“Safe Pippa!” I yell. They guy next to me at the top of the crag detects my accent and quaint climbing calls (not the American “On belay!”). “You don’t sound local?” he says. “No, we are over from England.” “Wow, have you climbing on the gritstone?” I mumble something about not really liking god’s own rock… the ground is a bit close… all those jamming cracks and rounded topouts… We must have had conversations like this a dozen times, mostly with people who haven’t actually been to the UK, as if gritstone is our only rock type. At least all those climbing videos have put us on the map.
We are over in the US for some climbing in the Shawangunk Mountains in New York state, affectionately known as the “Gunks”. A long way to go for a week, but Pippa had an academic conference down in New Jersey, with flights already paid for, and it seemed like a good opportunity to join her afterwards. The Gunks are really the only significant climbing venue in the whole of the north west states, but what a place! The Trapps and Near Trapps crags stretch uninterrupted for 3 or more miles, with most routes two or three pitches. The rock is a conglomerate of quartz and sandstone, and excellent quality. The underlying rock strata slope back at about 20 degrees (see picture), and main features are horizontal breaks – bring your small / medium cams (or tri-cams if you are feeling old-school!). Frequently layers of rock will stick out further than the ones below, giving way to a variety of overhangs, roofs, and ceilings. Sounds strenuous right? Not so! Because of the way the rock slopes back, most of the holds on these breaks are amazing jugs, and climbing through the roofs can be a three dimensional delight! The breaks also lend themselves to some great airy traverses.
We got 4 out of 6 days climbing, the others being rainy. But speaking to others at the cliff (some of whom seem to hang out here most weekends), it seems we got lucky with the dry days, after a wet summer. October is a good time to go – not too hot or cold. A bit early to see the apparently spectacular fall colours, but at least that reduces the crowds somewhat. The crags lend themselves to routes in the 5.6 – 5.8 range, which is about HS to E1.
- Day 1: Raining – went for a run in the Harriman state park on the drive up.
- Day 2: Trapps Cliff – High Exposure, Cascading Crystal Kaliedoscope (CCK), and Andrew with Moby Dick finish.
- Day 3: Trapps Cliff – Arrow, Limelight, Annie Oh! (top pitch only), Han’s Puss
- Day 4: Trapps Cliff – Son of Easy O, Frog’s Head, Maria, Madame G’s.
- Day 5: Raining again – went for a walk in the park, taking in a couple of fun scrambly trails near the Mohonk Mountain House (a hideous golfing resort hotel), one just west called the Giant’s Path, and one on descent SW of Skytop Tower that goes down a narrow rock chasm.
- Day 6: Near Trapps Cliff – Yellow Ridge, Alphonse, Birdland
Saturday and Sunday (our days 2 & 3) were incredibly busy. If you want to bag a classic route like High Exposure, Arrow, or Son of Easy O, then you either get there early (car park opens at 8am) or stand in line. But the weekdays were much more chilled out and peaceful. The consensus on the best guidebook seems to be the Dick William’s ones, but there is also a Gunks climbing app. We didn’t have it (I like a “real” guidebook that isn’t going to leave my high and dry when a battery runs out), but with GPS guidance it looked particularly useful for finding the climbs on miles of similar looking rock when trees prevent you getting a good look at the crag, and all the paths look the same up from the approach track (the “Undercliff Road”).
The Shawangunk gateway campground is best for camping, nice pitches. Sadly it was full on the weekend so we ended up camping some nights on an RV park 20 minutes away, our two person tent dwarfed by monster RVs the size of busses all around us – apparently they don’t have the concept of getting back to basics in the US. If you need supplies, the town of New Paltz is only 15 minutes away and has everything you need including supermarkets, the Rock and Snow outdoor shop, and plenty of cafes (try the Cafeteria Coffee House, on the right half a block up from the main lights by Rock and Snow, for good coffee, comfy sofas, and free WiFi). The Mountain Brauhaus in the park is well worth a meal out, excellent German food, beer and dressed up waiting staff.
All in all, if you have reason to be in New York, then I highly recommend getting up to the Gunks for some great climbing.