New Paltz climbing guru Rich Gottlieb philosophizes about preserving our local landscape and way of life

(Lauren Thomas)

For more than four decades, Rock & Snow in New Paltz has been home base camp for outdoor enthusiasts, especially those drawn by the gravitational pull of the Gunks. The store and its Rock & Snow Consignment Annex are owned by Rich Gottlieb, and he and his staff are knowledgeable and passionate about rock climbing, bouldering, hiking, skiing, cross-country skiing, backpacking, camping, snowshoeing, running and the Great Outdoors; some even serve as trail guides in their free time. Since its founding in April 1970, Rock & Snow has been the go-to place for rentals and purchase of well-designed equipment, clothing and gear to help people safely enjoy the beauties and demands of being in nature.

Gottlieb didn’t intend to be a retailer though. He grew up in Queens and was perhaps encouraged to pursue an artistic path by his father – the famous writer/photographer, William Gottlieb, who gained renown for his photos of Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and countless other Golden Age musicians and personalities.

“I started climbing when I was 21 while attending an art school in Georgia, and it became a bit of a focus,” Gottlieb says. “When I came to SUNY-New Paltz for graduate school, it was partly because of climbing. On a lark, I took a part-time job at Rock & Snow.” He eventually left art behind to be the store’s manager and, in 1990 following a fire that destroyed the building, became a full partner with then-owner and local climbing pioneer Dick Williams. A new and larger store opened in its present location in 1993, and seven years later, Gottlieb bought the business from Williams. “Then it became more my life.”

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“Art is hard – it’s hand-to-mouth, and you often have to kiss up to a certain individual to survive – but with retail, you have to be nice to everybody. Retail made me kinder and more open,” he says. “I’m good at communicating, and I can help in my own small way. Not everyone can be a teacher, doctor or lawyer, but we can all still help.”

When asked about a typical day at the store, Gottlieb tells a story about a climber who was visiting the Gunks from Hungary. His car was in the parking lot with a dead battery and – long story short – Gottlieb drove him to Advanced Auto so that he could purchase a new one. He also lent him tools from Rock & Snow to put it in. “I didn’t tell him to call a cab company. Making friends: That’s my job here,” says Gottlieb. “I try to keep work and play not separated, and I’ll go away sometimes for a week or so because we have a great staff here. Sunday is my family day, and sometimes I’ll take a weekday off to go climbing. When we took my daughter to New Hampshire to look at colleges, I took a little time to go climbing and hiking at Mount Washington.”

Today, Rock & Snow may be the oldest independent store in the country that is focused on climbing, Gottlieb suggests, adding that as the store approaches its 50th anniversary, few independent outdoor stores remain.

“The world is always changing, and we’ve got to be who we’ve always been in these new environments,” says Gottlieb. “When I started here, we had a brass cash register. We had to figure out change. We had to push the keys, hard, to ring up a sale. Since then, hiking boots have become almost fashion – pseudo- versus real hiking boots – and I sort of blame the North Face. We dropped them many years ago. Once products that were used for a special purpose become commoditized, proving their worth and value can be a challenge and, says Gottlieb, “Pandora’s Box is open. We’ve got teachers teaching to the test, doctors who can’t spend more than ten minutes with a patient…it reminds me of that line in The Elephant Man: ‘I’m not an animal, I’m a human being.’ That’s the good fight: to remain a human being through all these changes.”

The number of Gunks cliffs open to climbing has remained fairly steady over the years, but nowadays there are people who are gym-climbers who never climb outdoors. There was once a county in England renowned for its corduroy, and another known for its cashmere. Now, Gottlieb says, “The most valuable thing is the name of the company, not where the product is made, its factory, its people, the heritage of the people who made it. Knockoff products are made in China and, to survive, we almost de-emphasize how fast the train is running. We adapt.”

He says that New Paltz has always been fortunate to be surrounded by beauty that is both protected and accessible, but today’s prevalent online interactions are troubling because of the social consequences of isolation. “People who live here, hike here, cross-country ski here all thrive when there’s proper interaction. Sharing experiences, climbing, life, is beautiful and serious. You have to be properly prepared and get the right advice from experienced people. There’s value to that.”

“When I try to integrate the ideas I have about community, climbing, commerce and art, I am struck that the unifying theme behind it all is struggle,” Gottlieb continues. Citing the visible and invisible wars and struggles being fought on multiple levels between nations and within communities that are trying to maintain themselves, as well as the fight not to succumb to corporate homogenization or to betray our own self-interests, people are challenged on every level, it seems. “Ultimately, until one is close to, or is taken by, death, we are faced with choices. How do we balance our own needs with the needs of others? If we are to suffer a resounding defeat, it is because we stop thinking beyond our own needs altogether and respond docilely to outside forces, or sadly, never experience and understand the simple beauty of being helpful to others. There is perceived beauty and ugliness in this world, and I understand that everyone’s ideals are not always the same. There will never be the ability to win all hearts and minds, and there is worthiness in both the individual and the collective,” he says. “It is within these concepts that the struggles ensue.”

And, though there are certain dangers even on an easy hike outdoors, scaling a mountain such as Everest is a different beast from rock climbing in the Gunks. In the mountains, inherent risks such as avalanches, starvation and freezing mean that people don’t necessarily have to make a mistake to die. With rock climbing, he says, 999 times out of 1,000 you have to make an error.

“Climbing is not something it’s good to do once a month,” he says. “You have to be taken by it to build strength, balance and level of confidence. And your level of confidence has to be less than your level of strength. You want less confidence and more strength. Climbing grows on you, and it’s a wonderful thing. It emulates the struggles I’ve been talking about.”

Gottlieb says, “In war, you train to be able to handle it all, and sometimes I’ve thought about climbing as a bit of a skirmish – but not one you inflict on another person. A little bit of battle to vanquish fear – of failure, for instance, not heights – and a lot of teamwork make climbing exciting and fun and a way to make good friends. And it’s a great way to travel, too. I’ve climbed in Turkey, Greece, England, Spain, California, North Carolina, South Dakota, New Mexico, Wyoming…you know, when I was a kid, there was a commercial on TV [with the theme song] ‘See the USA, in a Chevrolet.’ If you’re in the Yosemite Valley, you open up the trunk, grab the packs and hope to be back to the car within three to four hours of when you hoped you would be back. It all takes risks, and acknowledging and reveling in them is part of the game. You go outside, you get wet or cold, find a place to put on a dry shirt in four-degree weather and you have renewed energy. These are very visceral experiences – and the sense of dread or accomplishment is there. For some, accomplishment means getting a raise or not being fired; but in climbing, you’re looking for the cheap highs.”

“My advice, as a retailer, is to tell people to do what they want to do. Climbing is not a trophy hunt. Don’t wait to buy $700 boots or the perfect crampons. Keep doing it, and along the way you’ll accumulate what you need. The pleasures of buying things are secondary to the experience. It’s all about being outside and being with friends and family.”

 

Doing good while doing business: local power

Just before Christmas, Gottlieb had a last-minute epiphany to support three local charitable organizations that are close to his heart: Family of New Paltz, Scenic Hudson and the Wallkill Valley Land Trust. He held an in-store benefit and pledged to donate 25 per cent of the day’s proceeds to the organizations. He was inspired by Patagonia, an environmentally conscious B corporation that is on the forefront of sustainability in outdoor clothing and gear: Patagonia donated 100 per cent of its retail and online sales on Black Friday in November and raised ten million dollars to support environmental causes.

“As a company, they repair, recycle, use organic cotton and recycled polyester and are now even recycling down from pillows, so things won’t end up in a landfill. They’re very progressive,” says Gottlieb, adding that Patagonia had previously parked its wagon at the store to offer free repairs on any outdoor gear.

On Christmas Eve, Gottlieb donated 25 per cent of the day’s receipts, amounting to a $756 check to each of the groups in recognition of what he called “the power of community. I think this is an important subject, not because it is Rock & Snow, but because it is an example of what the often-empty words – local and community – have the potential to do and thus mean. If we are to hold our own against impersonal online social and shopping networks, a big-box store and a world that includes both the struggling and the extremely rich, then we need to act. It may appear self-serving and may also appear to be rather petty, but I can think of no better way to move the needle than by becoming aware of the power we possess as a community. Human interaction is action.”

Rock & Snow, 44 Main Street/Rock & Snow Consignment Store Annex, 28 Main Street, New Paltz, Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday, 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; (845) 255-1311, www.rockandsnow.com/store.

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