The Gear You Need to Ice Climb at Hillyer Ravine

The deep, dark recesses of Kaaterskill Clove, in the eastern Catskills, are home to some of the area’s best ice climbing. Noteworthy areas include the popular roadside destination of Moore’s Bridge, the looming pillars of Kaaterskill Falls and the long, tiered waterfalls known collectively as The Ravines. The Ravines—including Hillyer, Viola, Wildcat, and Buttermilk—offer some of the Cats’ best long, moderate routes: All weigh in at between four and six pitches in length with a difficulty in the WI3 to WI4 range. The relatively long, strenuous approaches make for a full day affair and lend a remote, backcountry vibe to each. Moreover, their northerly aspect makes for reliable ice throughout the season.

The most accessible of the bunch is Hillyer. Hillyer Ravine climbs about 200 feet in four moderate pitches with each going at around WI3. Substantial ledges separate one pitch from the next and, though you won’t likely see the same number of people here as you would elsewhere in the Cats—the rigor of the approach and the dearth of parking thin the crowds out a bit—there is plenty of room for multiple parties to set up shop. The wide second and third pitches in particular offer a ton of climbable ice and an entire day could easily be spent doing laps on these two pitches alone.

All in all, a day in Hillyer Ravine is a day well spent. And, like any day out, proper preparation and equipment is key—here’s what you need to bring to climb Hillyer.

Credit: John Lepak

Beal Booster 9.7mm Dry Rope

No single tier of Hillyer Ravine stretches higher than 50 feet so a single 60 meter rope will be more than enough—but be sure it’s a dry one. Dry-treated ropes have a coating that prevents water absorption which, on ice, is critical. A frozen climbing rope can ruin your day real quick. The Beal Booster 9.7 mm Dry Rope is a good bet to keep things running smoothly and safely.

Black Diamond Momentum Harness

Whether you’re climbing ice, rock, or indoors, a harness is compulsory. For ice, get one with adjustable leg loops—to account for thick winter layers like the Black Diamond Momentum (men’s/women’s). A couple of Petzl Caritool Evo Holders are a good add for racking screws on the way up and tools on the way down.

Petzl Nomic Ice Tools

There are many types of ice axes, each with their own specific utility. For vertical ice like what you’ll find on Hillyer, a pair of technical ice tools—so defined by their bent shaft, curved pick, and offset grip—are the way to go. The Petzl Nomic is a balanced, workhorse of a tool that’s great for the variety of terrain you’ll find in the Ravines.

Black Diamond Cyborg Pro

Like ice axes, crampons also come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, each designed for a specific function. Crampons with vertical front points like the Black Diamond Cyborg Pro, clipped into a pair of stiff-soled mountaineering boots like the La Sportiva Nepal Evo GTX will get you up Hillyer—and most other routes in the Cats, for that matter—no problem.

Ice Rack

The overwhelming majority of routes in the Catskills are doable with a fistful of ice screws. A couple of Petzl Laserspeed Ice Screws in the 13 to 17cm range will have you covered in Hillyer Ravine. A good bit of cord is definitely handy for building belays between pitches too—20 feet of Sterling 7mm Accessory Cord, two Petzl Attaché Locking Carabiners, and a sturdy tree will make you a nice monopoint anchor.

Tip: The guidebook, An Ice Climber’s Guide to the Catskill Mountains, provides greater detail on what constitutes a typical Catskills ice rack—as well as everything else you need to know about the area.

Outdoor Research Vigor Midweight Sensor Gloves

Keeping your hands warm and dry is a constant challenge on any winter outing and this rings especially true for ice climbing when your arms are elevated and circulation is limited. A pair of gloves that split the difference between warmth and dexterity—like the Outdoor Research Vigor Midweight Sensor Gloves (men’s/women’s)—will help ward off the dreaded screaming barfies while allowing you to still place screws and clip ropes effectively. Bring two pairs so you can easily replace one if they get soaked.

EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket

Staying warm and dry is incredibly important in any winter activity, and layering properly is the best way to do it. The layers you’re going to want to use will largely depend on the conditions but, on a backcountry climb like Hillyer Ravine, it’s important to be prepared for everything with lightweight, packable options. In warmer weather, when things get wet, a light hardshell, like the Marmot Precip Eco Jacket (men’s/women’s) makes things a lot more comfortable. In colder weather, an insulated jacket like the EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket (men’s/women’s) keeps the heat in while gearing up, belaying, or having lunch.

Trail Spikes

Clocking in at one mile with 1000 feet of elevation gain from the parking area to the base of the climb, Hillyer Ravine’s approach is a stiff one. Conditions on the well-worn climbers’ trail vary but you can bet on the need for traction. Toss a pair of the new EMS Ice Talons in your pack and you’ll be ready for whatever.

Tip: Hillyer Ravine shares most of its approach with neighboring Viola Ravine and it’s not uncommon to tick both in the same trip by climbing one, rappelling the second, then reversing the order.


Alpha Guide: Hiking the Burroughs Range Traverse in Winter

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Three high peaks and arguably the best view in the Catskills make a winter traverse of the Burroughs Range one of the finest day hikes in the Northeast.

Alongside the Devil’s Path and the Escarpment Trail, the Burroughs Range Trail (also known as the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail) is one of the most enjoyable—and justifiably popular—routes in the Catskills. Over its 9.8 miles, it traces the highest ridgeline in the 47,500-acre Slide Mountain Wilderness—the Catskills’ largest wilderness area—traversing three distinct high peaks in the process: the Wittenberg (locally known known as the Wittenberg, with no “Mount” or “Mountain” required) with it’s steep upper reaches and sweeping summit views; Cornell Mountain, a viewless summit accessed by a fun, semi-technical rock formation known as the Cornell Crack, and; Slide Mountain, the highest peak—and one of only two 4,000-footers—in the region.

While each mountain has its own, individual charm, the trail is invariably, characteristically Catskills—rugged terrain, steep ascents, and a wilderness feel beyond what you’d expect for somewhere so close to New York City.

Quick Facts

Distance: 9.8 miles, one-way
Time to Complete: Full day for most.
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: December through March (as a winter hike)
Fees/Permits: None*
Contact: https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/9150.html

*While there are no fees or permits in winter, day-use fees are applicable from mid-May to Mid October, when the campground is open.

 


Turn-By-Turn

This is a one-way ticket, so the first thing you’ll need to do is post a shuttle car at the Slide Mountain parking area on CR-47. From the Thruway, take exit 19 for Kingston/Rhinecliff Bridge. Follow the exit ramp to a rotary and bear right onto NY–28 west. After 30.7 miles, take a left onto CR-47 and continue for 15 miles. The Slide Mountain parking area (42.00889, -74.42756) will be on the left, just 2.0 miles after the hairpin turn.

From here, getting to the start of the trail is as simple as backtracking to NY-28, taking a right, and heading east for 7.7 miles. Take a right at Woodland Valley Road, and continue for 5.0 miles to the Woodland Valley trailhead parking area, just before the Woodland Valley State Campground’s main entrance. Find the trailhead by crossing the road and heading back east, following the red blazes to where the trail departs the campground (42.03600, -74.35665) between sites 45 and 46.

The expansive view from Wittenberg’s open summit. | Credit: John Lepak

The Wittenberg

As it exits the campground, the red-blazed Burroughs Range Trail—also known as the Slide–Cornell–Wittenberg Trail—crosses a brook on a wooden footbridge and immediately begins climbing at a moderate grade, passing a trail register. This is a popular route, so unless there’s been a recent snowfall of significance, you’ll likely have a well-established snowshoe trail to follow. After 1.3 miles of moderately steep climbing through mixed hardwood forest, the grade eases a bit and the trail starts to bear left (southeast), skirting the rim of a deep ravine to the north. Giant Ledge and Panther Mountain are visible through the leafless trees.

At mile 2.6, the yellow-blazed Terrace Mountain Trail breaks off to the left (42.01869, -74.34056) as the Burroughs Range Trail takes a right. Just 0.2 miles later, the recently-constructed, blue-blazed leg of the Phoenicia–East Branch splits off the left as well.

From here, the ascent becomes steep, and the trail winds its way up and over three, successively steeper ledges, steadily gaining the Wittenberg’s upper reaches. Eventually, the grade eases slightly, and the mountain runs out of ledges to throw at you as the trees change over from mixed hardwood to densely packed pine.

At mile 3.9, the trees give way to an open ledge (42.00839, -74.34692) and the summit of Wittenberg (3,780 feet). An extraordinary easterly view, including the mountains of the Devil’s Path and the Blackhead Range to the north, the high peaks of Friday, Balsam Cap, Peekamoose, and Table Mountains to the south, and the distinct figure of the Ashokan Reservoir front-and-center.

With a good chunk of elevation gain behind you, the open summit area is a great spot to grab a breather. Get in the lee of the wind and enjoy one of the best views in the Catskills.

The Cornell Crack, an ice-filled cleft in the rock just shy of Cornell’s summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Cornell

Head west across the open summit to continue on the red-blazed Burroughs Range Trail. Very quickly, the trail descends over a few icy ledges before flattening—This short but pleasant little col is commonly referred to as Bruin Causeway. At mile 4.5 the trail starts to climb again, steeply in places, until it reaches a formidable cleft in the rock known as the Cornell Crack (42.00256, -74.35564). This obstacle is tricky in the summer, but even more so in winter, when it fills with snow and ice. If you’re willing to carry them, a pair of front-point crampons and an ice axe make this a breeze.

Past the crack, at mile 4.7 the wooded summit of Cornell (3,860 feet) waits, indicated by a short spur trail to the left (42.00146, -74.35666) that offers limited views. Just beyond though, before the trail starts to descend, an open, west-facing ledge offers a preview of what’s up next: Slide.

Slide’s broad, open—but viewless—summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Slide

Begin descending Cornell’s slope by continuing west, passing several excellent viewpoints. At mile 5.5 the grade eases, marking the low point of the saddle. The trail is relatively flat in this area and several designated campsites make it a great place to set-up camp for anyone looking to spend the night. The trail begins climbing again past the campsite to another good view to the northeast, gained via a short spur trail that diverges to the left. The grade increases, climbing over snow-covered wooden stairways and stone steps until the summit ledge is finally reached at mile 7.0.

A bronze plaque celebrating the memory of the naturalist John Burroughs, for whom the range is named, marks the occasion. The summit of Slide (4,180 feet) is broad and open but with limited views (42.99892, -74.38578). Crossing the summit of Slide, the Burroughs Range Trail begins to descend very gently until another extensive view opens up to the north. Several more Catskill High Peaks are visible, including Hunter (the region’s only other 4000-footer), the Devil’s Path, the Blackhead Range, and Kaaterskill High Peak, which was at one point thought to be the highest in the region (until Slide was properly surveyed, of course).

The grade is easy and the trail is wide here, following the track of an old woods road built to service an erstwhile fire tower. At 7.7 miles, the Curtis-Ormsbee Trail—a beautiful way to climb Slide from the west—splits to the left (42.00117, -74.39668). Keep on following the red blazes of the Burroughs Range Trail until, at mile 9.1, it reaches its confluence with the yellow-blazed Phoenicia–East Branch Trail. Head right, following the Phoenicia–East Branch trail as it continues to descend another 0.7 miles  in before reaching a water crossing—easy if iced-over, a bit of rock hopping if not—and the Slide Mountain parking area on CR-47 (42.00889, -74.42756).


A vignette from Cornell’s summit proper, accessed by a short spur trail. | Credit: John Lepak

The Kit

  • The Catskills can get very cold in the winter and traversing the Burroughs Range makes for a long day in freezing temperatures. The EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket (men’s|women’s) is an ideal insulating layer for a trip like this—warm enough to keep the body heat up when you’re resting, packable enough to stash in the bag when you’re not.
  • Some hot coffee, tea, or water in insulated thermos—like the Camelbak 20oz Hot Cap Water Bottle—won’t take up a ton of room in your pack and will make a big difference on a frigid day in the Cats.
  • The upper reaches of Wittenberg and the Cornell Crack require some handwork, so bring a good pair of gloves like the Black Diamond Arc. If it’s really cold or really wet, throw some hand warmers in an extra pair of liners and toss them in your pack for later.
  • Heavy annual snowfall, steep terrain, and local trail etiquette make a pair of snowshoes with climbing bars, like the MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes, a necessity.
  • Cell service is sketchy in the Catskills at best, so a compass and a paper map are essential. The Catskill Mountains Trail Map from the Appalachian Mountain Club is waterproof and covers the whole region in detail.

Early morning on the way up the Wittenberg. | Credit: John Lepak

Keys to the Trip

  • The Slide Mountain Wilderness Area is incredibly popular with both day hikers and backpackers year-round. The crowds are a little less of an issue in winter, but—with the exception of the remote col between Cornell and Slide—it’s unlikely you’ll be on your own all that much. Please help mitigate the human impact on this area by hiking responsibly, signing in at the trail registers, and following Leave No Trace principles.
  • Provided you’re comfortable starting and finishing a hike by headlamp, the Burroughs Range in winter is totally doable as a long, single day hike. Some folks do, however, opt to split this into a two-day affair, which is not a bad idea since backcountry camping above 3,500 feet is only permitted in the Catskills in winter (December 21–March 21). Be prepared to set up camp in the snow and always adhere to New York State DEC rules and guidelines.
  • The range and trail are named for John Burroughs, a naturalist and advocate for the region. His 1910 essay In the Heart of the Southern Catskills details his first experiences exploring the area now known as the Slide Mountain Wilderness. It’s an interesting historical perspective and a great read to build the pre-hike excitement or to reflect maintain the buzz long after the aprés.
  • Warm up after a long day in the cold with a post-hike bite at the perpetually hopping Phoenicia Diner. Think classic diner meets modern weekender. Breakfast served all day.

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the Burroughs Range Trail recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


Looking over The Clove and the Hudson River from the Butter Hill Trail.

Four Fall Hikes and Breweries in the Lower Hudson Valley

It’s hard to go wrong with a day trip to the Hudson Valley and that rings especially true in the fall. The little towns are all a bustle, and it seems like there’s a pumpkin patch or an apple orchard around every corner. In the hills, from the Hudson Highlands all the way up through the Catskills, the changing season is an undeniable presence—the air has grown crisp, cool, and fragrant, and the turning of the leaves has transformed the forest into a spectacle equal parts brilliant and humbling.

It’s in the fall that the region’s many excellent trail networks—some of the finest and most accessible in the Northeast—are at their peak. So, what better way to take in all the splendor of autumn in the Hudson Valley than with a hike? How about a hike that ends up at a brewery? The Hudson Valley has tons—and many of them are just a short road walk or drive away from the area’s finest trails.

Ward Pound Ridge
A view of the Cross River Reservoir from a lookout point above Leatherman’s Cave in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation. | Credit: John Lepak

Ward Pound Ridge/Captain Lawrence Brewing Company

Located in the hilly northeastern limits of Westchester County is Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, a 4,300-acre park that boasts 45 miles of trails that meander through pleasant woodlands, over rocky escarpments, and pass several interesting natural features.

One such feature is Leatherman’s Cave, a large cave in a rocky hillside that is known to have been a frequent dwelling of the Civil War-era wanderer—who’s storied 360-mile circuit through southeastern New York and western Connecticut is the stuff of local legend. At 4.0 miles, linking up Ward Pound Ridge’s Leatherman’s Loop Trail with its Green-and-Red and Yellow Trails is a far easier undertaking than its namesakes’ storied route—and, with its wide woods roads and gentle grades, it makes for a great day hiking option.

Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in nearby Elmsford—a half hour drive from Ward Pound Ridge—is a great place to spend a post-hike afternoon. The brewery has ample room both inside and out and, in addition to an ever-changing selection of beer on tap, has an outstanding food menu to boot. The Powder Dreams New England IPA is a definite favorite.

Bridge from the Timp-Torne Trail.
A misty morning view of the Hudson River and the Bear Mountain Bridge from the Timp-Torne Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Popolopen Torne/Peekskill Brewery

The panoramic view from the bald, rocky summit of Popolopen Torne is an iconic one: the rolling, wooded hills of the Hudson Highlands frame the Bear Mountain Bridge where it spans the river. To the south, Bear Mountain looms; across the Hudson, just past the bridge is Anthony’s Nose; on the Torne itself, beyond the summit to the North is a solemn, humbling memorial to fallen soldiers. It’s a breathtaking place that’s emblematic of the region and popular as a result. That it’s accessed by a fun, rocky scramble only makes it that much more of a must-do.

A short loop on the Timp–Torne Spur Trail will take you up and down in a neat and tidy mile but starting at the Fort Montgomery hikers’ parking area—and linking together the Popolopen Gorge, 1777W/1779, and Timp–Torne Trails—is the higher value way to go, logging 4.3 miles all told.

A short six mile drive across the Bear Mountain Bridge and down US-202 will land you at Peekskill Brewery in the heart of downtown Peekskill. An outstanding range of beers is complimented by a food menu full of top-notch pub fare. Give the Eastern Standard IPA—a classic, reliable single IPA—a try.

Looking over The Clove and the Hudson River from the Butter Hill Trail.
Looking over The Clove and the Hudson River from the Butter Hill Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Storm King and North Point/Industrial Arts Brewing Company

From across the river, the glowering bulk of Storm King Mountain cuts an impressive and intimidating silhouette. From its primary trailhead on the other side of the mountain, the orange-blazed Butter Hill Trail’s steep and rocky ascent is perhaps equally intimidating. Most hikers visit Storm King for the panoramic views that a 2.5 mile loop hike linking this trail with the yellow-and-blue-blazed Stillman and white-blazed Bypass Trails deliver.

At 6.5 miles though, a figure-eight hike linking up the Butter Hill, Stillman, Bypass, Howell, and Stillman Spring Trails is a great way to way to work up a thirst and get just about everything Storm King State Park has to offer, including the rocky twin summits of Butter Hill and Storm King Mountain, the deep, quiet woods of The Clove, and the grassy, bald summit of North Point.

With locations in Garnerville and Beacon, Industrial Arts Brewing Company is a convenient stopping point for any hike in the Lower Hudson Valley. It’s in their diverse range of incredibly drinkable pale ales where Industrial Arts shines, from light and easy New England Pale Ales to hoppy and flavorful DIPAs. Get started with Wrench, their hazy, citrusy, and delicious flagship New England IPA.

A foggy day in late fall, looking back over the Breakneck Ridge Trail.
A foggy day in late fall, looking back over the Breakneck Ridge Trail. | Credit: John Lepak

Breakneck Ridge and Mount Beacon/Hudson Valley Brewery

Breakneck Ridge is no secret and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s a steep and thrilling hike, with crazy views of the Hudson Highlands, that’s close to the city and accessible by public transportation. Even in the height of summer, with all the crowds, it’s worth the trip—but in the off-season, with the promise of beer at the other end, it’s on another level.

Instead of the loop hike you’ve already read about, try this 7.0 mile one-way route that follows the white-blazed Breakneck Ridge Trail up and over its famous opening scramble—some 1,250 feet of gain in 0.75 miles—and traces the rough ridgeline as it gains and loses elevation on its way to South Beacon Mountain’s open summit and fire tower.  Descend via the red-blazed Casino Trail, which will ultimately deliver you to the city of Beacon.

A mile of road walking later, and you’re at Hudson Valley Brewery. Located in a refurbished factory adjacent Fishkill Creek, Hudson Valley Brewery is known for its unique selection of “sour IPAs,” a tarter version of the ubiquitous New England IPA. It’s hard to go wrong here, but if the Apotheosis Sour IPA is on tap, give it a go.

Once all is said and done, another brief road walk (1.5 miles) will bring you to the Beacon Train Station, where a short ride on the Metro-North will bring you back to the start of the hike at Breakneck Ridge.


5 Best Fall Paddling Day Trips on the Hudson River Greenway Trail

From Constitution Marsh, where the launch is just steps away from a Metro North station, to the more rural Esopus Meadows Lighthouse, the Hudson River is a must-do for paddlers this autumn. Steep bluffs, forested islands, and otherworldly sunsets are the main attraction, but the historic sites dotting the river add a layer of intrigue to every trip. Think island-bound Bannerman’s Castle (which is said to be haunted) and the Clearwater, an 18th-century replica sloop that sails from port to port educating people about the environment.

Stretching from the Adirondacks to the tip of Manhattan, the Hudson River is fed by freshwater from the north and salt water from the Atlantic Ocean. Though you might feel far away from the ocean when you’re paddling, the River is subject to rising and falling tides and shifting currents. Checking tide charts before hitting the water is recommended to avoid working harder than necessary.

To ensure physical distancing during the pandemic, seek out launch points that are off of the beaten path. The Hudson River Greenway Water Trail runs the length of the river and is the ultimate guide to launches, take-outs, and overnight accommodations on 256-miles of the River. Use the trip ideas below for inspiration and use the Water Trail map to alter itineraries to suit your energy and skill level.

The author's husband at Constitution Marsh. | Credit: Carla Francis
The author’s husband at Constitution Marsh. | Credit: Carla Francis

Constitution Marsh

Accessed via a short jaunt on the main channel of the Hudson River, once you glide under the low-slung railroad trestle that separates the main channel from Foundry Cove you’ll have entered a different, quieter world. Officially known as the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary, when you leave behind the river channel you encounter a tidal marsh that is home to countless species of birds, fish, amphibians and other creatures. “Paddle through the marsh slowly and quietly to increase your chances of seeing wildlife,” recommends the Audubon Center.

Paddlers might notice channels interlacing the marsh — remnants of an 1800’s-era wild rice farm. While the channels make travel easier, be aware of the tide which limits paddlers to 2-hours within the preserve. High tide blocks the passageway under the railroad trestle and low tide will leave you stuck in the mud. Enjoy fall colors and migratory birds as they pass through on their way south, and as you exit, take a moment to gaze north up the river at Storm King Mountain, one of the highest points in the area. To extend your trip, head south where you’ll quickly pass West Point, the revered United States Military Academy to the west.

Launch your boat for free at Scenic Hudson’s Foundry Dock Park in Cold Spring, steps away from the Metro North Station, where paid parking is available.

The Esopus Lighthouse from Espopus Meadows Preserve. | Credit: Carla Francis
The Esopus Lighthouse from Espopus Meadows Preserve. | Credit: Carla Francis

Esopus Lighthouse

Perched on the edge of an underwater meadow, the Esopus Meadows Lighthouse is one of the last remaining wooden lighthouses on the Hudson River. Visiting by kayak will allow you to pass over the same meadows that the lighthouse warned countless vessels to avoid. Mostly choked by invasive water chestnut now, the meadow was historically visited by cattle which grazed on the thick grass at low tide.

There are several ways to access the lighthouse, with the shortest paddle being a .5-mile trip (one way) from Scenic Hudson’s Esopus Meadows Preserve, about 5 miles south of Kingston. Launch your boat for free and head to the lighthouse where you can admire the meticulous preservation of the building, which was built in the late 1800’s. The lighthouse is operated by volunteers and only open during sporadic tours so plan to enjoy this landmark from your kayak. Gaze across the river to another historic site, Mills Mansion, a Gilded Age home now owned and operated for visitors by the State of New York.

To extend your trip, consider heading south towards Esopus Island near the Norrie Point Environmental Center. Hug the shore to avoid turbulence and the main shipping channel while enjoying the open water feel of the River and the changing colors of autumn. The island is a nice place to stop for a picnic and is located about 3 miles from the Esopus Meadows Preserve.

Courtesy: John Morzen
Courtesy: John Morzen

Bannerman Castle

What’s a castle doing in the middle of the Hudson River? Built in the early 1900’s as a weapons arsenal, the decaying castle sits on uninhabited Pollepel Island south of Beacon. While the castle itself is accessible only through tours with the Bannerman Castle Trust, views from the water are, of course, free.

Launch for free from Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park in Beacon and paddle about 3.5 miles south through a gorgeous stretch of river called the Hudson Highlands, so named for the mountains on both shores. To the east you’ll see Hudson River Highlands State Park and Breakneck Ridge and to the west you’ll see Butter Hill (the eastern summit of Storm King mentioned under the “Constitution Marsh” paddle). The river is wide at this point, about 1.5 miles across, offering a more open water experience. Circle the island to get the full view of the imposing castle.

On your way back to Beacon, stretch your legs by walking the Denning Point Trail at Hudson Highlands State Park. At just over a mile, this loop takes you near an abandoned brick works, evidence of which you’ll see long before the buildings come into view.

Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
Credit: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation

Hudson River Islands State Park

Scenic year-round but most spectacular during fall foliage, Hudson River Islands State Park is a secluded set of islands accessible only by boat. If you launch north of the islands, consider visiting Stockport Middle Ground island to stretch your legs then continuing your paddle into Stockport Creek on the eastern bank for a more peaceful stretch of waterway. The islands are typically quiet, especially during the off-season, and chances are you’ll have your landing to yourself. Landings are plentiful along the shore of the islands, but beware of poison ivy before stepping out of your boat.

To extend your trip, bring your gear for an overnight stay. Camping is free and both sunrise and sunset offer some of the best views available on the Hudson River. Couple that with fall foliage, and you’ll have a trip for the ages.

A handful of kayak launches are available to suit different trip lengths, but the Coxsackie NYS Boat Launch and the Athens Boat Launch are good places to start. This map can help you determine the distance you’ll be paddling no matter where you decide to launch.

Courtesy: Hudson River Maratime Museum
Courtesy: Hudson River Maratime Museum

Rondout Lighthouse and Creek

A slightly more urban paddle than others on the list, the shipping vessels and pleasure craft that travel the Hudson and Rondout Creek are sights to see.

On river east, launch your boat at Rhinecliff’s Slate dock or from river west launch your boat at Scenic Hudson’s Sleightsburgh Park. Either way, steer your boat towards the mouth of Rondout Creek, where the Rondout Lighthouse is the star attraction. Operated by the Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRRM), you’ll have to enjoy it from the water because tours are temporarily closed due to COVID-19. According to HRRM, it is “still fully operational as a navigational light and one of only seven remaining on the Hudson River.”

After appreciating this historic landmark and the size of the Hudson River, head west into Rondout Creek. You’ll travel past Kingston’s historic waterfront, which experienced its heyday as a boatyard and manufacturing hub when the Delaware and Hudson Canal opened with its terminus at Rondout Creek. Nowadays, the waterfront has been revitalized as a commercial district. Urban trappings give way to forest as you head inland. In Eddyville, you’ll come across a dam which can be used as a turnaround point or portaged. If you turn around here, you’ll have traveled about 4-miles one way if you launched at Sleightsburgh Park or about 5 miles if you launched from Rhinecliff.


Catskill Ice: Climbing at Stony Clove

Just a stone’s throw from the big city, the Catskill Mountains have long been a favorite wilderness retreat for the respite-seeking New Yorker. Its densely forested summits, deep, dark cloves, and dramatic overlooks have stoked the imagination of local and visitor alike for centuries.

It’s with a blanket of snow and a healthy cold snap that the Catskills extend their allure to area ice climbers. When the conditions are right, the region is dotted with hero ice—from long multi-pitch moderates like Buttermilk Falls, to playgrounds like the Devil’s Kitchen, to the terrifying and ephemeral jewel that is Kaaterskill Falls, there is a little bit of something for everyone.

If you’re new to ice climbing in the area, Stony Clove, in the very heart of the Catskills, is probably the best place to start. It’s very popular, and it’s no surprise why: there are dozens of routes, all of varying length, style, and difficulty—and they’re all easily accessible via a short approach. For both the total novice and the hardened old-timer, there’s more than enough in Stony Clove to spend a weekend picking away lap after lap.

The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak
The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak

How to Get There

The climbing at Stony Clove is centered around Notch Lake, on NY-214, at the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. From the Thruway (I-87), take Exit 20 for Saugerties. At the end of the exit, turn onto NY-32 North and continue for 6.0 miles before bearing left onto NY-32A. Keep going for another 1.9 miles into the town of Palenville. At the traffic light, turn left onto NY-23A. Continue on NY-23A, up through Kaaterskill Clove, for another 9.2 miles, before taking a left onto NY-214. Notch Lake and its parking area are just 2.8 more miles down the road, just past the height of land.

Parking is extremely limited and the lot can be a zoo on a weekend when the conditions are good. Do everyone a favor and carpool. There are commuter park-and-ride lots with more-than-enough room just off the Thruway at New Paltz (exit 18), Kingston (19), Saugerties, and Catskill (21).

The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak
The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak

Lay of the Land

The word clove, adapted from the region’s early Dutch settlers, can be roughly translated to notch, ravine, valley, or gorge. In Stony Clove, the soaring flanks of Plateau Mountain to the east and Hunter Mountain to the west certainly fit the bill—in places, the cleft is barely wide enough for the road. All this lends itself to a feeling of isolation and remoteness prevalent despite the area’s popularity.

As such, the climbing in Stony Clove is neatly divided into east and west, between Plateau and Hunter, by NY-214. Because of the aspect and the prominence of the mountains, climbing on either side is a very different experience in the afternoon than it is in the morning. The east side stays out of the sun most of the day and thus stays colder and dryer—until the afternoon when the sun hits and things can get wet. The west side gets the sun early, and can generally be a bit wetter when afternoon rolls around.

One thing you can count on when climbing either side is a strenuous—but short—approach. Getting to and from the climbing requires a very steep ascent over unfriendly terrain. Moreover, in low snow conditions, the exposed rocks and roots can make it a bit spicy—using one tool in cane position isn’t the worst idea. Once at the base of the climb, it’s advisable to fix a line to a tree to clip in any wayward packs—It’s a long way down should anything get dropped.

Generally speaking, all of the routes in Stony Clove are leadable, but it’s not a requirement. Many of the east side areas are accessible for a top rope set-up via a short scramble.

Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak
Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak

The Tick List

Both sides of Stony Clove have a few prime beginners’ routes, but the east side has a greater concentration of easy areas with ample room for multiple top rope set-ups. The Playground, is a wide, heavily trafficked flow that offers a handful of lines ranging from WI2 to WI4—for the true first timer, this is your best bet. It’s popular with the guides though, so it’s likely to be crowded. Castle Grayskull, also on the east side, is a good alternative with four short (but fun) routes in the more moderate WI3 to WI4 range. Across the way, on the west side, Climax (WI2+) is a great, beginner-friendly option for those seeking something a little longer.

The west side also hosts a couple of great, longer, more moderate climbs. The Curtain (WI4) is fun, straightforward, two-pitch route that can oftentimes be a bit thin towards the end. A little ways to the north, tucked away from the sun in a tight, right-facing corner, is Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area classic. Fun moves and reliable ice—it tends to be one of the earliest Stony Clove climbs to come in—make it a must do. Back on the east side, to the right of The Playground, the steep Twin Columns (WI4) offer some fun, vertical lines.

The Mixed-up Amphitheater area, on the east side (just left of The Playground), offers a half-dozen or so mixed routes of varying difficulty. Head Over Heels (M4) climbs an obvious and inviting crack to the far right of the area. If mixed is your game or the ice conditions elsewhere in the clove aren’t cooperating, this is a good place to be.


4 Winter Hikes for Aspiring Catskill 3500ers

Rough terrain, remote locations, and harsh weather make tackling any of the Northeast’s peak-bagging lists a difficult achievement. Whether it’s the high peaks of the Adirondack 46’ers, the 4,000-footers of New England, or the summits of the Catskill 3500 Club, membership is hard-earned.

Unlike the stewards of New England and the Adirondacks, however, the Catskill Club challenges its aspirants in a different way, by requiring that four of its 35 listed peaks be gained twice—once in winter—for a total of 39 climbs. It’s a wrinkle that ups the ante and affords hikers two unique experiences on some of the region’s finest summits.

As with any winter outing, be prepared for frigid temperatures, shorter days, and potentially nasty weather. Always be sure to check the forecast and trail conditions before heading out. If you’re new to winter hiking, start here.

So which are the must-do winter climbs in New York’s southern range?

A view along the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail, just shy of the Slide’s broad, flat summit. | Credit: John Lepak
A view along the Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trail, just shy of the Slide’s broad, flat summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Slide Mountain

At 4,190 feet, Slide Mountain is the tallest peak in the Catskills and, together with Hunter Mountain, complete the region’s contribution to the NE115 list. It’s Slide’s superlative status that makes it a mega-popular place to be at any time of year, so be prepared to negotiate the crowds on the weekend.

On a bluebird winter weekday though, it’s about as good as it gets. The Curtis–Ormsbee Trail, though neither the most direct nor the easiest route to the top—but decidedly less crowded than the alternative—is an outstanding bit of hiking. Those willing to take on the extra effort though are rewarded with two stellar, sweeping viewpoints, from which several of the Catskills’ higher peaks are visible.

The allure of ticking another 4,000 footer—and a winter one to boot—is also hard to deny. There are a good lot of harder hikes in the Catskills, but Slide definitely has that 4,000 footer-vibe about it.

A 6.6-mile loop hike linking the Curtis–Ormsbee and Wittenberg–Cornell–Slide Trails is one of the best short hikes in the Catskills. For the more ambitious, a full traverse of the Burroughs Range—one of the region’s premier hikes—is an awesome longer (9.8 miles as a shuttle, 14.5 miles as a loop) option.

Black Dome Mountain is front-and-center while descending from Blackhead’s viewless summit. | Credit: John Lepak
Black Dome Mountain is front-and-center while descending from Blackhead’s viewless summit. | Credit: John Lepak

Blackhead Mountain

High and rugged, the peaks of the Blackhead Range loom large over the northeastern Catskills. From west to east, Thomas Cole, Black Dome, and the eponymous Blackhead account for the fourth-, third-, and fifth-highest mountains in the region, respectively, and are traversed by a network of well-signed, well-maintained trails.

It’s easy to see why the architects of the Catskill 3500 Club’s bylaws chose this place—and specifically Blackhead Mountain (3,940 feet)—for one of their four required winter hikes: the ice.

As winter lays siege to Blackhead’s upper reaches, the steep eastern ledges grow dense with thick, accumulated ice, making an approach from this direction substantially more challenging. In fact, the hardness of the ice and the steepness of the terrain often demand that hikers ditch the light traction for real-deal crampons—a pretty unique requirement for a day hike in the Northeast.

The most popular way to bag Blackhead is by way of a 4.3-mile loop from the parking area at the end of Big Hollow Road on the Batavia Kill, Escarpment, Blackhead Mountain and Black Dome Range Trails. Doing it clockwise will have you ascending the heavy ice and descending on gentler ground with prolific views of Black Dome, the best on the hike.

The viewpoint just north of Panther’s summit, a little bit obscured by low clouds and flurries. | Credit: John Lepak
The viewpoint just north of Panther’s summit, a little bit obscured by low clouds and flurries. | Credit: John Lepak

Panther Mountain

Panther Mountain (3,730 feet) and its north–south running ridgeline are best known for offering some of the best views in the Catskills. For better or worse, this is a widely known fact, and a nice weekend day can draw a crowd, particularly at Giant Ledge, a bit south of Panther’s summit.

The snow and ice of winter will thin the crowds a bit, especially past Giant Ledge where the higher-precip years, snow can really pile up enough in the col that even the most intrepid post-holer will turn back (hint: bring snowshoes). Beyond, the moderate ascent is made easier with a good snowpack. Some ledge work will still need to be negotiated and switching between spikes and snowshoes will add some time to the trip, but that’s winter hiking for you.

The terrain is generally moderate and enjoyable, but this hike is all about the views—views that are magnified with winter’s absence of leaves. Unlike in leaf-out season you can really feel the scale of the place the whole time—not just at the viewpoints.

The most direct route up Panther—a 6.4 mile out-and-back on the Phoenicia–East Branch and Giant Ledge–Panther–Fox Hollow Trails—can be made from the south, starting at the hairpin turn on CR-47. A northern approach from Fox Hollow, with a substantial view just before the summit offers a longer (8.8-mile), far-less-traveled option for those looking to avoid the crowds.

The view from the Pine Hill–West Branch Trail, just north of the summit of Balsam Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak
The view from the Pine Hill–West Branch Trail, just north of the summit of Balsam Mountain. | Credit: John Lepak

Balsam Mountain

Balsam Mountain (3,600 feet), in the Catskills’ Big Indian Wilderness Area is the shortest and most westerly of the required winter 35’ers. Though the summit itself is viewless, a little ledge just to the north offers an outstanding easterly view, and the broad, flat character of the ridge makes for a pleasant, relaxing stroll—all the better with a good snowpack.

The main attraction of Balsam, however, is its location. Proximity to easily accessible trailheads, shelters, and other high peaks make it a great mountain to revisit: alone, as a day hike, or as a longer, overnight trip by linking up with the semi-trailed Eagle and Big Indian Mountains to the south.

Despite its generally moderate grades, winter on Balsam presents would-be summiteers with yet another unique seasonal challenge: water crossings. Climate change certainly hasn’t made mountain weather any more predictable and unseasonable thaws can cause high water, making even the simplest of brook crossings a challenge. Be adequately prepared and know when to turn around.

Beginning at the Rider Hollow Road trailhead and linking the Mine Hollow, Pine Hill–West Branch, and Olivrea–Mapledale Trails makes for an excellent 4.9-mile loop up and down Balsam’s western flank.


4 Tips for Finding Wintertime Solitude in the Adirondacks

Finding peace, solitude, and quiet in our day-to-day lives gets harder every day. Sometimes I head into the woods looking for a more social natural experience. I like to see other people on the trail or at a campground. It makes me feel even more comfortable if I am alone, or it is getting dark. In some circumstances, I’m expecting to see other friendly dogs for my dog to meet, other hikers to chat with on the summit, and the trail to be worn from other snowshoers so my walk will be a bit easier.

But other times, I am seeking solitude. I want to experience the quiet, untrammeled parts of wilderness. I want to experience the natural world as many people have before me, for hundreds of years. I want to hear birds, and water rushing. I want to have a chance to see wildlife. I want to find an overlook to enjoy the view in seclusion where I can fully let my body relax, look over valleys, rivers and marvel at nature’s wonders.

The reality is that we must share our wildlands; They belong to all of us. However, there are a few things you can do to find a little more solitude if that is the experience you’re seeking when planning your next outing in the Adirondacks this winter.

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Venture into the wilderness outside the High Peaks.

The High Peaks Wilderness area gets a lot of attention for being home to the tallest peaks in the Park. But there are many other Wilderness areas that offer unique outdoor recreation opportunities. There are many mountains, lakes, rivers, and ponds that have trails that connect and offer opportunities to explore the Adirondacks. 

Avoid using apps to find your hikes.

These apps can be helpful, but especially in the Adirondacks, there are so many trails that are not listed on them. You can find more reliable and comprehensive information (and quieter places to visit!) listed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), town websites, regional land trusts, or the Champlain Area Trails. If there is a trail listed on apps or on a review site with many recent reviews, consider picking another location.  

Explore summer destinations.

Snowshoe/ski into popular paddling areas and primitive campgrounds that would be otherwise busy in warmer seasons. Make sure to call the land manager (many times the DEC) beforehand for permission to use the closed seasonal roads first.  

Start from a quieter town.

Whether you’re a local or coming from far away, consider planning your outing in a town that is a bit sleepier during the winter season. You will be much more likely to step out of your car and into solitude. Plan ahead if you’re hoping to make it an overnight trip, as some businesses may be shut down for the season. This may mean bringing your own provisions and cooking a cozy meal in your AirBnB. For locals it may mean bringing dry clothes and a thermos of something hot to keep in your car for a comfortable ride home. 

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It’s our responsibility when we get to any natural place, to leave it better than we find it. Even if we are the only person that visits a place, the next person will feel like they have just discovered a place for the first time too. That also means thinking about how you share your experience on social media after your trip.  

It’s also worth mentioning, that if you’re going to take the responsibility of venturing into more remote, less populated destinations, you should especially be prepared for the conditions for the outing. Understanding the safety implications of where you are going, what you’re doing, and if there is cell service where you are. Even if you’re only planning to be out for a day, have enough gear to survive overnight in case you get stranded. 

At the end of the day, no matter what, even if you’re sharing your experience with many other people, a day spent in the Adirondacks is a good day. However, there are many places in the Adirondacks where you can go and have a quiet winter day. There is a certain magic when we have a moment in winter solitude to experience the gifts of Mother Nature and realize why it is all worth protecting for everyone. 

How do you find solitude, and when do you enjoy a more social nature experience?


Rapha Rides New York City

“A constant flow of movement.”


5 Mountains in the Northeast that Almost Anyone Can Enjoy

The most talked-about hikes in the Northeast share some common characteristics, namely big mileage, lots of elevation, and rough terrain. While mountains such as Washington, Mansfield, and Marcy get most of the glory, the Northeast is home to numerous hikes that might not match the classics in difficulty, but are their equals in history, views, and fun. If you’re looking for a five-star hike everyone in your party will like, look no further. Here are five mountains in the Northeast that anyone can enjoy.

Courtesy: Studio Sarah Lou
Courtesy: Studio Sarah Lou

Monument Mountain, Massachusetts

Packing fantastic views of the Housatonic River Valley, Mount Greylock, the Catskills, and Vermont into a roughly three-mile hike should be enough to put Monument Mountain in Great Barrington on any New England hiker’s tick list before even factoring in its fascinating history—it drew literary icons such as Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as William Cullen Bryant who wrote the famous poem, Monument Mountain. Bryant’s poem is based on the legend of a Mohican woman who chose to leap from the cliffs rather than marry a husband selected for her. A large pile of stones is piled on the mountain’s southern slope as a monument to her final resting place.

In spite of the grim story of the Mohican maiden, Monument Mountain is a fantastic trip for hikers of all abilities. Covering about three miles, hikers ascend the at-times-steep Hickey Trail, climbing a little over 700 feet through hemlock forests, past boulders, and gaining pale quartzite cliffs. For the best views, connect with the Squaw Peak Trail and follow it over steep cliffs and ledges to the 1,642-foot summit of Squaw Peak, then make the short five-minute walk to take in the view of Devil’s Pulpit, a unique rock formation. From the summit of Squaw Peak, hikers can take the Indian Monument Trail which follows an old carriage road for a mild descent, or continue on the Squaw Peak Trail to its connection further down with the Indian Monument Trail.

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Bald Mountain and Artists Bluff, New Hampshire

Don’t let the relatively slight 2,340-foot elevation of Bald Mountain and Artists Bluff dissuade you from this must-do hike—the views are huge. Situated at the northern end of Franconia Notch, a hike to the summit of Bald Mountain and Artists Bluff treats hikers with two of the White’s best viewpoints, both offering incredible perspectives of Franconia Ridge and the towering Mount Lafayette, Eagle Cliff, Cannon Mountain Ski Area, and Echo Lake.

At just under three-miles roundtrip, Bald Mountain and Artists Bluff is a popular trip for hikers of all abilities. However, don’t let the moderate mileage lull you into thinking this hike is easy; like many classic White Mountain hikes, sections of the trail are direct and rocky. Leaving from the parking lot adjacent to Cannon Mountain’s base lodge, take Artists Bluff Trail for about a quarter-of-a-mile, follow a short spur trail to the summit of Bald Mountain. After soaking in Bald Mountain’s impressive views, backtrack to the Artists Bluff Trail, continuing along on it to an open ledge and more best-in-the-White’s views. Once you’ve had your fill of the spectacular scenery, continue hiking on the Artists Bluff Trail. As you near the road, look for the Loop Trail which will bring you back to your car.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Philo, Vermont

Standing at just 968 feet tall, Mount Philo is diminutive when compared to Green Mountain giants like Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump, but towers over the Champlain Valley. Like its bigger brethren, Mount Philo has been a popular recreational destination for over a century (Mount Philo State Park was Vermont’s first state park), and at one point, a carriage road wove its way to the top. Look closely and you’ll see traces of the old carriage road from today’s paved road to the summit. In fact, the paved road makes Mount Philo the perfect destination for groups of mixed ability; ambitious hikers can take the trail to the summit while non-hikers meet them on top by taking the road.

Hikers heading to the summit of Mount Philo should follow the blue blazes of the Mount Philo Trail. The twoish-mile round-trip hike gains approximately 600 feet in elevation as it winds through quintessential Vermont forest and exposed rocks. From the summit, hikers are treated to splendid views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks—including Mount Marcy—to the west while the peaks of the Mad River region (Mounts Abe and Ellen) dominate the view to the southeast. Fall is a favorite time to take a trip to Mount Philo, not only because it’s resplendent during foliage, but also to watch migrating raptors. Mount Philo holds the record for the most hawks seen in one day in Vermont (3,688).

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Hadley Mountain, New York

Take in the magnificent views of Sacandaga Lake, the Green Mountains, the Catskills, and the Adirondacks from the 2,675-foot summit of Hadley Mountain while ticking a tower off of your ADK Fire Tower Challenge. The 40-foot fire tower gracing Hadley Mountain’s summit was originally erected in 1917, but was closed in 1990 by the Department of Environmental Conservation. Shortly after the closure, the Hadley Mountain Fire Tower Committee was formed and began working on restoring the tower, as well as the observer’s cabin. Thanks to their efforts, hikers today can climb to the top of the fire tower and take in a view not all that different from the one had by the early observers 100 years ago.

Climbing roughly 1,500 feet while covering 3.6 miles, the trip to the summit of Hadley Mountain and back is short, but packs a punch. As straightforward as a trip gets, summit-bound hikers need only follow the red trail markers of the Hadley Mountain Trail to the summit and then return the way you came. The trail remains fairly steep for almost the entirety of the climb, but be sure to save some energy for climbing the stairs to the top of the tower—it’s worth it. If hiking Hadley Mountain in the summer, you’ll likely run into the summit steward who’s there to answer any questions you might have about the mountain and its history.

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Mount Agamenticus, Maine 

The confluence of mountains and ocean has led generations of adventurers to explore the rugged Maine coastline. Used as a landmark by mariners to aid in navigation for centuries, Mount Agamenticus’ earliest explorers were indigenous people—the name Agamenticus is derived from the Abenaki name for the York River. Legend has it that Saint Aspinquid, a local Indian chief, either a MicMak or Penobscot leader, converted to Christianity and spent his life spreading Christianity to different tribes. A cairn on the top of Mount Agamenticus was constructed as a tribute to Saint Aspinquid—it’s said that anyone adding a stone to the cairn is blessed with good luck.

Unlike most mountains, the best trail on Mount Agamenticus doesn’t lead to its summit, rather it runs around the mountain. The Turtle Loop is a twoish-mile loop circling the base of the remnants of the 220 million-year-old volcano that is Mount Agamenticus. Featuring 15 interpretive stations, hikers are able to educate themselves on the area’s natural, geologic, and cultural history. If you simply must tag the top of Mount Agamenticus, the approximately quarter-mile-long Blueberry Bluff Trail leads from the Turtle Loop to the summit where you’ll enjoy views of Cape Elizabeth, the Isles of Shoals, and the White Mountains—including Mount Washington.

 

Do you have a favorite hike that is ideal for hikers of all abilities? If so, let us know in the comments below so we can check it out.


How to Send at the Gunks, According to EMS Guides

Roofs, old-school grades, and steep routes are just a few signature characteristics of climbing in the Gunks. Another staple of climbing in the Gunks is the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School, the oldest climbing school in the East, teaching technical climbing since 1968. We spoke to two of the Climbing School’s current guides in the Gunks—Patty Lankhorst and Marcia Stephens—to learn what makes the Gunks so special, get a few tips for climbing at the iconic area, and better understand the challenges and advantages of being a female guide and climber.

Courtesy: Patty Lankhorst
Courtesy: Patty Lankhorst

Why the Gunks Rock

The closest climbing destination to New York City, the Shawangunks proximity to a major metropolis is just one of many reasons for the area’s popularity. Another reason is the diversity of climbing found at the Gunks, which offers both single-pitch and multi-pitch traditional climbing, top roping, and awesome bouldering (with problems established by climbing luminaries such as John Gill, Lynn Hill, and Russ Clune). While you won’t find any sport climbing in the Gunks, you will find climbing rivaling the steepness of the Northeast’s sport crags along with huge roofs and tremendous exposure.

Patty, an AMGA Rock Instructor and one of the handful of female guides in Northeast with the certification who’s working as a full-time climbing guide, has been living and climbing in the Gunks for over 22 years, helping clients up the area’s classic routes for the last 16. A local fixture, she “knows the cliffs like the back of her hand” and recommends that every climber make at least one trip to this rock climbing mecca.

Marcia does, too. As a longtime climber and guide, one thing Marcia loves about the Gunks is that there’s “something for everyone, from ages 6 to 60+!” Visitors to the area will discover everything from cracks to jugs to routes ranging from 5.0 to 5.14, and slabs to complement the steeps. Some of Patty’s favorite routes at the Gunks are High Exposure (5.6), Cascading Crystal Kaleidoscope (CCK) (5.8), Bonnie’s Roof (5.9), and pretty much everything on the Arrow Wall.

Once you get tired from all the climbing at the Gunks, there’s fantastic rest-day activities such as hiking, biking, trail running, and swimming. And if you’re checking out the Gunks this summer, Marcia recommends ending every climbing session with a dip in the refreshingly cool water at Split Rock—a great way to beat the heat!

Courtesy: Thatcher Clay
Courtesy: Thatcher Clay

Tips for Sending at the Gunks

You might think sending classic routes at the Gunks is a great chance to flex your “tee-shirt muscles,” but Patty and Marcia—who are both petite female climbers—stress that size, strength, and ape index won’t get you through every crux. Instead, they emphasize that no matter your size, footwork, technique, and flexibility are keys to overcoming the area’s most notorious obstacles.

One of Marcia’s favorite techniques is the high step—where climbers use hip flexibility to hike a foot up on a hold. She regularly busts it out for tackling the crux of Gunks classics such as No Picnic (5.5) and Black Fly (5.5), routes she commonly guides.

Patty wholeheartedly agrees with Marcia’s emphasis on footwork. She stresses that “climbing is all about the feet, especially at the Gunks.” If your feet are not positioned correctly, she advises, it puts added weight on your arms and fingers, making the route seem more challenging because your arms get pumped out so quickly. For routes with big roofs—like Shockley’s Ceiling (5.6)—Patty recommends high feet, as “getting those feet up and putting your weight on them as soon as possible keeps you from peeling off.”

While Patty is quick to acknowledge that taller people tend to have an easier time reaching through some cruxy roofs, she also recognizes the advantage that her size provides on more “crunched” up moves and smaller handholds. Because every climber’s body type is different, when guiding she tries to help clients “recognize their strengths and weaknesses and maximize what they do have.”

Courtesy: Thatcher Clay
Courtesy: Thatcher Clay

Protecting Yourself On the Way Up…

Climbing at the Gunks is different, with moves and exposure unlike many crags in the Northeast. For those new to the area, Marcia suggests familiarizing yourself with the routes and approaches, initially choosing climbs with grades below your normal sending level. This is especially important because there’s a long history of sandbagging at the Gunks, resulting in climbs feeling harder here than similarly rated routes elsewhere.

Since many anchors at the Gunks aren’t bolted, Marcia and Patty recommend that visiting leaders carry sufficient gear to protect the pitch and build a gear anchor. For many climbers, especially those unfamiliar with the route they’re climbing, this often means doubling up on critical cams.

The Gunks are also riddled with horizontal cracks and finding the best way to protect them can often befuddle first-time visitors. Tricams work wonders here—so much so that the Pink Tricam, better known as the CAMP 0.5 Tri-Cam Evo, has become synonymous with the area. According to Patty, they’re also the most commonly stuck pieces found on the cliffs, so practice placing, and removing, them before visiting the Gunks. Marcia encourages carrying “Big Blue” (a Black Diamond #3 Cam), citing the cam’s knack for protecting the crux of many Gunks classics. Worried about the weight of the big blue cam on the steep stuff? Check out the ultralight version of the classic cam, the Black Diamond Ultralight Camelot #3.

There’s a lot more to staying safe at the Gunks than just having the right gear. In particular, don’t forget the typical safety checks before you start up a climb. Among the questions Patty recommends asking before leaving the deck are: is the climber’s figure eight tied correctly? and is the belayer’s device threaded properly?

…and on the Way Down

Because many routes at the Gunks are between two and four pitches, spending a day (or more) climbing there means that most climbers will spend a good amount of time transitioning from climbing to rappelling. Before heading down, climbers should double check whether the rappel rope is properly threaded through the rap rings, the rappeller’s device is properly connected to the rap ropes, the rap ropes are properly tied together (if using two ropes), and the rappeller has a “third hand” backup. Patty also reminds us, whether at the Gunks or at our home crag, rappeling with stopper knots tied into the ends of the rope is critical, especially if you are unfamiliar with the rap route.

Courtesy: Patty Lankhorst
Courtesy: Patty Lankhorst

Go with a Guide

Despite recent efforts by the AMGA and others to promote diversity in the profession (including a new women’s-only Rock Guide Course), guiding remains a male-dominated profession. But whether it’s breaking guiding’s glass ceiling or sending Shockley’s Ceiling, Patty and Marcia are some of EMS’s go-to guides in the Gunks. Both are passionate about showing friends and guests how amazing, beautiful, and adventurous the area is and are excited to share with others what drew them each to the area and has kept them there. Learn more about climbing in the Gunks or tick a few classic routes by visiting the Eastern Mountain Climbing School’s website and booking a day of climbing with Patty or Marcia.