Bolt by bolt, Jordan Katz and Ian Kirk built more than 100 rock climbing routes along Marne Road, turning what was once just an abandoned pile of rocks into an elaborate climbing area in Licking County.
The project, now a popular haunt for rock climbers across the region, took years of work. Some nights, the men were out well after the sun set, headlamps illuminating the grooves in the cliff face and the poison ivy destined for removal.
Katz, a 46-year-old chemistry and biochemistry professor at Denison University, discovered his passion for the outdoors while on an adventure through the French Alps as a 10-year-old. Though his adventures have taken him around the world, one of his favorite places — and proudest achievements — lies at the Marne Road crag just half an hour east of Granville.
Together, Katz and Kirk set out to revolutionize the world of rock climbing within Licking County, and along the way, built a community of like minded climbers.
Kirk, a 53-year-old from Toronto, had experience installing bolts in rocks in the Red River Gorge, a popular rock climbing destination in Kentucky, and wanted to bring that back to Licking County. He started bolting new climbs on his own, and brought Katz onto the project in 2016.
“There were bolts [at Marne] when I found it,” Kirk said. “There were some routes that were mostly bolted. However, it was really overgrown and clearly hadn’t been touched in years.”
Shortly after the pair began working together on developing Marne Road in 2016, Katz said “somebody, randomly, posted a bunch of information on Mountain Project,” a website and app popular among climbers. “The majority of it was incorrect and we were still trying to keep it on the down-low but this person put out the specific location.”
Mountain Project is one of the largest online databases of climbing locations and routes throughout the world. Posting incorrect information on the site was unacceptable to Katz and Kirk, who viewed the misinformation as a danger to the environment and to those who wished to climb at the crag.
“That forced our hand,” said Katz. “I wrote most of the main page and descriptions. Since then it’s blossomed.”
On the site, he provided detail after detail about access, safety, sustainability and routes at Marne. His goal, he said, was to lay out a set of guidelines so people can continue to enjoy the area and stay safe for years to come.
Each of the 118 climbs at the Marne Road crag has a difficulty rating based on the Yosemite Decimal System, the standard grading system for all roped climbing in the United States. Within the system are five classes: class one ratings are considered flat trails, while class fours are on very steep terrain. Class five is equivalent to climbing on a vertical wall. The scale used for climbs can range from 5.1 (beginner) up to 5.15d (the level of a professional athlete). Letters assigned to the routes indicate difficulty.
Because of the pair’s work over the years, particularly during the pandemic, Marne Road has turned from a poorly bolted, unclimbable area into a destination in central Ohio with 118 total climbs.
“It was totally selfish,” Katz said. “We developed it because we wanted routes to climb. It’s been rewarding to see other people enjoying and benefitting from that work.”
From the beginning, the two had been paying out-of-pocket for the area’s development.
“One route costs about $100 to create,” said Katz. However, he has held several fundraisers over the years to limit their out-of-pocket costs and help support the safety of the area’s climbs. Yet, it wasn’t until the fall of 2022 that Katz’s side project began to fully take form. He and Kirk held a fundraiser for the further development of Marne.
“We raised close to $2,000 and bought a bunch of gravel and lumber to make terraces, drainage and stairs,” Katz said. “We had about 30 people show up one day to help haul nine tons of gravel from the road to the crag.”
The event brought people together from around Licking County to help ensure Marne Road would remain a safe and sustainable place to climb.
Katz and Kirk have fostered a community of more than 500 people who enjoy and respect Marne Road. Those community members, many of which are in a local Facebook group for the crag, share tips and tricks on climbing in the area with each other.
Excitement for the area reaches beyond Newark: Denison students have been visiting the area for years.
Junior Gabe Donnelly from Cincinnati, Ohio spends much of his time studying as a history major. However, Donnelly is a frequent visitor to Marne Road, and said the climbers he’s met there are friendly and “educated” about Marne Road.
“They were all willing to share advice and were eager to talk about the climbs,” Donnelly said.
Katz and Kirk have put their blood, sweat and tears into transforming Marne into a climbing haven in Licking County, and have enjoyed seeing it blossom into something the community can enjoy.
Kirk hopes future generations of climbers “take care of it,” he said. “Continue with the tradition of how we started it and keep it a resource for the community.”
“Try not to blow it,” he added.
Kirk and Katz have asked visitors to adhere to safety guidelines laid out on the Mountain Project homepage, which also provides information about getting there, parking and accessibility.
Read more: A rocky adventure along Marne Road
Andrew Theophilus writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation. [email protected]