Climbers enjoy a feeling of sheer terror Challenge: Ascending a steep rock face gives a sense of danger and the thrill of controlling it. Besides, the views are stunning.

November 30, 1997|By Andrea Kannapell | Andrea Kannapell,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Every one of my handful of rock-climbing adventures has made me revisit several questions.

First, do mushrooms have any nutritive value? I've only climbed in moist, woodsy areas, and I always pass a few mushrooms. Nature's gift, if you know enough about them not to die eating the wrong ones.

But do they have any nutritive qualities, or do you get what you pay for?

Second, why do scrapes take so long to heal? I always return with so many. A simple cut can heal in a couple of days, but the kind of abrasion you get on elbows and knees when you suck onto a rock face in fear for your life seem to take forever.

And third, what is it about terror that keeps you coming back?

That came up most recently in the middle of an ascent in the Shawangunk Ridge, just west of New Paltz, N.Y. (For the uninitiated, its pronounced SHAWN-gum, but climbers just say "the Gunks.")

Maniacally humming "Peter and the Wolf," I was plastered to a sheer chunk of quartz conglomerate about 100 feet above the boulder I'd started from, itself a nice way up from sea level. I was gripping a few lumps in the rock just over my head, forcing myself repeatedly to let go so that the free hand could slap around, searching for the next hold.

I was reminding myself not to look down. At 100 feet up, the hawks circling in their widening gyres are below, effortless and beautiful against the fall-mottled treetops. It can be a little too mesmerizing to someone battling acrophobic hysteria.

One hand got a new hold, then the other. Now the feet, which were jammed into regulation climbing shoes. These are usually brightly colored, rubber-soled vice grips that corset the feet, length and width, to make it slightly easier to turn a crack or bump into a "foothold."

Gonzo climbers wouldn't use the quotation marks. Panting, desperate, I was discovering, once again, that I was not a gonzo climber.

Famous cliffs

The Mohonk Preserve includes about two miles of world-renowned cliffs, including the chunk I was becoming intimate with. The rock, older than the Catskills but younger than the Adirondacks, was formed in the Silurian period of the Paleozoic era, some 450 million years ago, as a sea floor repeatedly flooded, laying down layer after layer of sediment. Raised by time and an under-sheath of Martinsburg shale and scoured by the Wisconsin glacier, the cliffs seem to beam an invitation, and a dare, directly into your bones.

About 40,000 people answer the Gunks' invitation annually. There are sunny summer weekends when the preserve begins turning climbers away by 10 a.m., but the crowds are thinner on these cool fall days.

There was a time, a mere 60 years ago, when there were no rock-climbing shoes, no lines for the best climbs. In that time, there were only two climbers: Hans Kraus and Fritz Weissner, European mountaineers who fell for the rock (figuratively speaking; both made it to ripe old age).

"The Gunks Guide," a handbook for climbers that outlines hundreds of vertical routes through the area's four main cliff faces, says it was in 1940 that Kraus pioneered the crack now known as Easy Overhang, the very climb I was hyperventilating on.

I immediately got on a first-name basis with Hans' legend, which includes having had a tutor named James Joyce and being able to recite much of Dante's "Inferno" from memory.

The big boom in climbing came maybe 20 years ago. No one can say exactly why, but that was when extreme sports for the average person, like marathons, were starting to take off. It's also when proteges of Kraus and Weissner started opening their own climbing businesses. Around the same time, rock climbing took off in the Gunks; in Boulder, Colo.; and in Yosemite. In fact, the scale used for most rock climbs, which runs from the easiest and safest ascent of 5.0 to the toughest and most dangerous at 5.13, is called the Yosemite Decimal System.

Easy definition

Easy O is just a 5.2 ("a very exciting beginner climb," as "The Gunks Guide" understated it). As I wormed my way higher and higher up the rock face, the grade meant less and less, and my fear meant more and more. And I wasn't even leading; it was up to my friend, Jed, to go first and to place "protection" -- little contraptions like reversible toggle bolts, into which he clipped the climbing rope. If he fell, I was supposed to pinion the rope; there's a whole technology for this. That would keep him from plummeting into disaster. But even if I reacted instantly, he would fall twice the distance he'd gone from the last protection.

It's much easier for followers. Because all the protection is in place, if the leader reacts instantly, the fall might be only a few feet.

Glen Hoagland, the director of the Mohonk Preserve, puts it succinctly: "We're concerned that people will think that because a lot of people do it, it's inherently safe. It's not."

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