The northeast isn’t a climbing destination, and locals seem to like it that way. Still, if you’re willing to brave humidity, blackflies, frigid winter temperatures, and a heck of a lot of lichen and moss, you might just find a gem of a rock or ice climb lurking in some backcountry hollow. For over a century, climbers—from Fritz Wiessner to Jim Surrette—have honed their skills and created a history as varied as the terrain itself.
It’s fitting the cultish climbing of the region should birth a quirky volume of history. When Guy and Laura Waterman published their funny, laboriously researched Yankee Rock & Ice in 1993, it became a beloved classic.
A lot has happened in the ensuing 25 years. In the final chapter—‘Climbing at the Crossroads’—the Watermans wondered aloud what would happen to the once-quiet climbing scene of New York and New England. Would the new sport climbers and old-school tradsters tear each other’s throats out at town meetings? Had the last great winter problems been climbed?
Updated for 2018 with four additional chapters by climber and writer Michael Wejchert, Yankee Rock & Ice covers the plethora of climbing that’s happened since the original book was published, with a perspective on the future ethical and environmental impacts of a growing sport in a small region.
Enjoy the following excerpt!
New York and the Charge of the Trad Brigade
While New Hampshire swilled beer, the Adirondacks experienced a quiet but strong revival led by the Burlington native Peter Kamitses. Unlike the crags of New England, which became sport-climbing meccas or faded into relative, slabby obscurity, the Adirondacks’ sheer volume and relatively small community meant a slew of new routes were waiting to be climbed.
In 2006, Kamitses ventured out to Moss Cliff to look at the old aid wall. His first visit— with New Hampshire hardman Tim Deroehn, who has soloed many of Rumney’s classic 5.12’s—illustrated the vast potential of the slightly overhanging wall. He returned in September with Dave Sharratt and the pair began working on combining two old aid routes into a massive, committing free route. The result, Fire in the Sky, was the first of several Kamitses would free on the cliff.
“It was the one time I’ve gotten to do real, ground up free climbing,” recalls Kamitses. “It was probably naïve to do it that way.”
Guidebook author Jim Laywer is quick to point out that in a humid, lichen covered environment like the Adirondacks, “the notion of being able to walk up to a cliff and climb something is just dead.”
Over the next eleven years, Kamitses has quietly ticked off several upper-end 13’s and 5.14’s in the park. While some have a mixture of bolts and traditional gear, others, like 2011’s Oppositional Defiance Disorder (5.14a) have been pure traditional climbs leaps and bounds above what had ever been imagined. Kamitses is a rare breed of climber whose mental chops match his physical ability.
On the Spider’s Web, a wall filled with steep, flaring cracks, several practitioners have added their own difficult trad lines. Matt McCormick faced long falls on tricky gear when adding Wheelin’ and Dealin’ (5.13c) to the cliff. “At the time, it was the hardest route I’d ever done—sport or on gear,” McCormick notes.
While the environment in the ‘Dacks breeds amazing new ice climbs, it can frustrate and confound new routers in the summertime. Add the moisture and short climbing season to the blackflies and long bushwhacks, and it’s amazing anything gets done at all. Still, development has skyrocketed as locals seeking out new terrain begin wandering further and further from the road.
It’s unfair to say the Gunks stagnated in the 1990’s. The usual suspects added several 5.13’s to the cliffs above New Paltz. The boulderers of Dave Graham’s generation added their own history to the Trapps and elsewhere.
But because of the Gunks’ strict regulation by the Mohonk Preserve, a ban on bolting prevented many of the climbable routes from being completed in the 1990’s. Climbers like Russ Clune, Russ Raffa, Al Diamond, and Lynn Hill had pushed the standards of ground-up climbing as far as it would go in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and Clune in particular had added several 5.13’s through the 1990’s, some on lead, some on toprope. But for the most part, the new routing existed on the boulders. “People sort of gave up,” says Gunks regular and historian Christian Fracchia. “The mentality shifted to where nobody opened their eyes to look.”
“And then,” Fracchia continued, “this amazing thing happened.”
The trad climbers began realizing that if any of the young people who wandered around the Preserve with crash pads on their backs decided to tie in to a rope, the individual moves of Gunks climbs might feel relatively easy compared to the high-end boulder problems that were being developed.
Locals are quick to explain that the difficult routes of the Gunks climb like bouldering problems or sport routes. The cruxes, while cryptic, are short. The long, horizontal cracks offer some opportunity to rest (at least for a 5.14 rock climber) between powerful, overhanging moves.
In 2010, Cody Sims established Ozone, a heady, wickedly overhanging 5.14a which was initially given an R rating. The route is a variation and addition to two routes, the French Connection (5.12+) and Twilight Zone (5.13b), with small cams and nuts providing just enough protection to stitch together the horizontal roof’s wild moves.
“It was a new route at a world-class level,” says Fracchia. The ascent of Ozone began to open locals’ eyes to even more possibilities in the Gunks.
If someone had quietly explained to Wiessner and Kraus that a smartphone app would help push standards in their beloved Gunks, they’d likely have more than a few questions. But as Fracchia, Andy Salo, and Byron Igoe began documenting and recording climbs to condense into a digital guidebook, they took a closer look at many of the area’s overlooked routes. The app, designed to help users navigate the often confusing, long cliffline and spread out the increasing traffic the Trapps in particular received on weekends, was a boon to the crowds each weekend, but it also proved valuable to the authors in unexpected ways.
Dick Williams hadn’t given any stars in his old guidebook to routes that received an R or an X rating. But with modern trad gear—small, compact cams and miniscule nuts—and a lot of digging to find optimal placements on toprope, some of the old routes began to feel reasonable.
Recently, the talented boulderer and app developer Andy Salo has been leading the new routing charge. In the fall of 2016, Salo added Bro-Zone (5.14b), a direct start to Sims’ Ozone to the line-up of impressively difficult traditional climbs. 5.13’s, such as Salo’s 2017 Over the Moon, are popping up with increasing frequency. While the strict ethic at the Gunks might have slimmed new routes down in the past few decades, the old tradster’s argument, that of “preserving the rock for future generations,” has come to fruition in the Gunks.
“It makes climbing something new really special,” explains Salo. “You’ve got to engineer a way to make it protectable and make do with what you’ve got. It’s rare to have a trad climbing area that still offers potential.”
Excerpted with permission from the second edition of Yankee Rock & Ice: A History of Climbing in the Northeastern United States (Stackpole Books, 2019) by Laura and Guy Waterman and Michael Wejchert.
Michael Wejchert has climbed all over North and South America and Canada, but settled in New Hampshire because he likes the spirited climbing community, rainy rest days, and living ten minutes from Cathedral Ledge, one of the best cliffs in the country. He works as a climbing guide, a carpenter, and a writer. The winner of the 2013 Waterman Fund Essay Contest, he has contributed to Rock and Ice, Gripped, Alpinist, Ascent, Appalachia, and the New York Times, among others. When Michael’s not working, he can be found trail running, rock climbing, ice ice climbing, or in a tent, waiting out a storm in the Alaska Range. He lives in Jackson, New Hampshire.