The rock is a quartz conglomerate comprised of pebbles deposited by rivers along the edge of an ancient inland sea.
As this layer was buried it was compressed and bound together with silica. This gives the Gunks its “pebbly” texture and infamous reputation for “fiddly” gear placements. The strata of the Shawangunk Conglomerate is layered horizontally and as the Wallkill River eroded the valley over thousands of years, exposing the cliff band, these layers produced the incredibly incut and awesome horizontal crack systems that climbers from all over the world rave about. Gunks regulars should count themselves very lucky to be so close to such a rare stroke of geological genius. A perfect medium for the sport.
The Gunks are home to some of the finest traditional cragging in the world. Hundreds of three pitch routes with quality climbs from 5.3 to 5.13 stacked on top of each other in serious urban proximity. To climb at the Gunks on a busy weekend and have a good time, one must cherish human interaction. Cozy up to a stranger at a belay and embrace a shared moment of discomfort and stilted conversation.
Climbing areas are usually segregated, easy climbs in one area and harder climbs in another. Here, mega rock jocks rub elbows with newbies all day long. A real melting pot. Take advantage of this proximity and pay attention to how better, more experienced climbers do things; it can be a great learning experience.
Climbing at the Gunks is a mental and physical feat. But, knowing that the Shawangunk Conglomerate is bomber helps to sooth the brain on runout sections. The grades at the lower end of the spectrum are sandbagged to say the least (though they tend to normalize around 5.10). Where else do 5.6 leaders regularly have to deal with sparse protection and ROOFS . Roofs on 5.5 even. Big juggy roofs that all go free on gear at relatively moderate grades. Go stand under Fat City Direct and tell me that it goes at 5.10. Stand under the Yellow Wall and tell me that it goes at 5.11. Those roofs are huge and look damn near impossible.
The roofs and horizontal crack systems lends itself to committing, gymnastic movement, often well above the last piece of gear. This style of climbing pushes the limits of a climber’s mental fortitude. But, the same physical characteristics of the Gunks also produce the incredibly steep, aesthetic and exposed moderate climbs that make it a great place to learn how to lead climb and master the principles of multipitch rope management.
Climbers should take great joy in the fact that there is such rich variation among rocks on earth. Climbing vertical crack systems on granite in California is vastly different than climbing steep limestone seacliffs in Thailand. There are very few sports where the medium, or the field of play, has such a profound impact on the experience. Beyond the rock itself each climbing area has a distinct culture and some have strong heritage that adds an additional layer of complexity and richness. Shawangunk climbing is the total package, combining a historic, cosmopolitan culture with an incredibly rare and beautiful geological formation.
The Gunks are a gift.