Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Words: Andy Salo | Photography: Andy Mann

Huffing and puffing emanated from below my perch on the GT ledge, a sidewalk-sized ledge that splits the Trapps at about half height. Bald, beady-eyed turkey vultures spiraled and dove, riding late day thermals. My friend John “Koots” Kuphal was rehearsing his latest find; I belayed him from above as he struggled his way up the steep blocky wall.

Just opposite was the classic Andrew (5.4). Looming overhead was the inverted staircase of perfect white rock that was my project. Craning upwards, it simultaneously intimidated and inspired me, taunting me with steep, hard and barely protectable moves. I told myself it was too hot on this June day for any serious attempts. As relief decreased my heart rate, grunts came from below, and soon enough Koots came over the lip, covered in lichen and chalk and dripping with sweat. After panting for a few seconds, he caught his breath. “Ok, I’m gonna rest for twenty minutes, pull the rope and go for it.”

Just 300 yards from where I was about to talk Koots out of going for the lead sits the prominent High Exposure buttress. In 1941, Gunks pioneers Hans Kraus and Fritz Weissner quested up into the imposing and foreboding tiered roof systems that cap the buttress, hoping to find a reasonable passage. In doing so, they established the world famous High Exposure (5.6).

Climbing in the Gunks is rarely straightforward. Unlike Yosemite or Indian Creek, there are hardly any discernible cracks to follow. Instead the lines weave and meander through weaknesses, corners, and roofs. Here, Christian Fracchia points the way to visiting Arc’teryx athlete Vikki Weldon as they quest up a rarely traveled line at Millbrook.

Though Gunks climbing officially began six years earlier, in 1935, with Fritz’s establishment of Old Route (5.5) on the turreted cliffs of Millbrook, the establishment of High E, as it’s known, cemented the two pioneers and their playground with a reputation for boldness. Even today, sitting under the steep final pitch, modern climbers marvel at how something so “out there” can hold a relatively moderate grade.

In the years following, scores of impressive lines were established. The Gunks quickly became a hub for international visitors, new routes and groundbreaking ideas (such as the advent of “clean climbing”, which protected the rock from piton scars). Decades later, by the late 1980s, activity had slowed dramatically as the canvas for new routes began to dry up. Climbers started visiting newer areas like the New River Gorge and the Red River Gorge, and the Gunks receded into a museum of treasured old routes.

For those who stuck around, the only new terrain available was on the scores of boulders in the talus fields below the cliffs. As the year 2000 loomed, bouldering activity took off like a rocket. In fact, bouldering is what originally drew me to the area, and as a young climber I was eager to leave my mark. Getting swept up in the energy of the time, my friends and I began pushing the limits on harder and higher boulder problems. Entire areas were established, like the Waterworks, and enough classics were established to fill several guidebooks.

Yet it wasn’t long before this well started to dry and soon our attention returned to the siren call of unchanged cliffs. Bouldering had given us new eyes and a fresh take on what was possible. A wealth of vertical possibilities was waiting.

Revisiting Deconstructing Towers (V9). An old top-rope project smack dab in the middle of the popular Nears bouldering zone, this highball yielded to a sea of pads and some faith in friction.

Seeing that it would be hypocritical of me to talk Koots out of climbing something dangerous when he was inspired, I opted instead to hold his rope. As he set off, I sensed the cliff emit a sort of symbiosis with climbers of years past. At the first nut, it was like holding the rope for Vulgarian Jim McCarthy on his first ascent of MF (5.9). Higher up, another wobbly nut protected the first roof, and I could see John Stannard sieging the aid line Foops at Skytop, hoping to liberate it as a free climb and prove that pitons are unnecessary. As Koots cruxed out over a bulge 15 feet above a single RP, I watched Rich Romano questing his way up Stardust Memories (5.12 R/X) at Millbrook, in his trusty swami belt with a Crown Royal chalk bag at his side. Riding this wave of history, Koots topped out safely on the first ascent of Big Daddy (5.11c X).

Vikki Weldon samples the exciting Erect Direction (5.10c), one of the Gunks’ best. In the 80s, local climber Don Perry attempted a free solo. He made it through the crab crawl crux only to balk at the massive roofs guarding the summit. Hollering until he was likely hoarse, someone finally dropped him a rope and he made it off safely. Shortly thereafter he found Jesus and can be seen to this day climbing in Lycra and passing out cards warning about the dangers of fluoride in drinking water.

Now was our time on these storied cliffs. We could choose to write our page in history, as Koots just had, or not. Despite less-than-ideal conditions, I arranged my gear in order, applied liquid chalk, doubled checked my knot, and set tackled my project…hoping to also stand on the shoulders of giants.

Hello, New York! We’re moving into 169 Spring Street in Soho. Swing on by Saturday, July 23 to be one of the first 50 people to receive an Arc’teryx Gift Bag, to check out a craftsmanship demo station with GORE-tex and to be up for prizes and giveaways throughout the day! More info: http://stores.arcteryx.com/soho/