In our own backyard: Infiltrating Giant’s Workshop

Copes Lookout (photo by Erin Quinn)

Typically, I would be running, peering up at the colorful ropes and Spidermanlike positions of climbers shimmying up the vertical cliffs towards acrobatic overhangs and likely stunning views that have come to popularize the West Trapps, or simply “the Trapps.” It’s a Cirque de Soleil visual attraction that never ceases to delight as I begin the first leg of my weekly running journey along the Undercliff carriage road at the Mohonk Preserve.

But today, it is early winter and, although there is not yet snow, it is a weekday and it is cold: all things that keep the would-be climbers away. There are a few spots of color flat against the white cliffs, almost like starfish gripping the ocean floor so as not to get swept away by the tide or winds or forces that try to move that which wants to remain fixed. There are some of the bulky backs and chalky legs of those who like to test their grips and holds and strength and flexibility upon relatively low-slung rock boulders, laying their mats down in case of a fall. 

Soon, they are out of sight, lost, at least to me, in an almost-freeze-frame of arms reaching towards a quartz pebble or a deep fissure that can serve as the answer to the next step in their ascension. I’m with Rich Gottlieb, owner of Rock & Snow, and we are biking towards a mythical place that he wanted to show me: Giant’s Path, or “Giant’s Workshop” as it is known to climbers.

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At the end of Undercliff Road, one is left with several choices. There is the sharp left to Overcliff Road, which would complete the alternately serene and stunning five-mile loop back to the trailhead parking lot where we began. Or there is Godzilla: Just imagine a hill so steep and so brutal that it’s like climbing up the back of a scaly, angry, fire-breathing creature that is trying to shake you off — and you’d rather be shaken off than continue to climb.

We don’t go that way. Instead, we take Laurel Ledge Drive. I like this direction, because I always feel as if I’ve stepped off into a mystical land where deep thickets of forests and ferns and foliage unfurl in hobbitlike vignettes around each bend. There are no views to speak of; just a canopy of trees and shoulders of moss-covered rocks and boulders and dwarf pines rooted in poses that defy gravity and beg for a bit of sun to help them stand upright. It’s a place within the Preserve that feels old, measured and shrouded in some shamanic secrecy that no mortal can quite unlock.

After passing a path on the left that leads to the popular swimming hole of Split Rock, we soon come to a stop, mid-trail, and lock our bikes up to a tree. There is the sign, “Giant’s Path,” nailed to a tree, with an arrow pointing towards an unassuming landscape of matted brown leaves, collected like piles of hair on the linoleum floor of a barbershop. Standing solemnly are the recently shaven trunks and limbs of pine, oak, hemlock and birch trees, passing stoic glances back and forth. Rich makes me lead and follow the trail markers, making me feel like I had finally gained entrance into the Boy Scouts of America. In fact, I had not, as I miss many a marker and babble on about how time-consuming the gridwork of the modern world has become that we’re losing the one thing that keeps us tethered to the Earth and our own proportionality. This. I want to expound more about this feeling of an impending deadline of life, for which I feel at all times ill-prepared; but then I have to maneuver my hands and feet and shrink my body and my mouth down, because we were in the middle of a massive rock scramble that’s tricky and invigorating and silencing.

The snow starts to fall. Just a dusting. I can feel it descend through these narrow openings in the rocks falling against one another like ill-fitted dominoes or piles of scrap metal tossed haphazardly about. Hence the fitting title of the path that we’ve entered, “Arching Rocks.”

As we come out of one opening in the rocks and move along the base of a series of cliffs, Rich points to these various overhangs and climbing routes that stretch up and then forward, bending towards the ground and not away from it. “How does anyone climb over that?” I ask, pointing to one of the more unbelievably aquiline overhangs that has layers of stacked rock jutting out like one flattop hat piled upon the next. “Climbers just keep getting stronger,” he says. “But did you climb that?” I ask incredulously. It’s one thing to think about some guy from a North Face ad dangling off of El Capitán, but it’s another thing to know someone mortal and standing right next to you who had done something that you found to be undoable. “I did.”

There’s another sign called “Cathedral Path” that leads to Copes Lookout, and we venture ever upward until portions of the cliffs have patches of snow tucked behind trees and pitches that are drenched in ice. There are a few tangles of branches that are so thick with ice that they resemble driftwood coated in seafoam: collateral damage of having survived some sort of reckoning. As I look up, the world around me glistening, I begin to think that this feels like stumbling upon a Christmaslike celebration right smack in the middle of the woods. No presents, no invitation – just sparkling pine boughs and the chorus of squirrels and birds and endless loops of wind echoing through cavernous rock mazes.

Giant’s Workshop is a name that dates back to at least 1875, according to Paul Huth, longtime director of the Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center and now research director emeritus. “It’s an old Mohonk name,” he says. “Dan [Smiley] related it to the ‘room-sized crevices in the conglomerate talus.’” He notes that its exact location is part of the talus on the “southwesterly side of Humpty Dumpty,” another well-known Mohonk Preserve pathway. Huth notes that one of the Preserve’s oldest trees can be found in Giant’s Workshop: “A white pine growing in the huge boulders dates back to 1626.”

One of Huth’s colleagues says that maybe the name came from the fact that there are these huge slabs of rock and boulders that look as if they had been violently cleared from the table and littered all over the forest: discarded pieces of material from the giant who may have been working to build that one perfect sculpture.

As we carefully place fingers and hands inside crevices and twist our bodies to flatten or contort ourselves against the rock and up to the next foothold, more and more sun begins to pour over us. There it is: a wooden gazebo with a wreath hanging on it, and a view of the West Trapps and Millbrook Mountain to one side and the snow-covered tops of the Catskills to the other side. When Glenn Hoagland, executive director of the Preserve, told me that the “summerhouse” at Copes Lookout was dedicated to the Preserve’s first head ranger, Thom Scheuer, who held the position from 1979 until his untimely death in a tragic car accident in 1999, and to his late son Ethan, it all made perfect sense. I couldn’t imagine a better view from which to inhale the beauty of the Preserve and the land that Scheuer loved and protected for so many years. There is a windswept feeling at Copes Lookout that reminds me both of how grand life could be and how fragile.

When reflecting on Thom and his ever-present silhouette inside the ranger truck, or his well-worn smile and nimble legs that seemed to be always moving along Undercliff/Overcliff, advising climbers, helping, assisting, clearing fallen trees and just nurturing the land and the people that drew sustenance from it, Rich says, “Thom believed in having fun responsibly. The environment is best-served by those who utilize it and hold it close to their hearts…We all miss people who loved the outdoors and are gone, so it becomes our mission to keep the love going and share it with others.” ++

There is one comment

  1. Ron Knapp

    Beautifully written. Another of Erin’s gems. Hope that she is considering pulling her “In Our Backyard” pieces together in a book, perhaps illustrated with Mohonk Preserve Volunteer Photographers’ images.

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