Rock Climbing in the Shawangunks

August 3, 2010

In 1935, long before nylon rope and webbing harnesses, Fritz Weissner began climbing in the Shawangunks, a series of cliffs located between the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River. A German immigrant living in New York City who was already a prominent climber, Weissner scaled the first routes on the now-popular Trapps and Sky Top peaks while harnessed by nothing more than a loop of hemp rope.

“It’s amazing to me to think about the first ascensionists,” says Bill Kopell, an AMC member who leads rock climbing trips in the Shawangunks with the Berkshire Chapter. “No guidebooks, no knowledge of how the route would go—and yet they did it!”

Seventy-five years after Weissner’s climbs, the Gunks, as the region is now lovingly nicknamed, is one of the few northeastern sites to rival the appeal of Yosemite and other fabled climbing destinations of the West. The 3-mile-long Trapps Cliff, the crown jewel of the Gunks, is a destination for beginners and experienced climbers alike. The area now draws 50,000 climbers annually.

Trapps Cliff is accessible from the Mohonk Preserve. The closest parking is in the West Trapps lot on Route 44-55 (see Mohonk’s website for directions), but it’s a good idea for those who are new to the area to park at the visitor center (also on Route 44-55), where maps are available and rangers can answer questions. Mohonk charges an admission fee of $15 for climbers, with membership available for frequent visitors.

From the visitor center, follow the signs for the East Trapps Connector Trail, also known as the Stairmaster, and continue 0.25 mile to the dirt Carriage Road. Welcome—you are now in the middle of the Trapps. Many of the easier introductory climbs begin to the left of this intersection. Access trails to particular routes on the cliff are blazed clearly with yellow paint. Easy Overhang, a classic climb with a low grade of difficulty (5.2), can be reached from the second trail you pass while heading to the left from the Stairmaster.

It is important to have the right gear and to know all of the directions you need to get to—and onto—the route, so a guidebook and the company of an experienced Gunks climber are necessities for anyone planning to climb with ropes and other technical equipment in the area for the first time. The Climber’s Guide to the Shawangunks by Dick Williams and The Gunks Guide by Todd Swain are two trusted books. Professional climbing instruction and group guides are also available, with several nearby businesses offering options for varying ability levels.

New climbers—and those who want a different type of challenge—may want to try bouldering, a rope-less form of climbing limited to short, low climbs. Keep heading past Easy Overhang (away from the Stairmaster Trail) and along the base of the cliff for several minutes to the Uberfall, an extremely popular spot for bouldering, marked by a message board. You’ll likely find dozens of climbers, beginners and seasoned professionals alike, scaling rocks at every height. Specific bouldering “problems” can be found online at climbing websites and through conversation with other climbers.

Aside from the range’s fascinating history, there are many reasons for the popularity of the Gunks, not the least of which is the area’s proximity to New York City, and the vibrant, quirky atmosphere of the nearby town of New Paltz, N.Y. But the main source of the Gunks’ attraction for climbers stems from the rocks themselves. The cliffs are made of a brilliant white quartz conglomerate—a dense rock composed of decent-sized resistant quartz pebbles cemented together to provide perfectly-shaped handholds for visitors to the cliff-face. Two layers of this conglomerate cap the softer shale that resides beneath, protecting it from erosion and defining the magnificent cliffs that we see today.

The beauty of the area keeps Kopell coming back. He takes time to admire the scenery while on belay stance and recalls one of his favorite such moments: “I watched a chipmunk scamper along a rock face to a ledge. He sat on the ledge for a while, then scampered up the rock and away. It was a face that I certainly wouldn’t have been able to climb, and yet he took it at full speed.”

Info: The Mohonk Preserve, www.mohonkpreserve.org; Mountain Project, www.mountainproject.com.

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Emily Carbone

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.