Climbing at the Gunks, at any level, is synonymous with paying your dues. Local crush-dog Andy Salo picks the best of the best.
The Gunks is one of the most expensive climbing destinations in America. If you’ve climbed here with any regularity then you’ve literally already paid your dues. You’ve either paid a high daily entry fee, coughed up for an annual membership, or splurged and hired a certified guide.
But beyond the monetary dues that are a prerequisite to enjoying the brilliant conglomerate of the Shawangunks, there are dues to be paid via the actual climbing—and these dues will yield a far more meaningful ROI to any climber. Learning to keep a cool head while pumped, figuring out creative gear placements, and pulling outrageous roofs with bizarre cruxes are all benefits bestowed upon dedicated Gunks climbers.
The Gunks is one of the oldest climbing areas in America, dating back to Fritz Weissner’s “Old Route” 5.7 at Millbrook in 1935. There is a treasure trove of historical trad climbing here. For years, climbers came from all over the world to pay their dues—with, perhaps, the exception of Patrick Edlinger, who, in 1985, flashed every single route he tried.
Inevitably, there will be people who will attempt to shortcut their progression—or just overestimate their abilities. Sometimes they will get lucky, though other times the funky gear and heady run-outs will dish up a hard lesson.
Gym climbers, in general, have a skewed perception of difficulty
Western crack climbers may cruise 5.11s at Indian Creek but they seem prone to pumping out and whipping on 5.10s here, balking at the lack of available jams. Gym climbers, in general, have a skewed perception of difficulty; they may cruise 5.12 in the gym, but find themselves getting horribly pumped on 5.6—and without sufficient knowledge and gear-placing experience, they tend to end up in trouble.
Recently, a climber decked on the first pitch (5.8) of Birdie Party (5.10b), because four (!) cams ripped from straightforward horizontal placements. Don’t let that be you!
With the advent of sport climbing and the contemporaneous banning of bolts in the Gunks, the area has turned into something of a museum, with many top climbers no longer showing up to test their mettle on routes (the bouldering is a different story). However, climbers of all abilities continue to come here to hone their craft at the cornerstone of Eastern trad.
With hundreds of routes of all grades, there might not be a better area to learn how to trad climb than at the Gunks. Just showing up here for any day of cragging is, in and of itself, the quintessential dues-paying experience. And as you find yourself getting pumped on 5.6s—especially those with the dreaded “+” sign—just remember that many of these climbs were done before modern gear was even invented, and probably before you were even born.
What follows is a lovely potpourri of routes and boulders across a variety of grades and styles. Those with a deep appreciation for our sport’s history and vested interested in their own healthy and humbling progression ought to add these rock climbs to their ticklist.
Miss Bailey 5.6+
FA: Dave Noyes and Eric Schiffman, 1950s
While the hordes clamor for the more well-known routes like High Exposure (5.6+) and Shockley’s Ceiling (5.6-), this masterpiece sits relatively quiet front and center in the Trapps. While High E and Shockley’s each contain a single “money pitch”—the latter of which is often climbed naked by Vulgarians (stay tuned)—that makes up for the surrounding lackluster climbing, all three pitches of Miss Bailey are world-class, engaging, and stout. On more than one occasion you may find yourself cursing the dreaded “+” on the grade, an idiosyncrasy of the Gunks that means sandbagged.
Miss Bailey serves up a varied buffet of climbing challenges that will quickly reveal where your weaknesses lie. A slippery and unprotected first-pitch chimney. A thin, tricky-to-protect face for pitch two. And a steep, beautiful, orange overhang for a memorable finale. Top out Miss Bailey and consider yourself proficient at Gunks 5.6+.
The best part? You’re not likely to find a line for this one.
Modern Times 5.8+
FA: Dick Williams, Dave Craft, Brian Carey; 1964.
This first-ascent crew was part of the famed “Vulgarians,” the Gunks’ way-more-punk answer to the Yosemite Stonemasters. This counterculture crew of ragtag bums was often seen climbing naked and usually partying as hard than they sent. (Brush up by Googling the “Vulgarian Digest”).
Wes Converse recently soloed this climb at night, tucked himself into a bat hang and, with paraffin-coated arms, lit himself on fire.
Modern Times, a route as wild as the Vulgarians themselves, tackles a 15-foot roof, 200 feet above the ground. Many first timers, no matter how hard they think they climb, recall the sinking feeling of working up to a stance at the base of this mammoth roof, and the ensuing thrill of finding a path of reasonable holds through the imposing ceiling.
In a nod to the Vulgarians who came before, Wes Converse recently soloed this climb at night, tucked himself into a bat hang and, with paraffin-coated arms, lit himself on fire.
Erect Direction 5.10d
FA: 1973 John Stannard and John Bragg
It’s hard to discuss the Gunks and not talk about 5.10. There’s more here at this level than any other grade. The Gunks has the best single-pitch 5.10s on the planet—full stop. Erect Direction is one of the best of the best, with hard climbing, strenuous gear, and perfect marble-white rock coupled with ridiculous exposure.
At the time of the FA, John Stannard had made it his mission to eliminate aid and instill clean climbing practices in the Gunks. His publication “The Eastern Trade” espoused clean-climbing practices that were in response to the day’s norms, which included pounding pitons that damaged the rock.
Today, pitons are a thing of the past, and the rock has been largely saved thanks to the efforts of Stannard and his protégés.
Happiness is a 110 Degree Wall (5.12c)
FA: Mark Robinson and Mike Sawicky, 1979
Climbers like Mark Robinson and Mike Sawicky carried Stannard’s free-climbing torch through the rest of the 1970s. Routes from this era include notables such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Kansas City, and Scary Area. An ascent of any of these will earn you dues-paying points while commanding instant respect and street cred. But if I had to choose one to do first, it would be Happiness is a 110 Degree Wall (5.12c).
This unsung testpiece climbs a 110-foot north-facing sweep of clean, overhanging quartzite at Millbrook, the Gunks tallest cliff. Rapping in from the top, the wall cuts underneath so drastically that you’re about 40 feet out from the belay perch. Two cryptic boulder problems early on lead to sustained 5.11+ on the upper wall, with ample but well-spaced protection. It’s humbling and inspiring to experience such amazing movement in a position as wild as this one in 2018—even more so when you consider the fact that it was first climbed before cams and sticky-rubber shoes nearly 40 years earlier.
Cybernetic Wall 5.13d
FA: Scott Franklin, 1987
Scott Franklin was America’s best climber at his peak in the 1980s. With his 1986 ascent of J.B. Tribout’s To Bolt or Not to Be at Smith Rocks, Oregon, he became the first American to climb 5.14. He quickly followed that up with his 1987 FA of Scarface, also at Smith Rocks, making him the first American to establish 5.14.
What most climbers today may not know is that he actually started climbing in the Gunks, a tenure that culminated in Cybernetic Wall, arguably his best and hardest contribution to the region. Cybernetic Wall represents an interesting blend of styles, with some hard crack climbing leading to in an even harder boulder problem.
The route is located on a freestanding block situated on a quiet parcel in the Northern Gunks, far from the hustle and bustle of the Trapps. The striking line had been tried many times in the past. Scott’s initial attempts were ground-up—lowering after each fall, which was the local ethos of the day. After countless falls on the stout upper headwall crux, he finally hung and sorted out the moves. He then proceeded to fire it first try, which he subsequently described as “anticlimactic.”
Since then, the route has only been repeated three times, by Jerry Moffatt, Al Diamond, and, 20 years later, Brian Kim, who adhered to a ground-up ethic while projecting his eventual redpoint.
Romano’s Arete V2
FA: Rich Romano, late 1970s or early ‘80s
Best known in local circles for developing 90 percent of the climbing at the intimidating Millbrook, Rich Romano—the so called “Manager of the Bank,” with the “Bank” meaning Millbrook—credits all of his successes on a rope (which include ground-up bolt-less FAs up to 5.12R/X during the height of the sport-climbing craze in the West) to a steady diet of bouldering. He preferred bouldering alone, and all his problems were done without crash pads.
Though it’s far from his hardest, Romano’s Arete is a classic line at Peterskill that sits right on the corner of one of the most popular boulders in the Gunks. Tough pulls on worsening holds lead to the crux: a dyno at 12 feet off a slopey pinch to a shelf atop the boulder. According to Romano, he established this problem when a broken, jagged tent platform comprised the landing.
Double Felix V4
FA: Felix Modugno, early 1980s.
Lest anyone catch the idea that Gunks climbers would name something after themselves, Rich Romano was the one who coined this. He was so enthralled with the problem he felt it deserved a name. Felix, credited with arguably the best 5.12 in the Trapps (Supper’s Ready, with Jim Damon in 1984), was another accomplished local who saw the value in bouldering long before anyone considered it “cool.”
Felix Madugno was another accomplished local who saw the value in bouldering long before anyone considered it “cool.”
Located on a towering block in a quiet corner of the Northern Preserve, this eye-catching line will lure you in off the deck with a few jugs to start. Delicate face climbing leads to an off-hands crack at 15 feet, which then leads to the slopey top-out.
When you’re pumping out of the final crack moves and zinging down into the foam, remember the FA was done sans crashpad.
Cronin’s Face V9
FA: John Cronin (TR), Jordan Mills (cordless), mid-1990s
This attractive swath of golden stone catches almost everyone’s eye because of its location in the very beginning of the Trapps. Most people assume it’s just another pretty (blank) face, and they would be correct—if it wasn’t for John Cronin.
Before he took his talents to Salt Lake, Cronin left the Gunks with this tough testpiece of insanely powerful and shouldery moves on this old-school challenge. Not to be outdone, Jordan Mills bouldered it out soon after, followed by Russ Clune and crew who added a sit start.
Longtime local Andrew Zalewski shakes his head at the grade, saying, “If there’s a light breeze blowing down on you it would push this thing to V10!”
About the Author
Don’t be fooled by the lion’s mane coif atop his head. Andy Salo is one of the nicest and friendliest climbers around—not to mention one of the most humble. His contributions to the Gunks including the first ascent of Bro Zone (5.14b), the hardest route in the region.