To the casual observer, mountain climbing looks like an arduous activity. It certainly can be that, says Eric Waldron, manager of the Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) climbing school in Gardiner, “but it can also be as mellow as just hiking uphill. That’s climbing, too. I think for most people, what goes through their head when they think of rock climbing is something like the movie ‘Cliffhanger,’ or the highlight reel with the extreme stuff, but there are all types of climbing that can be done by anybody. It’s a very interesting and fun and cool activity for a wide variety of physical body types. If you can walk up a flight of stairs, you’ll do just fine.”
The EMS climbing school and guide service on Route 44/55 is accredited by the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). The clientele ranges from the absolute beginner having a first-time experience to expert climbers seeking credentials to become a climbing instructor or guide themselves.
The school is an educational arm of the Eastern Mountain Sports retailer that has stores throughout the Northeast. “We’re here to teach folks how to use the things they purchase in our retail stores,” says Waldron. The company has several other sports schools in locations that include Lake Placid, the Boston area and Rhode Island, with each offering outdoors training in sports that are prevalent in each area. The Gardiner location, right at the base of the Gunks, focuses on climbing and mountaineering, of course, with classes for all ages and abilities that help people learn to navigate any type of elevated hiking or climbing in the area.
There is a small gear shop at the site, but it’s primarily there to service the people who sign up for classes. There are ten or so instructors, all of whom are certified AMGA climbing guides and avid climbers themselves, including Waldron, who moved to the New Paltz area from Vermont specifically for the job here back in 2002. “I never envisioned back then it would turn out to be so many years,” he says, “but it’s a fun job and a great place. I love it here.”
The options available at the school for people who want to take up rock climbing or improve their current skills are as varied as the type of person who comes in the door. There is a lot of repeat business, according to Waldron, which includes both locals and daytrippers or weekenders up from the city. They cater to school groups, Boy Scouts, businesses and camps as much as to individuals, small groups of friends or families seeking customized adventures. The school offers group climbs for two or more people, with the price based on the number of people participating, and there is one-on-one training.
There is a lot of assessment that needs to go on when people first call about classes, says Waldron, in which they seek to determine what people’s goals and expectations are. The customized trips start with a conversation along the lines of “What would you like to do and when would you like to do it,” he says, noting that from there, it’s a personalized experience. Others are more interested in the structured courses that progress from “rock climbing 101” to “rock climbing 102” and upward, building skills in a progressive way.
The activities in summer happen primarily on the Gunks in the Mohonk Preserve or in Peter’s Kill in Minnewaska State Park. In winter it all shifts to the Catskills. The EMS school offers snowshoe hikes, too, but they’re not the most popular event locally, says Waldron, with most people interested in climbing adventures. Adaptive programs are also offered for adventurers with disabilities.
All of the technical gear one needs — crampons, mountaineering boots, harnesses, ice axes and ropes — is provided in the classes, along with a very specific list of clothing and supplies the climbing student is responsible for. “We’ll walk you through what you need, and try to make it easy to get yourself prepared. In the winter, a big part of the day is being out in the elements and knowing how to be out there, so we’ll tell you what you need to wear and what kind of food and water you need to bring and how to store it.”
There is no age minimum for climbing excursions. The school serves a lot of scouting troops and offers a number of family programs, with the youngest participant the school ever encountered just three years old. “We do have tiny shoes and full body harnesses that can accommodate toddlers,” Waldron notes, but it is required that any climber fits into the required gear available on the market. And group classes are for age 16 and up, because the energy level of younger kids and adults in a combined group is going to be different.
Most of the time, groups are taken out with a maximum of four participants to each guide. Sometimes, when the activity is less strenuous and in a controlled situation — for example, when they set up ropes and a lot of people climb up and down in a restricted space — the ratio can go up to six participants per guide. “Those requirements are regulations for the land we work on,” Waldron says, “as well as our policy.”
Going back to the notion that rock climbing doesn’t have to be an extreme activity, Waldron says that learning mountaineering skills can be just the thing a person who considers themselves “only a hiker” needs to enhance their outdoor experiences. “You can get a section of terrain when hiking that looks a little scary, and the person thinks, ‘I don’t want to go through that.’ And that’s kind of where we start. We can teach you how to get through that zone with an additional piece of equipment, maybe a rope that you can carry with you. Or there’s snow on a rock, and we can show you how to put crampons on at that point, and sidestep through a snowy pass. We’re really not very far from someone who’s just walking, at that point.”
Eastern Mountain Sports School is located at 3124 Route 44/55 in Gardiner. Call (845) 255-3280 or visit http://www.emsoutdoors.com/.