Short, to the point, facts, dates… way more thorough than you’re used to I know. I’ve never been the Gunks. Only been to the east coast once now that you ask. Hopefully I’ll get there soon. If nothing else just so I can puff up my chest and brag that I am more travelled than other climbers I meet. But the Gunks have always sounded cool to me. Not because of the geology. Not because of the strict trad ethic. Nope, I like the Gunks for the history. The west coast had the “Stonemasters”. But the Gunks had the “Vulgarians”.
In Sept of 1957 a bunch of college kids in New York started one of those lame little clubs to go play in the outdoors. For lack of originality let’s just say they called it NY City College Outing Club, or the CCOC for short. On their agenda amongst other activities such as hiking, camping and cave exploring was …ROCK CLIMBING. The club started going out to the Gunks and had some excellent fun climbing with their boots/sneakers, using Army ropes, slings and a few pitons. Unfortunately, someone always crashes the party.
The Appalachian Mountain Club, an established group of older climbers (read: lame, non-progressive and stuck in their ways) also frequented the area and had general dislike for our heroes. But a 1959 climbing death, and the subsequent fears of closure to the area, led to a schism between the dominant group (AMC) and these CCOC’ers.
After that death, the AMC wanted to institute a rigorous certification program for climbers to pacify any safety concerns on the part the land's owners, the Smiley family. They came up with a system were new climbers had to jump through hoops to do new climbs. Some have speculated that there was an alternative motivation to also slow the first ascent progress of these new younger climbers, to save the ego of the entrenched older generation. And the theory goes that this black balling had nothing to do with the ability of either group. The reality is that the AMC members would order 'uncertified' climbers down from the cliffs. Friction begins developing between "CCOC’ers" and AMC for not following AMC climbing guidelines. The AMC wanted to limit how soon you could lead and apparently you had to do all the 5.4’s before moving onto the 5.5’s…huh? Then a number of the CCOC'ers who had started climbing that spring begins leading. This particularly aggravates the AMC.” The war begins, but our revolutionaries need a name! Where did they get that infamous name?!
Sometime in June 1958 at an early proto-rave, Dick William’s good buddy Jack Hansen, looking around a fire lit circle of carousing Independent (ex-CCOC’ers) climbers exclaimed "why you guys are a bunch of Vulgarians". The name seemed somehow appropriate and began to be used by the independents to describe themselves. It also became used by the AMC but with very different intent, oddly enough this didn’t dissuade them from embracing there own name. The "boys" continued to be a problem for the tightly structured AMC climbing environment that had become the unofficial "controlling authority" for climbing in the Gunks following the tragic death in 1959. The Vulgarians discovered that their outlandish and irreverent behavior on the rocks was a potent weapon in keeping the AMC at bay. After all, how to handle a bunch of young, loud, foul mouthed hooligans who were also excellent climbers was a daunting problem for the rather strait-laced Appies. When things got too serious the Vulgarians responded by, among other things, tipping over a Volkswagen that belonged to an AMC climber. The drug- and alcohol-fueled antics of the Vulgarians also included events such as leaving nudey playing cards at the top of new projects to prove they had completed the first ascent. Only to be found later by the proud AMC, as they completed the “official first ascent”.
One of the most notorious stunts was portrayed by Dick Williams on Shockley’s Ceiling. Apparently it was hot one day so he decides to make the lead in the nude. He picked the route because it was not only a sick photo op but it was also a popular one for the tourists to watch from the overlook of a nearby road. Sadly this has become a ritual for others to emulate at the Gunks. Just so you know kids, you’re not revolutionary copying what was done decades ago. It’s called contemporary now. And no, I don’t want to see the hairy mole on ya bum!
In the end the Vulgarians won and became legends known for their rude antics and their inspired climbing. One of the founding members of the Vulgarians was also the author of the first definitive guidebook covering the Gunks. Despite what the AMC thought, they were a great bunch of climbers and contributors to the history of climbing in the Shawangunks. Sadly it is rare to see that kind of love for climbing anymore. Now everyone wants it to be a sport in the Olympics.
On the other hand what you will see is a bunch of Ninnies huddled in their north face jackets all sad that the outdoors isn’t as warm as the gym. And I will ask them time and time again… “What is the significance of the north face? What makes a north face different from any other face?”
Crickets… all I hear is crickets!
sooo.... what does this have to do with anything? stay tuned for the vulgarians part 2....