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High on the Rocks: Climbing the Shawangunks is an unforgettable challenge

By Joe Ferguson  

Reprinted from Hudson Valley Magazine

            It was almost like a fairy tale.

            A young German immigrant, longing for the glories of climbing in his home Alps, is making the best of what solid rock he can find at Breakneck Ridge in Cold Spring (Putnam). Suddenly, unexpected clouds gather like a convention of ogres, scouring the air clean with rain.

            From his vantage on the cliff face the young man can make out something white gleaming in the distance. The very next week, he sets out in search of his vision and discovers what could be called a climber’s heaven.

            The young man was Fritz Wiessner, and the story is true. What Wiessner found that spring of 1935 were the white rocks of the Shawangunk escarpment near New Paltz (Ulster), some 30 miles northwest of his Breakneck Ridge vantage point.

            The “Gunks,” as they are known to climbers, are a ridge of the Appalachians running from Rosendale (Ulster) all the way down into Alabama. The northernmost section is a climber’s paradise – seven miles of sheer cliffs, formed by sedimentary rock deposited some 400 million years ago during the Silurian Period of the Paleozoic Era. For climbers, that means plenty of horizontal holds scattered among sheer drops so that even beginners can sense the exhilaration of “being out there.”

            When Wiessner stumbled upon these ancient rocks, they became a part of climbing history. With his daring and appetite for climbing, Wiessner – and others who followed, like Hans Kraus – established the Gunks as one of the premiere climbing areas in the country.

            “People come from all over the world,” According to Seward Weber. Executive director of the Mohonk Preserve,*1 where the cliffs are located. “It’s a well-respected area.”

            In the days when Wiessner and his contemporaries were putting up the first routes with their manilla ropes, heavy metal carabiners, rock hammers, and pitons, climbing was the sport of the very few and very adventurous.

            Today, because of technological advances in equipment and an increasing fitness-oriented general public, rock climbing has gained wide popularity. Mohonk rangers estimate that over 600 climbers are out on spring and fall weekends, and over 1,500 people – the majority of them climbers – hold annual or semi-annual permits.*2

            Manilla ropes have beeb replaced by perlon, a synthetic nylon that is stronger, more resistant to abrasion, and better able to absorb the shock of a fall. Carabiners (spring-loaded clips used to connect and disconnect ropes and equipment) are lighter and stronger. And metal-alloy chocks of various shapes and sizes which fit into cracks abd are easily removed have all but replaced pitons and rock hammers.

            Another reason for the Shawangunks’ surge in popularity is the ascension, as it were, of rock climbing as a separate entity rather than merely a facet of alpine climbing.*3

            “It’s great for the weekend warrior,” says John Ross, a professional rock-climbing instructor operating out of New Paltz “There’s a challenge, excitement, and instant gratification.”

            Ross has been guiding climbers for 12 years*4 and has also taught the sport at SUNY New Paltz. He says the type of people who come to him run the gamut from students to professionals, “doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs.”

            What they have in common, he adds, is a love of the outdoors. “They’re the kind of people who take the time to look around at the scenery,” he says.

            Unlike many sports, however, rock climbing is not something you just pick up on your own. It’s dangerous, for one thing. And it can also be expensive. A climbing rope runs about $100, shoes from $60 on up, carabiners around $6 each (and you need lots of them), chocks and other protection can run from a few dollars apiece, to $40 or $50 for specialized gear. You could easily spend $500outfitting yourself, so before making this kind of investment you’d better be pretty sure you’re going to stick with it.*5

            A number of people give instruction in the Gunks, and you can find them through Rock and Snow, a New Paltz store specializing in climbing and outdoor equipment. There are also larger schools, such as those run by Outward Bound or Eastern Mountain Sport Stores, but they operate largely out of state. *6

            Under a recent New York State law, all instructors must be certified by the state. Many, like Ross, also have accreditation from the American Professional Mountain Guides Association.

            The average cost of a private lesson (which can include up to three people) is between $75 and $100. *7 Lower group rates can usually be arranged as well. Though fairly expensive, the advantage in taking lessons is that all the gear is provided, along with professional instruction on technique, safety, and use of equipment.

            Naturally, anyone with health limitations should check with a physician before undertaking lessons, but technique is actually more important than strength when it comes to rock climbing.

            “The fact is,” points out Ray Dobkin, a Philadelphia climbing instructor who often guides his students in the Gunks, “women often make better climbers than men since they have to rely on technique right from the beginning. Men, on the other hand, often try to muscle their way up at first.”

            During a lesson, the would-be climber can expect to learn about the mechanics of the sport, such as gear, knots, and safety, and about movement – body mechanics, various moves, and other fine points of technique.

            The typical lesson will include top roping (setting up a rope on top of a climb, pulley-fashion) on Beginners’ Rock, a short, 30- to 40-foot low-angle face. Beginners will also follow the instructor up one or two multi-pitch climbs. A pitch is a segment of a climb determined either by the convenience of a “belay ledge,” or by reaching the end of the rope. Most Shawangunk climbs range from two to four pitches.

            Whether top-roping or on a multi-pitch climb, all climbers are protected by the “belay” system, in which the climbing partner feeds out and takes in rope. The lead climber begins to climb, unprotected, until he reaches a crack or other imperfection where he can place a chock. He then attaches the rope to the chock with a carabiner, through which the rope runs freely, and continues on, placing chock after chock until he reaches a safe belay point, ideally, a large ledge. If the lead climber falls at any point before securing himself, the length of his fall is determined by how far he has climbed past his last placement.

Once the leader secures himself to a safe belay point, he belays the second climber, who removes the chocks on his way up, since he is anchored to the lead climber. When the second reaches the belaying point and is himself secured, the leader then reassembles his gear, and proceeds up the next pitch in the same manner.

While at first this might seem a somewhat tenuous method of protecting your life, it is a tried and true system, and quite dependable. Last year, for example, a full-grown male climber fell over 100 feet while leading and was “caught” by his female partner, who was described as “petite.”

It’s on the multi-pitch climb that the beginner really learns if climbing is right for him. It’s here you’ll come face to face with yourself and with your reaction to “being out there.”

“It’s crucial,” says Ross, “to get climbers up in the air, because that’s what it’s all about.”

Overcoming fear and a lack of confidence are the two most common problems faced by novices, says Ross, and a good instructor should supply moral support, gently urging beginners through the tough spots. That is another reason for getting professional instruction. People who teach climbing for a living are used to handling the fears of beginners. Friends, no matter how well they may climb themselves, might aggravate things for the nervous beginner by telling you what a baby you are rather than what you should do to take control of the situation.

Getting beginners off the ground right from the start is important because a good half of climbing is in the head. Dealing with the psychological elements of height and exposure are as important as mastering technique, and at least as much fun. It’s one thing to execute a beautiful ballet-like move while top-roping a mere 20 feel off the ground and quite another to know you’ve done it 20 feet out in front of your protection, 200 feet off the ground.

It is for just this reason that out-of-state instructors like Dobkin like to bring their clients to the Shawangunks. “It’s quite literally, the best place around,” he says.

Ross agrees. “There is an extraordinary variety of easy to moderate routes on high quality rock,” he says, “probably more than anywhere else in the country.”

The easier climbs also tend to be steeper than other areas and therefore provide more of the experience of “being out there” for the beginner. Ross believes the cliffs exude a sense of friendliness – there is little treacherously loose rock and “so many big horizontal holds.”

For many climbing may remain a form of recreation better left to souls braver or less wise. But for those who do try, there is an exhilaration and sense of accomplishment hard to come buy in our modern society.

“Climbing is fun,” says Ross.

It must be. Why else would Fritz Wiessner still be doing it at 87? *8

*1 - Glenn D. Hoagland is the current Mohonk executive director.

*2 – The Mohonk Preserve no longer sells semi-annual permits and the numbers of climbers has vastly increased

*3 – Today, bouldering has come into its own as a separate sport as well.

*4 – Today Ross operates High Angle Adventures, Inc. , overseeing a staff of  six  climbing  instructors.

*5 – Adjust for inflation and try not to cry.

*6 – Not so mon cher.

*7 – See *5

*8 – Wiessner died after suffering a series of strokes at age 88.

On the Face of It: A guide for beginners

Knowing how it feels to face execution, you stare blankly at the rope, a strange red umbilical cord leading up from your waist. Lear patterns dapple the rocks with swaying shadows, and you become acutely aware of the insect life a few square feet of earth can hold.

            “On belay!” The cry bounces down the rocks like a falling man.

            “Climbing!” Another fine mess you’ve gotten into. Taking a deep breath, you flex you fingers and give terra firma on last loving look.

            A strange thrill courses through your body as you start up, feet groping for tiny groves and juts that amazingly support your weight. Your hands move from hold to hold. You watch them as if they were something apart. They hesitate. Stop. Search shakily before moving on.

            The few feet of rock before you has become the world. It never occurs to you to look down. There is only up. Only handholds and footholds and that few feet of bare rock.

            Soon you reach your first protection, a wedge-shaped piece of metal called a chock that is jammed into a crack. A nylon sling is fixed to the chock, clipped to the rope by a carabiner, an unbelievably versatile oval metal ring with a spring-loaded gate.

            This system of chocks, slings, and carabiners is the lead climber’s sole protection against falling. As he ascends, he places chocks wherever he can, running his end of the rope through a carabiner before moving on.

            As the second, it is your job to remove the protection as you ascend. You study this first one a moment, then slide it easily out of the crack, clipping it to a sling about your neck. Smiling, you think how good you are at this, By the time you’ve cleaned the second piece, visions of Everest are dancing in your head.

            This cockiness lasts until you discover that somehow you’ve managed to wander off the route and find yourself looking down at a chock you’ve climbed past. You make sure of your footing and reach down, twisting grotesquely in the effort to stay on the rock. Fingers stretch and tremble, stretch and tremble…It’s…just…out…of…reach, tickling the tips…There! Got it! Now just pull…Damn! Won’t budge. Finally, after a good deal of cursing, tugging, grunting, and twisting, it pulls free.

            The climb takes a turn to the right, snug inside a crevice. You are unaware of how high you are climbing, until you reach the top and the valley explodes beneath you. As you step onto the belay ledge and meet your smiling partner, a plane flies by – below you. Panic starts as an icy tingle in your toes, rushing to your head like an avalanche in reverse.

            As you belay the leader up the second pitch –letting out or taking in rope to protect both of you from falling – you study your leader’s every move in an effort to forget the panorama you know looms behind, and more importantly, below you. You try to remember what led you here. Your first day at the beginner rock, learning to tie in, nervously asking everyone to check you knot. About to laugh at this memory, you suddenly realize where you are now and stupidly check to see if you are really tied in.

            Suddenly, you become absorbed in the belay. You study your hands as the rope passes through them. Funny, you didn’t feel any pain on the way up, but they are bleeding in a number of places. You glance warily at your anchors, a tree on the left, a chock on the right. You know that if not for those two, the leader could pull you off the ledge if he fell. The tree doesn’t look like it’s going anyplace anyway…but then again, what do you know? Look where you are now.

            You think about all the trouble you had remembering the various signal calls on that first day. Then you are snapped from your reverie, as if on cue, by the call, “Off belay!”

            “Belay off!” You remove the sticht plate, which jams the rope if there is a sudden jerk, and clip it to your sling with a carabiner. The rope starts moving until it tugs at the tree.

            At last. You undo the rope from the tree and chock, assemble the gear around your shoulders and face up to the second pitch.

            This one you tackle like the hundred-yard dash, hardly pausing to tear the protection from the rock, not daring to look anywhere but at those few feet of rock before your eyes. Driven by fear, it never occurs to you that taking it more slowly would be safer.

            You reach the belay ledge panting. Your partner laughs. “You didn’t have to run.” Shrugging in embarrassment, you smile weakly.

            Then you do what you must do but fear most. You look around.

            Your heart drops the 200 feet down the cliff face as you realize that not only is this ledge half the size of the last one and twice as high, but there isn’t even a wall between you and the abyss.

            You sit, feet dangling in space. Above, three turkey vultures circle the next pitch. Is that an omen or what? But just when the fear is about to turn to terror, it passes. As if you are part of a post card, you study the view with a detached appreciation. You nod to yourself and enjoy the sights, feeling oddly at home tied to a tree 200 feet from earth. The vultures no longer portend evil. They are kindred spirits.

            As the leader mounts the next pitch, once again you are absorbed in his every move. But this time it is genuine interest, not fear.

            When he signals that he is off belay, you are eager to climb, attacking this pitch with a cocksure bravado that will lead to your final initiation as a climber. Moving quickly, gliding through moves like you knew what you were doing, you suddenly realize you don’t. At least you remember the right signal as you lunge for a hold that is not there.


            As it happens, nothing crosses your mind, no life history, no fear, nothing. In fact, the rope has stopped you so quickly that you have already climbed past the point you fell from before you even realized what had happened.

            You’ve always known the rope would hold you. But now you know the rope will hold you. You feel a closeness for your belayer that is unparalleled. After all, how many people have actually saved your life?

            The last 20 feet is easy. “Buckets all the way.”

            At the top you know you will do it again and again. And if someone asks you why, it probably has something to do with that ear-to-ear grin you can’t seem to wipe off your face.

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