Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Rock and Snow 4-ever

I started writing this essay shortly after I moved to Tucson and insisted on buying all my climbing gear from Rock and Snow—2500 miles away in New Paltz, NY. I wanted to explain my appreciation for Rock and Snow, a place that had an irrefutable hand in how I developed as an adventurer and climber. My appreciation for the store runs deep and is intertwined with my memories of growing up climbing at the Gunks. I knew it was silly to guess sizes and wait for deliveries when I could just buy my gear locally, but I’ve never found a gear store with better service and selection. Not even close. I’ve been buying my favorite stuff from Rock and Snow for more than two thirds of my life! And I have some serious Gunks pride.

Since I’m discussing the power of adventuring in nature to heal, and reading from Everything You’ve Ever Done at Rock and Snow this Saturday, I figured it was time to share this brief history of my time in the Gunks. Thanks for reading!

My dad started climbing in 1989, when he was thirty-one and I was twelve. We lived in different cities in upstate New York and would talk on the phone often. That fall we had a phone call I will never forget. My dad was excited; his enthusiasm was so deep, he actually sounded different. I listened raptly as he reported every detail of the rock climbing lesson he took. He explained top roping; I heard words like carabiner and webbing for the first time. He recounted balancing on nubs of rock with tight rubber soled shoes and the satisfaction of using only his fingertips to pull up on tiny edges. I can still see the images these descriptions created in my mind’s eye. His excitement was contagious.

I remember another phone conversation, a couple short weeks later, when he told me about cams and stoppers and lead climbing. I learned the words gear and run-out. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was rock climbing. From my earliest memories, my dad and I spent our time together adventuring. He took me spelunking, camping, skiing, hiking, alpine sliding, canoeing, and sailing.

When we started climbing, we went to Great Barrington first, and soon graduated to the Adirondacks.

As I explained in my memoir: "I loved climbing. I immediately understood and trusted the safety system—the web of rope, harness, and hardware that keeps you from plummeting to earth if you fall. I became fascinated with the intricacies of rock, how climbable the thin seams and tiny edges that were invisible from the ground could be. On the Mondays after adventures with my dad, back at junior high school, I entertained my rapt friends with tales of scaling rock faces deep in the woods. I was a thirteen-year-old badass. While my peers were going to the mall, I was defying death in the wilderness."

By the summer I was thirteen, climbing was just what we did. I was at home on the rock, but I found Adirondack approaches to be tedious. I wasn’t always comfortable with the isolation of the North Country. As a teenager, hiking and solitude were hefty prices to pay for the reward of rock climbing.

In the fall of 1990, after spending much of my summer vacation bushwhacking to and swatting bugs at crags in the Dacks, my dad called me with good news.

“Honey, I found a new place to climb,” he started. “It’s a cliff you can drive right up to. There’s hundreds of routes right next to each other.” Music to my teenaged ears.

The following weekend my dad brought me to the Gunks.

As we sped down the thruway, my dad, always the aficionado of history, debriefed me on the progression of climbing in the Gunks.

“Back in the 1935, Fritz Weissner and Hans Kraus discovered the potential of the Gunks. They put up routes before harnesses, climbing shoes, or cams. In the 1960s, there was a bunch of climbers called The Vulgarians. They climbed hard and didn’t care what people thought. They partied just as hard and took a bunch of drugs. They even climbed naked. They fought against the Appies—the club that tried to regulate who could climb.”

I loved hearing about 1960s and 1970s counterculture. I immediately sided with the Vulgarians and I immediately appreciated that climbing was a way of life. The Gunks was easy to access and had a cool history.

My dad’s tone changed as he shifted from telling me historical facts to his own experience in the Gunks.

“The climbing is hard,” he gravely confided. “I backed off a 5.7 last week.”

We arrived in New Paltz and my eyes widened as we rolled down Main Street. The small town's sidewalks and stoops were overflowing with characters. There were girls with flowery skirts and dreadlocks, bearded leather-clad bikers, and tattooed, spikey haired punks. I dizzied myself looking from side to side. The street was colorful and alive.

A man wearing chaps and a white cowboy hat sauntered up the sidewalk with guns holstered on each of his sides.

“Cowboy Bob,” my dad stated matter-of-factly when he saw my neck crane as we passed the rambling character.

“Are those real guns?”

“Cap guns.”

The landscape of hip New Paltz made my heart race, but my first view of the cliff made it stop. I sucked in a huge breath and pointed through the windshield.

“Uh huh,” my dad nodded. “There’s the Trapps in the middle and the Near Trapps on the left, and the cliff with the tower on top is called Skytop.”

We continued driving until we were right below the Trapps. We pulled onto the shoulder and parked along the windy road. With loaded packs, we followed a trail from the road to the base off the cliff. We walked along the carriage road to a parked pickup truck.

My dad turned so the ponytailed young guy leaning against the truck could see the little button he had pinned to the top of his pack.

“I need one more annual pass for her,” my dad said as he nodded to me and handed the guy some cash.

“Cool,” the guy replied and handed me a pin just like my dad’s.

I knew I had just received a badge of honor. I dropped my pack and proudly affixed the pin in the dead center of my top flap.

Where the pickup was parked, the rock met the carriage road. People were roped up and climbing routes that started right from the road. I felt joyful. This place would relieve my angsty teenager disdain for long approaches!

As we walked down the road, the cliff grew and the base moved back from the road. Everyone we passed said hello and smiled. Some of the people were wearing harnesses racked with gear as they hobbled in climbing shoes along the road to get back to their packs after walking off climbs.

I’d never seen so many rock climbers. The presence of all these other climbers eased my climbing day jitters.

I loved the vibe at the Gunks, and I loved the climbing too. I figured out that face climbing was my thing. And I learned how to get my feet up high and pull through overhangs.

On one of our visits to New Paltz, we pulled into the Laundromat parking lot.

“It’s time we upgrade your shoes,” my dad said.

“At the Laundromat?”

“No. There,” my dad said and pointed to a door on the far side of the strip mall style storefront that housed the Laundromat. “Rock and Snow.”

I followed my dad through the door and into a small, dark store. The room was stocked with rock climbing shoes, harnesses, and gear. New Paltz got even cooler. It had a rock climbing store. Previously my dad had outfitted us at a general outdoor store back in the Capital District where the climbing gear selection was limited and shadowed by bikes and camp equipment.

The Gunks and New Paltz made climbing feel saner to me. Like it was a normal thing to do. There were always a ton of people around, and from Rock and Snow to the base of the Trapps, there was always an excited buzz.

Climbing in the Gunks helped me stop wishing we were going to the mall instead of rock climbing when I was a teenager.

Sometimes we’d climb out at Skytop. From the early days to around the time I was 15, there was a shuttle bus running from the main gate at the Mohonk Mountain House through the grounds. We’d get dropped off at the Mountain House and walk to the cliff. The powers-that-be reluctantly allowed climbing at Skytop, but climbers were supposed to be as inconspicuous as possible. No climbing gear could be visible and we were supposed to look tidy. This could be a challenge for the bunch of us who relished getting dirty and playing hard. My dad and I would always visit Skytop in a group with other partners. Those guys were all closer to Vulgarians than Appies, so they would make a show of being on their best behavior. The juxtaposition of the fancy hotel patrons and the climbers entertained me. I was glad to be on the dirtbag side; proud to be an interloper.

More often than not, we’d find a reason to stop at Rock and Snow on our way out of town. I’d add a Rock and Snow t-shirt to my collection when Rich came up with a witty new design. We stocked all our gear and outfitted friends new to climbing at Rock and Snow, but the stories and advice we heard from Rich and his employees were the most valuable acquisitions we made.

By the time I was in my early twenties, I stopped appreciating the crowds that comforted me as a young rock climber. I loved the accessibility and quality of the Gunks, but started longing for the solitude of more remote areas. So, we got the best of both worlds by branching out from the classics.

There were a few seasons we climbed out at Millbrook. And for another few, we made a rule that we would only climb routes we’d never done before in the Trapps. At the end of those days, my dad and I would stop at Rock and Snow to report what we had discovered and climbed to Rich. He always knew where we’d been and often made suggestions for where to go next.

When I was in my early 30s, I was climbing the hardest of my life. Reporting my successes and failures to Rich was part of the fun. I always relished taking his suggestions for the next route that would challenge me.

Eventually, I decided to seek bigger rocks and moved away to the wild west.

Though I live 2500 miles away, the Gunks and Rock and Snow are lodged deep in my heart and never far from my adventure thoughts. I still buy all my gear from Rock and Snow. My Tucson partners started shopping at Rock and Snow online after I convinced them it’s the best gear store in the whole world. Seeing Rock and Snow stickers on their stuff is supercool.

Visiting the Gunks and Rock and Snow is always a highlight of my trips back east.

Over the years, things may have changed in New Paltz and the Gunks. The police took away Cowboy Bob’s cap guns, and he had to patrol the streets with empty holsters. Rock and Snow moved into a bright, bigger space on Main Street. Access changed, and you can’t park along the road under the Trapps or ride the bus to Skytop anymore. But it hasn’t change much. The vibe is the same, and it will always be home to me.