charles h carver
The oft-traveled Undercliff-Overcliff loop begins at the Trapps Bridge above route 44-55 and circumvents the Trapps cliffs. Heading east, the carriageway immediately forks. The left fork introduces Overcliff Carriageway heading northeast. The right fork continues straight toward the boulder-edged triangular passage that serves as the informal gateway to the Undercliff Carriageway. Upon Undercliff, the carriageway arcs a gentle wide descent above route 44-55, past the warped strata of ancient Martinsburg shale that have eroded to undermine the aggressively tilted conglomerate cap rock above. With the loss of its footing, the conglomerate bedding has fractured and displaced massive blocks due to its own unsupported weight. The Trapps iconic cliffs were further gouged and polished into their present form through the repeated action of glaciers, but many of the vulnerable fissures and joints had developed much earlier when the rock lost its thick footing in select places. The drama that led to their exposure has provided the striking bouldering and rock climbing qualities of the metropolis we see today. Rock climbing has long ago passed Mohonk Mountain House as the expressive soul of the Gunks—equaling Sky Top and its iconic stone Tower as a recognized symbol for the entire region. Immediately after a series of twists, Undercliff Carriageway thrusts a city block with impressive walls directly off the trail as it contours above the sinuous course of route 44-55 below. Chalk-stained pitches initiate numerous climbing routes of varying difficulty up the storied city, many of them occupied during the working hours of the metropolis. The rhythm of the Uberfall neighborhood is more inspiring than SoHo was in the heyday of the modern art scene, though native artists utilize their bodies instead of brushwork to exhibit the cubist forms of their body-centered space.
A vibrant block party is spontaneously organized every weekend in this neighborhood. During the festivities, some folks sit on their front steps while others hang out at various levels up the flexible escapes— even beneath the ceilings and eaves of the multistoried structures. Beyond roofs and tiered landings overhanging upright walls, feet dangle with the flexible lines between them— imparting various degrees of tension both physically and mentally applied. Apart from the concentrated nature of these tiered dialogues, the street is relaxed, and unpretentiously social. Even so, the city’s underlying structure remains bold, handsome, and proud to be indwelled. Its inhabitants exhibit that same mix of relaxed stability as does the city’s structures, in the manner that people take on a sense of kinship and community in the style of their local environment. The air is vocal and exciting even though work is still in progress, as signaled by the chatter of hardware near the rock’s surface. Apart from those engaged in small social gatherings, many tilt their heads upwards with their attention capped by a safety helmet. Today’s fashion is function— lightly worn, supple and responsive; in the manner of today’s functional bodies. Individuals of all shapes and sizes are nonetheless welcome, because in truth, the bustle has been solicited not by an open invitation from the neighborhood’s collective occupants, but by the weighty mass of the rock itself. These city walls advertise a desire to be scaled simply by virtue of their imposing proximity. For decades, a constantly renewed community has answered that same call, even without knowledge of the historical aura that the region bears.
Would-be climbers arrive now as they had throughout the eight decades of maturity for the sport: first with exploring eyes, and then with a hand that unconsciously broadens to migrate with outstretched fingers in preparation for contact. The fingertips do not seek a languid and unconscious exploration of the rock texture— they extend from the palm already stiff in readiness for a slap. The initial urge to percussively slap the hard rock is a palpable and curious urge considering it does not arise near every hard surface. But hardness is no longer a relative concept for Shawangunk conglomerate, it is a physical bearing that works to motivate the senses for even greater contact. In short order, touch is no longer a sensory conduit for an exploring mind, it is the endpoint of a desire that is still gathering, and the starting point for the adventure to come. The body moves closer to the sheer walls so that points of contact are increased and tested, all the while looking upward as the urge broadens. Routes are explored virtually as the power of visualization seeks to project the feeling of contact onto stratified heights. Still, the destinations that are envisioned do not truly promise a better vantage; they simply arise as an excuse for the self-sufficient urge to climb. Hands and feet temporarily take hold and then return to sure footing so that the desire for contact may continue to build. And build it does. Grips are tested, strength is questioned, and the urge builds into exploratory fits and starts as the hardness begins to flow through the would-be climber, like electricity through a grounded conductor. Thus, it has begun. A new climber has been introduced to the Gunks.
Initial clumsy adventures at undisciplined climbing are never a good idea for those who will undoubtedly underestimate the challenge and overestimate their capabilities without the mature techniques, discipline, and training that have evolved as the sport’s foundation over more than eight decades. Still, however, scrambling amongst the massive blocks throughout the Gunks selects for individuals that foster a dialogue addressed to its unique topography. Such individuals begin to build their responses into their bodies and their senses.
As we move through this downtown portion of rock metropolis, with its park-like, tree lined main street, we observe diverse stages and varieties of embodied responses to that environment, even in the social chatter. What was at one time a semiconscious urge for direct contact with the rock by means of cracks, bedded layers and tiered roofs, has developed into a sharp-edged awareness of the highly technical, extremely physical, and wonderfully agile maneuvers that elite climbers routinely display as they negotiate truly impossible routes with a style and grace that is unique to their sport. Difficult routes lie next to more generous routes engaged by those who are still acquiring a basic skillset. Such diversity of experience is the shared energy in the air, as well as the neighborhood feeling that this city block projects even to the passing hiker.
After a while, however, it becomes all too clear that hanging out on the corner with this vibrant community will never appropriately deliver a glimpse of the primary experience that those who range directly upon the rock receive. It is a wholly different experience to project ourselves into the climbers— as we all do in passing, with our own schematic idea of their sensation. The vicarious imagination takes over, but it is never close to adequate. Experienced climbers deploy a body that has been polished and adapted to the rock, whereas our grasp is not adequately extended to the very ends of our extremities— regardless of our fitness level. Elite climbers are supple and dynamically adaptive, but their flexibility is girded with an isometric stamina that is hard to fathom. The grounding challenge of the sport is not our notion of muscling up to a ledge and thereby balancing ourselves with inadequate footing prior to the next move. It is, at least partially, the capacity to first enter and then stabilize a series of contorted conformations without fatigue. Even under the constant and unforgiving load of gravity, a climber’s stability remains relatively relaxed, yet never passive. From all points of contact, the tips of the fingers and a flex of the toes are capable of transmitting a firm resolve from trustworthy forearms and calves. The capacity to coil up and compress power outward from a redistributed center of gravity is as important as the ability to pull the trailing body from only one or two restricted points of contact. A climber’s trunk is rotationally flexible and pliant. Reserve strength is available above and below the shoulders so as to administer a reach that remains armed with a leveraged grip, but the torso is equally attached to the lower limbs, which collectively act more like an additional set of arms than a stable base for an upright stance.
All of these attributes are only prelude for the very elite climber. They have become the physical embodiment of a time when trust has been incorporated into the body so that it may respond without the barriers of thought. In order for trust to be so embodied, the body has first to experience repeated failure. Next, it must overcome the frustration that is opportunistically inflated by the hesitating mind. Finally, the human spirit has to be bathed in, and completely abandoned to— fear.
Autonomic fear is not merely the disarray of a fixation that bears hesitation and anxiety as its fruit, it is a threshold experience that must be overcome. A different kind of fear arises early in development for the “letting go” required to trust the equipment, the techniques, and one’s partners. But that is not the same fear that breaks through to the land of the elite. For the breakthrough kind of fear there is only one way out, and that is directly through the experience. It must first consume the individual before the individual can abandon his or herself to the leap. The leap is more than letting go— it is the capacity for a true abandonment. Abandonment of what, we might ask? Abandonment to what? We cannot say— for we have not made the leap. Theirs is a will that is ironically capable of a willful abandonment into a will-less state. We who merely pass cannot speak of such ironies— where opposites converge and logic breaks down. And so we watch. Ah, but that is precisely the magic of the Gunks! As we will discover in all of our journeys, the Shawangunks display irony and pairs of opposites in their very manifestation. It is part of their basic formula for drawing us out. They invite a whole range of interests for a diversity of eager souls. And though we currently pass through the historical training ground for some of the world’s elite rock climbers, the Gunks do not discriminate their offerings to only the select. Gifts are bestowed for all who are open and patient to their presence. An equally intense experience awaits even the novice, or even the passing hiker. For us, the feeling of elation also stacks and compresses in a deferred state until respective challenges are addressed— or fruition is found in a successful route. Along the way, our own internal topography somehow begins to align with the terrain that we physically move through in this region. And so it is that a route-addressed feeling is somehow projected to saturate the air with all of its precursor states of trepidation, frustration, internal tension and elation. All of this buzzes around the local atmosphere as we move through the first part of the Undercliff Carriageway — along with the occasional boredom and drifting attentiveness of those who sit in wait for their own dialogue with the rock. In our passage, we may not have gained admittance to experiences that we have not properly earned, but no matter where we situate, or the disposition of our physical potential, the environment still excites and begins to motivate the human soul, simply by soliciting its movement.
The historical development of Gunks climbing— concentrated early on at the prominently exposed cliffs of Millbrook Mountain and Mohonk’s Sky Top, and then increasingly here upon the Trapps and Near Trapps cliffs as the sport matured— is a story laden with intrigue and inner drama. To suggest, as we have above, that the rhythm here is more inspiring than SoHo was in the heyday of the modern art scene is not simply an embellishment, it was an historical fact for a handful of individuals that were present during key periods of the sport’s development. We tend to consider works of art to be recorded artifacts from periods of great spontaneity and inspiration, or sometimes conceptual insights— that have the power to invoke a perceptual or conceptual experience of similar intensity within us. But we often lose the richer dialogue that was originally undertaken by the artist during a gathering momentum that was not simply poured out into the work as a culminating fruition or cathartic expression, but was instead, an ongoing and living dialogue with the work itself.
Climbing was, and still is, like art and music, a dialogue that is at once the active push outward of one’s will while at the same time a deep and ongoing receptivity to what has already been applied. For the artist, every stroke applies itself in relation to the whole, and suggests, thereby, what requires modulation moving forward. Reaching the top is not a culminating experience that is cut off from the journey. Like music, even the silent spaces that anticipate the next movement and build up emotional tension prior to their release are an integral part of the general movement.
In this form of art, however, the entire body is the extended brush or supple ear of the artist. It is the body that compresses and stacks impulses that have been freed up for coherent organization in the overall movement sequence, because the body has already incorporated the spontaneous capacity for execution of the elemental units. These are the exquisite notes of the sport. The notes stack and compress in the manner that music builds up emotional tension precisely because the rock does not yield or unveil its solutions easily. Repeated failure and protected falls introduce themselves as the climber’s first and frequent companion, but they also foster a polished will for select individuals. They are the direct feedback in the creative dialogue. We who were not present during the formative years of that bold dialogue cannot apprehend the pressures that squeezed forth today’s routes and tales from those bold and adventurous souls who completed the first journeys upon the rock. The first decades brought open-ended journeys that were blanketed with a palpable horizon of adventure and danger. Death was only a miscalculation away. A handfull of pioneers penetrated the unknown horizons of human potentiality as courage lead every climb. Over time, as elsewhere in the world, the adventure slowly transitioned toward the development of a full-fledged sport. In the process, a shift of emphasis occurred from pure adventure to technical performance— as is also the case for every sport. The discipline has now matured and developed airtight techniques, maneuvers, gear, and ‘algorithmic’ sequences to mechanically conquer a given route, but in so doing, it has been suggested that it is now increasingly vulnerable to the removal of context that rating systems inevitably foster. The sport has transformed.
As we continue our journey upon Undercliff Carriageway, our eastward trajectory rounds to a generally northeast path in the direction of Sky Top ridge at Mohonk, following the contour of the long Trapps cliff base. Throughout the turn to the north, the huge walls begin to retreat behind a talus field of debris that has recently ended its massive landslide just in time for the carriageway to sweep along, open and inviting. Opportunistic saplings at one time found refuge amongst the cracks in the ceremoniously dropped boulders, and have since grown to gnarly-wooded maturity amongst a like-minded forest of hardy species. There, they often appear as guardians giving up their back sides to the massive crunch pressing in from behind so that we may walk freely upon the flat open surface of the carriageway. It is quite striking how it feels as though many of these small trees have miraculously halted the rapidly spinning edges of cubical boulders thrashing down the radical slope with great abandonment and thunderous protest. They were, after all, abandoned. But now, the quiet presence of the settled boulders does little to assist our understanding of the sublime power exhibited by mile-high glaciers dismembering large sections of previously fractured rock from the main body of the ridge. Much of the tree growth is successional, not only to the barren landscape of the immediate post-glacial period— a mere 10,000 years ago— but also to the colonial ethic of industry that was imposed on the region to subsequently strip it bare. Nature thrives in the gap nonetheless. Even without this later influence from the axe, natural processes repeatedly stripped clean this bold landscape, only to weave vegetative growth amongst the crisp forms that are occasionally and selectively exposed.
As we move on, the sheared conglomerate body of the ridge rises even higher and more vertical, forming a white walled backstop that can be glimpsed through the piles of talus debris, with their intervening garments made of hardy trees and shrubs. In a couple of select places, large steps that were constructed out of fallen blocks raise stairs directly off the carriageway, like a secret entrance to a monolith. By virtue of their blended nature, we forget that these steps have been painstakingly arranged and maintained for the sport’s ever renewed population of enthusiasts. The number of individual climbing routes throughout the Gunks is said to number well over 1,000— a great portion of which lie upon the body of The Trapps. From the carriageway, gaps through the boulders and vegetation reveal vertically striated walls of glistening rock. Vertical joints displace stacked pillars with intervening crevices between the polished, striated walls. Gunks climbing had eventually refined the transition from mountain climbing as part of a more general skillset for mountaineering into the technical sport of rock climbing and bouldering— each of which honed in on the intense style of negotiating a magnificent diversity of climbing maneuvers. As the carriageway migrates to create a little distance from the cliffs, the ridge rises and steps back in the form a single mountainous presence upon which the climbers appear smaller— thus taking us back to the early days when expedition was still the measure of the activity.
Occasionally, amongst the stacked and sculptured trail side formations— the conglomerate appears metallic gray, with a Lascaux style red-brown bleeding of patterns upon the base hue. Although the sheared cliff begins to take on the Gunks’ classic bone white color from a distance, the formations of broken boulders create a series of Paleolithic looking dwellings right off the main carriageway. It is a curious thing, in fact, how Paleolithic peoples built their dwellings right off our main roads and trails. Oh, but wait! That must be, like the guardian trees, another illusion of time. Our uncritical bodies take such notions seriously, nonetheless, until we take note that the carriageway itself lays out its broad level surface with comfortable stability precisely at the steepest rise of the talus debris off the ridge. To our left, we peer through a steep incline of piled boulders and a scrubby forest to the cliffs beyond. To our right we look down amidst the treetops of a well-established forest. The carriageway— with its shadow play and light display of filtered sunlight— was conceived and built through great labor and tenacity right at the point of steep transition. And though that may be obvious to the discursive mind, it is the successful balance that has been achieved between the labor of men and the processes of nature that is reflected in the fact that it requires a secondary thought— a true afterthought— to consider the carriageway not as originally part of the topography itself, but as an artificial addition. No modern road, and not many an old mining road is received at the level of the pre-reflective senses to be an authentic feature of the native landscape. Instead, they are understood to be feats of engineering and signs of commerce. But here it is different. As one walks amongst this extensive network of carriageways, the feeling is that of a long-standing, almost geological dialogue with the land.
As it situates comfortably to run parallel to The Trapps ridge line for over two miles, the Undercliff Carriageway continues to take advantage of its preferential hands-off status amongst the cliff talus. Between the treetops to the right, intermittent views of the Wallkill Valley disclose the village of New Paltz and the rolling Marlboro hills in the distance across the plane. The consistent wall of The Trapps face remains on the left, with many access points emerging off the carriageway. Here, the cliffs show their characteristic layering and multi-roofed structure. Viewed from below, a number of layers slide their stacked roofing underneath one another in an arched struggle to overhang the conglomerate bedding, much like leaves fanning out to receive better light amidst the competitive eagerness of their brethren. It is here that we will linger in the last half of the Philosopher’s Stone essay to consider the great creation story of this layered mass. First, however, we must journey through a different kind of layering— that of dawning consciousness itself. We will return to this outcrop after entering the Undercliff-Overcliff loop from Overcliff Carriageway at first light.
C.H.Carver from Philosopher's Stone
The links below access the online adapted version of the book and do not correspond to the order published in the physical booklet. Only a few master copies of the book remain (published 2018), so this set constitutes the original impetus of the work in a different order. In the physical book, the essay "Intimate Otherness
" (below) introduced the Gunks through Mohonk Mountain House, the historical introductory anchor to the region. Don't forget to check out related Gunks landscapes (on istockphoto
by Getty Images).
a phenomenological essay series