Climbing the Gunks
Photographer Alex di Suvero takes us on assignment in New York's Shawangunk Mountains.
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Climbing in the Gunks
By Cliff Ransom Photograph by Alex di Suvero
||WALLFLOWER: With autumn burning in New York's Shawangunk Mountains, guide Dawes Strickler contemplates one of the Gunks's many must-climb routes.
The Shawangunk Mountains—the East Coast's greatest climbing area—are only 90 miles (145 kilometers) north
of New York City and five minutes from a really good
cup of coffee.
I settled under a sycamore tree a hundred feet up on a ledge overlooking the Hudson River Valley is not a bad place to spend an afternoon. Occasionally, I glance at the rock face above, where Thor, my climbing partner, is grumbling and fidgeting with gear. He seems to be having a good time. Good enough, at least. So I lean back, cradle my head in a notch of smooth bark, and watch updrafts push autumn leaves into a robin's egg sky.
On crisp fall afternoons, when roadside apple stands sag under their loads and the foliage blazes in Technicolor, Thor and I make our annual run to the Shawangunk Mountains, six miles outside New Paltz, New York. "The Gunks," as they're called, are less a mountain range than an escarpment, some 12 miles long (19 kilometers) and 300 feet (91 meters) high, that towers above the surrounding farmland like God's own billboard. Leaf-peepers, hikers, and bikers are lured from New York City, 90 miles (145 kilometers) to the south, but no one responds as enthusiastically to the call of the Gunks as rock climbers, Thor and I included.
For the past 70 years, the Gunks have been a hallowed name among rockhounds, a sort of Yosemite East, with more routes (1,200 or so) than any single location sunrise-side of the Mississippi. Unlike most climbing areas, the majority of routes here fall in the easy to moderate range, generally 5.3-5.9, and are a lot more attainable for the novice or, ahem, less well-conditioned climber. With this multitude of routes and decades of alpine tradition, the Gunks and nearby New Paltz support one of the most authentic climbing scenes in the country, an anchor point for visitors from around the region and around the globe.
Of all the Gunks's storied routes, Thor and I have chosen to spend our afternoon on CCK (short for Cascading Crystal Kaleidoscope), a 5.7 known for its dazzling third pitch. Thor, a lanky computer wizard and Columbia University student, is a big fan of the third pitch. At least he seems to be as I pay him out more rope from my perch. Sixty feet (18 meters) above, he moves delicately across an airy and dramatic face, then disappears around a corner. "That was amazing," he shouts in a sort of breathless yelp. So I start up. Foot to hand, hand to foot, I move fluidly over the white rock. Behind me the valley is awash in fall colors, and below, a soaring turkey vulture, five feet across and black as fresh-laid asphalt, eyes me like I just stole its parking space.
In 1935 the area around New Paltz was a retreat for well-to-do urbanites—folks who wore ascots in the morning, sipped gin in the afternoon, and never once considered climbing the huge piles of rock all around them. Then Fritz Wiessner came along. Wiessner, a German expatriate and one of the best climbers in the country, put up scores of routes at the Gunks's three major crags: the Trapps, Near Trapps, and Millbrook
In the early 1960s, Wiessner's legacy was co-opted by the Vulgarians, a loose band of New York City college students known for wild parties, climbing naked, and occasionally urinating on people they didn't like. The Vulgarians created the image of the "dirtbag climber," and soon younger, more impressionable mountaineers showed up to follow suit. Eventually, a climbing shop opened in town; then a few bars that climbers called their own; and then, voilà, the East's best climbing scene was born, one now stamped with sushi restaurants on Main Street and a New York deli at the base of the cliffs.
Today dwindling light at the crag means dinner in town, and for Thor and me that means a meal at the Main Street Bistro, a local favorite where tofu Caesar salads and good old-fashioned burgers manage to coexist peacefully. The place is packed. As our waitress approaches, I notice her muscled forearms, hefty as a pair of Louisville Sluggers. "You guys were out today, huh?" she says. "Me, too."
The Next Generation
For all its tradition, the Gunks are in the midst of a revolution: bouldering, a condensed form of climbing that happens unroped at heights lower than 20 feet (six meters). Because it's generally safer and requires only rock shoes and a crash pad, bouldering is the hottest trend in climbing. And it has blown over the Gunks like a wildfire uphill. Of the 50,000 or so climbers that showed up here last year, some 30 percent came to boulder. That's up from less than 5 percent just ten years ago.
When I go to check out the bouldering scene along the Trapps carriage road one afternoon, the popularity is apparent. Within a hundred yards I see: 1) a four-year-old in oversize climbing shoes scaling a slab; 2) a dozen college kids relaxing on their crash pads next to an impossibly overhung rock; 3) Lynn Hill (yes, the climbing legend) and friends tackling the infamously hard Annie Oh!; 4) two fresh-faced parents with a baby.
At the end of the day, I catch up with Lynn, her husband, Brad, and their infant son, Owen. "We still come [to the Gunks] about once a year to see old friends and do some routes," she says, then hops straight to the point. "Want to see my problem?"
When Hill—the first person to free climb El Capitan—offers to show you anything climbing related, especially her namesake bouldering route, Lynn's Traverse, you take her up on it. As we approach, the college kids attempting the problem back off, slack-jawed. Hill, unstraps Owen and the Baby Björn and begins the sequence. When she gets to a nasty overhung section with small, angular holds, she looks down at me and says, "This part is the hardest." Then she floats right through.
If Hill says something is hard, you believe her. I try anyway—twice, then a third time—falling in the dirt with each go. Finally, I throw up my hands and vow to meet her at the same place next year with progress made. We laugh. It's just another day in the Gunks.
Adventure Guide: The Shawangunks Getting There: The Gunks, six miles (10 kilometers) west of New Paltz, New York, are only accessible by car from Route 44/55. Climbers must get day passes from the Mohonk Preserve ($10; www.mohonkpreserve.org).
Where to Stay: The Mohonk Mountain House ($246; www.mohonk.com), a grand 19th-century lakeside retreat, has a nifty communal dining hall.
Where to Eat: In New Paltz, the Main Street Bistro (www.mainstreetbistro.com) has good food and a mellow vibe. Bacchus Restaurant (www.bacchusnewpaltz.com) has a massive beer menu (last count: 400-plus).
Resources: Rock & Snow (www.rocksnow.com) is the best climbing shop around and sells a number of guidebooks. Diamond Sports (www.gunksguide.com) teaches and guides clients of all levels ($200 a day).
Go Vertical: For three more great fall rock climbing destinations around the U.S., click here.
Pick up the September 2005 issue of Adventure magazine for more great adventure travel ideas.