Learning to love 5.10 in the Gunks
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.
(Click through to see photos.)
The first time I climbed Le Teton (5.9) and traversed left to finish on that route’s unbelievable jugs, I wondered why people didn’t just climb the overhanging arête below for the full 100 feet. After trying it and realizing it was indeed an amazing variation, I dubbed it Tetonia (5.10b), although it likely had been climbed before. It rapidly became one of my favorites on the 5.10 circuit. If you’re feeling bold, you can solo the 50-foot, 5.4 start to gain the belay ledge; use a three-inch cam for an anchor. A hand-sized cam feels really good at the crux traverse leftward to gain the hanging arête at three-quarters height.
The author on pitch two of Erect Direction (5.10c). This climb offers unforgettable 5.12-style position on a 5.10 route. The ceiling is intimidating, but the crux is actually getting into and out of a lower roof traverse. A No. 4 Camalot protects the cryptic moves into the traverse: Layback the right-facing block, sliding in a right kneebar, and then reach deep and high on the right side of the block for a hidden sidepull with your right hand. Crab-crawl rightward, saving a tight-hands cam to place as you exit the roof on the polished moves into the stem corner. When you get to the huge ceiling above (pictured), just lean back and reach until you latch onto the biggest jugs imaginable, swing your feet out, and then lock in those heel hooks!
Bradley Heller on Bird Cage (5.10). A Henry Barber classic, this pitch presents excellent 5.9 climbing up a beautiful corner that protects with finger-sized and smaller cams. Above, a delicate polished traverse rightward guards a committing roof finish. A small, fixed nut protects the initial moves out the large roof; use a large sling and be aware of the potential to spatter yourself on the steep slab if you blow it.
Jules Cho flowing through the moves on Feast of Fools (5.10b). Bring an orange Metolius for a strange, but great, horizontal placement out left under this intimidating roof. A key, four-inch cam backs you up perfectly above, before the twin, antiquated pins at the crux. Clip and equalize the pins, then drop the clutch through the crux. Don’t hesitate—you’ll be rewarded shortly with a near-no-hands rest.
Peter Vintoniv ponies up on Stirrup Trouble (5.10b R). Note the bouldery chasm start off the belay block; if you choose this adventurous route, the start is virtually unprotectable. Have a 0.3 Camalot ready for the horizontal right above the leg-breaking territory. Bold and brilliant climbing continues above, with long reaches, scrunchy traverse moves, an awkward bulge, pumpy roof, and cryptic, crimpy finish. Save your 2.5-, 3-, and 4-inch cams for the natural anchor.
Brian Kim finds his way on The Winter Direct (5.10+). Micro nuts, small cams, and three-dimensional thinking keep this route’s lower, technically demanding corner safe. Tie off the protruding pin at the top of the corner, and then climb through blocky stone to the boulder problem finish. Double up with finger-sized cams for protection in the horizontals on the finishing moves. The Winter starts left and finishes to the right of The Spring; The Winter Direct combines the first half of The Winter and the second half of The Spring.