Mountain Climbing

Russ Clune and The Shawangunk Ridge: A Climber’s Odyssey

Ossie Khan

14th May 2024 3 min read
Russ Clune and The Shawangunk Ridge: A Climber's Odyssey

“The bright-white cliffs stretched north and south of our aerie. The crags were endless! This ridge of immaculate stone went on for miles. I’d found it. This was my place, my cathedral, my home. I knew right then that I would live here.”

– Russ Clune, author of The Lifer, on discovering the Shawangunk Ridge as a young aspiring rock climber in the mid-1970s

We don’t choose where we’re born, but if we’re lucky, we find a place that feels like home—a place where each day unveils new discoveries, second chances, and sunsets that ease the soul. For Russ Clune, a young college student at the University of Vermont (UVM), the Shawangunk Ridge called to him like no other place, shaping his life and legacy in ways he never anticipated.

A Journey of Discovery
Clune grew up in Mamaroneck, a suburb of New York City where manicured golf courses and landscaped parks were the closest he got to nature. He felt out of place, craving the woods, the wild, and the rugged mountains he read about. This yearning led him to UVM, where he joined the outdoor club and discovered rock climbing. The club’s first trip to the Gunks, a climber’s paradise in New Paltz, New York, sealed his fate.

Clune stumbled upon rock climbing during a transformative era in the sport. In the mid-to-late 1970s, climbing was a niche activity for vagabonds and rebels who preferred bivy sacks on cliff ledges over conventional homes. They spent their days defying gravity, using tiny handholds and fissures to scale vertical cliffs. The Gunks, with its challenging free climbs and vibrant climbing community, became Clune’s second home.

The Climbing Revolution
The Shawangunks were one of three major climbing hubs in the US, alongside Boulder, Colorado, and Yosemite in California. Clune believed the Gunks had the toughest free climbs. “Climbs are not measured by how long they are, but how difficult they are,” Clune told Hudson Valley One.

The Gunks climber community was at the forefront of the purist revolution, eschewing bolts and pitons in favor of natural ascents. “Free climbing means that you climb from the bottom to the top of a route using just your body and the natural features of the rock to ascend,” Clune explained. Protection and ropes were for safety, not assistance. Climbers used softer aluminum wedges to protect the cliffs from damage, preserving their natural beauty.

Legendary Climbs and Climbers
The Gunks hosted some of the most challenging climbs of the era, like Supercrack, first ascended by Steve Wunsch in 1974. This overhanging fissure near the Skytop Tower at Mohonk Mountain House was considered one of the hardest single-pitch climbs in the world. Clune honed his skills in this crucible, preparing for adventures out west and abroad.

Teaming up with legendary climbers like Lynn Hill and Jeff “Bones” Gruenberg, Clune carved his name into climbing history. Together, they free-climbed the world’s first 5.13 route, Vandals, at Sky Top. Clune’s daring free-solo ascent of Supercrack remains unmatched to this day.

A Life of Adventure
Clune’s passion for rock climbing took him around the world. He competed in the first world climbing competition in Italy, explored climbing cultures in Czechoslovakia and Japan, and documented his adventures in various regions. His memoir, The Lifer, captures these experiences, blending adventure with personal growth and historical insight.

The book is more than a climbing memoir; it’s a testament to the significance of the Gunks in climbing history. “It’s a super-important place, historically,” Clune said. “At one time it had the hardest climbs in the US, if not the entire world. The level of difficulty the Gunks have is something that kept me here, and kept me and other climbers coming back. Those cliffs never stopped fascinating us.”

The Legacy Continues
Clune’s journey from the 1970s to today highlights the rapid evolution of climbing, from free climbing to sport climbing and climbing competitions. His friendships with icons like Lynn Hill, who shattered gender barriers in the sport, and his role in pioneering companies like Black Diamond Equipment underscore his impact on the climbing world.

Working with Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and Chouinard Equipment, Clune helped shape the future of climbing gear. His work allowed him to climb with clients, merging passion with profession. “You couldn’t really sell climbing equipment if you didn’t know what you were talking about,” he noted.

The Lifer is a captivating read for adventurers and history buffs alike, offering a glimpse into a bygone era of climbing and the enduring allure of the Gunks. Clune’s story, etched into the memory of the rocks, invites readers to explore the wild, pursue their passions, and find their place in the world.

Locally, The Lifer is available at Rock and Snow, Inquiring Minds in New Paltz, and Blue Heron Books.

Source: https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2024/05/13/russ-clunes-memoir-the-lifer-chronicles-gunks-climbing-history/

Learn more: https://www.adventurefilm.academy/

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