Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bonticou Crag

My lifelong love of mountaintop vistas has one complication: I have an ambivalent relationship to heights. For years, I put off an ascent of Bonticou Crag (left) in the Shawangunks because it has a reputation of requiring a head for altitude. So it was with special joy that I climbed it and stood on its summit yesterday with my son Max.

We got up early, drove to Mohonk Preserve, and hiked an easy route of carriage roads and paths to the start of the ascent. Like other scrambles in the Shawangunks, Bonticou Crag is basically a succession of moves: scramble over big boulders, walk along a ledge, squirm up a rock slab, and repeat. 

The difference with Bonticou Crag is that the handholds are trickier, the footholds aren't obvious, and everything is steeper. Twice I recited to myself the joking motto of an American expedition to the base of Mount Everest in the 1950s, which adopted a phrase posted in a school in a Himalayan village: "Gather courage, don't be a chicken-hearted fellow." (For more on this, read the fascinating, insightful and well-written Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver.)

Finally, with a few grunts, gasps and narrow squeezes, we stood atop Bonticou Crag. The view was spectacular, and the classic Shawangunk combination of barren rock and gnarled trees made us feel that we were in an alpine environment. We took a long and pleasantly winding route back to our car, then drove back to New Paltz with Bob Dylan blasting on our CD player.

I have been hiking and cross-country skiing in the Shawangunks for forty years. Going there yesterday with my teenage son Max (and his Bob Dylan CDs) was a great way to combine past and present, along with future prospects for more good hikes.

Of course, for real mountaineers Bonticou would be an easy scramble. For me, it was a strong challenge but an enjoyable one. That's the great thing about hiking: we can all find our Everests according to our abilities. (There is also an easy route up Bonticou that requires no scrambling.) 

And wherever you walk, if you find yourself in a tough ascent, remember the motto: "Gather courage, don't be a chicken-hearted fellow." You'll reach your summit in good time.


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