Climbing is a good metaphor for moving through life: hold on tight to the good stuff, keep breathing, and keep moving. My recent time in the the Gunks, more formally known as the Shawangunks in the Mohonk Preserve near New Paltz, NY, served as an excellent reminder of the joys and challenges of life. The timing of the visit before returning to my previous home and place of employment was also especially poignant.
Emma and I share a love of climbing and really enjoy getting out with one another. I think in part for the camaraderie and in part because of climbing’s soulful nature. The growth that comes from allowing yourself to be challenged and to succeed or fail in the presence of a friend or partner is particularly powerful, and Emma and I are feeling more than our fair share of challenge after taking the summer off from climbing. We could have traveled “off-island” to climb, but traffic and family adventures on Cape Cod left us content to save climbing for the fall. As a result, we are now learning what it feels like to lead climb after a three-month hiatus. And it is VERY hard.
Time in the water this summer softened the callouses on our finger tips, holding gin and tonics did little for our grip strength, and our climbing IQs and “leader heads” are a mere shadow of what they once were. So, of course we chose one of the hardest places in the northeast to shake off the rust: the Gunks! An eighty-degree day greeted our rebirth into climbing in the Mohonk Preserve. My excitement mounted while walking the familiar trail from the West Trapps parking lot to the access road, and I was itching to grip the rock by the time we reached our first climb.
The preserve was teeming with climbers, enormous millipedes were abundant on the vertical rock faces, and there was just enough of a breeze to keep sweaty palms at bay. From the moment I put my harness on at the base of the cliff, I felt like I was in the midst of an old routine. I instinctively racked all the gear onto my harness, tied into the climbing rope, rolled up my pant legs, stepped towards the base of the climb, and navigated the bulging start of easy 5.5 warm-up called Dennis. The quartz crystals dug into my fingertips and my toes pushed firmly against my snug rubber soled climbing shoe. The sequential hand movements and high step around the bulgy crux only five feet off the ground made me feel immediately at home. The mindfulness involved with placing gear and carefully dancing on the vertical rock allowed me to focus only on the present. By the time I reached the anchor, I felt re-united with an old friend.
Over the course of a couple days, I gradually led some easy to moderate 5.6s and 5.7s. I wasn’t comfortable enough to push myself on lead, but I appreciated time on familiar climbs to re-focus, regain some efficiency, and to reconnect with the Gunks’ horizontal fractures, high feet, under-clings, bulges, and occasional blank faces of rock. I was able to push myself a bit while top-roping at Peterskill in the nearby Minnewaska Preserve. The forecast for the day was mild with gusts up to 50mph, and navigating the Trapps in that wind seemed like a losing battle. After lapping several 5.7 and 5.8s to warm up, we tried our hands at Crack-a-lack 5.10. The climb starts with a big move and easy traverse to a wandering thin face crack that requires some cross-stepping and intentional foot placements. The crux is 2/3 of the way up the climb with a bulging overhang. A large under-cling is available immediately under the bulging roof, but the bulge itself hosts only small crimps, high feet, and sloping holds. After a brief assessment, I had no choice but to power through. I held on tight to the good stuff, kept breathing, and kept moving until my next rest.