A PMC Members Shawangunks (pronounced shone-gum) or Gunks Quick Guide

(photo blatantly borrowed from National Geographic.com)

Here is another quick guide to another of our band of happy wanderers’ favorite places. The Gunks is second only to Seneca Rocks for how often Mountaineering Section members visit. Numerous times each year, springtime thru autumn (can you sat spectacular?!), section members make the 5-6 hour weekend commute to the Tuscarora sandstone cliffs of the Shawangunks Ridge, about 90 minutes north of New York City and the Section organizes an annual Labor Day group trip to the Gunks each year. 

Again, this is not a climbing guide but rather a guide for climbing at the Gunks with the Mountaineering Section of the PATC. The best sources for climbing beta are the Dick Williams guide books, an older book by Todd Swain, Mountain Project.com, or Gunks.com.

What is The Gunks and where is it?

The Gunks are a collection of 300-400 foot (or so) high cliffs located just outside the town of Gardiner, NY. The cliffs offer 2-4 pitch, staunchly traditional (no bolts) climbs with world-renown classic climbs at all grades from 5.2 through 5.13 and harder.

There are four main cliffs (The Trapps, Near Trapps, Millbrook, and Sky Top (closed to the public)) and several other smaller crags located on the Mohonk Preserve, a nature and recreational preserve started by the Smiley family in the early 20th century. The preserve charges a daily fee or you can buy an annual pass. You won’t regret either.

There are three general routes most use for the commute between the DC Metro area and the Gunks:

  • The first is the shortest but is also most subject to traffic delays and has tolls approaching $40 each way. The I-495 – I-95 North – NJ Turnpike – Garden State Parkway – NY Thruway can be completed in ~5 hrs IF you hit perfect traffic conditions (ie in the middle of the night).
  • The next route parallels the first to the west, is just a little longer, and only has tolls on the NY Thruway (less than $5 each way). The I-495 – I-270 North – Route 15N to Harrisburgh, PA – I-81N – I-78E – I-287 – NY Thruway can be completed in ~5.5 hrs or so.
  • The final route generally parallels the first two even further west and is the longest but has no tolls and can be counted upon to have the least traffic (unless there’s a race at Pocono Raceway). It can be completed in ~6 hours or so. Take I-495 – I-270 North – Route 15N to Harrisburgh, PA – I-81N – I-84E – NY Rt 209N – NY Rt 55/44.

What is so great about it?

The Gunks a spectacular and convenient climbing destination. There are a couple thousand climbing routes on the four main cliffs with classic (three star) routes with “G” gear ratings start at 5.2 (Easy Overhangs) and run through 5.12 (Happiness is a 110 Degree Wall) and every grade in between. All routes are accessed to the base of the climbs by either carriage road or easy walking path. Add to this the cliffs’ location atop the Shawangunks Ridge, one of the Nature Conservancy’s “Last Great Places On Earth” and you begin to understand what makes this one of the most soulful places you’ll ever visit.

What is the climbing like?

Imagine a cleaner and harder (more dense) Seneca Rocks turned sideways. The rock at the Gunks is the same band of Tuscarora sandstone that runs the entire length of the northeast coast of our nation. The difference, however, is that the rock at the Gunks is a Quartzsite conglomerate making it as hard or harder than most granite and where all the features at Seneca are vertically oriented most of the ledges, cracks, and other features are horizontal to the loving earth we depart on our climbing adventures at the Gunks. And did I mention roofs? Gunks routes offer horizontal bulges and roofs on most routes with sometimes the most improbable and creative solutions. Can you imagine a 20 foot horizontal roof, encountered 300 feet off the deck at the 5.6 grade with (thank goodness!) bomber gear wherever you like? Check out High Exposure.

This combination of attributes and good stiff east coast grades (very comparable to Seneca) make Gunks climbing some of the most enjoyable, thought-provoking, Elvis leg-inducing, climbing you’ll encounter anywhere in the world.

How do I start climbing there?

Copy the following text and post it to the Climbing Partners forum on the Mountaineering Section homepage (potomacmountainclub.org) immediately:

“Have car and am willing to drive and buy beer. Can belay and clean gear on traditional climbing route. Looking for a leader for climbing at the Gunks for (fill in available dates here)."

I estimate a response time of 15 minutes or lessJ (unless the weather looks iffy).

You should the following personal gear at a minimum: Helmet, harness, belay device, 2 locking carabineers, 4-foot nylon runner, nut tool, shoes, and chalk bag (optional).

Suppose I’m already an experienced leader?

Awesome! Copy the following text and post it to the Climbing Partners forum on the Mountaineering Section homepage (potomacmountainclub.org) immediately:

“Experienced traditional leader looking for partners for Gunks routes in the (insert grades you’re comfortable climbing (start a grade or two lower if it’s your first Gunks trip) here) for (fill in available dates here)."

Again, I estimate a response time of 15 minutes or less! (unless the weather looks iffy).

Where do we stay and eat? What is the approach?

Your daily fee or annual pass includes camping at Camp Slime, the traditional and historic, dirt bag climbers’ camp next to the Near Trapps. It’s generally flat, a little rocky and rooty, right next to the road, and a near-bye porta-john is the only amenity. It’s certainly not glamorous but how could you call yourself a trad climber if you miss the opportunity to sleep, at least once, in the same dirt as names such as Weisner, Williams, Chouinard, Hill, Bragg, Stannard, and countless others from our nation and across the world pioneered for us?

Additionally, the AAC (finally!) broke ground on a long-awaited campground nearby that should open in the spring of 2014.For those of the softer or smarter persuasion, there is a variety of lodging options available ranging from economical through extravagant. Google and Gunks.com are your friend here.There is also a variety gastronomic options in the local communities with the Mountain Brauhaus, The Guilder Otter, and Bacchus pretty popular with our group over the years.

The approaches vary from less than five minutes to an hour all on the afore-mentioned carriage roads or walking paths.

The best parking is in the West Trapps parking lot until that fills and then you have the parking on the Mohonk Visitor Center side of the ridge which is usually plentiful and only slightly less convenient.

What do you folks do after climbing? What’s the nightlife?

First, especially if you’re staying at Camp Slime, head to the nearby Split Rock swimming hole to de-funk yourself and enjoy the refreshingly cold waters before heading back into civilization. It’s a VERY cool spot for either a mid day lunch break (especially during the dog-days of summer) or a quick dip before heading into town.

Nightlife, huh? Did I mention, New Paltz is a college town? SUNY, New Paltz is in town and brings an energetic and creative (slightly hippy?) vibe to the town. Plenty of clubs, etc. that can on certain occasions spill into the street.

What kind of gear is needed?

Shoes, harness, helmet, belay/rappel device, some slings and locking carabiners, and a prussic loop will do for following. Thunderstorms happen, be sure you bring raingear. You’ll be away from the car all day so bring water and food. There is no water once you leave the cars.

A standard lead rack will have cams from very small to a #3 Camalot (or equivalent) plus a full set of stoppers, 10-15 quick draws and/or alpine draws, a couple of long slings, and two cordelletes or whatever you like to build a belay.

Most of the routes where put up during the days of 50 or even 30 meter ropes so one 60m will certainly suffice to get you up and down. Routes do, however, occasionally wander (and of course there are the roofs) so either good runnering skills or double ropes are certainly useful.

Until just a few years ago the rappel stations were all slings and rings on trees and many of these still exist. In an effort to prolong the lives of these rap trees the local community began installing bolted rap anchors – look for and use these if available.

But I want to sport climbing!

NOT - if the hard climbing, lycra-clad portion of our tribe start getting antsy just have them rub up against the afore-mentioned rap anchors until they stop quiveringJ.

Where do I get more information?

The guidebooks by Williams or Swain are the standard. Mountain Project has good location information and route descriptions for the more popular routes, and Gunks.com has up to date route beta and other good local info. Rock and Snow is the local and historic gear shop located on Main Street in New Paltz and is another good local beta source as well as great shop.

Anything else I should know?

With it’s proximity to New York and Boston (and Montreal?), there place can seem to get crowded but with either a little flexibility (there will ALWAYS be some route open nearby) or patience (start early or just get in the queue if you sleep in and have your heart set on one of the uber classics that day) go a long way so don’t be dissuaded.

It is after all the Gunks, one of the coolest places you’ll climb on the planet.

Thanks Bob Graver for this update!

2018 PATC-MS | The Mountaineering Section of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club | All Rights Reserved.