Growing up on the east coast, I wasn’t aware of the existence of the Gunks until a few years ago. That view was breathtaking! 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 with my favorite 5.8s, Son of Easy O. When I first began leading, 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 are generally more straightforward and thuggish, whereas 8s have 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 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.

When I said that I quit rock climbing, I was only kidding

Day then 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 typical thing for Day to say is “Why not?” 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. 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.

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 hands out to the traverse ledge. There was a belay/rap station waiting for me with two locking carabiners staring me in the face. I wanted to grab those biners so badly! But I continued on and soon belayed Day up shortly after.

The first pitch of Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a)

Scott Albright, a Gunks local, suggested that I try the Stand (5.11a). We took a walk over to the Slime Wall. There was no anticipation or nervous first-time jitters—I was feeling 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.

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 decent stance.

“You need to get higher feet,” Scott told me. “I know, I know,” I thought silently. 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 once and told me he does not.

“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 crack (my last good hold) and poked my head around the corner to see what came next: NOTHING. I wanted to panic.

I came back and 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. 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.

Second pitch of Carbs and Caffeine (5.11a). Photograph by Day Acheson

As amazing as sending my first 5.11 felt, Saturday was truly the gem of the weekend. Despite a late 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 Grand Traverse (GT) ledge just as the sun began to greet us.

I’ve seen a few sunrises in my lifetime so far and each one is always 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 maybe because we were finally approaching summer (and this past winter had felt especially long and hard.) After coffee and a small breakfast of croissants at the top, we watched the cedar waxwings and continued on to rappel back to the base of the cliff.

Entering the first day of a new season and marking the end of an old one, I asked myself how was I different. How had I changed from last year? For one, I am happier. I no longer rely on big moments to define me or my life—instead, I am trying to seize the ordinary ones. Those are the moments in my life that don’t always scream out, “Wait! Pay attention to this. This could be important.”

Perched on the High E ledge at 5:21 a.m. Photograph by Day Acheson

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 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 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.

2 thoughts

  1. — just two sentences in to this blog…. i just had to break — and open a beer — before I sat down to read the rest… and no delays either, this was suddenly TOP Priority!

  2. FYI, the manky bolt on Carbs and Caffeine has just been replaced with a shiny new one, courtesy of the Gunks Climbers’ Coaltion. Time to go back and lead it!

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