An Introduction to the Shawangunks
Written by Elliot Becker
The Shawangunks (or more frequently, the Gunks), is the premier climbing crag in the Northeastern U.S. A number of factors conspire to make it so. First there is the location. Two hours from New York City and three to five from Boston, Philadelphia and DC means that for the entire BosWash Megalopolis, the Gunks is an accessible weekend trip for millions of people. The second factor is the quantity of climbing. The Gunks are composed of a number of continuous ridges that, in the case of the main ridge, the Trapps, extends for miles.
Hundreds of climbs are packed throughout this ridge, meaning that visitors have a wide range of routes available to climb in a small area. Adding to that you have the third factor: accessibility. Parking is relatively close to the Trapps, and a short steep walk takes you to well-maintained carriage road extending the length of the Trapps, with paths at intervals up the talus to the base of the wall. The final and most important factor of the Gunks’ virtues is the quality of the climbing. While many crags really shine at certain difficulty grades, the Gunks are composed of a wide range of routes that climbers at any skill level will find compelling. The Gunks are made of a quartz conglomerate, the most notable features of which are the ubiquitous horizontal cracks, ledges and roofs. As a consequence, even a beginning climber will often find themselves moving over airy and exposed routes more often associated with harder grades at other crags.
History plays a role in the importance of Gunks to climbing. The Gunks were first climbed by Fritz Wiessner in 1935. A short, bald German émigré, Wiessner cut a swathe of early first ascents across the U.S. and later the world. He was later joined by another Germanic emigree (from the former Austro-Hungary) Hans Kraus. The two of them put up many of the Gunks’ most classic routes between the 30s and 50s. During that period, grading was nonexistant or much less formal, and climbers climbed with boots or sneakers, protecting themselves with pitons hammered in place and ropes knotted around their waist. The most famous climb at the Gunks, High Exposure, was put up by Kraus in 1941. Because the routes were put up at a time when the grading scale did not go as high, and at a very different time climbing culture (the idea of climbing gym was decades in the future) they retain grades that often feel stiff compared with gyms or more recently developed crags.
The Gunks is almost entirely traditional (trad) climbing. While there is the occasional bolt as needed for protection, the Gunks have retained a very traditional ethic regarding bolting. Further, many of the climbs are two or three pitches. Notably, the Trapps are split for most of the length by the Grand Traverse (GT) Ledge, which allows climbers to maneuver between the lower and upper parts of the wall, and often to mix and match what parts of a given climb they want to do. Taken together, the Gunks is a great place to learn to lead and follow trad in a multi-pitch environment. However, anyone whose only experience is climbing in a gym or sport climbing is advised to get some professional advice before hitting the Gunks.
A good place to start or end a day of climbing at the Gunks is at the venerable local gear shop, Rock and Snow. Started by local climbers, it remains staffed by knowledgeable Gunks veterans. They can recommend whatever you need from gear to guides. In terms of guides, there is one company that has a bit of an advantage, Alpine Endeavors. Most of the Gunks are on a private preserve (one downside to climbing at the Gunks is that a daypass is $17, or $95 for an annual), but one of the most famous areas, Skytop, is part of the Mohonk Mountain House resort. Skytop is home to some of the most famous and historically ground breaking routes, like Foops, Supercrack, and Vandals. The only way you can climb there, though, is if you hire a guide from Alpine Endeavors, which has a deal with Mohonk Mountain House. So if you’re thinking of hiring a guide, you might consider shelling out a bit more so you can climb at Skytop; even if you’re buddies take you climbing in the future, they’re not taking you to Skytop.