing. If you want crack climbs or strong quartz to crimp onto, you might favor granite. If you are looking for interesting features like crazy looking pinches, you may favor sandstone. You will probably be more likely to find actual choss on sandstone due to it’s fragile nature, but for someone who loves those features it will be world class regardless.

Each of these rock types will have a way different feel as well. Some of the easiest locations for me to frequent include Farley Ledges, MA, Great Barrington, MA, Bradley, CT, Lincoln Woods, RI, and Pawtuckaway, NH. Believe me all of these spots feel completely different. They are all somewhat close too. I took a trip to climb at Clear Creek Canyon in CO and thought I was going to slip off everything because the rock felt so soft compared to the sharp holds I had mostly become accustom to. You won’t actually slip off. It is fantastic climbing there. The point is, different areas have very different feeling rocks. You might get used to your area and then feel very strange climbing on new rock.

I loved the pockets and features of the red river gorge, but that rock felt even sharper than the rock I’ve climbed elsewhere. Of course, there were some areas that were very smooth due to the weatherization and climber polishing. There are a lot of aspects of different rock that met or clash with our climbing styles making us love or hate certain areas.

red river gorge

The bottom line is that yes some rock quality genuinely is way better than other rock quality. However, your personal feelings of “I love this,” or “This is total choss to me,” will vary depending on how you climb, what you are into, and what you want out of your climbs. There are plenty of areas known for being choss, that I love, and plenty of solid rock as well. Hearing what others has to say can give you some ideas of where to start traveling, but ultimately you should try out all the climbing areas you can. You gain so much from traveling, exploration, and new cultures or areas. Get out there and climb everywhere! You might find incredible solid rock you love that comes highly recommended. You might also just fall completely in love with that chossy, but super fun climbing!

Swirley boulder


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