Even though I’d grown up on the east coast, I wasn’t aware of the existence of the Gunks until a few years ago. Driving up and seeing the cliffs for the very first time was like a dream. What makes the Gunks so special is that the rock is littered with horizontal cracks (rather than vertical ones). After climbing in a few other areas, I truly began to appreciate on a whole new level how extraordinary the climbing style here is. We’ve got it all—overhanging roofs, big airy traverses, and exposure!
I drove up from the city on a Thursday evening with great anticipation to meet my dear friend, Day Acheson. Friday morning, we started down the carriage road and had the entire place to ourselves, it felt like, so we began hitting all of the classics. When I first began leading, 5.8 in the Gunks terrified me My experience up until that point had been that 9s in the Gunks are generally more straightforward and thuggish, whereas 8s have a tendency of being much more delicate, thin, and balance-y and I would often opt for a 5.9 over an 8 any day. Then I climbed Son of Easy O.
You can link both pitches together with a seventy-meter rope, which is exactly what we did. Day and I cruised through and embraced the afternoon air from atop. While the start of the first pitch always feels a bit spicy, the second one offers a jug haul through overhanging rock. We quickly made our way down the cliff and Day offered to take the first pitch of Airy Aria (5.8). I led the second and third as a link-up. Upon rapping down, Day took a look at the crux on Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). “Why not?” we said, so we racked up for the second pitch.
The first pitch of Carbs followed a thin crack that diagonals up and left. Then came pitch two, where I worked my way through overhangs and to two bolts stacked atop each other. The second bolt was so mank that I let out a pathetic laugh as I tried to continue climbing past. There were several big moves to smaller than small crimp-like holds. I loved stepping up into the hand traverse, or the “crab crawl”. With my left foot comfortably resting on a hold, I made my way out to the traverse ledge. There was a belay/rap station waiting for me with two locking carabiners. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to grab those biners! But I continued and was belaying Day up to the anchor shortly after.
The following day, Gunks local and friend Scott Albright suggested that I try the Stand (5.11a). Feeling pretty good at that moment, we took a walk over to the Slime Wall. There was no anticipation or nervous first-time jitters—I just felt ready.
“You’re gonna send this.” Scott’s words hummed in my ear.
Scott and I have known each other for a little over a year now, and within that year, it has been a decade of friendship. We met in Red River Gorge and have been inspiring, supporting, and belaying one another on our projects since then. So I was feeling pretty confident as I tied in. He laughed at my bowline, saying he had no idea how to check that so it was probably fine. I went up, traversing left and standing high to take a look at the next move. A crack opened up, I reached with my left hand at first but only half a pad on my middle finger made it.
“You need higher feet,” Scott told me. I know, I know, I thought silently, and slightly annoyed. Out loud, I asked, “Do you put a piece of gear in before making this move? It’s kinda scary to commit with no gear yet.” Scott nodded his head and told me he that he didn’t.
“Kathy,” he said. “It’s YOUR climb. You do whatever you need to do.”
The move felt really mellow, just like Scott said it would be, all the way to the left-facing corner. I crimped hard on the thin horizontal which was my last good hold and poked my head around the corner to see what came next: NOTHING. I panicked for a second and then collected myself as I prepared to try it again. High step. Watch your feet. Breathe. I balanced myself by touching tiny little crystals in the rock with the tips of my fingers. The thin horizontal was enough for the tips of my toes to stand on. It was never scary. It was never pumpy. I just felt like I’d sailed through the moves and moments later, I came down from the anchors atop Frustration Syndrome (5.10c) and Scott gave me a high five. Smiling from ear to ear, I had sent my first two Gunks 11s that weekend.
On our last day, Day and I rallied and woke at 3:30 a.m. to climb the first pitch of High Exposure (5.6) by headlamp. We arrived at the Grand Traverse (GT) ledge just as the sun began to greet us. I’ve seen a few sunrises in my life and each one is always a different kind of beautiful, but this one seemed to be in a league of its own. Maybe it was because it was the solstice day, or because I hadn’t climbed High E in quite some time, or maybe because we were finally approaching summer (and this past winter had felt especially long.) Day and I shared coffee and croissants at the top as we watched the cedar waxwings start to wake up before we continued on to rappel back to the base.
Being in the Gunks at any time of the day is a magical moment, but the thrill of watching new daybreak on that June solstice day was something I will never know how to put into words. I think that those are the moments in my life that don’t always immediately scream out, “Wait! Pay attention to this. This could be important.” It’s those little moments that, if you’re not careful, will pass you by. They don’t always come with special tags or knock on your door saying, “Special delivery!” And I guess that that’s just life…something we create out of many, many moments. We make each one special by giving each one its own meaning. I have no words for that feeling, either.
Cover photograph courtesy of Day Acheson.