Trip Report: Bagels to Burritos
Part 1, Gunks Edition
By Maxine Speier
The Shawangunk ridge, or the “Gunks,” rises 200 feet above the tree line. The exposed cliffs stretch across the horizon, a swath of white-grey rock. When we are there in early September, most of the trees are still a lush and vibrant green, but within a few weeks, as temperatures drop, the leaves will change to golden yellows and reds and the Hudson Valley will be transformed.
Fall is the best time to climb in the Gunks, while the days are growing shorter, before the first snow comes. Summer’s humidity has lifted and a dry coolness sets in. Leaves crunch underfoot, but the rock is not numbingly cold yet.
Jeff and I drive into New Paltz in the late afternoon. It is the first stop on our road trip, a trip that took shape back in San Francisco, where the two of us (both native New Yorkers) wandered up and down steep hills, eating tightly rolled food truck burritos, talking about the correct way to cook a bagel, and waxing nostalgic for the vibrant change of seasons—the humid summer heat-waves and the winters where the snow is too deep to shovel.
Jeff is a full time route-setter for Touchstone who moved to California from a small town in upstate New York over three years ago. I moved from Brooklyn exactly a year ago. The trip was initially intended as a chance to visit home and see our families, but the more we talk and plan, the more it becomes clear that if we’re going to take any time off from work, it’s going to be to go climbing.
New Paltz, a bustling college town filled with students, climbers, and retired hippies, was founded in the 1600s and lies just east of the Gunks. The prominent cliff line is visible from the main street of town.
“There it is! There it is!” I’m giddy with proximity as I look out at it. Both Jeff and I have been to the Gunks before; it’s where he learned to trad climb when he was an engineering student years before, and it’s where I led groups on hiking trips for my college Outing Club (before I’d ever considered trying to climb).
The familiarity of the ridgeline is a relief. Any trip home is filled with so many little inconsistencies: new businesses that have sprung up, neighbors who have moved away, old-hangouts that have lost their luster, even the faces of close friends and family reflect the time that has passed. But the view of the Gunks is the same as I remember it.
We pop into the local gear shop, Rock and Snow, to pick up some last minute slings and rent a helmet for Jeff, who left his back in California. At the entrance to the shop is a row of cabinets filled with climbing relics. Arranged chronologically, the gear in the cabinets shows the evolution of climbing: pitons, chocks, hexes, cams, different styles of shoes, and rappel devices. The older gear is both impressive and terrifying; it serves as a reminder of how far the sport of climbing has come, and how much creativity and thought have gone into preserving the spaces and the knowledge of a crag.
That first afternoon, with just enough daylight for one climb, we drive from New Paltz to the Trapps parking lot. The Gunks is located in the Mohonk Preserve, a 6500-acre network of fields, hiking trails, and old carriage roads. The Preserve is a non-profit organization founded in 1963 to protect the land and to enter you must either pay a day fee ($17 for climbers) or get an annual pass ($55).
The Trapps is the most popular climbing area on the ridge, and the parking lot gets extremely crowded on weekends. Climbers drive up from New York City (just two hours away) and will sleep in their cars just to be the first on the cliffs. Luckily, we’re there in the middle of the week, and though we see plenty of other climbers, we don’t have to compete for parking. From the parking lot, it is just a quick walk up to the carriage road that runs along the base of the cliff.
Following the flat, gravelly carriage road, you can access roughly 500 routes, as well as some truly excellent bouldering. It is easy to hike to the top of the ridge and set up topropes for some of the climbs, but the Gunks is most famous for its multi-pitch trad routes. Formed of hard quartz conglomerate, the rock features long horizontal striations and cracks. As we walk down the road, Jeff keeps his eyes on the cliffs, looking out for the famous High Exposure (5.6) arête.
High E is a 250-foot, two-pitch climb that has consistently been called the greatest 5.6 in the world since it was first climbed in 1941: a Classic (with a capital C) in an area jam-packed with classics. Having left the guidebook behind, Jeff relies on his memory to find the start. “I think this is the line,” he says and with that he’s off. The first pitch is a straightforward climb up the left of the arête, to a spacious belay ledge. As I follow him, I spot plenty of opportunities to place gear, which is what makes this region so exceptional for people learning to lead trad. Heading up, you can high-step from one horizontal crack to another, finding secure footing and holds as you go, and placing as much protection as you want.
The second pitch of the climb is what everyone raves about. You breathe, step up to the corner of the ledge, and reach for a jug just out of sight to pull yourself up over a roof. As you find your way on the arête, there is air all around you, and the name of the climb clicks in your mind: this is definitely high exposure.
Climbing in the Gunks is beautiful. It is simple, and straightforward, and stunning. The rock is beautiful. The turkey buzzards and hawks that whoosh their wings overhead are beautiful. The trees beneath you are beautiful. And the view that opens up, of forests and fields that stretch out into the distance, is beautiful. Standing up on the expansive belay ledge after the first pitch of High E, you find the kind of beauty you want to soak in and store for later, to draw on when you are stuck in traffic, or having a bad day at work. You want to hold onto the memory of the landscape, and of the rock beneath your fingers.
Over the next two days, as we walk up and down the carriage road, picking out climbs and taking our time on them, as I follow and then finally lead my first trad pitch, and as we hike out with our headlamps each night, I continue to find an exhilarating serenity in the Gunks. This seems like it should be an oxymoron, but is the truth. There is a dizzying, breathless rush to these climbs, even the 5.5s and 5.6s. But there is also a peaceful quietude in the Gunks. The rock looks and feels timeless, and for a few moments, you are a part of that.