Rock & Snow’s Rich Gottlieb retires

Rich Gottlieb (center) is retiring from Rock and Snow after almost 40 years in the climbing business. Last week, a party was given in his honor by Mohonk Preserve. Gottlieb is pictured here with his wife Teri Condon and longtime employee and new Rock and Snow owner Andrew Zalewski. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.
— Coretta Scott King

In 1980, a tall, gangly sculpture student and rock-climbing enthusiast, Rich Gottlieb, was able to score a job working at the epicenter of climbing in the Northeast: Rock and Snow, at 44 Main Street in downtown New Paltz. These were still the days when people climbed in boots with tube socks. They were often bare-chested, with wild hair and ropes round so tightly around their groin area that severe chafing was likely a distraction from the fear of falling hundreds of feet off the cliff face they were scaling somewhere along the edges of Shawangunk Ridge, known to intimates as “the Gunks.”

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In 1970, when climbing in the Northeast US was still in its infancy, one of New Paltz’s rock climbing pioneers, Dick Williams, scraped together enough money to open a climbing shop where like-minded folks could buy clothing, footwear, ropes and the very best climbing gear and hardware available. He purchased the old wooden building, which was once a hardware store, and named the shop Rock and Snow. This site quickly became a subculture hub of climbers, hikers, skiers and snowshoers who could purchase the equipment they needed, swap various war stories, recount and record newly blazed routes and trails and become immersed in a community of others who seemed to live within the margins and crevices and wide expanses of the mountains.

This institution only cemented itself and grew in popularity with the local community and out-of-town visitors who were looking for some great rock climbing. Nothing bespoke New Paltz climbing and outdoor enthusiast like one of the many humorous, clever and irreverent Rock and Snow tee-shirts that still sell faster than fried dough at a county fair. But in February of 1990, a fire that started in the old cobbler shop in the back of Rock and Snow quickly engulfed the structure. Firefighters worked tirelessly through the freezing-cold night to keep the fire contained. They were able to save the rest of the neighboring buildings, but 44 Main Street was reduced to a smoldering parking lot.

That’s when Gottlieb, now longtime manager of the store, teamed up with Williams to become a co-owner and had the new building designed and built while they kept the shop running in a rented space next to the post office across the street. In 1993 the new building was completed, and by 2000 Gottlieb had purchased the business and building from Williams, who was ready to retire after 30 years at the helm.

The Rock and Snow culture continued to flourish by staying true to its mission, employing knowledgeable, friendly, rock-weathered staff and never taking themselves too seriously. There were many changes happening as rock climbing became increasingly more in vogue and climbing gyms were proliferating faster than storage units. Smaller climbing shops were expanding beyond their means or selling out to chain stores. But at Rock and Snow, they stayed right-sized and focused on their community. For them, it was all about their clients who shared their love of the Gunks. It was about working to champion rock climbing in the area, protect and preserve the Shawangunks while promoting ecotourism and keeping the community currency alive and healthy. To that end, the store became a gathering place for free slideshows of amazing climbs, documentary films, climbing and mountaineering book-readings and signings and a plethora of rock-related events that all took place inside the cathedral ceilings of the store, where barefoot and bandana-clad outliers found themselves on the inside of something special.

For 40 years, Gottlieb has served as the conduit for all of the electricity that has kept Rock and Snow flourishing in a climate where independent businesses struggle. It is the second-oldest climbing store in the country and one of the few remaining independent climbing stores — and one that is thriving, at that.

While his magnetism and enthusiasm have kept the air inside the walls of the store oxygen-rich, his true calling has always been the outdoors. He has rock- and ice-climbed all across the country, Canada and Europe, but his bivy sack is the Gunks. He has climbed nearly every route, hiked nearly every trail and come to know the various hemlock, chestnut and birch forests as well as the millstones and dwarf pine groves and abandoned quarries and wild blueberry bushes that are strewn throughout the mountains like hidden or not-so-hidden treasures.

He has never kept his exploration of the region a secret, but instead has encouraged and even beckoned family and friends to discover it with him. Over the years, his innumerable rock and ice climbs, snowshoeing, skiing, cycling, hiking and bushwhacking adventures have taken place with his wife Teri, his daughter Celia and hundreds of friends and family and fellow travelers. His passion for the region has led him to become a conduit for the Gunks, an ambassador to the Ridge, a gatekeeper who never had a gate, a business-owner who never really wanted to own anything, but simply to share it.

This benevolence and selflessness are what led to a retirement party at the Mohonk Preserve Visitors’ Center last Wednesday appearing to be more of a rock concert or film festival, where everyone had gathered for a slideshow of Gottlieb’s four decades of frolicking in the mountains or hard at work in the shop. There wasn’t a parking spot available at the Visitors’ Center for this party. There were people of all ages, many of them wearing vintage Rock and Snow shirts, many of them people who were drawn to the region because of the mountains in one form or another, but all of whom adored Gottlieb.

“I’m excited for Rich’s next chapter,” said Mohonk Preserve director Glenn Hoagland. “I’m so grateful for everything he’s done, and Rock and Snow has done, to support the Preserve, to support climbing, to support our community. He has a motto that he likes to give until it hurts, and he’s done just that: He’s given to us all. He’s like a benevolent king of our majestic kingdom – and a humble king at that,” he said holding up a sweatshirt that the Preserve had made for Gottlieb that said “la roi de le roche.”

As he stepped up to the podium, with his arm around his wife and the slideshow streaming behind him, Gottlieb had tears in his eyes. “We love you, buddy!” someone shouted from the crowd. Then everyone just started clapping and cheering and shining the light on this man of the mountain. When he could finally speak, the jokester in him said that, instead of “receiving gifts and cards, the next time we’re all together like this, I’ll just be receiving flowers.”

Then he told a story about seeing a man walking alongside the Thruway exit wearing a tee-shirt that said, “It’s all a dream.” “And it is all a dream— and what a great dream it’s been,” Gottlieb said, choking up. “But dreams aren’t so simple, and they take support. And I’ve had such incredible support from the Preserve, from the people I work with, from my family, from all of you. What’s so remarkable is how people come into your life and make such a difference. Rock and Snow wouldn’t be the same without all of you.”

People kept walking up to the mic and talking about his humanity, how he brought them into the Rock and Snow family and on hikes and climbs and always made them feel supported. There were people who recited limericks and others who talked about crazy climbs, and some great one-liners by Gottlieb, who is the king of puns.

But in all of this there was this feeling of celebrating something bigger than Gottlieb and Rock and Snow. It was a celebration of a lifestyle that still connects people to nature and to each other and to a canopy of beauty. It was a sense of community and that, despite the various black holes we all get caught up in, there is this larger constellation supporting us.

If you’ve ever gone on an adventure with Gottlieb, you’ve realized that his knowledge of the area is so detailed and extensive and that his peanut M & M breaks are as essential as finding the trail markers. You learn that the world is vast and your place in it small, but within that corner there is a place to advocate for good.

“He’s imparted so much knowledge to me, and so much about just being a good human being and compassionate person. And I’m going to miss him behind the counter; but I’m going to be so happy to see him out on the cliffs climbing,” said Andrew Zalewski, the new owner of Rock and Snow.

Gottlieb said that he felt that his desire to be outside more and more, and his confidence in Zalewski and the rest of the Rock and Snow staff, was such that he knew it was the right time to move on and turn the business over. “I say passing the ‘baton’ and not the ‘torch,’ because we already had one fire,” he joked.

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Like Gottlieb, Zalewski applied for a job at the store as an earnest, hungry young rock climber. He was rejected the first time, and still has the application to prove it, with NG (No Good) initialed at the top of his employment plea. Like all great rock climbers, he persisted. A year later he was hired, and soon became the go-to guy for all things bouldering, which was the new craze rocking the ridge.

By 2009, Zalewski was Gottlieb’s junior partner and had become the steward of one of the largest climbing guidebook collections in any store, anywhere, with the most up-to-date climbing/hiking guidebooks, not to mention a plethora of intriguing mountaineering memoirs, biographies and adventure narratives. “We might carry 75 different lines in the store, but Andrew has amassed 50 different book companies in that section. He was also the brains behind the consignment shop,” said Gottlieb, referring to the Annex, Rock and Snow’s second building, completed three years ago, which allows climbers and outdoor folks to sell their lightly worn gear and purchase other gently used items in an egalitarian fashion. “That was all his idea. He’s an excellent rock climber and loves to boulder, and he knows the computer systems,” and just has a knack for keeping the store vibrant and current and evolving with the changing slip-and-slides.

As for the day after the party and his retirement: Gottlieb was overwhelmed by the outpouring and filled with gratitude, and said that he would use the envelopes for the cards people had written to him to stoke the fire in the winter when the temperature dropped. His office is now the Gunks, and he was spotted out on the cliffs, looking over at Sky Top, taking pictures of wildflowers and Teri spiderwebbing her way up the climb.

Without warning or time to ponder, Gottlieb was asked by the New Paltz Times to name his favorite climb in the Gunks. “Square Meal, out at Millbrook,” he said. Most challenging climb? “Happiness is a 110 Degree Wall,” also at Millbrook. Favorite hike? Mine Hole, which is a not-so-well-known but enchanting trail in Minnewaska State Park. Favorite view? All of the ones he has yet to see. Here’s to a great run that will undoubtedly lead to many exciting new walks.