GUILDERLAND - Casey Holzworth wedged himself sideways into the narrow stone crevice that angled down from a parking lot, the limestone walls gradually widening slightly and rising higher as the state biologist inched and climbed about 60 feet to reach a narrow hiking trail -?the kind of place more people may be allowed to go as New York moves to exploit growing interest in adventure sports.
The trail at Thacher State Park hugs the pale cliffs of the Helderberg Escarpment, above a steep embankment overlooking the forest, leading to a rock arch that towered almost 100 feet above the low horizontal entrance to a cave.
Under Thacher's new master plan that envisions more outdoor adventuring, the park may allow hikers to descend Helmes Crevice, spelunkers to explore the deep confines of Hailes Cave and climbers to scale some of the cliffs 15 miles southwest of Albany.
"It's supposed to be a challenge. That's why we're doing it," said parks executive Alane Ball Chinian, who followed Holzworth down and jokingly asked if a rescue team was waiting.
Regional parks capital facilities manager Kurt Kress said there's high interest in those challenges among young professionals and entrepreneurs, with new adventure sites making New York a more appealing draw.
Outdoor adventures have been gaining ground at many of New York's 179 state parks, like Harriman and Minnewaska, which issue rock climbing permits in the Hudson Valley. Montauk Point, Jones Beach, Robert Moses, Hither Hills and Shadmoor on Long Island have surfing and wind surfing, parks spokesman Dan Keefe said. Long-distance hiking trails pass through several parks, including Thacher, and many others host triathlons.
The Green Lakes Endurance Races span 50 and 100 kilometers along park trails in Fayetteville outside Syracuse. Letchworth State Park, in Genesee Falls southwest of Rochester, has whitewater rafting and kayaking on the Genesee River.
Many allow cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling in winter.
At 2,155-acre Thacher, the park lost part of its identity when its swimming pool closed in 2006. Soliciting the public's ideas over the past year for a new master plan, they heard from climbers, cavers and mountain bikers among others. Groups representing each will advise on precisely where and how to proceed. There's no set timetable. "Safety is really paramount," Chinian said.
Ice climbing may follow rock climbing, which is expected on some of the stable vertical cliffs, away from the popular Indian Ladder hiking trail. With the horizontal cracks and small holds, Holzworth said, the limestone should draw many skilled climbers.
Now, those in the Albany area usually must travel to the Adirondacks, Shawangunks or Little Falls to find a crag. However, there was a leftover piece of climbing gear stuck in a high crack near Haile's Cave, a carabiner dangling from a short strap, evidence of climbing that has been off-limits since 1976.
"A lot of that illegal climbing fizzled out," said Michael Whelan, vice president of the Thacher Climbing Coalition. Having local crags, like Boulder, Colo., does, permits a lifestyle change where climbers can go for a couple of hours instead of having to commit an entire day with long drives both ways.
"It really impacts the whole climbing community," he said.
"For sure, it's not going to be a free-for-all where people can go wherever they want and start putting up routes. There's a process to it," Whelan said. It's expected to involve liability waivers and fees for monitoring, conservation and infrastructure, starting with a few climbing routes with some small bolts for attaching safety equipment. "You do a measured opening and you monitor progress and you monitor environmental effects and you kind of slowly open up over time," he said.
Hailes Cave is a hibernation site for endangered Indiana bats. A gate has been recently installed to keep out random spelunkers, and the site will remain off-limits in the winter, Holzworth said. In warmer months, the bats tend to stay in the forest.
Park officials also plan to solicit a contractor to establish an adventure course of climbing ropes, Chinian said. They're considering a visitors' center where adventurers would get the permits expected to include liability waivers.
Park manager Chris Fallon said they intend to establish a 4.6-mile bike trail from Thacher, which closes at sunset, to 350-acre Thompson's Lake State Park, with its campsites and sand beach.