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.
Eventually, inspired by Bob’s account of his own Teton ascent, I bought a rope and went west to climb the Grand.
And so, owing to Bob’s mentorship, a door opened to the world of mountaineering;
And my life was changed forever.
In the early seventies I had been climbing in the ‘Gunks off and on for fifteen years and, having been a cautious venturer, had just recently been getting into leading the “sixes.” Such classics as “Disneyland,” “Middle Earth,” and “High Exposure” were behind me and so, one day with Sam Tatnall in 1973, we happened upon “Travels with Charley”—a 5.6 in Dick Williams’ 1972 guidebook.
The left-facing corner on the first pitch seemed hard—and perhaps that should have told us something. However, I made it safely to the belay and brought up Sam.
The next pitch was steep and ended in a rising traverse up right, around a corner, and out of sight. It looked ominously as though there might be nowhere to stand in balance along the way. But heck, five-six? What could possibly go wrong?
The face was steep! Jugs up to the traverse but I was nowhere really in balance as I struggled with protection; years before SLCDs and still longer before TriCams.
At the traverse it was a relief to see a small Chouinard angle securely placed at its outset. I clipped, called down to Sam, took a deep breath, and set out. I wasn’t half way across when I realized my arms weren’t going to hold out. I shouted “Coming back!” followed almost immediately by “Falling!” The pin held. And I got my feet out just in time to swing safely into the wall. Sam came up, took the lead, and confidently did the traverse without stopping to protect it. I followed and just barely made it to the end. I had to un-crimp my hands at the belay.
The next year, having led more sixes and a few sevens, I found myself again at “Travels,” this time with my friend and uncommonly skilled climber Steve Angelini. The idea was that this time I would successfully lead the traverse. The pin was still there but when, inevitably I fell, my feet weren’t right and I banged my knees. Steve effortlessly did the lead and I followed with difficulty.
Then, in 1980, in Dick William’s new guidebook: “Travels with Charley”, 5.8. And, in subsequent volumes: 5.7+R and even 5.8-R! I guess the pin must long be gone.
Finally, sometime in the late seventies, I was yet again passing by—looking for “Gaston” with my friend Wes Grace. Yes! There was a guy just beginning the “Travels” traverse. I touched Wes on the shoulder and said “Hey wait, watch this.” We were not disappointed.
It is little appreciated today that the completion of the protection revolution at the ‘Gunks preceded Ray Jardine’s introduction of the “Friend”—the first camming device—by about six years, the Tri-Cam by eighteen, and that by the time of the publication of Doug Robinson’s “The Whole Natural Art of Protection” in Chouinard’s 1972 equipment catalog it was virtually over.
In 1966 I returned to the ‘Gunks after a move from New York City to Boston and an absence from climbing of about four years. I went down with an interested friend from work and, as I drove along, I wondered whom I might greet among my old “Appie” friends at the Uberfall and whether they still hung out at Schleuter’s Mountaincrest Inn.
The changes in the area and the climbing scene were surprising and substantial. The highway had been repaved and considerably widened, permitting parking on both sides along a new metal guardrail. There were many more cars than I had remembered and, at the Uberfall, a pickup truck full of climbing gear (mostly ironmongery) was parked and presided over by one Joe Donohue who had a small business going and who collected fees for and looked out informally for the property interests of Mohonk (later the Trust, and later still, the Preserve).
But what seemed most astonishing was the total disappearance of the former influence of the Appalachian Mountain Club. The Uberfall was bustling with activity but nowhere did I find a single Appie friend from four years earlier and what is more, with very few exceptions, I never, ever did. The turnover was virtually complete. Soon I made an effort to meet and establish myself with the Boston AMC climbers. Among them then: Wes Grace, Bob Chisholm, Harold Taylor, D Byers, Bob Johnson, and Bob Hall and thus began a period of many, many years of coming often to the ‘Gunks.
The after-climbing conviviality had moved from Schleuter’s to the bar at “Emil’s” Mountain Brauhaus at the bottom of the hill, and the comforts of the inn had given way to camping out on Clove Road just beyond the second bridge over Coxing Kill. Above some open rocky slabs there was room for tents among the trees at a place that came to be known as Wickie-Wackie after a small sign on the main road advertising a bar farther down the clove. But we gave up this area in 1970 after I had a large tent stolen. Not long after that Mohonk prohibited camping there and gave the AMC, still a more or less coherent entity, permission to use the area around a small abandoned farmhouse off US 44. For many years thereafter we crashed there at the “AMC Cabin” until the Mohonk Preserve finally reclaimed it as an historic site: the Van Leuven farm.
Mohonk had also established permission for limited tenting near the Steel Bridge in an area which came to be known affectionately as Camp Slime. Years later John Ruoff, Emil’s nephew, was horrified to learn from me that “Slime” was Emil’s spelled backward.
Although there was a continuing AMC presence at the cliffs the old Club restrictions were gone. One led what he felt he could negotiate safely, and confidence in the rope was increasing. Goldline still ruled in 1970 but climbers were gaining experience with the new strong and resilient kernmantle rope introduced in the fifties in Europe and which now was gradually replacing it here. By the end of the sixties slings of knotted quarter-inch Goldline had been replaced by nylon webbing, and the bowline-on-a-coil waist tie-in was giving way to safer and more comfortable home-tied Swiss seats of the same material.
Shoes had changed to designs made by climbers specifically for the sport. There were now imported RDs, PAs, and EBs eponymously initialed by their French makers: smooth rubber soles with canvas or suede tops—greatly improved over sneakers—and Kletterschuhe for edging and friction. Royal Robbin’s bright blue suede RRs (what else?) came along in 1971.
At first, from the point of view of the cliffs and the protection, the climbing seemed to me pretty much as it had been in 1960; leaders carried and hammered in the occasional soft iron piton where it was deemed needed and, often as not, the second left it behind–they were hard to remove and soft iron was cheap. Resident pins tended to remain in place, as before, although some were beginning to show signs of age.
Joe Donohue had newer stuff in his truck; stuff forged by Chouinard in California and developed largely for the burgeoning aid routes in Yosemite. He stocked “angle” pitons made from hard chrome-molybdenum steel, in form like the softer sheet steel Norton Smithes of the fifties that preceded them here. The arch of the angle spread slightly, spring-like, on driving for a quick solid grip, but the grip was easily broken by a few side-to-side whacks administered by the second. Pretty easy, but–importantly–these new pins weren’t so cheap so that increasingly seconds were loath to abandon them.
Straight Lost Arrows were also of chrome-moly, stiff and more easily removed than their predecessors. Joe had thin “knife blades,” too, for fine cracks and the RURP (“Realized Ultimate Reality Piton”): a mere chip of steel for aid climbing via incipient fissures. Earlier, in 1961, Chouinard’s Bongs had arrived—the final expression of the angle concept; large pitons—some fat enough for three-inch cracks that rang with deep authority when driven: “Bong, bong!” Not long after their introduction the steel version was discontinued and replaced by light-weight hard aluminum.
Gradually we updated our racks—replacing the old soft iron with the new, pricier hard stuff. My view, shared at the time by most, was to leave the occasional newly placed pin behind as a modest contribution to the general weal. Why take it out if the next one along could clip it? And so it was with shock one spring that we looked down from our stance midway up the cliff to see an approaching soloer methodically removing and racking chrome-moly. He had amassed a useful collection. It turned out to be Dick Dumais who, when challenged on this shameless lack of proper public spirit, countered that he was merely assembling his rack for an imminent trip to Yosemite.
There was, in Yosemite at first as the sixties advanced and soon at the ‘Gunks and elsewhere, a growing awareness of looming disaster—the actual destruction of the cliffs; of the cracks and small features that made climbing in any form (free or on aid) possible at all. The continued placement and removal of hard steel was having an ugly erosive effect even, we heard, on durable Yosemite granite. Piton cracks widened, even to the point where some crucial pin placement was no longer feasible. Some incipient cracks had become fingerholds.
Already locally we noticed new areas of tinted rock, long protected from the elements, where a sizeable flake had been pried off from behind; large and widening pockets, especially in horizontal cracks; and a great diminution of the fixed pin protection that had been taken for granted for years.
Voices were heard in favor of reducing piton use by adopting a suspect British tradition. The Brits had a history of eschewing pitons, not so much owing to an adverse impact on the cliffs, but simply as not really very sporting. They had become used to girth hitching slings over chicken-heads and jamming sturdy knots into vertical cracks. They filled their pockets with small pebbles to be wedged like natural chockstones and slung; and those who approached their routes along railroad tracks picked up stray machine nuts for the same purpose. Later they bored out the abrasive screw threads. Thus, the “nut” was born.
But the coming revolution was as yet unforeseen.
Early aluminum nuts began to appear; at first as curiosities and then gradually with suspect experimental value to augment placements where pitons weren’t feasible. Nuts manufactured specifically for climbing first appeared in England around 1961. Most resembled little Chinese take-out boxes, tapered on four sides. Others (Clogs, 1966) were made from hexagonal bar-stock cut to various lengths and drilled for bails. As the seventies dawned many variations appeared (Troll Big-Hs, Forrest Titons, Clog Cogs). Racks of pitons were more and more seen interspersed with the aluminum intruders. The small ones had braided wire bails and the large required knotted Goldline or webbing laboriously forced through the often inadequate holes provided. The wires seemed OK but the cord and webbing wanted to be as thick as possible.
Another insult was noticed. After its introduction by John Gill, gymnast’s chalk had come widely into use and some complained of the unsightly white residue left behind on once pristine and unobtrusive hand holds; although many tacitly admitted that clues were welcome as to where previous fingers in desperation had sought a home.
Piton use continued unabated. However, a consensus was building among the environmentally conscious toward the absolute necessity of abandoning reliance on them before the cliffs were chipped to pieces. The result was the “Clean Climbing” revolution.The lead was taken by John Stannard (of Foops fame) as it was in the West by Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, Yvon Chouinard, and others. Stannard began the publication (1971) of a newsletter, The Eastern Trade, devoted to the conservation of the cliffs; educated climbers by taking them up the routes with nuts; and collected old steel angles to be cadmium plated, painted a distinctive gray, and placed as permanent “residents” where all agreed they were necessary. I believe that some can still be seen on the cliffs today.
Climbers “town meetings” were called and supported by Mohonk; letters written; votes taken.
And so climbers began, tentatively, reluctantly to try nuts. Very few were falling on lead and so it was a while before safe falls on nuts became common enough to begin to engender real trust. They didn’t work well in parallel-sided cracks, and especially not well in the horizontal ones that abound at the ‘Gunks.
And then, in 1971, two game-changing events occurred: the ever innovative Chouinard came out with Hexcentrics, and the All-Nut Ascents blank book appeared on the counter at Dick Williams’ (new in 1970) Rock and Snow shop in New Paltz.
Because of their eccentric “hexagonal” cross-section Hexcentrics began, sort of, to solve the problem of the horizontal crack. Rotation of the shape tended to jam it in the same way that the modern (1990) Tri-Cam does so well.
The book at Rock & Snow invited climbers duly to record “First all-nut ascents” and the result was a stampede to claim the prizes. The easy routes fell early and it was less than two years before the final, hardest routes were climbed “clean.” Actually, Royal Robbins had made the first ever recorded all-nut first ascent in Yosemite in 1966. He called it Boulderfield Gorge, although his clean 1967 Nutcracker Sweet is the one that became classic. By the end of 1972 the last open ‘Gunks route had fallen so that, at least among the skilled and the bold, the protection revolution was complete. Rock & Snow refused thereafter to stock pitons.
The next year Stannard published a list of all the new clean ascents with an additional rating: “a, b, or c” as a measure of the difficulty of protecting with nuts and fixed pins. Out of this grew today’s familiar ratings taken from the film industry.
All right then, OK for the bold, but we more timid folk were not so sure.
By this time our own tentative pure efforts had begun. I most associate this period with my climbing partners Sandy Dunlap, Tom Hayden, and Wes Grace—worthy nut-men all. We made our own “clean” ascents; my first, as I remember it, was Double Chin. “Clean” meant that we even eschewed the clipping of resident pins.
Stannard taught us how to “stack” nuts. That is, to place them in tandem with opposing tapers so that the extracting force on one caused the assembly to expand. I can remember a fascinated group at the Uberfall standing around Stannard as he worked a hydraulic jack to load a stacked set in a slightly flaring horizontal crack with an outward pull. The nylon sling gave way.
We practiced the stacking and figured out how to use two placements in opposition, each so situated as to secure the other from lifting out as the attached sling was urged upward by the moving rope, or to protect the one from being snatched in the wrong direction in a fall. We socked them in to the point where our seconds complained they couldn’t get them out. We became clever; we invited our seconds properly to admire our elegant placements before their dismantlement with the nut-pick. The pick, itself, a new development owing to the difficulty of removing jammed or hidden nuts in awkward positions, was often a homemade affair. We made picks out of kitchen spatulas and called them “nut hatches” and discovered the art of “gardening” with the pick to clean the mud and grass out of promising cracks. We mixed charcoal with chalk to dull its glaring whiteness and promoted it as “dirty chalk for clean climbing” (a lousy idea as it turned out because it sullied the beautiful, new kernmantle ropes). We modified our nuts by filing deep grooves in them and by epoxying the wire bails so that you could push on them to urge them out.
The three-nut belay anchor became our standard; we arranged equi-tension sling arrangements wherever possible.
In 1972 Chouinard came out with graded Stoppers and stacking became even easier. His improved Polycentric Hexcentrics showed up in 1974 giving us more confidence still in horizontal crack placements. Yet, we retained our doubts. For several seasons I climbed with a rigger’s energy absorption pack between my harness and the tie-in—the equivalent of the modern Screamer—it was supposed to rip three feet of stitches under a load of six-hundred pounds, but it never came to the test.
Increasingly the nuts seemed better than the pitons and, in general, placements could be found more often. Nevertheless, the 5.6 second pitch of SoB Virgin had to wait five years for the really small SLCD’s and, later, the Tri-Cam before giving up its long held reputation as a “death lead.”
Who knew that a big hex would fit the ceiling crack on Shockley’s and a smaller one go in behind the huge flake on CCK; that you could slot a perfect stopper over the bulge at the tops of High E and Madam G’s” and on the first pitch of Frog’s Head; and set a large bong endwise into the off-width on Baby? I remember getting a huge hex to stick before the desperate under-cling traverse left just off the ground on Moonlight. My first under-water hex gurgled into a solution hole on Whitehorse. When an old ring-angle pulled on Cannon it was the stopper ten feet down that saved me. And how many have clipped into the long-suffering resident wired stopper on Limelight before negotiating the delicate traverse at the top? Gradually we gained faith.
Nevertheless, while getting used to nuts, we climbed always with our hammers and a small supply of pins “just in case.” Occasionally we would clip a pin, but we had stopped placing them altogether. As Sandy recalls: “We climbed carrying pins and hammers for a long time,” until Tom said finally, “If we don’t leave the hammers behind we’ll never get any good at this.”
And so, one morning, probably around 1974, as we started out for the cliffs, I stepped back to the car, reopened the trunk and, after long hesitation, tossed my hammer into the back. I thought that it might be my last day on earth.
We survived the day; I never again climbed with a hammer at the ‘Gunks. Our own clean climbing revolution was complete.
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 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.
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.