Climbers enjoy a feeling of sheer terror Challenge: Ascending a steep rock face gives a sense of danger and the thrill of controlling it. Besides, the views are stunning.

Every one of my handful of rock-climbing adventures has made me revisit several questions.

First, do mushrooms have any nutritive value? I've only climbed in moist, woodsy areas, and I always pass a few mushrooms. Nature's gift, if you know enough about them not to die eating the wrong ones.


But do they have any nutritive qualities, or do you get what you pay for?

Second, why do scrapes take so long to heal? I always return with so many. A simple cut can heal in a couple of days, but the kind of abrasion you get on elbows and knees when you suck onto a rock face in fear for your life seem to take forever.


And third, what is it about terror that keeps you coming back?

That came up most recently in the middle of an ascent in the Shawangunk Ridge, just west of New Paltz, N.Y. (For the uninitiated, its pronounced SHAWN-gum, but climbers just say "the Gunks.")

Maniacally humming "Peter and the Wolf," I was plastered to a sheer chunk of quartz conglomerate about 100 feet above the boulder I'd started from, itself a nice way up from sea level. I was gripping a few lumps in the rock just over my head, forcing myself repeatedly to let go so that the free hand could slap around, searching for the next hold.

I was reminding myself not to look down. At 100 feet up, the hawks circling in their widening gyres are below, effortless and beautiful against the fall-mottled treetops. It can be a little too mesmerizing to someone battling acrophobic hysteria.

One hand got a new hold, then the other. Now the feet, which were jammed into regulation climbing shoes. These are usually brightly colored, rubber-soled vice grips that corset the feet, length and width, to make it slightly easier to turn a crack or bump into a "foothold."

Gonzo climbers wouldn't use the quotation marks. Panting, desperate, I was discovering, once again, that I was not a gonzo climber.

Famous cliffs

The Mohonk Preserve includes about two miles of world-renowned cliffs, including the chunk I was becoming intimate with. The rock, older than the Catskills but younger than the Adirondacks, was formed in the Silurian period of the Paleozoic era, some 450 million years ago, as a sea floor repeatedly flooded, laying down layer after layer of sediment. Raised by time and an under-sheath of Martinsburg shale and scoured by the Wisconsin glacier, the cliffs seem to beam an invitation, and a dare, directly into your bones.


About 40,000 people answer the Gunks' invitation annually. There are sunny summer weekends when the preserve begins turning climbers away by 10 a.m., but the crowds are thinner on these cool fall days.

There was a time, a mere 60 years ago, when there were no rock-climbing shoes, no lines for the best climbs. In that time, there were only two climbers: Hans Kraus and Fritz Weissner, European mountaineers who fell for the rock (figuratively speaking; both made it to ripe old age).

"The Gunks Guide," a handbook for climbers that outlines hundreds of vertical routes through the area's four main cliff faces, says it was in 1940 that Kraus pioneered the crack now known as Easy Overhang, the very climb I was hyperventilating on.

I immediately got on a first-name basis with Hans' legend, which includes having had a tutor named James Joyce and being able to recite much of Dante's "Inferno" from memory.

The big boom in climbing came maybe 20 years ago. No one can say exactly why, but that was when extreme sports for the average person, like marathons, were starting to take off. It's also when proteges of Kraus and Weissner started opening their own climbing businesses. Around the same time, rock climbing took off in the Gunks; in Boulder, Colo.; and in Yosemite. In fact, the scale used for most rock climbs, which runs from the easiest and safest ascent of 5.0 to the toughest and most dangerous at 5.13, is called the Yosemite Decimal System.

Easy definition


Easy O is just a 5.2 ("a very exciting beginner climb," as "The Gunks Guide" understated it). As I wormed my way higher and higher up the rock face, the grade meant less and less, and my fear meant more and more. And I wasn't even leading; it was up to my friend, Jed, to go first and to place "protection" -- little contraptions like reversible toggle bolts, into which he clipped the climbing rope. If he fell, I was supposed to pinion the rope; there's a whole technology for this. That would keep him from plummeting into disaster. But even if I reacted instantly, he would fall twice the distance he'd gone from the last protection.

It's much easier for followers. Because all the protection is in place, if the leader reacts instantly, the fall might be only a few feet.

Glen Hoagland, the director of the Mohonk Preserve, puts it succinctly: "We're concerned that people will think that because a lot of people do it, it's inherently safe. It's not."

It's really not. Many a bone has been broken, and many a skull cracked, and not a few lives have been lost in rock climbing. Ask veteran climbers about falls, and they almost invariably start their answers with, "Oh, God," as though it happened yesterday.

All fall down

Everybody falls, in time. Jon Ross, 54, started a climbing school and guide service in 1974, one of four sanctioned to operate in the Gunks. His "Oh, God" was a 60-footer out West. "I was banged up pretty good," he said.


Climbers seem to have a macho kind of denial, almost like the kind Tom Wolfe ascribed to test pilots in "The Right Stuff." Dick Williams, 59, a legendary climber and writer who in 1970 opened his climbing store, Rock and Snow in New Paltz, took his worst fall this summer, doing deliberate falls for a documentary. He got a concussion.

"Climbing is pretty safe, overall," he said. "What happened to me wasn't normal."

So what is it about terror that brings people back? Two things, Ross said.

"Speaking personally, of course, and for other climbers I know, the extraordinary issue is controlling the terror," he said. "One of the great senses of accomplishment is facing the fear. When you're second on the rope, there's very little risk. The reality is that there's a rope above you. But you still have the fear. The difference with the leader is, that fear is realistic. So you have the sense of being able to control it, the sense that you cannot succumb to the fear, you cannot allow yourself the luxury of falling apart. If I do that, I'll shake myself literally off the holds."

And, he said, "The other side of that coin is having the skills to avoid experiencing the terror." I clearly didn't have the skills.

When I finally scrambled the last few vertical feet up Easy O, which included the miserable 10 minutes it took to make it around the climb's eponymous bulge, maybe 150 feet above ground zero, Jed was waiting.


"I don't know about you," he said, "but that scared me."

I hauled myself up and turned around, my heart slamming my ribs now. We sat there for a bit, calming down and experiencing the collateral enjoyment that comes with climbing. The view out over the forest and lakes was just splendid. The sky snapped blue. We were alive, as intensely as those spiraling hawks. And maybe that fresh appreciation of the simple state of being alive is what keeps even nongonzo climbers coming back.

Oh, yes: abrasions take so long to heal because they are embedded with grit. And, mushrooms, which are 90 percent water, contain only limited quantities of protein and minerals.

Getting a leg up

To reach the climbing areas of the Mohonk Preserve from New York City, take the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway to Exit 18, New Paltz, and pick up Route 299 West; make a right onto Route 44-55; continue about a mile to the preserve entrance. Information about hiking, rock climbing and other activities is available at a visitor's center open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Information: 914-255-0919. Admission to the preserve is $5. Here are two guide companies sanctioned to operate in the Gunks.

Al Diamond, P.O. Box 247, New Paltz, N.Y. 12561, 800-776-2577. Offers daily trips for beginners and advanced climbers 6 and older, 8: 30 a.m. to 5 p.m., April through November, weather permitting. Prices range from $100 to $160 a person, depending on the day and number of people. Equipment provided. Climbers should take food, sunscreen, extra clothes and a day pack.


High Angle Adventures, 178 Hardenburgh Road, Ulster Park, N.Y., 800-777-2546. Daily instruction, April through November, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for those 5 and older. Private instruction available, $175; group instruction, $125 a person. All equipment provided. Climbers should take food and beverages.

Pub Date: 11/30/97