A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Overcoming Entropy & Gravity: The Gunks

By Erica Paige Schumacher

We had to arrive early to the Mohonk Preserve parking area to purchase a day pass and grab a trail map. It’s a struggle to locate a parking area that is not replete with cars, gear, and stickers from Nepal to Yosemite on any sunny weekend day.  Some go during the week, if schedules comply; others lament the change in the environment due to traffic from all over the world that leaves a human foot or hand print on the Gunks facade or threatens fragile rock-rooted trees or the viability of Peregrine nests.

On a beautiful Saturday filled with cumulus clouds floating against an electric-blue dome, and vertical apexes that jutted into the sky, a hiker might wonder “how do you get up there?” The ancient mountain range may intimidate the shyer contemplative from the start—invoking fear, or in the least, respectful intimidation. “Don’t look down” runs like a loop through the mind, and it’s good advice from any vantage point or life phase attempting an ascent in the Trapps.  Particularly for those with a fear of heights, or any fear, frankly.  At any mountain level, be aware. You will confront fear. You will confront yourself. Looking up can be as equally daunting or exhilarating as staring into the depths of an interminable sea.

Time compresses into stress while in a rush. Buddhists say that rushing is a form of violence, and stats on mountain trails and in books written by expert climbers like Jon Krakauer (famous author and climbing-writer for Outside magazine) chastise laziness, greed, lassitude, impatience, and overconfidence paired with inexperience or bad weather. Good advice for mountains, the sea, and life. Being late to a mountain range that is 420 million years old feels paradoxical and absurd. At 1pm, a background of skiing experiences kicked in from some mental/neurological archives, and this hiker settled on a compromise between entropy and motivation: the early risers would be leaving soon after trail mix or lunch, and perhaps a space would open up to reveal a gate to the sky. The dog wanted me to stay home. Such thoughts should not be vocalized, but internalized like a Sherpa might, quietly and with reverence for the mountain and one’s life. You are a speck of conscious dust climbing up to a sacred ancient landscape. Hopefully the mountain, the expert climbers, and the dog would forgive me. Doubt. After driving by many times to watch the spires of Quartz Conglomerate reach for a primordial sky, the question of “how do you get up there” (to the Trapps) was answered perhaps by the mountain itself, and a lovely man named Peter, who retired from social work after finding the postmodern world of systems presiding over individual people and souls disheartening. He now works with deep compassion on and for the mountain, and gives people trail maps, guidance, and directions to whatever it is they are looking for up there. Happy a parking space revealed itself after lunch, and feeling less guilt about the dog, the East Trapps connector trail went up the mountain and then forked left or right to a carriage road, as Peter advised. It was rocky, and there were stone steps that appeared to warrant caution to a middle aged woman whose best athletic days were most definitely behind her. “Try not to fall or die,” was the simple mantra that helped the climb up each steep step, leaning tentatively on rocks and trees with a light hand for the trees’ sake, and for balance. Many other hands had rested there in the very spots I naturally reached for to steady my frame, and having read about the fragile ecosystem up there, and the plight of generous trees that held this all together—I felt respectful and full of awe, and also happy that I didn’t tumble down the mountain. 

Each step up was an exercise in concentration. Looking up, one could see the indescribable vertical ascent, climbers moving up and down the rock faces with partners, and echoes of “Belay on!” and “Belay off!”—simple words of paramount trust between climbing partners whose lives literally depended on each other’s awareness, wakefulness, attention to detail, and spiritual maturity. The musical tones of clanging carabiners created soothing sounds. Chipmunks scurried to and fro, colorful flowers trumpeted their existence from crags, and large hawks circled in the ether. 

Don’t look down; don’t look up. Choosing the right path where groups of climbing friends and families gathered felt good. Undercliff Road is aptly named. The experts have clubs and associations and remote places that they have worked hard to overcome, to discover, to protect, and to appreciate. This was a novice hiker’s attempt to find out simply the reasons people ascend these escarpments here and worldwide. And the answers are as individual as each climber, hiker, or nature lover can imagine. 

Friends and former students from the University of Maryland gathered at the Trapps. Anna Reachmack, and Maya Johnston talked and ate lunch as Bryce Peterson rappelled down confidently and Aaman Mengis, his climbing partner, belayed him. All four friends stated that building trust and witnessing nature and what the body could do in a tight spot were features of their drive to climb. All four cited their first experiences climbing on modest structures or climbing walls at gyms, or in programs or university climbing clubs as first experiences that revealed something special about climbing with friends and learning important skills that translate into other aspects of their lives. Maya only climbs a few times a year due to a busy schedule and a lack of financial capital for gear. The sport can be expensive. She still finds important reasons to ascend when she can. “I really just like being in a natural environment, and doing it,” Maya said. “When you’re up really high and you’re holding on to nothing, it’s like a mental barrier that you can overcome, and you don’t always get that feeling in life.” Aaman met his friend Bryce and found a channel for his own competitive nature. “Bryce is experienced and was a much better climber than me; I am naturally competitive and athletic. But now, instead of being externally motivated, I see climbing as an inner journey. Ninety percent of it is using your body in a way you didn’t know you could.”  Bryce, who was obviously the most experienced climber, was also philosophical and introspective. He was introduced to climbing by a college friend he respected, and was drawn to the outdoor techniques and how one could just go deeper and deeper into terrains, skills, friendship, and oneself. “It’s been rewarding,” he said. “I keep doing it because I keep getting better. There is the outdoor aspect of it, overcoming fears, and the pure focus of being in control of the fear and managing it—it has helped me be fully in touch with myself and everything else. The world fades away. That Zen flow state in meditation is the ideal. This is being 100 percent focused—there’s no room for anything else.” 

Robert Ryan of Manhattan was further down belaying and patiently instructing his five-year-old daughter Eleanor safely down off the rock. “My daughter is a natural climber,” Robert stated. He was visiting for the day to pass on the experience to her as she looked back and forth from the rock to her parents. He and his wife along with uncles and relatives who climb ascended to the Trapps with the entire family all in. This included the Ryans’ three-year-old, who was learning how to handle rope and gear, and their one-year-old, who was observing it all after being carried up. Robert began climbing in an Outward Bound program out west, and then over time became an avid climber visiting challenging sites for extreme ascents before he had children. He has climbed in Alaska, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Canada, Washington, Oregon, and in South America. “When I was young, and felt invincible, I had big goals and visions of being a ‘first’ to do a lot of things,” Robert stated. He took his last large climbing trip before his daughter was born. “I enjoy the flow and the physical challenge of it,” he said. “I used to go on more rigorous climbs, but either way, it’s a great way to spend a day outdoors, and a great place to come with family. You get the best of both worlds here out in nature as a dad—being outdoors for a full day with family is just a different phase of life than embarking on difficult climbs and summit peaks.”

The Gunks (short for Shawangunk Mountains) are world famous, extremely challenging for those who want to test themselves and learn about themselves, the mountain, and others, and the many difficult courses up rock faces that have been hammered into beautiful shapes over glacial millennia provide views of nature that are both mysterious and deeply profound. Skiers who learn to ski at Killington or in other extreme environments know that if they can ski on a sheet of ice, or over cliffs (not advised), other terrains can seem more navigable by comparison. Either way, the rigorous training prepares one for many things, and perishing on any climb or hike is a real risk. The Gunks have that foreboding and exacting mystery for climbers. However, even the less experienced will find themselves transformed by a hike or smaller climb on the mountain trails. As with all natural phenomena, whatever one’s ability level or goal might be: gratitude, respect, and training are essential. 

According to Peggy Strickler, who climbs often in the Gunks with her partner and husband Dawes Strickler, climbing is not a pursuit for the careless. She mentions a period in her life in which starting to climb transformed her inner world into a new matrix of health and well-being. “You have to be aware,” Peggy said. “I’ve learned just to really consider each step.” She met her husband—who currently works at West Point as a climbing instructor and runs the climbing program as a coach of the competitive climbing team—when he was guiding a climb. Their son Logan also climbs. She started climbing as a beginner, and then improved after a solo trip to Europe in search of other climbers. She no longer “lead climbs,” which carries with it a great deal of risk and responsibility for others, and now enjoys “following.” “When you’re climbing,” she said, “there’s a lot of failure in it, and then, on another ascent, you will figure it out.” As for the Gunks, she misses the solitude that drew her to the mountain on less crowded days. But, she is still drawn there, and cites the climbing community here in the Hudson Valley as “very strong, and supportive.” As for climbing in the Trapps, it provides deep mental and physical challenges. “It’s not superficial,” Peggy states. “And it’s not ego-driven.” She is inspired by mature climbers known as The Assisted Living Climbing Team, a devoted cadre of climbers definitely not aging quietly. “So much about life is divided by age, but not climbing,” she states. 

Most of us spend our imaginative lives in linear time. We move horizontally across terrain and through life, realizing once in a while that time may not be totally linear in terms of experience. For yogis, there is spending “too much time upright,” and needing to be upside down in order to find balance in a pose and in life; for climbers, it is perhaps the vertical ascent that bends time into something else akin to metaphysical transformation; others might venture to call it shapeshifting. Indeed, venturing up to the Trapps, one is deeply impressed with the simple fact that human beings of all ages and in all life phases are scaling up and down mountain faces using great skill, grace, the support of friends or family, and deep attention—all the while, being transformed by the Web of Life surrounding this pristine landscape. While defying gravity and transforming the self is part of every attempt, every wise climber is aware of one important fact: even expert climbers perish, and so caution, training, awareness, and wisdom are paramount in each moment. 

Heading back down the trail, it was obvious that I had only experienced a very small sliver of life on my own hike up to the Trapps, but the whole cosmos spoke and changed. A woman walked me down to find the stone steps I missed coming back on the trail. She was visiting her grown son from Virginia, and spoke of the peace she felt there hiking, while he climbed. Peter advised to apply my day pass to a season pass, which would allow access to 8,000 acres of cliffs, forests, fields, ponds, and streams, and access to over 75 miles of carriage roads and beautiful trails in the Preserve for hiking, running, mountain biking, horseback riding, cross country skiing, and access to Minnewaska State Park Preserve and Mohonk Mountain House trails. It would also provide access to the internationally renowned Gunks cliffs, with hundreds of technical rock-climbing routes. In addition, the reasonably priced season pass and day passes help to fund the important preservation culture of the Gunks for birds, animals, and future hiking and climbing generations. My stomach growled, and the dog would be hungry. I tucked the beautiful trail map into my pack, and tied it to my notebook with some literature on “Sharing the Cliff: Peregrine Falcons and the Mohonk Preserve Rock Climber.” 

It is important to remember that climbing mountains is inherently dangerous. As I walked back to the parking lot, it felt as though something important had occurred, and some awareness in myself had shifted. A voice whispered as I looked back at the Gunks and at other climbers still scaling the Trapps. “A mountain cannot be owned; it owns itself.” Perhaps it is that sense of freedom and sovereignty that drew me there. One thing is certain for any hiker or climber attempting an ascent; you can go to the mountain with your ego beside you, and one can be sure, the mountain will survive. 

For info on climbing culture and preservation of the Shawangunk Mountains, visit the Gunks Climbers’ Coalition: gunksclimbers.org. 

For info on hiking or climbing in the Mohonk Preserve, visit mohonkpreserve.org or ask the knowledgeable staff at the Visitor Center located on Route 44/55.

For climbing gear, community events, and expert knowledge on outdoor pursuits, visit Rock and Snow in New Paltz.