A Love Letter to all the Gunkies
My apologies for the mass letter, but I wanted to write you, and there are just too many of you to write personally. Some of you have slipped through the cracks of time and memory, but you know who you are, no matter where you may be now. You know where you’ve been and what you’ve done.
I am writing to say thanks.
Lately, the Gunks has been heavy on mind. I live here. I have projects, a partner, a community here. Right now, I call the Gunks home. And I’ve realized something; you think you know a place, inside and out, by just simply spending time there. But you can’t really know a place until you know who came before.
Vulgarian Claude Suhl working onto the big High E ledge in the late '50s. Photo: Dick Williams
Eighty years ago this year, Fritz Wiessner scaled the cliffs of the Gunks for the first time, establishing his initial route in a list of many, Old Route, up the intimidating face of Millbrook using pitons, hemps ropes and boots. Since then, so much has happened. Just a few years after his Old Route ascent, Fritz established High Exposure with fellow bold climber Hans Kraus. The route is, to this day, a wildly exposed hyper-classic 5.6. A decade later, Jim McCarthy, a Kraus underling of sorts, hammered his way into the forefront of eastern climbing, establishing hard aid lines like No Glow, Double Crack and Foops.
Then, throughout the ‘50s, the rule-obsessed Appies and no-introduction-necessary Vulgarians duked it out to crown the ruler of the cliffs. The fallout from this battle came in the form of a mass of bold new routes. Among them were Pas de Deux, Birdland and, as 1960 crested, MF, which might be remembered as standing for “McCarthy’s Follies”…or, alternately, something more vulgar. And alongside the impressive new lines came the stories—drugs and debauchery. There was the short-lived, three-edition Vulgarian Digest (with the scandalous second edition cover of a shirtless Elaine Matthews) that remains part of the time's lore, and Dick Williams’ early-'60s nude ascent of Shockley’s Ceiling. Looking back, the Vulgarian period can seem a bit cartoonish, lingering in our collective memory, getting a little more outrageous with each retelling. But, at the time, these events were progressive. Anti-establishment. They were freedom.
And as it always goes, new, enlightened climbers continued to arrive. Like, the ‘60s. They were on fire; Yvon Chouinard visited, carrying with him fun new toys, and from there, climbing took off. Gobs of new routes appeared before the first calendar year of the decade was even rolled back. Goldstone and McCarthy snagged the first ascent of CoExistence; Dick Williams and Art Gran come up with the still-to-this-day intimidating Fat City. Hot damn! Then John Stannard, convinced all aid could go free, took the torch during a five-day effort to free climb Foops. Just like that, he spearheaded the clean climbing movement.
Jack Mileski climbs Clairvoyance. Photo: Dick Williams