A Real Cliff-hanger
Outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe flock to New Paltz to climb the fabled Shawangunk Ridge. I set out on my own rockin’ adventure to see what all the fuss is about.
By Olivia J. Abel â€¢ Photos by Marty Molitoris
Hudson Valley Editor Olivia Abel ascends the Trapps.
They say that the white quartz rock of the Shawangunk Ridge is hard — really hard. Apparently, it rates a seven on the Mohs Scale of Mineral Hardness (don’t worry, I had never heard of it either). Which means that it is stronger than steel, unlikely to break for millions of years (if ever) — and just perfect for rock climbing.
Well, it sure feels hard — especially against my big toe, which is currently crammed into a tiny crevice on the cliff wall and throbbing mercilessly. I momentarily rest my left cheek against the cool stone and survey the stunning fall foliage spread out for miles below me. It’s a perfect October day, sunny and crisp, and all would be well with the world if only I wasn’t clinging to a cliff wall 30 feet off the ground.
“You’re going to love it,” a close friend told me just before I embarked on my first rock climbing adventure. “It’s so Zen.” I believe I’ve achieved this so-called Zen state before
— after completing a long run, during a professional massage, or while downing a perfectly timed cocktail. But no, this was not Zen; what I was experiencing was pure, 100 percent panic.
When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, British mountaineer George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.” And so it is that I set out to climb “the Gunks” (as they’re affectionately dubbed by just about everyone). Long one of the most famous rock climbing destinations in the world, this 47-mile range, extending from the northernmost point of New Jersey to the Catskill Mountains, is renowned for more than the quality of its famous rock. It’s the sheer number of easily accessed technical climbing routes — almost 1,200 of them — located in a picture-perfect setting just north of Manhattan that keeps the adventure addicts coming. Throw in the pseudo-hippie charm of the college town of New Paltz, and it’s no wonder that climbing visits have increased exponentially.
Outdoor enthusiasts have been drawn to the Gunks since 1935. As legend has it, in that year German climber Fritz Wiessner (who conquered the Zugspitze, the highest peak in Germany, at the tender age of 12) was climbing Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring. The clouds suddenly parted, and in the distance he spotted the gleaming Gunks. Within weeks he had scaled 1,600-foot Millbrook Mountain, the region’s highest point. He soon joined up with Austrian physician Hans Kraus; throughout the 1940s, this daring duo made numerous first ascents in the Gunks, including the infamous High Exposure (a bold climb that involves a blind reach around an overhanging ledge that juts 150 feet up in the air). The pair first completed it in 1941 with only hemp rope and three pitons; today, it remains a rite of passage for a whole new generation of climbers.
In the 1950s, Kraus joined with the Appalachian Mountain Club to try to enact a safety code for climbers. But the group soon clashed with the now-legendary Vulgarians, a hard-partying, hard-climbing group who arrived on the scene in 1958 and promptly turned the orderly world of rock climbing upside down. Rules and regulations? No way.
The Vulgarians did as they pleased — and even did it stark naked. In a now famous 1964 photograph, Vulgarian leader Dick Williams was captured climbing the overhang of Shockley’s Ceiling in the buff. (Williams, who still lives in the region, went on to write several definitive Gunk climbing guides.)
Methods and equipment have changed dramatically over the years. Stronger nylon ropes came on the scene after World War II, making the sport safer, easier, and more comfortable. But by the early ’70s, it was evident that the white quartz (as well as other rocks around the country) was being threatened by all the pitons that were being hammered into it. “Passive” protection — which could be placed by hand in existing cracks and then easily removed — was invented. By the late 1980s, the Gunks became a fully “traditional” climbing area: all routes require the placement of non-permanent protection on the ascent which is then removed, or “cleaned,” before descent. (“Sport” climbing areas are bolted, meaning permanent hardware has been drilled into the rock.)
“But the biggest change is the number of people who climb now,” says Andrew Zalewski, manager of Rock & Snow, an outdoor store in New Paltz and the epicenter of all rock climbing in the Gunks. “Since the introduction of climbing gyms, it’s not such a specialized, small sport anymore. Everyone does it. In fact, kids are probably the biggest area of growth, what with all the increases in safety.”
In 1963, the Mohonk Preserve (then called the Mohonk Trust) was founded to protect the natural environment of the Gunks. The largest nonprofit nature preserve in the state, the 6,500-acre preserve welcomes more than 50,000 climbers a year. In 1997, adjacent Minnewaska State Park also opened an area for rock climbing. (Sam’s Point Preserve also has public land on the ridge, but rock climbing is not allowed there.) “There are private landowners who have beautiful cliffs that we used to climb back in the late ’90s, but everybody is worried about a lawsuit these days,” says Marty Molitoris, the owner of Alpine Endeavors, a registered climbing guide service. Molitoris fell under the climbing spell 20 years ago as a teenager in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “I started working at an outdoor store called Uncle Eyeball’s Mountain Travelers’ Emporium. They taught me how to rappel and climb.” Later, he spent a few years at Wilkes University, “but I was always distracted by climbing and the outdoors,” he says. While working part-time at a ski shop, he started a guide service. “I probably worked eight days a season. That grew, and I started taking day trips to the Gunks in 1990.” In 1997, he relocated to the area full-time.
Molitoris’s company is one of only four guide services currently allowed to climb on the Mohonk Preserve. “Before I got a permit, I did my own thing,” he recalls. “I went to Minnewaska when climbing opened up there. But I wrote to Mohonk every year, looking for a spot.” His chance came in 1995 when one of the other guiding services closed up shop. “It was big for us,” he says. “We were the first new service in 15 years.”
Molitoris says that these days his clients are a motley group: “kids, a lot of women, people trying it for the first time — everybody, really.” It was the affable and low-key Molitoris who took me (along with another editor) on that October day to the Trapps — one of the four major rock climbing cliffs in the Gunks, and easily the most popular. (With its stone tower, Sky Top is probably the most recognizable symbol of the Shawangunks. But this beautiful area, with more than 300 documented climbs, had been closed to climbing since 1988. But last year, the Mohonk Mountain House started allowing Molitoris to take overnight guests on climbing expeditions there.) “You have an abundance of really good beginner and intermediate climbs right here,” Molitoris explained as we geared up, a process that involved putting on climbing shoes (which bear a strange resemblance to bowling shoes but have a sticky, rubber compound that grips the rock), a helmet, and a harness. Several feet away, two 50-something men — sporting gray-tinged ponytails and looking as if they’d been hiding in the mountains since Janis Joplin sang at Woodstock — climbed a good 30 feet in a matter of minutes. But what really amazed me was the fact that they didn’t use ropes — or helmets. “No, they don’t have to wear them,” Molitoris said casually. “You can do what you want, you climb at your own risk.” But don’t even experienced climbers sometimes fall and die, I asked? “Yeah, sure they do,” Molitoris said cheerfully. “All right, let’s go.”
Rock climbing is done in pairs. One person ascends the rock face, the other acts as the belayer — staying on the ground and controlling the rope (and hence, the climber’s life, I thought to myself). Molitoris spent some time explaining how to properly tie the rope into our harnesses. We used a technique called top-roping: Molitoris scampered up the cliff, built an anchor, and then looped the rope through it; he could then control the rope from the ground. He showed us some basic handholds and footholds, and told us that we would naturally be afraid of two things. “First, there’s the equipment and trusting it,” he said. “But that’s easy to overcome. The harder thing is trusting your feet. You need to put your foot on tiny little holds and trust that you can stand up on them. You don’t always have the big footholds that you want.”
Well, I was afraid of those two things — and about 58 others. But I gamely started up the cliff face, and immediately found several obvious spots to park my feet and hands. So far, so good — but then two facts began to trouble me. First, I realized that I was 20 feet off the ground, held in place by a flimsy piece of rope. And secondly, the rock face above seemed as though it had been professionally buffed and shined — there was no obvious spot to place my foot. Molitoris shouted instructions. “Look to the left, there’s a little spot there. Use your legs, don’t pull yourself up with your arms.” But after spending 20 minutes frozen in fear, I came down.
I would have been more than happy at that point to call it a day — perhaps go for a hike and out for a cold beer in New Paltz, where we’d laugh at our exploits. But my companion Beth, another rock climbing neophyte, ran up the entire 70 feet of vertical rock in less than half an hour. I couldn’t have been more surprised if Spider-Man had shown up and scaled the cliff face himself.
Apparently watching Beth’s exploits was the inspiration I needed. I returned to the cliff, and this time — slowly, carefully, and only after extracting from Molitoris dozens of promises that he was, in fact, manning the rope — I made it up. When it came time to go back down, Molitoris unleashed a bombshell: we would be rapelling down the cliff face.
It was simple, he explained: “Just step backwards off the cliff.” I am happy to report that even the hardy Beth balked at these instructions. For a few minutes I looked around desperately, realized there was nowhere for a rescue helicopter to land, and eventually — with every cell in my body screaming “Don’t do it!” — I did it. “Yep, rappeling can be hard,” Molitoris told me later. I marveled at the understatement.
After our climb, we headed to the Gilded Otter, an airy New Paltz brewpub that has been welcoming climbers off the cliffs for 10 years. The walls are covered with ropes, ice axes, and oversized photos of the Shawangunk scenery, and I indulged in a “Rail Trail Pale Ale.” I felt exhilarated — but did I really enjoy my rock climbing experience, or was I simply happy I’d survived? I’m still not sure; I think I’ll have to try it again. It was exciting, and perhaps, even a little bit Zen.
Indoor Rock Climbing Walls in the Mid-Hudson Valley
The Inner Wall New Paltz. 845-255-ROCK; www.theinnerwall.com Weekend Adult Day Pass: $12 Weekday Adult Day Pass: $10
Rock Climbing’s Close Cousins
Bouldering A type of rock climbing done on large, low-lying rocks without the use of ropes. One of bouldering’s most appealing aspects is the lack of equipment, though people often bring a crash pad to provide cushioning in case of a fall. “Most people go with their friends, they don’t go with a guide,” says Molitoris.
Ice Climbing Getting outside and climbing ice falls and frozen waterfalls can be “really pretty,” says Molitoris. “It’s a different environment than rock climbing. The ice is a beautiful blue-green, and it’s less crowded and quieter.” Molitoris adds that while the rope techniques are the same, “the climbing itself is different. It is more boxy. Rock climbing, when done right, is very fluid and rhythmic. In ice climbing you need to swing these tools. You need more accuracy and more strength. It’s more stressful on your calves and forearms. But I like them both.” While there are some routes in the Trapps where he takes clients, “we normally go the Catskills. Kaaterskill Falls and all those areas near Hunter Mountain are just beautiful.”