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Twenty-five years ago, Dominic Azoto, a dedicated trad climber in the Gunks, kept finding himself looking at plumb-line routes at remote cliffs, wondering, Who did all these?
“They were huge roofs and steep faces all over the Shawangunks region,” he says today, adding that many “are pretty hair-raising, and so out there and backcountry, and scary.” He had been finding routes by Rich Romano, and wondered, Who is this guy?
“I approached him and met him,” he recalls, “and started filming.”
Romano, a strong and controlled yet very bold climber, established some 80 routes at the daunting Millbrook area alone in the Shawangunks, of New Paltz, New York. Most of them are 5.10-5.11 and some 5.12, and many have an R rating. Millbrook was nicknamed the Bank, and he, its manager.
In 1997 Azoto filmed Romano in a packed day’s worth of climbing at Millbrook. Then? He forgot about the footage, which lay dormant. Based in Gardiner, near the Gunks, Azoto has become a director of photography in New York City, and a professional camera and drone operator. He has filmed for “Impractical Jokers” and the “Rachael Ray” series, and is a field DP for “The Drew Barrymore Show.”
In 2019 he dug up the old footage and strung it together. He thought, Wow, Rich is still around and doing it. There are still routes of his that haven’t been repeated.
Romano, age 65 and also of Gardiner, is an active climber, a registered nurse who works in hospice, a classical guitarist, and one of those creative and outspoken originals who make the climbing community so rich. The 38-minute film Azoto next put together, “A Day With the Bank Manager,” documents the work and approach of an unsung pioneer and celebrates a character. Romano was a “master,” as his climbing partner Jim Munson says in the film, at placing tricky gear. He was strict about ethics and climbing ground-up. He was opinionated, at times volatile, wildly energetic.
Says Azoto, “He’s still at it, he’s still climbing at a decent level, he’s still using a swami” belt—instead of a harness. “He’s still set in his ways.”
Azoto and his editor Peter Darmi have referred in a website post to “dragging” their subject out of the shadows.
Romano in an email calls himself the film’s “reluctant” star, having always “avoided the spotlight. The thing that got me to sign on,” he continues, “was to protect Millbrook from [the] modern development that is rampant in climbing now. Millbrook is the only major cliff in the Gunks that doesn’t have any bolts, and I’m on a mission to keep it that way.”
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In picking the project back up, Azoto rallied the community. Half a dozen climbers including Brett Lowell (cinematographer/ director and a founder of Reel Rock) as a camera operator came out to the cliffs, while Darmi, a Grammy-award winning audio engineer, would offer film editing and sound design. The outstanding local climbing talent Andy Salo agreed to be filmed on the second ascent of the sustained 5.12s Dark Continent, FA 1983 by Romano-Munson, at Bonticou (45 minutes off the beaten track), and Manifest Destiny, FA 1983 by Jeff Gruenberg and Jack Mileski, re-ascended by Romano after a hold broke, at Millbrook (hour approach). The strong female climber Whitney Boland, then also a Gunks/Millbrook regular, was asked but unavailable.
Subsequent interviews were held with Munson; Rich Gottlieb, owner of the Rock and Snow store, a community center in New Paltz; Christian Fracchia, an area teacher, historian and author of the Gunks apps; and Dustin Portzline, a young area guide.
When Portzline in the film goes out to try the unrepeated Keelhauled, a dark and cobwebby 1997 Romano cave-offwidth boulder problem at Lost City, he says, “You don’t ever see anyone climbing on it.” He muses that he’s climbed a number of Romano’s routes, “and it seems like he likes to punish himself.”
The boulder problem, about 40 feet and turning a roof, looks as brutal as it sounds. Actually, more so. A great battle ensues.
Afterward, wearily shucking his gloves, Portzline says, “He taped up, right? I mean, he’s a loony tune, but he’s not that crazy, right?”
Cut to Romano today: “No tape.”
The repeat subsequently fell to Portzline, with a third ascent by Kathy Karlo, last year.
“A Day With the Bank Manager” took about a year to make, beginning prior to the pandemic and continuing through the summer after COVID hit.
“I holed up in my house and just cut the thing,” Azoto says. He also shot the drone aerials that summer. During lockdown, Azoto would drop things off on Darmi’s porch, and they shared material electronically.
Azoto funded the film; the others all volunteered. “They did it out of a love of climbing,” he says. “It was a community effort. He’s a character in the Gunks that everyone loves. Everyone wanted to hear a story about Rich. It’s also a story about preservation.”
That locked-down autumn, the film showed once—outdoors, limited seating—at the 2020 Gunks Climbing Film Festival, and it aired again at the virtual iteration of the fest last year. This year, Azoto has put it on Vimeo for free viewing.
See the film here, and watch for all the climbers’ names in the credits at the end.
If you want to see other classic Gunks footage, starting with a very young Scott Franklin taking a winger, see Azoto’s old “Flight Time” here. Also featured are Munson, Gottlieb and the longtime outdoor-industry stalwart Al Diamond.
Opening photo: Andrew Salo repeats Manifest Destiny, a 1983 Jeff Gruenberg-Jack Mileski FA that was re-ascended by Rich Romano after a hold broke, at Millbrook, the Shawangunks. PHOTO: BRETT LOWELL (ALL IMAGES FROM THE FILM)