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
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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.