Less than 200 km from New York City is a famous large area for technical rock climbing.
There are more than 1200 documented climbing routes in the Gunks, ranging in difficulty from USA class 3 to 5.0 to 5.13. The area is considered a Traditional climbing area. There are almost no bolted Sport routes (as of 2013).
The rock is generally sound quartzite conglomerate … fairly hard rock often with many positive edge holds and horizontal cracks and ledges. So easy climbs can be steep and even have overhangs, unlike most climbing areas where the easy climbs are just friction slabs. The cliffs are at low altitude.
Up to the 1980s, the Gunks were famous for the most difficult new routes in North America, a required visit for the world's best climbers. Then the leading edge of rock climbing shifted to Sport style, while the Gunks remained Trad. Now the Gunks are better known for great easy and moderate (non-long) Trad routes, worthy of long travel.
The hard classic Trad routes in the 5.11-5.13 range are still there in the Gunks for those who want that. Local climbers who want to train for harder climbing elsewhere of course have gotten clever about leading a nearby moderate route, and setting top-ropes on harder sequences.
Those looking to include sport climbing in a visit to Northeast USA might want to also visit Rumney (New Hampshire) - or perhaps some new routes in the southern Adirondacks. To include longer Trad routes, might want to also visit the Adirondacks in northern New York.
There are several cliffs around the Gunks, each with different land-owners and different rules.
Trapps: the longest and the most popular, with the largest number of climbing routes. Good routes from 5.2 to 5.12. Owned by the Mohonk Preserve. The height of the Trapps cliff varies along the ridgeline, to a maximum of some 300 feet (91 m). The average height is around 150 feet (46 m).
Nears (or Near Trapps): just south of Rt 44 near West Trapps parking. Good routes from 5.2 to 5.12. Not as high as the Trapps. Mostly owned by the Mohonk Preserve, but the bottom parts of some climbs and a section of the access trail are claimed by another owner who (as of 2013) forbids access.
Millbrook mountain: South past the Nears. Good routes 5.7 and above, but more remote and sees much less climbing activity - (not really a mountain). More info see MountainProject comments + description.
Peterskill: Farther West from the Trapps on Rt 44, on the land of Minnewaska State Park Preserve [ official website | alt ]. Mostly half-pitch climbs, most have easy access to the top for setting up top-rope climbing. More info see MountainProject comments + description.
Sky Top: Owned by the remarkable Mohonk Mountain House resort hotel. Several great fun + pretty scrambling routes (USA difficulty class 3) which are open to day visitors of the Mountain House or the Mohonk Preserve. Technical rock climbing (USA difficulty class 5) at Skytop (as of 2012) is said to be limited to overnight guests of the Mountain House using an approved guide service - (contact the Mountain House for latest rules). Most routes are single-pitch, with good routes from 5.4 to 5.13. More info see MountainProject comments + description.
other: There are other crags around at locations with owners mentioned already above, or other owners. These lack public info in guidebooks or websites, not likely of interest to international visitors.
bouldering: John Gill visited already in 1969 and established some worthy problems. Most of the Gunks cliffs have interesting problems on big chunks around their bases (or sometimes down far below) - see under Guidebooks. Lots of climbers are out finding stuff on land newly acquired and opened by the Mohonk Preserve down in the big main valley near Rosendale.
As of 2013, the most detailed and accurate guidebook for the Trapps is
The Climber's Guide to the Shawangunks: The Trapps (2nd edition), by Dick Williams (Vulgarian Press 2004).
The most detailed and accurate guidebook for the Nears and Millbrook is
The Climber's Guide to the Shawangunks: The Near Trapps + Millbrook (2nd edition), by Dick Williams (Vulgarian Press 2008).
There is a small guidebook for the Peterskill area which can be purchased at the Rock & Snow climbing shop in New Paltz.
The guidebook by Todd Swain covers all of Trapps, Nears, Millbrook, Sky Top (but not Peterskill) in a single volume - but in much less detail than the Williams guidebooks.
There is a newer guidebook with color photographs which covers selected climbs only in the Trapps. It contains some helpful information and suggestions, but the opinion of many local climbers is that some of its difficulty ratings follow (easier) mainstream USA Yosemite ratings while for other climbs it gives (harder) traditional Gunks ratings.
For most climbs, the most accurate and current and helpful info is covered by using the appropriate Williams guidebook together with the Comments for that route on MountainProject.com
Bouldering in the Shawangunks (2nd edition), by Ivan A. Greene and Marc E. Russo (Jefe Publication 2003)
Gunks difficulty ratings are generally at least one grade harder than mainstream USA "Yosemite decimal" ratings, so Gunks 5.6 is often like Yosemite 5.7 or 5.7+ (or 5.8). Also there are many horizontal ledges in the Gunks, so even a short fall can often result in a broken ankle (at least). Therefore it's safer to start with lower ratings in the Gunks.
Equivalent ratings: Gunks 5.3 is often like French 4b. Gunks 5.6 is often like French 5a or 5b. Gunks 5.8 is often like French 5c or 6a. 5.10a often like French 6b.
protection + equipment
Fixed gear: Many classic routes have pitons (and a few bolts) from before the 1980s (when the owners banned new placements of fixed protection). Some of the old pitons and bolts have been replaced by new ones; some have not.
Bolt-and-chain anchors: Starting in the 1990s, the Mohonk Preserve owners themselves installed some new fixed anchors for belaying and rappelling on or near some routes in the Trapps and Nears. Most of these have two bolts at the same horizontal level, with a chain and perhaps some rings hanging off each bolt. The customary practice is to belay from the bolts or top rings, but to thread a rappel rope through the low rings or bottom links of the chains.
Ropes: In the Trapps, all the official bolt+chain rappel routes (and many of the unofficial rappels) are designed for a single 60-meter rope. A few of the unofficial rappels are longer and require two ropes.
Many of the routes in the Trapps and Nears have traversing sections, so are easier to protect for both leader and follower if double-rope technique is used. (Many of the pitches are shorter than 35 meters, so could employ double-rope technique by bending a single 70-meter rope into two strands and tying into the middle.) On the other hand, many local Gunks climbers employ single-rope technique with long slings/runners and the leader avoids placing protection near the finish of a traversing section so that the following climber will not be exposed to a swinging fall.
Trad protection gear: Some key features of Gunks rock and routes are:
narrow + medium-wide vertical cracks which are long - (These often take stoppers/nuts or cams/friends well)
narrow + medium-wide horizontal cracks which are long - (These often take cams/friends or TriCams well, but using stoppers/nuts often requires rigging compound oppositional placements).
holes between adjoining rocks.
lack of wide cracks (say only 1 out of 20-25 routes requires the width of a BD Camalot #3, and only 1 out of 50-100 routes requires the width of a BD Camalot #4).
lack of pockets - (so not much need for 3-cam units or narrow-profile cams/friends)
line of climbing tends to wander sideways.
Therefore a typical Gunks rack might include:
stoppers/nuts: single BD #3 (perhaps smaller stuff for rigging oppositional placements), doubles of BD #4 through #7, singles BD #8 through #11 or perhaps #12 (these widths are "doubled" with small cams/friends or TriCams).
cams/friends: doubles of Metolius Mastercam #0 (or smaller?) through BD Camalot #1, single of BD Camalot #2. Some climbers normally carry a BD Camalot #3 on every route, but many leave it in their approach pack unless they know that a particular route requires it (from reading the Williams guidebook or MountainProject Comments).
TriCams: historically these were a "classic" Gunks piece. Many local Gunks climbers still carry a couple instead of a large stopper or a small cam. But many locals have switched more to small (and very small) cams/friends.
ball-nuts: Some local climbers carry a ball-nut or two instead of some small stoppers. But most bring a ball-nut up a climb only if they believe that a particular route requires it (from reading the Williams guidebook or MountainProject Comments).
quick-draws: Non-extendable draws usually less than four, because many routes wander sideways, so need to extend to manage rope-drag.
extendable alpine draws: Several for each pitch – exact number depends on your strategy with runners/slings and quickdraws.
slings/runners: Many of these in normal 120cm "shoulder length", for threading through holes between adjacent rocks, or around protruding horns. Or to extend placements to manage rope drag. Often one or two double-length slings/runners.
Helmet recommended since some ledges have loose rock.
Typical climbing season is mid-March to mid-November. Summer tends to be hot and humid. Only a few climbing routes are protected from rain.
The Gunks are less than 2 hours driving from New York City. Reaching the Gunks by public transportation is difficult. The nearest bus station is New Paltz. The nearest train station is Poughkeepsie.
driving: From Interstate 87 (New York State Thruway) take Exit 18 New Paltz. Turn left on route 299 West through the village of New Paltz, and continue on route 299 to its end. The Trapps and Near Trapps cliffs are easily visible from the road. Turn right on route 44 West.
Each cliff has a different parking area. Along rt 44 West, first is the Wawarsing ("Stairmaster") parking (for Trapps) (GPS latitude/longitude approx N41.7369 W74.1846), then West Trapps parking (for Trapps + Nears) (lat/long ~ N41.7374 W74.1975), then a ways farther to
Peterskill parking (for Peterskill + Dickie Barre cliffs) (lat/long ~ N41.7384 W74.2184).
Sky Top cliff and Mohonk Mountain House are normally reached from a completely different road. The gatehouse (GPS latidude/longitude approx N41.7785 W74.1356) for Mohonk Mountain House is on Mountain Rest Rd (Ulster county route 6).
Minnewaska State Park Preserve has the lowest entrance fee (as of 2013), but also the smallest crags.
Mohonk Preserve has a higher daily fee than many other U.S. climbing areas –
be ready to pay $15 per person (as of 2009).
Mohonk Mountain House is a completely different deal, since normally you must be an overnight guest of the hotel in order to do technical climbing at Skytop.
climbing shops: Rock & Snow on the main street of the village of New Paltz. EMS climbing shop closer to the cliffs at the intersection of rt 44 and rt 209.
food: Full range around the village of New Paltz. Restaurant and deli/convenience closer to cliffs at intersection of rt 44 and rt 209.
camping: Not as much as you might hope. Can get crowded on weekends. See more on MountainProject and other websites, or ask at Rock & Snow.
indoor gyms: There is a "climbers co-op" bouldering space near New Paltz (not sure how they handle non-members). Good full-service climbing gym about an hours drive south is Gravity Vault in Upper Saddle River NJ. Also check The Cliffs at Valhalla NY.
Routes for visitors (in the Trapps unless specified otherwise):
2-3a (USA class 3): Labyrinth->Crevice->Skytop tower (Mohonk Mountain House), Cathedral->Arching Rocks->Humpty Dumpty->Eagle Cliff (Mohonk Mountain House).
3a-4a (Gunks decimal 5.0-5.2) – not classic, but worthwhile if looking for this level: Dirty Chimney P1 (short); Easy Verschneidung P1; Casa Emilio (worth the long walk if include the P0 "cave" start).
4a-4c (Gunks decimal 5.3-5.4) – classics + ultra-classics: Betty (with direct nose finish on P2), Three Pines, Beginners Delight, Yum Yum Yab Yum (in the Nears), Minty, Gelsa (in the Nears), Sixish, Andrew, Lakeview (at Skytop)
4c-5b (Gunks decimal 5.5-5.6) – classics + ultra-classics: Horseman, Rhododendron (short), Asphodel (if rap off before the top), Jackie P1, Frog's Head, Maria P1+P2 (but P3 is much harder), Disneyland (in the Nears), Grey Face / Greyer Face (at Skytop), Bloody Bush (if rap off before the top), Madame Grunnebaum's Wulst ("Madame G's"), High Exposure top pitch ("High E") (sometimes combined with Directissima 5.9), Shockley's Ceiling P3 (often combined with Strictly from Nowhere P1 5.7).
5b (Gunks decimal 5.7) and above – Too many classics to list here. Anyway these are well-known in the guidebooks and websites and forums. Some classics with G-rated protection are: Alphonse (in the Nears), Double Crack, Ant's Line.
Additional routes see:
children + beginners
There are no "school" crags like in Europe.
In the Trapps, there is an easy slab where it is straightforward to set up top-roping using long slings or static rope with trees + rock horns and Trad gear placements. Often called the "practice rock" or "ABC", it is separate from the main Trapps cliff … near the West Trapps parking, a short ways NE from the junction of Undercliff and Overcliff roads - (often crowded on weekends).
In the Peterskill there are some sections of easy routes where it's easy to set up top-roping with Trad gear placements or long slings or long static lines to trees (but check the special Peterskill rules about using trees) - (often crowded on weekends).
Mohonk Mountain House has three or four wonderful scrambling routes. The "Labyrinth + Crevice" route is equipped with many wooden steps and ladders (but no cables or ropes), and leads to the high Skytop stone tower. The other routes also have interesting climbing/scrambling moves and remarkable views. We once heard that the Mountain House recommends that participants be at least 8 years old. Pretty hiking trails are nearby if some of the children are not ready for rock-scrambling.
Technical rock climbing has been going on in the Gunks since 1935. Climbing there was pioneered by immigrants from Europe, Fritz Wiessner and Hans Kraus. In the first decades the Gunks were thought of mainly as training for "real" climbing in the mountains or big walls of western North America. Many of the early Gunks routes were climbed with aid by (inadequate) soft-iron pitons protected with (inadequate) ropes. Routes were always climbed to the top of the cliff.
Women were in the first ascent parties of a surprising number of early classic Gunks routes. Betty Woolsey for Betty in 1941. Bonnie Prudden led The Brat in 1946, ultra-classics Grand Central in 1947 and Bonnie's Roof in 1952, also several others including Wrist - (the remarkable Prudden was more famous as the leader of the American physcial fitness movement). The first all-woman team of Ann Church and Kris Raubenheimer led Bunny in 1955.
In the American cultural upheaval of the 1960s, there was a conflict in the Gunks over safety-certification of leaders, between the conservative Appalachian Mountain Club climbers and the drug- and alcohol-fueled antics of the Vulgarians. Result: certification was forgotten.
Some Gunks climbers started to feel that succeeding on a harder pitch was a goal in itself, not just training for bigger mountains. Along with this was the strategy of taking multiple falls to work out the crux moves, instead of the mountaineering motto of "the leader must not fall". Jim McCarthy started this strategy of multiple falls with MF in 1960. A key step in North America toward the modern "redpoint" style.
Many of the leaders in the Gunks then where highly-intelligent highly-driven people from New York City or the elite universities and research institutions of Northeast USA. They applied their energy to multi-day "sieges" of pitches at new levels of difficulty … including Co-Existence (5.10d) by Rich Goldstone and Jim McCarthy in 1967, soon after Foops (5.11c, hardest climb in North America) by John Stannard who went on to other "endurance" FAs. Finally Supercrack by Steve Wunsch in 1974 (initially rated the first 5.13 in North America, later with different techniques reduced to 5.12).
Lynn Hill moved in from California in 1983 and climbed in the Gunks for several years, even got married on the cliff. In the 1980s, the best climbers from around the world visited to sample the famous Gunks test-pieces, Kim Carrigan from Australia, Jerry Moffatt from UK, and Wolfgang Güllich from Germany conquered the Gunks. Finally Patrick Edlinger came from France in 1985 and climbed every hard Gunks route he tried on-sight with no falls.
These clear demonstrations of the superiority of developing elite skill by Sport climbing posed the big question to the Gunks community and land-owners. Some local climbers were starting to work on new routes with bolts, but many others wanted to retain the Traditional style. In 1988 the Mohonk Perserve (who owned the largest cliffs) announced that placing of new bolts was forbidden (though the older fixed protection already in place could be maintained).
Lynn Hill moved to France; a few other climbers to other places. Though new hard routes were still being put up, especially in remote or less-known cliffs, the pace of new routes declined in the 1990s. Now as the tastes of athletic (non-elite) climbers have shifted more to Sport climbing, the Gunks are now better-known more for classic easy + moderate routes, still as great as ever.
more info …
- the Gunks - Near Trapps
- The Gunks - Trapps
- The Gunks - Sky Top
- The Gunks - Bayards
- The Gunks - Millbrook
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