Sixty-two years ago, in September of 1956, I arrived at the Uberfall—a total neophyte; an Appie beginner.
That first climb! All the way to the top of the cliff on a rope led by Bob Larsen.
Wow! Who knew?
It was The Easy Overhang.
Bob led many of my early climbs; I felt that he was looking out for me. The next spring he offered my first “leg on a climb” toward becoming an Appie leader.
It was the top pitch of Baby.
We became friends. On long drives from Manhattan I learned with fascination about the Merchant Marine, the arcane social entanglements at the Uberfall, and the stirrings of a new sub-culture unfettered by convention—a culture to which Bob was an early adherent:
There was a john in the kitchen of his East Village pad. There I smoked my first joint.
It never occurred to me that I might become a mountaineer—even though the writings of Ullman and Hunt had captivated me and, in 1939 at the age of fourteen with excitement and envy, I had seen roped teams on the glaciers and crags of Chamonix. And not in 1949, as with morbid fascination we watched, through the telescopes at Kleine Scheidegg, climbers “defying death” on the Eiger Nordwand.
Why, after all, I had none of the prerequisites. I was neither rich, nor British, nor possessed of a boyhood passed in Lederhosen in a village of the Haute-Savoie. I had not attended Harvard; my father was not a mountain guide, I hadn’t summers off from teaching. I never gave it a thought until, in 1956, I found myself at a Manhattan cocktail party in conversation with one Francis Medina who, it turned out, was a climber. A climber? Of cliffs? You’re kidding! Yes, with ropes and pitons and all? I reached out to touch him in the familiar gesture of hoi polloi toward the Gods. Where and how? The Appalachian Mountain Club? A training program for utter neophytes? He scribbled me a phone number—and my life was changed forever.
That September, having left the New York State Thruway , I drove through the village of New Paltz, across the Wallkill, and out onto NY 299 headed west. What gradually rose ahead was hard to believe; an endlessly wide expanse of distant cliffs arrayed above a talus three times as high as the cliffs themselves. Wow! Who knew? There is no better introduction to this region of New York than to drive west on NY 299 on a sparkling morning.
Eventually, almost under the cliffs, I encountered a wild hairpin turn in the narrow road followed by a few cars parked on the right below a steep wooded and boulder-strewn slope. I stopped next to a pipe from which water flowed from a hidden spring.
I scrambled over the boulders to reach a private road at a climbers gathering place—the “Uberfall.” I learned further that I was in the Shawangunk (Shongum) mountains, foothills of the Catskills, and in a place which came to be known to climbers the world over as the ‘Gunks.
After having joined the AMC people (the only climbing group there), I was shown a few knots, and tied at my waist into a rope which went up thirty feet or so to a man, Cran Barrow, perched on a ledge and holding the other end. Today I’m not sure where this was but it may have been on the ledges that in recent years have become the usual descent route from the close-by climbs.
As I climbed Cran absorbed the slack. It wasn’t hard; I suppose that the “leaders” were taking notice; and I don’t remember whether I then climbed down or was lowered by the rope. Cran’s rope handling, it was explained, was “belaying.”
We few “beginners” did not belay others; not until we had become “seconds” and knew the ropes, a process requiring passage through an “intermediate” stage over a dozen or so weekends, possibly even extending into the next fall or spring season. The Club advertised weekends in the tiny AMC NY Chapter newsletter as for “Beginners,” “Intermediates,” “Leaders and seconds,” and “Leaders only.”
It surprised me that next I was taken on an ascent of the cliff—continuously in two pitches—all the way to the top. The climb was called “The Easy Overhang.” Bob Larsen, now a ranger for the Mohonk Preserve, led us up. I loved it; it was exhilarating; I was hooked.
Rather than roping up more efficiently in pairs we roped as threes because beginners were not competent to belay and because the terrain was not amenable to top-roping.
In a few weeks they classified me as “Intermediate” which opened up the weekends for which I was eligible to register. We drove up on Saturday mornings to meet at the Uberfall. I went as often as possible, gradually getting to know the others on climbs, during the two-hour carpooling from Manhattan, and relaxing at day’s end around the bar at Schleuter’s Mountaincrest Inn where we stayed.
The inn was a kind of bed-and-breakfast on NY 44 a mile or so south of the present Mountain Brauhaus. Dinner followed “Happy Hour,” and often members showed slides or offered instructional lectures. The inn served breakfast and I think one could order a box lunch for Sunday. The Club kept its ropes and equipment in Schleuter’s basement.
The AMC was the sole organizing entity at the cliffs and, until the late fifties, pretty much oversaw all climbing activities. They supervised with what some others had begun to feel as an unwonted obsession with procedure–an understandable outgrowth of the fallout from a fatal accident at Arden earlier in the decade. Parties signed out for climbs and signed back in upon returning safely. The Club trained and the Qualifying Committee approved its leaders and ranked them by experience and ability as “all fours,” “all fives,” or “unlimited” leaders.
Increasingly the Club viewed, with suspicion and some hostility, unapproved leaders from other, especially unfamiliar, groups who had begun to increase in number. College outing clubs such as those from CCNY, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Syracuse, and the University of Pennsylvania showed up occasionally and increasingly put unwonted pressure on the AMC hegemony.
Friction gradually developed between the “Appies,” the self-appointed arbiters of safety and standards, and the outliers who chafed at the notion of restriction and formality. The AMC felt responsibility to the property owners and looked with suspicion upon the activities of those exploring new and more dangerous territory. A rift opened which culminated in the coalescence of a group of bold and skilled climbers under the rubric of the “Vulgarian Mountain Club,” and the history of their press into the realms of higher standards of difficulty, and of their raucous crusade to shock Appie sensibility, became legend.
Bob Larsen, who took me up many of my first climbs, had a foot in each world: he held a rating of “unlimited leader” with the Club; I smoked my first joint in his East Village apartment.
The leaders I remember included Hans Kraus, Bob Larsen, Bonnie Prudden, Kristin and Wally Raubenheimer, Bob Jones, Fred Saxe, Ted Church, Mary Sylvander, Bob Chambers, Barney Toerien, and Ira Schnell among others. The proportion of engineers and physicists was high. Bell Labs fielded William Shockley (the transistor) and Lester Germer (electron diffraction). Jones and Barrow worked at PerkinElmer (space optics) and IBM in Poughkeepsie was well represented. Cran Barrow and then Norton Smithe were the Safety Committee chairs of the time.
Climbing routes had difficulty ratings, e.g., “easy four,” “five,” “hard five,” etc.; outgrowths of the early European categories: 1 through 6. “The Easy Overhang,” for example, was an “easy four” (4), “Gelsa” a 4+, and “High Exposure” a 5. The Yosemite Decimal System arrived around 1960. The “Appies” repertoire included a group of some six dozen routes in the Trapps, Near Trapps, and at Sky Top pioneered in the ’40s and ’50s, and most within the rating “5+” which today would probably include all (Yosemite) 5.6s and some 5.7s.
People talked about guides to the routes and it fell eventually to Art Gran to write the first bound and published guidebook (1964). The old-timers had the routes firmly established in memory and we lesser folk walked the Carriage Road poring over dog-eared handwritten and typewritten lists of the climbs arranged in order down the cliff.
In this period, largely in the background and to some extent outside the sphere of the AMC, harder routes fell to the bold, and by the early sixties 5.8 and 5.9 routes had become relatively common and 5.10 had been established. Some of the familiar names associated with this expanding period are those of Jim McCarthy, Jim Andress, Dave Craft, Dick Williams, Art Gran, and Will Crowther.
In the warm weather we swam in Awosting Creek at a lovely cascade downstream of the falls and across route 44/55 on what is now Minnewaska property. The ‘Gunks were generally abandoned in the summer as most went West or elsewhere. I went up once with some visiting friends only to find that we were the only party at the cliffs. That first summer I went to the Tetons where I was able to scale the East Ridge of the Grand with Philip Gribbon of the Irish Mountaineering Club.
Belaying was much discussed. The approved maneuver was the “body” belay—friction devices had yet to appear. As a result of WWII research for the Tenth Mountain Division laid (twisted) nylon (Goldline, Perlon) mountaineering ropes had become universally available—replacing Manila hemp—the pre-war standard. Because of the known elastic limitations of hemp to contain high energy falls the mountaineering community had earlier developed strong views concerning the use of the rope for the purpose of security. Because hemp could not contain the fall of a leader Geoffrey Winthrop Young’s dictum “The leader does not fall” universally prevailed. The rope was carried only to secure the second.
Not enough was yet known about the new, obviously stronger and more elastic, nylon to allay the inherent fear of the leader fall. A fear that contributed strongly to the conservatism of the period, and which begat endless discussions and calculations about the need for the “dynamic” belay as a necessary means to reduce dangerous forces on rope, piton, and climber. To my knowledge, before and during my early years at the ‘Gunks, no AMC climber there had fallen on the lead.
Although the cliffs occupied the private property of the Mohonk Mountain House, the hotel had no presence at the cliffs. After about 1960 the management asked for fees from the Club to cover changes in insurance but there were never rangers or officials in evidence at the Uberfall.
In the late fall and early spring the Raubenheimers would organize a weekend at the Mountain House when the hotel was closed for the season; host to a boy’s school. The Smiley family, Quakers, owned and ran the hotel. Limousines would meet us at the architecturally fanciful Gatehouse on NY 299 and spirit us to Sky Top for a day of climbing followed by set-ups (no liquor in the public spaces) in our private rooms (each with a working fireplace), dinner in the main dining hall (no smoking), and a box lunch for Sunday.
I remember one snowy morning at Skytop; Walley Raubenheimer and some others were rolling huge wet snowballs on the Gargoyle ledge and sending them down upon us below.
We climbed in sneakers—although stiffer soled shoes, suede leather “Kletterschuhe” better for edging, had begun to appear from Europe. We tied into the rope around the waist with a bowline-on-a-coil. The addition of a hammer, a few carabiners, and a pin or two made the sole difference in equipment between the leader and his second–the hammer to test the safe “ring” of the fixed pins and the ‘biners to clip the rope into the pitons along the way and at the belay stances. When capped by a small overhang the piton was strung with a chain of ‘biners to prevent binding of the rope. No leader protection existed between fixed pins unless he drove another, which was not common. On the positive side a “rack” didn’t weigh much.
A first ascent party placed pitons where it deemed them necessary and left them in place—the soft-iron was cheap and, at the same time, often difficult to remove. The pins served both to mark the route and to cement the claim of “first.”
Aluminum carabiners, produced by Yosemite’s Raffi Bedayn, had just arrived to replace their heavier steel predecessors. Carabiners, forged soft-iron pitons from Europe, hammers, and rope could be purchased at Camp and Trail on Canal Street—Manhattan’s only mountaineering equipment store, other than Midtown’s tony Abercrombie and Fitch. It was not long after the arrival of the Bedayn ‘biner that its virtue as a beer cap opener was discovered.
To complete the picture there were no special shoes; no slings (quick-draws); no nylon webbing, no harnesses other than self made “Swiss seats”; no Sticht plates, ATCs, or figure-eights; no helmets; no chalk; and no protection devices of any kind. Because of the lurking fear of a leader fall belayers usually wore gloves knowing for certain that in an emergency the rope would run.
In truth, toward the end of this period, slings of doubled and knotted quarter-inch Goldline made an appearance, but it was not until the sixties that nylon webbing and kernmantle rope showed up.
The lack of friction devices laid hardship on the rappeller who descended the rope using a Dulfersitz or body rappel. We all had to demonstrate an ability to do this and many had jackets and knee-pants with reinforced shoulders and crotch. No one mentioned methods for freeing the hands in mid-descent as is now common.
Eventually a so-called “brake-bar” appeared which, when laid across the width of a ‘biner, could act as a crude friction device.
We climbed always all the way to the top of the cliff and walked back to the Uberfall along a well-worn trail; a trail that today is almost obliterated by nature because “rapping” down has become almost universal. The last bit of the scramble down required an “uberfall” by which one crossed a disconcertingly wide gap using an upper-body fall, arrested by the hands on the opposite wall, and followed by a long step across the void. Today’s climbers hardly know of this way down.
After having climbed as an “Intermediate” for a season one became eligible to become a “Second” after having demonstrated a knowledge of knots and having passed the belay test–the successful arresting on belay of a heavy weight set up on a timber projecting out from the cliff in the corner to the right of “Boston“. Having passed this hurdle one could combine with leaders to take beginners on the rope. The next step: getting a “leg on a climb”.
One day in the spring of 1957 below the top pitch of “Baby” Bob Larsen asked whether I would lead the next pitch. Well. OK, I guess so. I knew there was a hard, thin move in the corner about halfway up and a strenuous bit at the end. Bob handed me a couple of ‘biners to augment my few—by then I had a hammer—and without too much “Sturm und Drang” I made it up the corner and over the top. I had just gotten my first “leg on a climb” from an AMC “qualifying” leader.
That fall, a year after my first climb and after having amassed some number of “legs” from other leaders, I was told that the Qualifying Committee had voted me permission to lead “all fours”.
After 1958, owing to marriage and children, my ‘Gunks climbing tapered off, ending in a move to Boston in 1963. Whether I had reached the leading of “all fives” I do not remember. But by the time I returned to the ‘Gunks in 1966 the question had become moot inasmuch as the Appies were no longer dominant at the cliffs.
A wonderful discovery of an 1955 AMC NY Chapter address book (courtesy Steve Jervis)
And, in addition, I remember Barney Toerien, Alex Hahoutoff, the Reeses, the Elricks, Ira Schnell, Bill Cropper, Fred Lazarus. . .
For an excellent account of this period in ‘Gunks history see:
Waterman & Waterman, Yankee Rock & Ice, Stackpole, 1993, ISBN 0-8117-1633-3, pp. 133-147, 154-163.
Also: “Ungentlemanly Behavior” an historical piece by Chris Jones, Climbing in North America, pg. 213ff, (AAC), University of California Press, Berkley, 1976.
And: Victoria Robinson, Rock Climbing—The Ultimate Guide, Origins, p.33, p-36-39, Greenwood, 2013. “How I met the Vulgarians” , John Stannard.
The definitive (rare!) guidebook of the period:
Arthur Gran, A Climber’s Guide to the Shawangunks AAC/AMC, 1964.
My copy was once found with a broken spine in the middle of NY Route 55 and returned to me by Bill Putnam, who wryly observed that I was off route.
For a look into the ferment surrounding ropes and belaying see:
Arnold Wexler, The Theory of Belaying, AAJ Vol. VII, No 4 (1950)
Hassler Whitney, Fred Beckey, Belaying, AAJ, Accidents Alpina, 1951
Leonard, Wexler, et al, Belaying the Leader, Sierra Club, 1956.