The Gunks’ New Hardest Climb: Bro-Zone (5.14b)
Andy Salo makes the first ascent of Bro-Zone (5.14b), the new hardest route in the Shawangunks, New York.
The Gunks, New York, one of the first and most famous climbing areas in the U.S., has a new hardest climb. Earlier this week, local climber Andy Salo made the first ascent of Bro-Zone. At 5.14b, it is the first climb of the grade at the hallowed New York cliffs.
Bro-Zone adds a 50-foot direct start to Ozone (5.14a R), a previous contender for the hardest line. Salo, 33, told Rock and Ice that, though Bro-Zone is “a pretty safe route, it’s fluttery in that you’re going a long way if you fall.” Despite Ozone traditionally getting an “R” protection rating, Salo isn’t sure that Bro-Zone or the original route deserve the addendum. “I’m just not really too sure that it is R,” he says, “and I feel like the ‘R’ gets thrown out a lot these days to make things look more badass.”
The gear on Bro-Zone consists primarily of cams in typical Gunks horizontal cracks, and the odd, old bolt that was placed years ago, before the bolting ban. Salo placed all of his gear on lead. The route is comprised of a number of boulder problems stacked on top of one another, as Salo describes it, and has 85 hand movements in total (“We counted,” he says).
Originally from upstate New York, Salo has been climbing for roughly 19 years, primarily at the Gunks for the last 12. After going to school in New Paltz, just down the road from the cliffs, Salo bounced around a bit, but always found himself returning to the region. “I left, and came back, then left, and came back,” he says. “So I’ve been off and on local for a while now.”
The history behind Bro-Zone naturally starts with the history of Ozone itself. The Gunks’ Twilight Zone Buttress is “incredibly steep,” Salo says. “Over the years people went up and tried to do different sections of it,” he explains. “The first bit of free climbing to actually get done was the top of the wall. In the ‘80s, Jeff Gruenberg and Jack Mileski established it via a hanging belay—they rapped in and climbed the 25-foot dead-horizontal ceiling known as French Connection, 5.12d.” Over the ensuing decades, other pieces of the wall gradually got climbed.
But a single, continuous line remained elusive. Enter Cody Sims, in 2010. “Cody Sims was the first guy to look at all these different parts as one logical route,” Salo says. Sims linked the disparate sections as one long “superpitch”: Ozone.
According to a blog post by the climber Peter Kamitses, Ozone “does a direct start to the old school classic Twilight Zone (5.13b) and then finishes out the horizontal roof of the French Connection (5.12+).” (Twilight Zone was first freed by Gunks heavyweights Russ Clune and Jordan Mills in 1993.)
Salo made the fifth ascent of Ozone in 2015, but always knew there was a purer line to be taken. The line that Sims took on Ozone starts with 50 feet of mellow slab climbing, then traverses onto the steep buttress to tackle several tricky boulder problems, and finally links into the business of Twilight Zone. Salo unlocked the direct 50-foot start into the rest of the route. “It adds a section of 5.13 climbing just to get into the start of Ozone,” Salo says. “It has some of the harder moves on the route.” Regarding the name, Salo says he and friends were “calling it Bro-Zone jokingly,” while projecting the climb. “I guess the name just stuck.”
Salo is humble when it comes to his accomplishment, though: “Really all I did was add 50 feet of unclimbed stuff to an already established climb. I’m just building on the things that Cody did, and he was just building on the things that the guys before him did.”
Bro-Zone joins just a handful of other 5.14 climbs at the Gunks: the aforementioned Ozone, Mantronix (5.14a), Dreamland (5.14a) and Planet Claire (5.14a). (Salo made the third ascent of Planet Claire—another route that is a variation of a prior climb, namely Clairvoyance (5.13b)—in spring 2015.)
Climbing in the Gunks has advanced in fits and starts throughout the years. Fritz Wiessner and Hans Krauss put up lines that were unthinkable in the 1930s and ’40s. Stepping out into the airy void on High Exposure (5.6) is still one of the most thrilling moves for any budding climber. John Stannard’s Foops (5.11) left many climbers of the day agape. When Jeff Gruenberg, Lynn Hill, Russ Clune and Hugh Herr ushered in 5.13 with Vandals, they were standing on the shoulders of all the Gunks innovators before them. Bro-Zone is just the most recent example of this: inching the standard upward, slowly but surely, and building upon the feats of Gunks climbers past.
And Salo intends to keep building on what’s already there at the Gunks, perhaps pushing the grade even further one day. “I’ve got a few more tricks up my sleeves,” he says. “Even on the Twilight Zone Buttress alone, there are some other old aid lines that have never been freed.” They might not be as proud as Bro-Zone, but he’s still intrigued. “They’re probably worth checking out,” he muses.
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