Goin’ to da Gunks

“Good morning. Today is history class.”

He pauses to rest his bones on a high stool and assess his charges. Some slouch in their seats and doodle on their desks, others stare vacantly out the window, a few girls pop their gum and twiddle their tresses. But telling tales of the past has its rewards, at least for the teller, in that while those who can, do, those who no longer can, can be comforted by the knowledge that once they could.

“Today’s lesson is the beginning of a quest story, although no dragons will be slain, no castles stormed, no cities razed and pillaged. Before the end, though, a fair maid will be wooed and won, albeit all too briefly.”

Noting that no one in his audience was yet asleep, he relinquishes his perch on the stool and begins leisurely pacing the head of the room, measuring his thoughts with his stride.

“September, 1960. After Royal, Chuck, Tom, and I climbed El Cap I got a job as a busboy and soda jerk at the Yosemite Lodge Coffee Shop. The plan was that Royal and I would save some money over the winter and then go to the Alps in the summer. In the spring, however, Royal confessed that he had decided not to go. But I was committed. I wanted to pace the paving stones of Paris and wander the back lanes of London, to essay a yodel or two in the Alps and take the summer sun on the Riviera. Also, a comely English girl was waiting for me. I had met her while she worked as a waitress in the coffee shop, and before she returned to England that fall I bussed her tables and she jerked my soda, if you catch my drift.”

As he looks out at the room in mid stride, it seems as if something has piqued his pupil’s interest.

“In early May I packed all I thought I might need for the journey into my Kelty pack and pinned a sign on the back that said, simply, “NY.” My mother drove me to a place beyond San Bernardino where it would be easier to catch a ride. I won’t go into the details of my journey’s first leg, but five days later and only eleven dollars poorer my last ride dropped me in downtown Manhattan at midnight. I took a cab up to Art Gran’s apartment near Columbia University, was admitted by sleepy Art, and shown the couch. Art and his two roommates were gone during the day, so I explored the city on my own, learning the subway system and eating mostly takeout from delis.

“Over the winter I had saved a finite amount of money for my adventure, so I was frugal. Twice, though, I splurged. One night I went to a concert at Carnegie Hall that featured Miles Davis and a large ensemble playing Gil Evens’ arrangements from the LP, “Miles Ahead.” Another night I found my way to Birdland to hear Gerry Mulligan’s nonet and Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet trade sets. Choirs of angels could not have been more exalting and exhilarating.

“On weekends, Art and I and a few others drove up to the Gunks (no expressway then, just a two-lane road) in his VW bug. Gary Hemming had visited the Gunks earlier, but I don’t think he climbed much, so I was essentially the first Californian to test the mettle of Eastern climbers and take the measure of New York rock.

“I won’t say I was sandbagged, but Art and Jim McCarthy were proud of having raised the standard on their local cliffs and wanted to see how I would fare on their test pieces. Not too badly as it turned out. It took me a while to get used to the steepness of the climbs, especially the overhangs that loomed over the top of many routes and that looked all but impregnable. I learned, though, that if there was a route, there was a way through, and it was best to keep moving so your arms and fingers wouldn’t flame out.

“By the time I arrived, the spirit of the Vulgarians was in full flower. They waged a running battle with the Appies ( hide-bound, staid members of the Appalachian Club) and usually won. One weekend they decided to stage a Vulgarian Grand Prix. Those taking part lined up their cars, then came on foot to the starting line to hear instructions about the route. It was also to be a Le Mans start. I jumped into the passenger seat of one car and we were off. It was night, much of the course was over dirt roads, there were few places where one could pass (although some drivers tried), and if you weren’t leading it was hard to see through the billowing dust. As I recall, a few fenders had benders, but no serious damage was done, surprising considering the wine and beer that was consumed before (and after) the race.

“Although there were over one hundred people at the Gunks each weekend, there were surprisingly few really good climbers. The first Saturday, Art had me lead “Retribution.” I think I did it all free, but I can’t be sure. Then McCarthy took me to “Birdland.” It was wet from rain, and I fell at the crux but then climbed through smoothly. Jim fell three times following. Then we went to “MF,” a climb Jim had put up the previous year. It hadn’t been repeated. I made the first hard move and then psyched out. Jim decided he wasn’t up to it that day either, so we went down.

“The following weekend, a fellow named John Turner, a hot climber from Montreal, led the first pitch, but his second fell repeatedly and unabashedly and was finally lowered to the ground. I had planned on leading the climb later, but no one wanted to follow Turner, so I tied in and floated through the first hard parts. Turner then led up to the three to four foot overhang, the crux, and then came down. I gave it a try, but John’s last piton below the overhang was driven straight up and didn’t look like it would hold much of a fall. On top of that, if you came off trying to get over the overhang, you would slam into the wall below even if the piton somehow held. Frankly, his piton selection was piss poor, and I couldn’t get in anything good. I came down, and he went up again, then traversed off before he even got to the overhang.

“The next day, someone lent him some Chouinard pitons which worked beautifully beneath the overhang, but he still didn’t make it. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to get back on the climb that year. Many years later, though, (forty-five?) John Thackray led me up the climb. I struggled on the overhang, but was surprised to see more fixed pins than you would ever need. Below the overhang you could just reach up and clip into a higher pin so that it was almost like doing the whole climb with a top rope (which I was glad to have in the autumn of my years, although John was older and bolder than I).

“On a subsequent weekend, they put me on “Apoplexy” and “Never-Never Land,” and the next day they had me lead “Double Crack,” and then McCarthy gave me the rope for “Tough Shift.” The climbing was very delicate on small holds, like a boulder problem, although I was climbing in my beat up klettershue. I made it, though, but Jim couldn’t make it, although he had made the first ascent, so I came down.

“Then Art and I did “Never Again” and “Roseland” (it was the era of the “land’ climbs), and we added a pitch to each climb since they were originally only one pitch long. We then came across a route that Jim had started. He hadn’t gotten very far, so we finished it (if you think this was bad form, hear me out). The climb was unusual for the Gunks in that the first pitch was a genuine sixth class climb, just the thing for the old Yosemite hand: sixteen pitons, two knifeblades , 6.7 (on the old system), and three hours. Art led the second pitch, 5.7. Art named it “Transcontinental Nailway.” Four years later, McCarthy returned to the line he had first aspired to and climbed it free.

“I also did some bouldering along the carriage road. Bouldering wasn’t all that fashionable then, but I did one that was harder than any of the existing problems. It involved a fingertip mantle. No one mantled in the Gunks at the time even though opportunities for the technique abounded.”

Looking out in the room, he sees heads on desks, other heads thrown back with mouths agape, hands scribbling in notebooks. Oh, ye yet to be learned. Let me quote Aunt Gertrude. “Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.”

“My last weekend in the Gunks (that almost-lost-to-memory season, last because I was soon to depart for England on a Dutch liner lined mostly with students [fare: $167.50, Heinekens: 14 cents a bottle]), I consummated a liaison with a lovely and adventurous (especially in those days before the pill) Norwegian woman in an abandoned (as were we) house while the rain rained, and the night seemed it would never end, and then it did all too soon.

“The next day, several climbers and I were having lunch at the Uberfall when one mentioned that the face to the right of “Boston” had been top-roped once but never led. “Would someone give me a belay?” I asked. From the base I could see that there wouldn’t be much opportunity for protection, but I figured I would just go up, and if I felt too uncomfortable I could back off. It was a short climb, so I was soon at the crux, 5.8 they say. I found that I could surpass it by mantling. I liked mantling because it is usually a very secure move, at least until the problem of getting the foot up next to the mantling hand and then stepping on up.  If the wall is steep and there is a paucity of holds to keep you in balance the last move can be delicate. Sometimes, as in the present case as I recall, you just have to balance up very carefully. A little higher I came to some cracks and thought I could get a piton in. The cracks were formed by loose blocks, however, which have since become part of the talus. I did manage to place a pin, thinking that if something happened the piton might be good enough to slow me down. Wishful thinking is not a good habit in climbing, but sometimes there isn’t a lot you can do about it. Getting past the loose blocks was a little tricky, no longer a problem for the modern climber. In any case, it wasn’t too hard from the piton up to the tree at the top of the climb, and my “protection” seemed superfluous. I anchored and then asked who wanted to follow. The answer was no one. So I guess it was a solo ascent. I rapped off, removing the pin on the way down. I was right. If I had fallen, it would have slowed me down, a bit. If you really want to take the measure of the climb you should climb it in Kronhoffers, except that they aren’t available lo these many years. Tennis shoes anyone?”

Enough history. The captive audience thought so, too, as they filed out, eager to get on with life, with living in the here and now. Someday, may they also have stories to tell.


3 thoughts on “Goin’ to da Gunks

  1. another great read. Since I was a California climber and also ended up in The Gunks with a reputation, the locals wanted to test me on their hard routes. Although I didn’t fair too badly it was clear that the “Yosemite Skills” I had were not readily transferable to the cliffs at the Gunks. Great to hear your telling of it. Especially with the connection that my girlfriend and later wife was the one who got me to NY and she was Sponsored into the AAC by the Jim McCarthy in your story.



  2. Good one Joe! I had no point of reference on the climbing part and not much more on the consummating with the Norwegian woman, but the quick hitch across the country rang a bell. A friend of mine deserted from the Air Force and I drove him to the edge of Great Falls, so he could start his trip to God knows where. Our good-bye was a final one and therefore solemn. Two days later, I flew home to Michigan and when I walked into my house, he was having coffee with my mother.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *