With sunny spring days upon us, it’s time to stow the ice tools and pull out the rock shoes. Shrugging off a long winter by climbing some early-season Gunks rock can be incredibly rewarding for both the body and mind. As we get back into the rhythm of rock season, it’s wise to be a bit more vigilant than usual since this time of year does come with a unique set of hazards. Here are some things to consider in the weeks ahead.
There are two main categories of ever-present hazards that we should be aware of when rock climbing. They are – 1) falling off the cliff, and – 2) stuff falling on us. While other hazards exist, these categories are the constants each and every day at the crag.
The “stuff falling on us” category can be called “overhead hazard” and includes falling rocks, branches, pebbles, carabiners, ropes, water bottles, cell phones, climbing shoes, and lots more. Some examples of NYC “overhead hazard” might include that precarious window-air conditioner unit and pigeon poop.
As a full-time mountain guide and climber, evaluating overhead hazards is a significant and constant part of my daily life. I think that in general, overhead hazards at the Gunks are under-appreciated by climbers at both the top and bottom of the cliff. It’s normal to see people hanging out below popular rappel lines or completely relaxed with multiple parties climbing above them. It’s also common for rocks to hit the deck without warning from above. Yikes! And I won’t even get into the helmet debate… This time of year specifically warrants additional care and vigilance with respect to falling objects regardless of where we are on the cliff.
Most importantly, we need to understand that we are climbing in a dynamic environment. In a place like the Gunks, it’s easy to assume that things are relatively static. Especially if you tend to climb routes once and move on. A single snapshot of an area or route tells us less about what is going on than seeing a trend over time. As a local guide I get to revisit many of the classics frequently and find the amount of change these last 15 years staggering.
We also need to understand that while the Gunks appear well taken care of – manicured even – it’s still a natural environment. This means that, in general, hazards are not managed for us. We need to be constantly evaluating our surroundings and making good choices based on what we are seeing.
The Gunks are busy. One advantage of having so much climber-traffic is that popular routes are mostly choss- and lichen-free. But the downside of so much use is that the soil on ledges, especially rappel ledges where climbers are funneled, gets absolutely hammered. All this traffic also means that on any given weekend day you’re almost guaranteed to be both above and below someone on the cliff through the course of the day.
All of this climber traffic accelerates natural erosion on ledges and at the top and bottom of the cliff. To simplify the mechanism by which this happens, climbers walk on soil, compacting it. This repeated compaction forces all the air space out of the soil, leaving the ground hard enough that water is no longer absorbed but forced to run over the top of it. This erodes the topsoil, exposing tree roots and eventually killing the tree. The eroded topsoil also exposes pebbles, rocks, and larger blocks that become less and less supported over time. (This is why traveling on durable surfaces is a good thing.)
The rate of this erosion changes seasonally as precipitation, temperature, and climber use varies. Currently, we are hot on the heels of a winter that had significant snow, rain, and freeze-thaw action. A lot of this water has seeped into cracks and expanded as it froze, literally pushing blocks apart, nanometers at a time. This process occurs each and every time the water re-freezes. With winter temperatures here in the Gunks constantly crossing back and forth over the freezing mark, change happens quickly and consistently.
All of these factors combine to mean that there are likely to be loosened rocks in soft, saturated soil on many of the ledges. There is also sure to be an abundance of sand, branches, sticks, and random debris throughout the Gunks right now since climbers haven’t been regularly cleaning things up. ‘Tis the season for climber-generated rockfall! Oh, and get excited for sandy handholds and muddy gear placements, too.
Here are a few tips to help mitigate some of the overhead hazard risk to you and me:
As a mountain guide, it is not my place to tell anyone how much risk they should assume (unless they’ve hired me!). But I do consider a big part of my job to be helping people better understand the risks they are assuming and the risks they create for others.
In the case of falling objects at the crag, it’s important for all of us to understand that we are on both sides of the equation each day in the Gunks. And that no matter where we are on the cliff, we are responsible in preventing accidents from happening.
You don’t have to see many rockfall injuries to understand how much they suck. Getting hit by even a small rock can be life changing or lethal. And a larger block could be catastrophic for multiple parties. And there are certainly plenty of large, loose blocks throughout the Gunks.
As we all know, it’s impossible to entirely eliminate the risk in rock climbing. And who would want to even if we could? Managing the risk of doing hard and dangerous things is where a lot of the fun and satisfaction comes from in climbing. But I think we can all agree that reducing overhead hazard is a win for everyone.
I hope you have a great early season here in the Gunks. Keep your head up, make good choices, and keep crushing! And maybe keep that puffy jacket handy for a few more weeks…
Silas Rossi is an IFMGA / AMGA Mountain Guide and founder/owner of Alpine Logic, LLC. He provides custom guided adventures, training and mentorship to climbers of all abilities, and facilitates professional guide training courses and exams for the American Mountain Guides Association. He lives in New Paltz, NY with his wife Cheryl and their two dogs – Enzo and Winston.