An Adventure in the Shawangunks- my first Trad Lead!

“Do you want to try leading?” Eric asked.

We were trad climbing up in the Shawangunks — multipitch climbing paradise of New York. It was my second time in the Shawangunks, and about to be my first time leading trad. I stared up at Bloody Mary, a 5.8 that I was ready to ascend. My dad checked my figure eight, and Uncle Dave clipped some of his vintage cams and quick draws onto my gear rack. My Uncle Dave has been climbing so long his carabiners say Chouinard. 

Climbing my first Trad lead in the Shawangunks. Bloody Mary 5’8. Tips for beginners to have a successful first Trad Lead!

This December my family of five began our journey south in our skoolie (converted school bus) that we call Basecamp. One of our first stops that we were all looking forward to was the Shawangunks — climbing mecca of the east. We were meeting my dad's childhood friend Eric, and his family, as well as my Great Uncle Dave — a climbing legend. This was going to be a climbing adventure to be remembered. 

Basecamp pulled into the driveway of a log cabin where we were meeting up with Eric, Marla (his wife), and their kids, Zion (five), Ayela (ten), and Nitza (three). Their friend’s cabin is only a twenty minute drive from the never ending granite walls of the Shawangunks.

This is going to be my second time climbing in the Shawangunk Mountains, but Eric and my dad have scaled hundreds of routes in The Gunks since the eighty’s, and my uncle Dave has been climbing in the Gunks since before Alex Honnald was born. 

That night my mom, dad, twelve year old brother Cove, eight year old brother Zev, and I were all in the bunks of our bus Base Camp dreaming about our climbing trip the next day. 

I have been so fortunate to be able to visit so many famous climbing destinations across the US — from the monstrous cliffs of Yosemite, to the bouldering heaven at Hueco Tanks State Park. I know that I need to pack my climbing shoes and a crash pad whenever there’s a road trip planned…

It was frigid out when we awoke, and the temperature had dropped to thirty three while we were sleeping. My mom and I got up to head into the cabin. My dad was already at work making the brew. The first priority is always my Mom's morning coffee. 

Marla had a big pot of hot oatmeal cooking for breakfast. We all ate and began packing up our climbing gear. My dad grabbed our rope, and quickdraws. My brothers and I clipped our climbing shoes to our backpacks. We were ready for a climbing day in Shawangunks. 

We pulled into the Shawangunk visitor center parking lot. The Gunks is one of the oldest climbing areas in the country. The Shawngunks are famous for amazing multi-pitch trad climbs of all levels of difficulty. Eric, Marla, and their crew were already waiting for us, getting their climbing gear ready for action. 

We started hiking up the “Stairmaster,” what felt like miles of granite stairs leading up to the best climbing spots in TheTrapps. Eric knew the perfect climbing area where there was a concentrated selection of famous routes. 

My dad recounted one of his most memorable experiences in the Shawangunks. “For Uncle Dave’s fiftieth birthday, Eric, my dad, Uncle Dave, and I went hiking up the backside of Millbrook, a seven mile hike round trip. Millbrook Mountain has the highest cliffs in Shawangunks, and we camped out at the summit, so that Uncle Dave could wake up to a spectacular sunrise on his birthday morning.”

As we were getting set up on Drunkard a classic two pitch trad 5.8, Great Uncle Dave came hiking up the trail wearing his signature red shirt to make sure he’s noticeable. 

My Great Uncle Dave is a seventy-seven year old climber and alpinist. He can still do technical rock climbing. They call him "The Legend'' in the Shawangunk Mountains because he is so quick and agile, and has continued to lead climb technical routes into his golden years. 

After I topped out on the first climb I started bouldering on a fun traverse I had discovered. That’s when Eric asked me, “Hey, do you want to lead Bloody Mary a vertical, single-pitch 5.8?”

I have led plenty of bolted routes, plenty of 5.9s, and 5.10s, but this was going to be my first time leading a trad route.

Eric had already placed three pieces of gear on his ascent, so we had something we knew was solidly placed. Eric loaded me up with a rack of nuts, and a couple of cams. Uncle Dave gave me some quick draws to use.

I started up Bloody Mary, using the finger crack to work my way up to a small ledge where I stopped to place a nut. Getting gear off the rack is challenging, and I was getting worn out trying to find a nut that would fit properly in the small crack. Finally I found a nut that was the right size and I gave it a tug. It held strong. With Eric as my belayer giving helpful tips, I reached the anchors, my first trad lead under my belt! 

8 Tips for a Successful first Trad Lead:

  1. Test out your gear before you leave the ground. Experiment with placing gear in cracks before take off. Have an experienced climber on the ground with you, critiquing your placements. 

  1. Start with a climb you’re comfortable on. Even if your an experienced 5.9 climber, start off with 5.4. 

  1. I would definitely recommend having an expert climber lead the route first, placing a few pieces of gear that will be left in place. That way you have something you know you can trust already placed.

  1. Have a seasoned climber as your belayer. They can give you helpful advice as you work your way up, and catch your butt if things go south….

  1. climb in a familiar area and on a familiar climb. Make sure you are climbing a route you have topped out on before.

  1. Eric would Recommend cleaning a few climbs before you start leading, and examine how the leader placed gear. 

  1. Ask lots of questions. Talk to an experienced trad climber before you attempt your first lead. They can give you valuable insight on proper placements, and teach you about the mistakes they made learning to lead. 

  1. Try placing trad gear while on top rope that way you can get the feel of leading trad without the risk.


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