Growing up on the east coast, I wasn’t aware of the existence of the Gunks until a few years ago. That view! Driving up and seeing the cliffs for the very first time and miles of sweet rock to scale up—it was breathtaking for sure!
What makes the Gunks so very 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. We decided to start the day with my favorite 5.8, Son of Easy O. I haven’t been on that route since I’d first led it and it was EVERY bit as amazing. In the beginning, 5.8s truly terrified me and I would often opt for a 5.9 over an 8 any day. My experience so far had been that 9s in the Gunks were generally more straightforward and thuggish, whereas 8s had a tendency of being much more delicate, thin, and balance-y. Then I climbed Son of Easy O.
You can link both pitches together with a 70-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, its second pitch offers a jug haul through overhanging rock. Simply a spectacular route!
The day took us to the Yellow Wall, where Day took the first pitch of Airy Aria (5.8) and 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). A phrase I so often hear from Day is: “Well, why not?”
The first pitch of Carbs follows a thin crack that diagonals up and left. Then came pitch two, where I worked my way through overhangs and shot left to two bolts, stacked atop each other. Two bolts the guidebook said! The second 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, but I focused.
I loved stepping up into the hand traverse, which I’ve heard called the “crab crawl”. With my left foot comfortably resting on a hold, I walked my right hand out to the traverse ledge. My left followed. And I continued on until my little right toe stuck the landing and there I was, sitting in the middle of the face, looking very much so like a crab.
There was a belay/rap station waiting for me with two locking carabiners staring me in the face. Oh, I wanted to grab those biners so badly! But I continued on and was soon belaying Day up shortly after.
That weekend, one of my best friends, Scott Albright, suggested that I try the Stand (5.11a). We took a walk over to the Slime Wall with a few local friends. There was no anticipation or nervous first time jitters—just a feeling of readiness.
“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. He always has my back and will be truthful with me, no matter what. He is one of the most invaluable climbing partners that I have.
The energy was right. The support was there. I tied in and he laughed at my bowline, saying he had no idea how to check that so it was probably fine. Up I went, 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. Too short, I thought as I followed my footsteps back down to a stance.
“You need to get higher feet.” Scott told me. I know, I know. Too short…higher feet, I thought silently. Out loud, I said: “Do you put a piece of gear in before making this move? It’s scary to commit with no gear yet.” Scott nods his head once and tells me he does not.
“Kathy,” he said. “It’s YOUR climb. You do whatever you need to do.”
And I make the move. I was in a great stance and so I plugged in a squeezie that I felt happy with. It felt really mellow, just like Tom Chevernak said it would be, all the way through the left facing corner. I crimped hard on the thin horizontal crack (my last good hold) and poked my head around the corner to see what came next: NOTHING.
I came back and collected my entire self as I tried to prepare for the move again. High step. Watch your feet. Breathe. Go Kathy, but move with purpose. I balanced myself by touching tiny little crystals in the rock with my right middle finger. The thin horizontal was enough for the tips of my toes to stand on. It was never scary. It was never pumpy. 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 just sent my first Gunks 11.
As amazing as sending my first 5.11 felt, Saturday was the gem of the weekend. Despite getting back late from dinner in New Paltz the evening before, Day and I rallied and woke at 3:37 a.m. to climb the first pitch of High Exposure (5.6) by headlamp. We arrived at the GT ledge just as the sun began to greet us and it. Was. Marvelous.
I’ve seen a lot of sunrises in my lifetime so far, and each one is a different kind of beautiful. This one seemed to be in a league of its own. Perhaps it was because it was the solstice day, or because I hadn’t climbed High E in quite some time, or that we are finally in the summer season and this past winter had felt especially long and hard.
It was the first day of a new season and the end of an old one. How did I change? How am I different? I feel happier. I’m no longer relying on the big moments to define me or my life—instead, I am trying to seize the ordinary ones and make them great. Those are the moments in my life that don’t always scream out to me: “Wait! Pay attention to this. This could be important.”
After coffee and croissants at the end of our climb and the cedar waxwings had joined us for breakfast, we rappelled back to the base of the cliff. There was NOBODY in sight. Another classic? No line? Day’s famous line: “Well, why not?” And just like that, Directissima (5.9) was ours for the taking.
Being in the Gunks at any time of the day is a magical moment, but the thrill of watching a new day break on that June solstice day was something I will never know how to put into words.
Again, it’s the little moments that, if you’re not careful, will pass you by. They don’t come with special tags or knock on your door saying: “Special delivery!” You can find them in ordinary moments, the ones that we create ourselves. And that’s just life…something we create out of many, many moments. We give each one its own meaning. We make each one special because we say it is and we believe it.