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Who were the notorious Vulgarians?










Charter Vulgarian Dick Williams makes the first
nude ascent of Shockley's Ceiling, in 1964.
His buddies took off with his clothes so his descent was also a first.


The History
Rock climbing among the Shawangunk Mountains dates back to 1935 when Fritz Wiessner, a German immigrant and accomplished mountaineer, established the first rock-climbing route. Called "Old Route," it is located at Millbrook, the tallest, most remote, southernmost cliff of the Shawangunk Ridge. Not long after, Wiessner ventured to the northern region of the cliffs and established several additional classic routes, including "Lakeview" on Skytop. One of the most instantly recognizable symbols of the Shawangunks, Skytop juts above skyline, its signature profile cliffs with the stone tower on top boldly stands out against the horizon. Currently, it is illegal to climb on Skytop.

Wiessner, along with frequent climbing partner Hans Kraus, focused on climbing the Trapps and the Near Trapps, the two central cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge. Named for the Dutch word for steps, the Trapps is the most popular climbing cliff today. It is the longest of the Gunks' cliffs, varying in height from 30 to 250 feet along its length. Together, the Trapps and Near Trapps have the greatest concentration of climbing routes at the Gunks; they are also the most accessible of the cliffs.

In 1941, Wiessner and Krauss were the first to climb "High Exposure" in the Trapps. Today, this route is considered by many to be the single best rock climbing route in the world for its level of difficulty. Because of this awesome reputation, and its incredible photogenic character, this classic usually makes its way onto almost every list of "must-do" routes for visiting climbers. While Wiessner and Kraus left an indelible mark in the annals of early Shawangunk climbing history, the Appalachian Mountain Club became the dominant climbing force in the 1950s. Next came the Vulgarians, who entered the scene in 1958. A controversial group of climbers, most of the Vulgarians were college students from New York City. They developed a notorious reputation for wild stunts on the cliffs, including climbing in the nude.

Following the Vulgarians, climbing at the Gunks continued to progress. Improved climbing equipment and ever-increasing standards resulted in a proliferation of new routes, many of them among the hardest in the world at the time. As such, the Gunks' reputation spread, and by the 1980s the Gunks were firmly established as a world-renowned climbing destination.

The Gunks Today
In the early years, access to the Gunks' cliffs wasn't a problem-the cliffs were there, and people climbed them. Today, however, the Shawangunk Ridge is a conglomeration of privately and publicly held lands, each with different rules and regulations governing climbers' rights and privileges to embark on a journey into the vertical world.

Access aside, ask any climber and they'll tell you that the centerpiece and crown jewel of Shawangunks rock climbing today is the Mohonk Preserve. Recently named one of "The Best City Escapes" by Outside magazine, it is New York State's largest privately funded nature preserve. More than 6,400 acres of dramatic mountain ridge play host to outdoor and nature enthusiasts alike-25 miles of carriage roads and 31 miles of hiking trails lie within the preserve's borders, along with the Trapps and Near Trapps cliffs. Over 100,000 people visit the area each year to hike, bicycle, cross-country ski, enjoy the natural surroundings, and, of course, rock climb. In fact, nearly half of the preserve's members are climbers, who account for more than 40,000 visits a year.

Peter Bronski is a freelance writer and native of New York State. He works as an ecologist when he's not busy hanging from a cliff.

Richard Williams:
One of the founding members of the Vulgarians, a group of climbers that went against the establishment at the Shawangunks in the early 1960s. Decided that climbers did not need to be licensed and qualify to climb routes, and climbed hundreds of first ascents of high difficulty at the Gunks. He was also the author of the first definitive guidebook covering the Gunks. A great climber and contributor to the history of climbing in the Shawangunks.

Copyright 1996 by Smithsonian Magazine. All rights reserved.




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