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The Shawangunks form a precipitous ridgeline slicing through the farmland of New Paltz just 85 miles north of New York City. The cliffs top out at around 250 feet—short by Western standards—but the beta-intensive, powerful climbing on the area’s overhanging quartzite crushes sensitive egos. Heat and humidity make summer climbing frustrating, as afternoon storms often hit the cliff; snow blankets the rock in winter; and showers and bugs make spring unpleasant. But in the fall, the air is crisp and clear, and a carpet of deciduous hardwood foliage covers the approaches. It’s then that the 47-mile ridge turns into a bucolic climbing paradise.
Gallery: 7 Classic Gunks 5.10s
Stannard’s Roof (5.10b)
Jobi Gabrielli gets horizontal on Stannard’s Roof (5.10b), an 18-foot reach of faith that sums up what the Gunks are known for: great but strenuous gear, an
“I guess, here it goes” attitude, and a quirky history.
John Stannard established Surprise Roof at 5.9 in the early 1970s and named the route for a surprise awaiting those who followed. Back then, a 150-pound detached block rested precariously on a great hold at the lip of pitch two, just waiting for some unlucky fool to dislodge it and decapitate anyone unfortunate enough to be below.
Nowadays, a jug hides somewhere at the end of that blind reach; with the “surprise” gone, the climb has been renamed and upgraded to 5.10b. Don’t worry if you lob off—after all, as Stannard mused, “New things are done by simply trying them again and again until one succeeds.”
Fat City (5.10d)
Fat City, here climbed by Caitlin Makary, follows the overhanging tidal wave of orange rock plainly visible from Route 44/55, but anyone who wants glory on this certified classic up some of the steepest stone in the Northeast has to do “the move.” At many crags, a bomber bolt would provide a sense of security at the second-pitch crux, but tradition rules here and so you get a pin instead. Blessed with what unofficial Northeast climbing historians Guy and Laura Waterman called “uncanny strength and endurance in extremis,” the long-armed Gary Brown drove in that rusty relic in 1968 while clinging to “the minutest of holds.” This flexing artifact has held many falls, but no one who has ever stretched to make that clip wants to test the metallurgic integrity of a piton that’s probably older than your parents.
Welcome to the Gunks (5.10b)
At a cliff known for horizontal incuts and enormous edges, the two most disappointing slopers in the whole Trapps sit right next to each other on this climb. Crux two of five done, all Mac Horgan has to do now is pull three successive roofs for a send of Welcome to the Gunks. In true Gunks fashion, a hard-to-leave no-hands rest separates each of these difficulties. Stances like these are great rest stops for leaders to pause and catch their breath, but it also means that methodical onsight climbers better have patient belayers below.
This 140-foot testpiece used to necessitate a pair of solid 5.10 climbers—both leader and follower. However, a recently installed bolt anchor at the 99-foot mark lets you do it in single-pitch-cragging style, though this does not change the runout over an ankle-breaking ledge 15 feet below those slopers.
Graveyard Shift (5.10d)
Dustin Portzline stretches it out on Graveyard Shift, a route that, if 5.10 ever had an exit exam, would be it! Don’t be put off by the name, however; it references the overnighters worked by one of the first ascentionists, not the route’s potential lethality. Graveyard Shift has it all: small but solid gear that’s always a little farther away than you’d like, slightly worse holds than you’d hoped for, and a deceptively easy roof guarding the finish. There really isn’t much more that could be fit into a classic 80-foot traditional pitch.
The route’s opening 30 feet isn’t technically hard (5.8+), but the moves are insecure, and dodgy gear means that you’re into groundfall territory until attaining a small no-hands rest. After this, delicate footwork leads to a balancey pull on small holds protected by a difficult-to-place small cam. Even past this crux the route remains hard, but as the pump grows so do the holds through the final shield of rock. A critical .75 cam over the lip protects the imposing final roof, which at 5.8 makes for a satisfying victory lap before the chains.
Erect Direction (5.10c)
Kathy Karlo onsights a route that she was “intimidated” by for a long time, belayed by trusted ropemate Justin Seweryn.
At a cliff stacked with dozens of destination-worthy 5.10s, John Stannard and John Bragg’s three-pitch Erect Direction (5.10c) just might be the 5.10 at the Gunks. With geometric corners slicing up brilliant white rock, Erect Direction pummels its way around, through, and over some of the steepest roofs to be found.
The route begins with a perfect warm-up pitch of steep 5.8 to the Grand Traverse Ledge. Hard pulling and a cramped stance under another roof lead to tricky, tiny gear before oozing right to a hanging belay under a massive, menacing ceiling. Catch your breath, cast out into big air, get aggressive, make a long reach, and keep pulling because this is what Gunks 5.10 feels like.
Falled on Account of Strain (5.10b)
There’s not much better than a bomber piece at the lip of a roof, but Wade Spiner knows that getting horizontal and hanging in there to clip it can be just as hard as executing the actual moves.
Russ Raffa and Eliott Williams’s 1977 two-pitch, 160-foot Falled on Account of Strain exemplifies Gunks climbing. An 80-foot ropelength of thin face on widely spaced crimps wanders up 5.9+ terrain to a belay under the three inverted stair-stepped roofs. Hidden jugs make hashing out the beta difficult, and the pump builds while you weave through the roofs. The fatigue mounts quickly, so move fast or you’ll soon discover the reason for this route’s name.
5.10 at the Gunks is usually technical or roofy, but Justin Seweryn knows that Ridiculissima instead offers a New River Gorge–style experience: big moves to good holds, and all the gear you can place. Legendary polar explorer Ernest Shackleton has all the beta you need for this: endurance.
Insecure 5.8 climbing on silica-cemented pebbles brings you to an optional belay where you can pause and contemplate the wisdom of stepping off into the steep wall of incut holds. Midway through the crux sequence, you’ll realize that this is the beginning of a marathon, and it only ends with the salvation of a massive belay stance 160 feet up. This is the High Exposure Ledge, the finest perch in the 1.5-mile-long cliffband. Several routes converge here, giving you many choices for the last, 80-foot pitch. Take the easy road up High Exposure (5.6) and see why an entire photomontage of “the move” on pitch two was published in 1999 in Rock and Ice, or saddle up and see what 5.11 is all about by throwing yourself at Enduro Man’s Longest Hangout. If these options are too crowded or too hard, peer right around the corner and look for the lesser-traveled 5.8 last pitch of Doubleissima.
Click any photo to see the full-size version.
Beyond the landscape, the Gunks are renowned for multi-pitch moderates. There isn’t another crag around where you can debate the 10 best 5.6s. At the other end of the spectrum, a new generation is establishing heady testpieces in a flurry of boldness unseen since the early 1980s. New lines like Things That Go Hump in the Night (5.12d X), Over the Moon (5.13c), and Brozone (5.14b) prove that the Gunks are far from tapped out. There are a lot of reasons why a well-traveled IFMGA guide like Silas Rossi calls this place “the best damn crag in the world” and chooses to call it home.
“Although the Gunks are known for spectacular moderates,” the local hardman and co-author of a forthcoming guidebook Andy Salo points out, “the most prevalent grade is 5.10.” The grade came here in 1960, when Phil Jacobus linked a few thin edges on a smooth ramp, then continued up 50 feet of largely unprotected terrain for a ground-up ascent of Jacob’s Ladder (5.10b). The next year, Jim McCarthy freed the aid lines Retribution (5.10b) and Nosedive (5.10b). He also bagged Tough Shift (5.10a), a route off which I took a humbling 46-foot swan dive while breaking into the grade a dozen years ago. I had sticky rubber and nuts and cams, but in the 1960s McCarthy had only glorified hiking boots and a hammer and pitons.
“5.10 in the Gunks is relatively serious business,” says local legend Russ Clune. On most Gunks 5.10s, the moves feel audacious because you often place your protection in inobvious horizontal cracks or blindly stuff it in above the lip of a roof. So don’t expect to push your grade—or to easily pull through on gear. The upside is that even the tiniest pro is reliable. This sedimentary rock was formed over 400 million years ago when quartz pebbles got cemented together by quartz sand and buried by a layer of quartz—locals say the unique, erosion-resistant stone is made of “quartz and more quartz.” Notably, it ranks an 8 on the Mohs scale (granite is around 7, and diamond is a 10), meaning a well-placed micro- cam or brassie will hold anything.
The rock quality comes in handy when climbing the Gunks’ notorious overhanging terrain. Gunks climbing often means launching into the steeps with a reach of faith and a prayer for a jug up there somewhere. And more often than not, that incut hold just over the lip is a horizontal that takes perfect gear—if you can hang out and place it. A route like Falled on Account of Strain (5.10b) is a prime example. Yet some of the best climbing also involves tiny crimps, delicate footwork, and small pro on vertical terrain, like that found on Graveyard Shift (5.10d) and Never Never Land (5.10a). Meanwhile, if you want to get off the ground with multi-pitch climbing and see more vultures than people, find your way up to the Grand Traverse Ledge and experience the alabaster rock of Face to Face (5.10b) or Amber Waves of Pain (5.10a). The cliff is known for exposure, and these routes exemplify “out there.”
Being within just a few hours’ drive of more than 50 million people in the Boston-to-DC megalopolis and less than two hours from New York City means the crags can be crowded, and it’s not uncommon to see parties lined up five deep for classics like High Exposure (5.6). Even on the busiest of weekends, however, you’ll likely encounter very few people waiting to plow through the roofs of Erect Direction (5.10c) or Welcome to the Gunks (5.10b). 5.10 is a sweet spot here, with tons of classics at the grade, most uncrowded.
Easy access, combined with sheer quantity and world-class climbing, is why many prominent first ascentionists like Dick Williams have made the Gunks their home. Williams’s guidebooks have been the journal of record since the 1970s, and for more than 30 years he was the primary owner of the local gear shop, Rock and Snow. As one of the nation’s original gear stores, it remains climber owned and independently operated. Nearly every wall, even in the bathroom, has a photo of someone climbing on, or falling off, a Gunks route. As for Williams, these days you can find him at the cliff just about any Sunday, leading an all-volunteer squad moving talus with pulleys and winches to improve the approach trails along Undercliff Road. His local street address is 510, a number that he calls “the perfect grade.”
David Lucander is a college professor, climbing ranger, father, and husband. He has climbed nearly 500 routes at his beloved Gunks.
Chris Vultaggio is a photographer and filmmaker with an affinity for roof cracks. His new film project, Our Land, raises awareness about Bears Ears National Monument.