Scaling New Heights: Hudson Valley Rock Climbing 101 | Outdoors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Those who've been awestruck watching Alex Honnold meander up the side of El Capitan or marveled at Jason Momoa on the reality show "The Climb" and wonder what rock climbing might be like should know that the perfect introduction is at the backdoor. Once a sport of the counterculture in the `60s and `70s, rock climbing is now mainstream, and those curious should look no further than the Shawangunk Ridge. The group of cliff bands of quartz conglomerate just west of New Paltz, better known as the Gunks, are the heart of rock climbing in the Northeast, rich with history and one of the best places for beginners.

It might seem daunting or inaccessible, and although the folks who do it acknowledge the inherent risk of dangling off a cliff face, they also emphasize aspects that perhaps will make it less intimidating. "A common misconception about rock climbing is that you must have an enormous amount of strength to try it out," says Russ Clune, a nationally recognized climber, local legend, and board chair of the Mohonk Preserve. "One of the interesting things about climbing that people tend to forget is that it really is a technique-oriented sport as opposed to other strength-oriented sports, making it accessible to all in that way." (Pro tip: Move with your legs.)

Marty Molitoris, owner of Alpine Endeavors Guides, agrees. "Climbing is truly a sport for everyone, especially here in the Gunks, where there is such varied terrain. Climbing doesn't have to be extreme like you might see on TV, although it can!" Alpine Endeavors has been operating since 2000 and is among one of many American Mountain Guides Association-accredited guide services in the area.

The discovery of the ridge by German immigrant Fritz Weissner in the 1930s combined with proximity to major population centers helped spawn the growth of rock climbing in the United States with this area at the forefront of difficult climbing.

"When I started climbing in the `70s through the mid-1980s, the Gunks had routes that would match up to as hard or harder than any other climbs around the country," says Clune. "If you were a top-notch climber at the time, you came here to test yourself."

As climbing progressed, climbers continued pushing the limits on rocks around the country with many of the most difficult routes being put up elsewhere. To be sure, there's no shortage of difficult and engaging climbs here, and the local Gunks climbing community continues to work hard to protect, maintain and welcome all to experience the adventure and beauty of the area.

The Gunks remain a place for climbing pilgrims and, importantly, a great place for beginners. "With a caveat of learning how to place gear and trad climb, the Gunks has without a doubt, probably the best selection of easy to moderate routes in the country," says Clune. "In the Gunks, you can climb steep routes through overhangs, because there are large holds making it possible for those just starting out to have a great time."


There is, of course, inherent risk that comes with the sport. Some risks may seem obvious, while others only become apparent with experience, making hiring a guide or taking a class a good idea. "If you're going to learn to climb outside, especially here in the Gunks, you need to learn how to create safe anchors and place gear," says Clune. "Only a guide or someone else who knows what they are doing can do that." A guide will give you a good day even if you're just looking for something new or a good time.

Hire A Guide

Hiring a guide to take you out for the day is well worth the investment. "With such a storied history here, there's a plethora of options from which to choose," says Emma Blauer, one of the store managers of climbing outfitter Rock and Snow in New Paltz. "We are fortunate to have amazing guide services in the area. They are all [American Mountain Guides Association] accredited, fully insured, and the guides have a lot of experience and knowledge." A guide will not only ensure your safety but also can tailor the day to meet your expectations and start you off on the right foot. "Every day is different and we really want to make sure each party gets what they want out of a guided day," says Eric Waldron, who guides for Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School in Gardiner. "Before we take you out, we'll have a conversation so we get a better understanding of abilities, comforts, and goals."

click to enlarge Scaling New Heights: Hudson Valley Rock Climbing 101
Photo by Christian Fracchia
Lindsay Chervenak on the wildly exposed finish of Erect Direction

Most guide services will also provide all the technical gear needed for a fun day. "We bring shoes, harnesses, ropes, helmets, chalk, and all other associated gear for the outing and we begin to teach you how to use it safely," says Molitoris. "Guides know the areas really well and can help you become familiar with the terrain and take you to areas you wouldn't otherwise get to explore on your own."

Even if you already feel one with the stone, hiring a guide can help you learn how to build top-rope anchors, lead climbing, or learn new systems important for safety. "Whether you're just starting out or are more experienced, there are so many types of terrain here, especially here, guides can help you really progress. There's something for everybody here," says Waldron.

There are many different types of climbing—gym climbing, bouldering, sport climbing, top roping, lead climbing, aid climbing, ice climbing, alpine climbing—and a guide can introduce you to new sorts of risk and reward. There are hundreds of climbing gyms across the county and although climbing gyms might create a safer and more controlled environment, climbing in a gym won't necessarily prepare you to get outside, especially in this area, says Molitoris. "They are two different sports, really, and once people get outside, they don't turn back." Clune agrees. "There's no soul in the plastic," he says. "Although I still climb on plastic, when you look up at a beautiful rock climb, it's like a monument."

Gyms can, however, be a good way to meet others, teach you basic belay techniques, and help to overcome certain barriers to trying out the sport. "Gyms are a great way to see if you like the feeling of climbing and the way your body moves," says Blauer. "It can be an inexpensive way to see if you like the feel of climbing before hiring a guide for your first experience. However, outdoor climbing in the preserve and Peter's Kill is so fun and such high quality. You could never have climbed before and still have a really good day."

The cost of climbing equipment and hiring a guide can present real barriers to many who are interested in getting outside. Blauer suggests exploring the region's excellent bouldering options as a first step to climbing on real rock. "The most inexpensive way to getting outside is to rent shoes and a crash pad, and download the app to find the nearest boulders," says Blauer.

Where to Go

Most people who talk about the Gunks are referring to climbing in the Trapps or Near Trapps in the Mohonk Preserve. While climbing in these areas is world-class and brings you closer to the history of climbing, Peter's Kill, located in Minnewaska State Park, is a great place for top-roping and best suited for beginners. "Most new climbers are looking for top-roping and almost every climb at Peter's Kill can be top-roped, whereas most routes in the Trapps and Nears require leading," says Christian Fracchia, co-author of the Gunks Guidebook and president of Gunks Apps, which produces digital guidebooks for climbers.

While it's fairly easy these days to learn rock climbing and basic climbing knowledge, mastering the sport is something altogether different. "The nice thing about climbing is that it's lifelong process. You can get outside climbing on rock without too much investment. But to master it is a lifelong pursuit," says Blauer.

There are other benefits than purely physical fitness, says Molitoris. "Climbing can change your world. It has the ability to open your mind, help you problem solve, and take you to new places." For Clune, that's just what climbing and the Gunks have given him—a life. "The great thing about climbing is that it can be lifelong. Rock climbing can be really creative. It's almost like a dance or a puzzle. You have to figure out how you're going to move your body over the formations. It makes the mind work in a way that's not completely linear."

Resources for New Rockclimbers


Rock and Snow, located at 44 Main Street in New Paltz, has climbing equipment for rent and sale, among other items. Eastern Mountain Sports, located at 3124 Routes 44/55 in Gardiner, also has a selection of gear and clothing.


Before you go, a purchase of a guidebook or downloading Gunks Apps to help you navigate will be invaluable. The latest guidebook Gunks Climbing (2021) was written by a group of climbers (including Fracchia) who climbed all the routes listed in the book. Gunks Apps may be a more cost-effective option and offers similar information. "The app shows base photos of every route, high-res topo photos with lines, GPS navigation, grades, descent information, and detailed descriptions of every climb," says Fracchia. Since Gunks Apps is authored and maintained by some of the climbers who wrote the guidebook, you'll have book-quality information at your fingertips.


The guide services in the area all offer a range of options for varying ages and abilities from individual or family outings to adaptive climbing and larger corporate events. "All guide services in the area come equally recommended, so call around to find the option that's right for you," says Blauer. Paracliff Hangers and Adaptive Climbing Group, both based in New York City, are focused on providing access to the adaptive community.

The best time to rock climb typically runs from April through mid-November and reservations must be made with each guide service in advance. Guide rates are dependent on the party size and duration of the reservation. Local guides suggest coming prepared with clothing suitable for dynamic movement and layers appropriate for the weather. Bring light hiking shoes, snacks, water, sunscreen, lunch, and a good attitude! For a complete list of guide services visit

Climbing Organizations

Gunks Climbers' Coalition and Rise Outside are also great resources for regional climbing information.

Visitor Guidelines

Any user of the outdoors has an impact. Guidelines for both the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park Preserve can be found on their websites or at each Visitor Center.

Abigail Gierke, originally from the Midwest, moved to New Paltz after living in Colorado for the past decade. Any day filled with time outside is a good one.

About The Author

Abigail Gierke

Abby enjoys being outside, meeting new people, and exploring the layers of their lived lives. Finding a story where it's not obvious is of particular interest. Listen here or reach out to tell yours.
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