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  • Writer's pictureNatalia Boltukhova

What Trad Climbing In The Gunks Taught Me

By Cyrenah Smith

It’s not coming out… or is it?

I was fiddling with a nut that was wedged into a crack. My brows furrowed as I yanked on its wire, taking care not to damage the surrounding rock. It was a misty, cool Tuesday morning (abnormal for early July in upstate New York) and a sleepy day at the crag (abnormal for where we were, a location typically packed with climbers from all over the Northeast).

The pressure wasn’t on, per se, because I was on top-rope. But it was my first time following someone who was trad climbing… and I wanted to get it right!

“See if you can move it in the direction that it would’ve been placed.” Our guide called out to me, his voice a reassuring presence cutting through my mental static. “You can also use the nut tool I gave you.”

High above it all, I was at the edge of my comfort zone… yet again. But in that moment of brandishing the nut tool, carefully analyzing the nut’s placement, and successfully cleaning each piece of protection above me, I knew: Today would be a day to break new ground, pushing my climbing and confidence farther than ever before.

Conquering The First Climb

Although my partner and I went in intending to just brush up our anchor building technique, we left extremely stoked by our first foray into trad climbing (prompted by our go-getter guide). Though we didn’t lead any climbs ourselves, he encouraged us to hop on classic after classic and gain some Gunks mileage while practicing using gear and building various anchors.

When my nerves kicked into high gear that morning, I was half-hoping that we’d be sitting in a classroom tying knots all day. But, unsurprisingly, we had so much more fun following, cleaning, applying skills, and climbing instead of just practicing fundamentals over and over (though there was plenty of that as well)!

After we met our guide in the West Trapps parking lot, he led us on a brisk walk over to the Uberfall area. The entire time, my heart was pounding in my chest like a caged animal. But before I could say, “Let’s turn back!”, we had set down our packs, prepared our gear, and suited up for the first climb of the day.

To get a feel for our comfort levels and climbing technique, our guide started us on Bunny, a fun 5.5 with plenty of protection and a small roof at the crux. I belayed him up as he led, meticulously orchestrating cams and nuts along the way.

Once the anchor was built, I lowered him to the ground. “It’s customary for the belayer to climb next,” our guide joked. “Your turn, Cyrenah!”

If he hadn’t noticed from my caffeinated conversation earlier, he could certainly tell that I was stressed once I ventured up the wall. I found it hard to trust the gear, and it had been a while since I had climbed outside because of the pandemic. Touching real rock again after a long break often gave me pause.

I approached the roof at the crux and hesitated, wondering “How did he place protection here? And where should I go?” Thoughts began pouring in; I felt myself getting distracted from the route and overthinking. Suddenly, a sequence that normally I would’ve cruised through became complicated.

My body froze. I wasn’t trusting my feet even though they were solid. My hands, softened by quarantine, searched frantically in cracks and on the rock face for some kind of friction. They had effortlessly navigated instruments and climbs before. What was happening?

From below, I heard encouraging advice. “Hang out on the rope for a bit. It’ll help you trust the gear. Then you can try again.”

He was right. After seeing that the protection was going to, well, protect me, my mind quieted. My eyes glided up and down the wall as I planned my next move. I exhaled and emerged from the crux, conquering the first of many Gunks roofs.

Joy rushed over me as I reached the anchor. And just like that, my comfort zone inched a little bit wider.

For Context

I first started climbing consistently at a gym in downtown Toronto, having moved there after graduating from university in Montreal. Before that, my experience was limited to maybe a couple of auto-belays here and there. Climbing had always intrigued me, but I had no real pedigree to speak of, and certainly wasn’t one of those lucky kids climbing at an elite level by my teen years.

Honestly, even when people invited me, I balked. A stressed-out, performance-oriented musician, I came up with a ton of reasons not to climb:

“Ah, I can’t. Have to practice for another few hours.”

“What if I injure my fingers? No, thanks.”

“Already went to the gym–maybe next time!”

But when I eventually did step into a new gym and committed to trying it out, every one of those flimsy excuses fell away. Climbing welcomed me as soon as we met, as if I were coming home to a place I’d never been.

So, when I moved back home to the States–particularly to New Jersey, where outdoor climbing often leans towards trad and boulders* over sport–you can imagine my desire to figure out new ways to climb better, faster, and stronger.

*Interestingly, even bouldering can be extremely divisive from area to area. It could be legal in one county and then forbidden in the neighboring one. A good example is the Sourland Mountain Preserve.

Why Trad Climbing?

I’ll openly admit that I’m still a newbie at a couple of years in and 25 years young. In climbing, as I’m discovering, there’s a constant, never-ending supply of things to learn and endless ways to improve. I recognize and embrace that it’ll likely always be this way (despite my obsession, dedication, and voracious consumption of everything climbing-related when I’m not actually on the rocks or pulling on plastic).

However… Certain fears were holding me back from pushing myself harder and trying new, terrifying things. I never thought I would trad climb. Hell, I never thought I would do half the things I do now!

For a while, whenever I tried something new in climbing, whether it was bouldering at a new crag or taking whips on lead, intrusive thoughts would sometimes enter my mind. What if I suck? What if I fail? They were frequent visitors–albeit unhelpful ones.

And yet, jolting forward to the present, so much has happened during this strange period of rest from climbing, unrest beyond climbing, social distancing, reflection, and dissatisfaction that has affected my mindset. Loved ones lost their jobs or shifted their dreams to the back burner. Family members passed away in countries halfway around the world, their funerals missed due to travel restrictions. Others lost their lives–or the way their lives once were–to strange and unforgiving circumstances: COVID-19, racial injustice, police brutality… and the list goes on.

The combination of everything going on in the world was like Pandora’s box bursting open to shatter the status quo.

When confronted with mortality daily, one tends to prioritize action over procrastination. I know I do. I realized that with a truly limited amount of time on this planet, I needed to just go for it instead of making more excuses. It was time to see for myself how capable and brave I could be on the rock.

That’s why my partner went to the best place we could think of to learn trad climbing: the Gunks. More about the area here and here!

Welcome to The Gunks

For those of you who may not have been yet, let me set the scene for you. The Gunks is one of the oldest climbing areas in the United States and is home to some of the most classic moderate trad climbing in the country. Blessed with impeccable quartz conglomerate, unique biodiversity, and rich history, it’s truly a one of a kind spot that welcomes climbers from all over the world. The Shawangunk Mountains are also relatively close to NYC–a ridge of bedrock in Ulster County, Sullivan County, and Orange County extending from New Jersey’s northernmost point to the Catskill mountains–and border the quirky college town of New Paltz, New York.

Growing up a stone’s throw from the area, I first fell in love with the area for its scenic views and stellar hiking. But without any trad climbing experience, it felt like I was missing out on a significant chunk of what the Gunks had to offer. While bouldering on Undercliff Road with friends, I would look up to the trad climbers (literally!) as they bravely ventured up the cliffs. Doing what they did seemed so far out of reach–even unattainable at the moment.

So, my climbing partner and I decided to book a lesson with a local guide service to take an anchor building course. The experience ended up being so much more.

Shaky Hands, Racing Thoughts

When we rolled up to the crag around 9 AM, my hands were shaking. Was it from the thermos of bitter black coffee I had just chugged on the way there? Sounds about right. Could it also have been from nerves? That was more likely.

I don’t know why I’m geared this way, and perhaps some of you can relate; even when I’m going into a situation to learn, like a course or space where someone is teaching me something, my nerves will start firing up. Maybe it’s excitement and anticipation. Maybe it’s anxiety that I won’t retain all the information. Or maybe it’s the remnants of my perfectionism aching like a wound.

I just wanted to be good at what I was doing. But it was going to take time. After all:

  • How much prior exposure I had to trad climbing and multi-pitch routes: 0.

  • How confident I was in my abilities, given my experience of top-roping, sport climbing, and bouldering outside (0-10): 9? 5? Honestly, it fluctuates.

  • How much trad climbing intimidated me up to this point: A lot. Mainly because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And instead of that being a funny Socratic paradox, the knowledge gap felt like life or death.

My happy place, bouldering, felt safe, comfortable, and welcoming. While climbing boulders, I could try hard and fall safely onto my crashpad’s cushioned landing. I trusted my spotters, who were never that far anyway. And sure, sport climbing could be scary at times, but I was getting better at trusting my abilities even while acknowledging my fear of falling. Heights also made me smile–the higher up you climb, the farther away you are from bullshit.

But placing protection and having to rely fully on your own decision making? Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Hypothetically, though, it made sense that one could apply the same mindset to all types of climbing, even trad climbing–so long as they had the skills, confidence, and experience necessary to make it happen.

Our Experience

The rest of the day went off without a hitch. With only a short break to inhale some sandwiches, we covered a lot of ground over the following hours, including:

  • Various top rope anchors, including securing a static line around trees with bowline knots, setting up 3-piece gear anchors, and other forms. The sheer number of anchor variants was astonishing–we had so much to learn!

  • Multi-pitch climbing, the most exciting climbing experience I’ve had to date. Not gonna lie, I’m pretty hooked on heights now.

  • Rappelling, which was surprisingly fun and straightforward. While descending, I remembered hearing frightening stories of climbers falling to their deaths in rappelling accidents (usually when one fails to tie a stopper knot). I meditated on this until my feet touched the ground again.

  • Using gear, placing protection, and cleaning. Learning these skills while on top rope and while following our guide created a safe space for my partner and me to practice. It was also encouraging to see how knowledge could vanquish–or, at least, temper–fear.

  • All about climbing at the Gunks, the surrounding area, and around the country... It was hard not to feel pangs of longing and wanderlust. Over lunch, the three of us fantasized about visiting France, China, and other appealing destinations.

  • So many climbs, including Bunny, Double Chin, Ribs, Ribless, Jackie, and Classic! Our guide asked us to guess the ratings of these climbs, and we were among the few he’d asked who had guessed correctly. Often, non-local climbers were surprised by the stiff ratings at the Gunks. This place has a funny way of spanking egos.

Throughout the day, our guide also humored us by fielding all of our questions, from “How do I know where to place protection?” to “What’s it like climbing in Eldorado Canyon? Cathedral Ledge? Mt. Whitney?!” He was even glad to show us his adventure-worthy van after we finished climbing. I’m now both extremely envious and convinced that I need to convert my car too.

Feeling incredibly beat and incredibly inspired, we drove home. My hands were no longer shaking–instead, they were covered in dirt and chalk and they felt strong. Worked.

Even capable.

My Takeaways & What Surfaced

Without a doubt, it's awesome to build one’s skillset under the supervision of someone with much more experience. After enough practice, you’ll no longer need to rely on other people’s help. Additionally, learning and growing your skills makes you well-rounded, and being more knowledgeable and confident can help you feel more secure when you venture out. You’ll feel like a more credible climber because you are a more credible climber.

And yet, I wonder: Is it really so bad to be a “gumby,” or to admit you’re new to something?

Maybe you’re bouldering V-Hard and leading 5.14+ these days. But you weren’t always this strong or this experienced. Even you had to start somewhere once with too-big rental shoes or no gear other than a hand-me-down guide book.

Plus, for many of us, climbing is one of those things that people often find later [read: not as a child or teenager] in life.

I’m also starting to realize that you can exist outside the confines of “What A Perfect Climber Climbs Like/Looks Like/Acts Like” and still discover tremendous ability, innate talent, and valuable experiences.

And finally, aren’t we all gumbies at the end of the day, pushing ourselves closer and closer to the edge of our comfort zones, which seem to endlessly expand on and on?

All in all, my decision to start trad climbing reminded me of exposure therapy. Like how holding a spider in my hand could help me conquer my arachnophobia. How taking progressively larger whips could help me conquer my fear of falling. How more public speaking could help me conquer the pounding in my chest and dryness in my mouth.

Maybe the name of the game going forward would be reframing what it means to be a “good” climber. Instead of defining successes by topping out or clipping the chains, perhaps the very act of getting out there and trying was enough. Perhaps my habit of judgment was turning into a habit of curiosity and exploration after all.

Success no longer needed to rely on the assignment of “good” and “bad” value judgments. Instead, it was about having experiences–surprising ones, unexpected ones, terrifying and hilarious ones. Even embracing moments of vacillating between insecurity and security.

The experiences that make you feel alive… Now those are worth celebrating.


Cyrenah Smith is a climber, writer, and creative living in northern New Jersey in the USA–a stone’s throw from bothNew York City and the Gunks. Beyond climbing, she is also an avid hiker and volunteer trail maintainer. Through her work, Cyrenah aims to connect outdoor pursuits to conservation and stewardship initiatives, as well as shine a light on how sport can be a force for good.


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