Welcome to Climbing in the Gunks – A Lesson in History

The Gunks are considered one of the most iconic and well preserved trad climbing destinations in the United States. Join us in this five part article series on Gunks climbing taking you through the history, beta, ethics and routes that make the Shawangunks Ridge in New York state  worthy of multiple trips.

This article series is written by pro photographer and climbing athlete as well as a Gunks local – Chris Vultaggio. This series is sponsored and made possible by Minnewaska Lodge, Clemson Bros. Brewery and Rock & Snow.

If this is your first time to the Gunks you’re in the right place! – Fret not old trad daddies, there’s plenty in this introductory installment for you too.

Say the name Gunks to any non-local climber and they’ll spit back a Rorschach series of replies: roofs, sandbags, tricams, crowds, and more sandbags. True to some degree, but as a visiting climber you can navigate the terrain at any grade and be climbing like a local in no time. But before you rack up and go heading to High E, let’s look at a little history.

Long before micro-cams and TC Pros came the iron age of pitons and body belays, which in 1935 ushered in the early climbing of the Gunks courtesy of Dresden, Germany, resident Fritz Weissner. Fritz, rumor has it, sighted a beacon of white shining quartzite from across the Hudson River. With partners John and Peggy Navas, Fritz arrived and authored Old Route (5.5) at Millbrook – just as the seeds of World War II were being sown in his homeland.

Gunks Native History

But long before WWII there was another war, with the Muhheakunnuk (Hudson River) Valley set as the backdrop. The mid 1600s found Dutch settlers battling the Lenape Native Americans during the Esopus Wars, which were brought to a close with the burning of a Native American fort at the base of the ridge we climbers have come to know so well. The burning created a fierce smoke in these lands, which was given a name “in the smoky air,” by the Lenape people and translates as “Shawangunk.”*

A second and more likely origin, according to Micmac descendent and Native American author/professor Evan Pritchard, translates “Shawangunk” into the “land where you go south.” The author likens this translation to a navigational reference.

After the Wars the Dutch ceded the land to the English, who brokered a truce between the Dutch and the Lenape, etching a trade corridor through the region.

Today, remnants of the original settlers remain, as does the reminder that we as climbers are practicing our crafts on lands that have an indigenous history far deeper than we may realize. Something that deserves recognition by all who pass through this wild and magical landscape.

Looking out southwest over the Shawangunk Ridge
Looking southwest out over the Shawangunk Ridge

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Gunks Climbing History

The early days of Fritz and company yielded many classics, including the superlative High Exposure (5.6). When you get the chance to rope up for the money pitch, be sure to imagine yourself in the role of the first ascensionists, with no more than hemp ropes, pitons, and sneakers as you quest into the unknown.

Traditional techniques, along with “the leader must not fall” mantra, relied largely on pins, bongs, and pitons. While these were designed to be removed by early climbers, relics stuck in place still may be found throughout the cliffs; caveat emptor – clip at own risk!!

The iron age of the mid-20th century was dominated by two groups: the Appies and their antithesis the Vulgarians. The Appies, named for the Appalachian Mountain Club, were the by-the-book resident climbers who took climbing quite seriously. Autonomy in the Gunks initially required passing through their tutelage, as well as a series of exams to display climbing competency. One of which was a belay test where the applicant would have to stop a falling weight strung over a piece of wood near Ken’s Crack. At nearly 70 years ago the Appies likely had the very first belay test – a far cry from modern gym tests.

Before long the Vulgarians entered the picture, led by guidebook author Dick Williams. This ragtag group of climbers were poor, strong, and determined to undermine the stodgy Appie ways. They accomplished this through brazen displays of counter culture, fueled by boldness, booze, and copious amounts of narcotics. Risky climbs, nude ascents, and their trademark vulgarity were met with disdain by the Appies but to no avail; the Vulgarians were here to stay and eventually earned their place in Gunks climbing, dismantling the Appie system of climbing certification.

Among the Vulgarians of note is Richard Goldstone, who at over 70 still has forearms most climbers would covet. Aside from authoring the testpiece 10d Coexistence (in 1968), and introducing chalk and bouldering to the region, Richard was the first climber to break free the iron shackles of the piton age, leading the first all-nut ascent in the Gunks – on Double Crack (5.8).

It wasn’t only style that dictated the change to free climbing. As the 1970s dawned so did the conservation movement in climbing, and pounding-in and removing iron protection was taking its toll on the rock across the US. Anyone who’s jammed their way up Serenity Crack in Yosemite can attest to the lasting damage.

Old relics of Gunks climbing history

Local legend John Stannard joined climbing icon Yvon Chouinard in leading the charge to protect cliffs, and launched the hammer-less revolution.

Free climbing was here to stay, and the Gunks began to evolve into the cornerstone of Northeastern US traditional rock climbing. Traditional being a fiercely-guarded sentiment, a vision of John Stannard’s that has been upheld for decades.

At the Gunks you’ll find an endless supply of roofs, cam-eating horizontal cracks, and world-class moderates. What you won’t find, however, are many bolts – and not one single sport route. The so-called Bolt Wars of the 1980s had warring factions of would-be-bolters and traditional purists at odds, with bolts showing up and being chopped. As land manager, the Mohonk Preserve stepped in and declared an official moratorium on placing new protection bolts, which stands to this day.

In effect this keeps the Gunks largely in its original state, and offers something for everyone, including those looking to test their mettle on sparsely-protected testpieces scattered throughout the major cliffs of the area. Those seeking reasonably-protected routes can rest assured however, as G-rated routes abound through all grades.

Although there have been many guidebooks since Art Gran’s original in 1964, there has been a strong local tradition to preserve a few Gunks climbing areas – and keep them guidebook-free. This serves multiple purposes, the first and more obvious a purpose of conservation. Word-of-mouth keeps the traffic down, but chances are if you ask a local or at the local mountaineering shop (Rock and Snow) for info they’ll happily comply.

The second purpose meets more of Stannard’s vision, and that is to preserve the original elements of exploration in climbing. When asked recently what he feels is missing from the modern climbing experience, Rich Goldstone replied with a thoughtful and simple “risk.”

Without risk, climbers are stunted in their learning experience. Lost City, long-revered as preserved and sacred place in the Gunks, is without a published guidebook. It is a perfect training ground for developing climbers in search of boldness. If offers a place to adventure without specific beta on approaches, gear, safety ratings, grades, cruxes, belays, anchors, descents, and simply cast off from the ground, much as the first ascensionists did in a time long, long ago and far, far before the mobile guidebook apps of today.

Alexis Krauss gunks climbing in Lost City
Alexis Krauss climbing in the Lost City section of the Gunks

So, when you get here, go after your classics. Make the move on High E and get the photo on CCK. Swing from the Dangler and join the Uberfall toprope party. But then do yourself a favor and take advantage of what the Gunksmclimbing community worked so hard to preserve and protect. Pick a line in the Trapps that has no stars and head off on a chalk-free adventure. Make the hike to Millbrook and pick one of the uber-classic well-protected routes (yes there are a few) and sample some of the finest rock around, and you’ll likely be the only party there.

Or go off in search of adventure.

* For more information on the Lenape tribes seek out authors such as Evan Pritchard, Jean Soderlund, and John Bierhorst.  

Welcome to Climbing in the Gunks Series:
Read Part #2: Gear & Logistics
Read Part #3: Routes
This article series is written by pro photographer, climbing athlete as well as Gunks local – Chris Vultaggio.
Support our Article Sponsors:
Looking for a place to stay at the base of the cliffs? Check out the Minnewaska Lodge.
Looking to toast to that send, grab a pint at Clemson Bros. Brewery.
Need to pick up a cam or area beta on Gunks climbing, stop in at Rock & Snow.

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