When my wife was offered work as a dancer and choreographer in New York City, I balked. I grew up in Boise, Idaho, and most of my life has been spent rock climbing in the West, enjoying wide-open spaces and amazing geological landscapes from Canada to Mexico, and everywhere in between—what could the City That Never Sleeps offer to me? But this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Molly—she’s aspired to live and dance in NYC her entire life—so I yielded to her dreams, and we began our journey east.
I had just one condition: I simply couldn’t live in the city. The thought of being stuck in that teeming, confusing turmoil of endless city blocks, slimy humidity, and fast-talking New Yorkers didn’t sit well with me. So we reached a compromise: We would rent a place in New Paltz, 90 miles north of New York City, and for most of the week, while Molly danced in the Big Apple, I’d be free to go climbing.
New Paltz sits right below the crown jewel of the state (at least in climbers’ eyes): the Shawangunk Mountains. On the surface, they appear like minuscule hills, compared to the West’s soaring, rugged peaks. But their sides are lined with exquisite quartz conglomerate cliffs, offering some of the country’s most jug-filled, steep, exposed, and intimidating climbs. The Gunks draw visitors from all over the U.S., but it’s the distinctive local culture, sandbagged routes, and unparalleled vistas that will keep climbers here for an extended stay.
I took one recon trip to the Gunks before we moved east, and when I first ventured to the cliffs on that crowded weekend, I was unprepared for the hordes of climbers lining up for 5.3 and 5.5 routes along the carriage-road access trail. Spectacular rock climbing I’d expected, but who were all these climbers with El Capitan–ready racks and Nalgene bottles clipped to their harnesses? And where the hell did all these millipedes come from? I couldn’t even walk down the trail without stepping on these ancient crawlers.
I also noticed that Gunks climbers had the habit of clipping guidebooks to their harnesses and consulting beta mid-route. I have to admit: I had spend so much time at crags where most climbers warmed up on 5.10 or 5.11 that it seemed ridiculous to see people hang-dogging their way through multihour sieges of 60- foot 5.7s. I started referring to the carriage-road behavior as the Gunk Show. If they’d just shed three-quarters of those shiny pink Tricams, they might enjoy the climbing more, I thought.
But my smug attitude quickly dissolved after I continued down the carriage road and tasted the Gunks’ big roofs, horizontal cracks, rusty pitons, and runout routes for myself. I attempted to warm up on Directississima (aka Doubleissima), but got pumped fiddling in some marginal gear, and then whipped. I hadn’t fallen on a 5.10 since my first year of climbing. That flash-pump introduction to the fabled Gunks sandbagging quickly had me changing my tune about the local climbers.
Out West, I’d heard a lot of talk about the Gunks having the best easy routes on the planet, and it’s true that the airy moderates are amazing. But I eventually decided that the Gunks’ most brilliant selection of climbs lies in the 5.10 range. Nowhere else have I experienced the diversity, position, and density of impossibly steep 5.10s that I found in New York. I enjoyed the climbing so much that I chose to ascend the same routes over and over. Dialing in every piece of protection, savoring every move. It feels like I packed a lifetime’s worth of 5.10 climbing into the 18 months we lived in New Paltz.
As you might expect, you shouldn’t take a Gunks 5.10 lightly, even if you’re used to onsighting harder routes at your home crag. While these routes shine with unparalleled brilliance, they too are vulnerable to the Gunks’ ever-present sandbag factor; they require solid traditional climbing skills—bolts are not to be found!—and a head for running it out when necessary. If you’re solid on 5.11 sport climbs, you’ll find a top-shelf experience attempting to onsight the 5.10 routes here. But if the thought of sending 5.10 first-try sounds formidable, I’ll let you in on a secret: Many of these routes can be accessed by doing easier adjacent climbs and setting up a toprope, allowing you to work the bouldery cruxes and practice the gear placements safely. In this way, you can work up to the redpoint, the same way you might at a sport crag anywhere else. And I guarantee you one thing: A competent 5.10 Gunks climber can conquer the vertical world.
I had not expected to be so engrossed in the Gunks’ 5.10 paradise. But while Molly’s dancing rooted us in New York for a year and a half, the Gunks became my home. I had arrived as a stranger in a strange land, but soon I was infused with a deeper appreciation of the Gunks’ unique personality. I’ll never pretend to be a local, but my dozens of ascents of each classic route left me with a local’s expertise, which I’m pleased to share in this showcase of classic Gunks 5.10s. Climb within your limits, stay safe, and, above all, enjoy the Gunk Show.