The Gunks are considered one of the most iconic and well preserved trad climbing destinations in the United States. Join us for Part 3 of our series as we discuss the Gunks routes you should be adding to your tick list when planning your next Gunks climbing trip!
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.
The Gunks bears the standard warning of starting below your limit to get a feel for the grades; some visiting climbers may feel the lack of sustained routes makes the area feel a little soft, others may find the steep terrain intimidating and sandbagged. Either way, give a few easy classics a go before maxing at your limit. Keep in mind challenges like route finding and navigating protection nuances make grades feel far different from the gyms, so best to start easy. Finally, note that many Gunks routes were authored decades ago; a 5.10 put up in 1970, when it was the upper limit of grading, may feel stouter than a modern day 5.10…
With there being close to 1000 routes in the Gunks, this is clearly not and we do not consider this a definitive list of classics. With that being said, below are a few Gunks routes in each grade range to get yourself stoked on.
Easy Gunks Routes (5.3-5.5)
Casa Emilio: The Trapps (5.3)
Way down at the end of the cliff, this route would have one of the longest conga lines if it were less of a walk. But those willing to trek 30 or so minutes to the base of Casa E will be rewarded with a wonderful and likely quiet experience.
The route is in the Sleepy Hollow area of the Trapps, which you’ll find to be aptly named. Unlike the cleared trails upstream you’ll be ensconced in the green velveteen of our hardwood forests. The route is traveled enough to make route finding easy, and offers great climbing at the north end of the cliff with wonderful views of the Skytop tower.
Betty: The Trapps (5.3)
A longtime favorite, this was the first Gunks route with a female FA, by Betty Woolsey and Fritz Weissner in 1941. Betty is a wonderful example of how technical climbing can exist at the lower grades, and offers straightforward route finding, varied movement, and easy protection and descent (rappel anchors atop both pitches).
Betty is to the Gunks what the Flatirons are to Boulder; locals here have what’s called the Betty Challenge: running to the top of the Stairmaster trail, soloing the route, down climbing a nearby descent, and running down the Stairmaster. It’s the running down part that gets most folks – the record stands at somewhere around 10 minutes.
Gelsa: The Near Trapps (5.4)
Oh the exposure. Another 4-star classic, Gelsa takes a 3-pitch path through some incredible terrain, with steep and wild climbing for the grade. Be sure to get the top pitch on this one!
Gunks Moderates (5.6-5.8)
High Exposure: The Trapps (5.6)
This is THE route to do in the Gunks. While some may argue there are better at the grade, no trip is complete without a romp up High Exposure. The first pitch is a nice long warmup, with great holds and long stretch of face climbing that will deposit you at the High E ledge. This spacious belay has been the site of overnight raves, but if you’re lucky enough to have it to yourself you can enjoy a quiet moment above the trees, watching peregrines and turkey vultures soar below to calm your nerves before high-stepping your way onto the money pitch.
Miss Bailey: The Trapps (5.6)
When it’s busy look no further for one of the best at the grade in the Gunks. An unprotected chimney start guards the route, but if you’re comfortable with that style of climbing then this route has your name all over it. Technically pitch one (with careful rope management you can link all 3 pitches easily), the chimney narrows to a squeeze at a belay stance. Stem, squeeze, and spin your way up to the face above, which features a handcrack, some crimps, a pumpy traverse, and of course the trademark Gunks roof-pull.
I’ve yet to find a more varied route in the area, and this one comes with a wonderful view looking south to Millbrook.
Westward Ha!: Millbrook (5.7)
No Gunks routes list would be complete without a walk to the white cliff, and this route is often heralded as one of the best 5.7s around. Wonderful climbing aside, the lore of Millbrook adds a multitude of stars to the experience. A long hike leads to a remote position far above the Wallkill Valley, where the commitment continues as you rap down to the base of the route.
175’ of pristine rock awaits, much of which is a corner system so prominent you can make it out from the roads far below. Superlative stemming with great gear leads to the second pitch – a puzzler of a face climb with the exposure turned up to 11. It may not be the hardest of the moderates, but it certainly is among the most unique experiences you can have at the grade here.
Son of Easy O: Trapps (5.8)
A contender for the best in the Gunks. Although listed as two it is more often linked as one long pitch, and is action the whole way. Like many Gunks routes the crux is right off the ground, and once passing the 5.8 slick and technical start you’re rewarded with a wonderful mix of face and crack climbing, until you reach an obvious stance below a series of tiered roofs (back up the pin with a .4). Crank through on giant holds, escaping right earlier for an easier exit or pumping through the entire series for a more exposed finish.
End at a fixed pin anchor. Note: double 60m ropes or a 70m rope are necessary to descend!
Difficult Gunks Routes (5.9-5.11)
Keep on Struttin: The Trapps (5.9+)
This one will keep your attention. With multiple spicy sections, Struttin’ features a pumper of a hero hand traverse, overhung crimpy face climbing, and a technical corner that weaves through some of the best rock at the cliff. If you are lucky enough to top out in the Summer you’ll have a field of wild blueberries awaiting you.
Local’s note: Skip pitch one in favor of Erect Direction’s first pitch for an even better linkup.
Erect Direction: The Trapps (5.10c)
In the same area as the above route, ED offers cruxes that are both typical and atypical in the Gunks. Pitch one, which is a wonderful access pitch to the Grand Traverse (GT) Ledge, is one of the best 5.8s at the cliff. A long, steep, and featured crack takes you 100 feet above to the GT. Walk this ledge in either direction to access a multitude of 4-star routes (Moonlight, CCK, Face to Face, Amber Waves of Pain).
But if you’re continuing up ED then the path is painfully obvious, which starts with a 10c off-width move that leads to a strenuous crab crawl traverse. Once through these difficulties you’ll be hanging at an exposed belay just underneath a roof that seems waaaaaay too big to be 10a. But it is. As long as you do it right.
Pull the roof and manage the pump through the steep climbing above until you top out. A note of caution: give the second a loose belay (don’t pull them off the roof) and be sure they can self-rescue (many followers have gotten their chance to develop their prusik skills underneath the roof).
Fat City Direct: The Near Trapps (5.10d)
5.10 has long been the diamond grade in the Gunks, and this route is a fine example of why. Arrive at the base, look up and you’ll wonder how the monster roofs above can go at a human grade (those on the aforementioned Gelsa get a bird’s eye view of the action). Pitch one hosts the technical crux, some strenuous moves through steep terrain, but pitch two at 10b is the real business.
Mountain Project’s description of the second pitch crux varies from “clean air” to “definitely R” – either way be solid at the grade before heading out into the kaleidoscopic roofs. If you sent P1 then P2’s climbing will feel easy, with the crux likely keeping your pulse from exploding through your skin.
Yellow Wall: The Trapps (5.11c)
The roofs, the roofs, the roofs. First freed in 1977 by hardmen John Bragg and Russ Raffa, the Yellow Wall is often revered as one of the finest prizes in all the Gunks. Spicy in spots but airy falls make this one a good one to go for if you’re confident at the grade. It’s namesake buttress hosts a number of quality routes like Carbs and Caffeine (11a) and No Man’s Land (11b). A trifecta in a day would be a proud achievement for sure.
Have a solid second for this one!
Gunks Test Pieces (5.12-5.14)
The Sting: The Trapps (5.12a)
Without a single move easier than 5.10, this short but powerful route tests dynamic skill, technique, and endurance with the heartbreaker crux being the last move. Two sequences will get you to the finish ledge: bearing down on small holds or the famous all-points-off double swan dive dyno. Pick your poison at the top and feel the sting as you reach for the top anchor.
Kansas City: The Near Trapps (5.12c)
Another Gunks test piece roof, this one is impossible to miss on your way into the Nears. You’ll know you found it when you look right. see the chalked crack, and start sweating as you imagine yourself midway out the 20-foot roof. The crack takes just about every technique to navigate, whilst hanging upside down, but often has enough fixed gear to take the sting out of the pitch.
Brozone: The Trapps (5.14a)
Andy Salo’s crown jewel contribution to the Gunks, a wild and traditionally-protected line that makes its way through an unbelievable path of perfect white stone at the top of the Trapps. While few have earned the right to comment on the climbing, many have been inspired marveling at the steep buttress from neighboring routes.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, this is just a small taste of what can be climbed here. When you arrive into New Paltz be sure to pop into Rock and Snow and consider picking up these two Dick Williams guidebooks – The Climber’s Guide to the Shawangunks: The Trapps and The Near Trapps and Millbrook. They pair well reading while having a beer and burger at Clemson Brewery down the block!
Tell us – What are some of your favorite Gunks routes you love to climb in the comment section below!
Welcome to Climbing in the Gunks Series:
Read Part #1: A Lesson in History
Read Part #2: Gear & Logistics
This article series is written by pro photographer, climbing athlete as well as Gunks local – Chris Vultaggio.
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