Children are natural rock climbers; they take to it like squirrels to tree tops. In an ever more-complicated world, climbing holds clear and simple truths about friendship, trust, discipline, and the natural world. Fortunately, for those of us who live in and visit the Hudson Valley, the steep white cliffs of the Shawangunks are one of the finest climbing venues in America. And each year, hundreds of kids are introduced to climbing in the “Gunks,” often beginning lifelong relationships with the sport, this place, and like-minded friends.
Climbing requires flexibility, strength, and agility. It is vigorous and well-rounded like virtually no other activity. In a progressively more sedentary world where more time is spent watching than doing, climbing stands out boldly against a backdrop of LED screens and burgeoning body mass indexes. But kids that climb outdoors fill the day; they develop coordination, strength, and endurance, as well as spatial awareness akin to a gymnast’s. The all-around fitness and balance that climbing fosters is invaluable.
Concentration and focus are integral to climbing. From learning knots and rope techniques to figuring out how to move through a puzzling array of rock features, climbing is vigorous exercise for the mind. I witness this repeatedly when I take kids climbing. At home we have a running joke about who has a longer attention span, my fourteen-year-old son or our family’s blue heeler.
My dog typically wins because when she chases a squirrel up a tree, she sits perfectly still, staring up as if trying to will the critter down to play. However, when we climb, my son wins; he is 100 percent focused. On top of the challenges of the actual climbing, deciphering information about the climbing area itself is often quite challenging. Climbing areas typically have intricate histories, dizzying trail networks, and complicated features that make getting to the climbs themselves an exercise in mental acuity. As a result, kids that climb are working their minds every bit as hard as they are their muscles.
Even more, climbing encourages kids to authentically engage and interact with others in ways that they may not otherwise do. With the proliferation of electronic communication, face-to-face dialogue and the skills it requires appear to be waning. The children of this digital age, one might argue, are separated from one another in ever greater ways, for opportunities for direct interaction have been replaced by phone, texting, and email. But climbing requires an incredibly high level of trust and personal engagement. The obvious risks are managed through mastery of techniques and equipment that have been evolving for over a hundred years and hinge on trust and clear communication. And the commitment that climbing requires fosters a level of support for one another that mainstream sports often lack.
Kids are hungry for experiences, for things outside normal. Not many things are more thrilling than clawing your way up a sheer stone face and then dangling from a rope as your partner lowers you back to the ground. Add the environment itself—the forest and trails, the gliding falcons and vultures, scurrying lizards, the drum of the woodpecker—and suddenly video games and Netflix are all but forgotten and lively minds are onto new paths. Most instructors in the Shawangunks also take full advantage of the opportunity to teach kids about outdoor ethics and Leave No Trace principles, with the intent of fostering respect for the places where we play and the creatures that live there.
The Peterskill area of Minnewaska State Park is one of the finest local climbing spots with challenges for all levels of experience and fitness. The cliff line is about a mile long with massive boulders, rock pinnacles, and caves along its base. Exploring this area is an adventure in itself! The rock is also typical of the quartz conglomerate outcrops found throughout the Gunks. Peterskill is a particularly good place for first-time climbers and kids, with cliffs between thirty and seventy feet tall. Beginners can often feel overwhelmed by taller, more exposed cliffs, and the close-in nature of the forest allows for a less exposed, more comfortable experience. The Trapps area of the Mohonk Preserve can also be a great spot for beginners with many excellent shorter routes, as well as the advantage of having climbs over two hundred feet tall for more ambitious climbers.
While rock climbing is certainly a game for all ages, the approach taken with grade-school children versus teenagers is very different. Younger participants must often be eased into the experience at a very gradual pace while teenagers are typically eager to know “how it all works.” They also often want to know more of the intricate details behind what it takes to become independent climbers.
Opportunities for professional climbing instruction in the Shawangunks abound with multiple guide services offering private and small group experiences. Most guides in the Gunks are trained and certified by the American Mountain Guides Association, the only internationally recognized training organization in the country. AMGA training includes strategies for teaching and managing risks for all age groups. Alpine Endeavors offers deeply discounted bookings for parents looking to introduce a child to climbing in a more intimate setting. There are also a variety of summer camps provided through Frost Valley YMCA or New Paltz’s indoor climbing gym, The Inner Wall, offering an extensive climbing camp schedule that incorporates both indoor and outdoor climbing. Rock & Snow in New Paltz is also a great source of information about rock climbing in the Gunks.
Joe Vitti is a full-time rock and ice climbing guide with Alpine Endeavors. He lives with his family in High Falls and leads trips here in the Hudson Valley, as well as climbing areas throughout the United States.