Words by Taylor VanRoekel
Photos by Andrew Zalewski
NEW PALTZ, NEW YORK’S MAIN street is a lesson in Americana. Diners and antiques line the avenue, couched in old facades and brick walls. Walk down the street and you’ll find Rock and Snow, the area’s premier gear shop. The store’s entryway is framed by a museum display of rusty pitons and time-weathered photos that lean on the panes of their glass cases. “We went on a tear and accumulated a lot of that stuff recently,” says Andrew Zalewski, store manger, referring to the shop’s collection of antiques. “But we like it, it tells a really important story.” It’s a story that isn’t easily removed from that of climbing itself. And despite changes in the sport, gear and outdoor culture, Rock and Snow is adapting to a shifting climate.
Rock and Snow was incorporated by preeminent Gunks godfather Dick Williams. Perhaps best known for penning the “lovingly-crafted” Climber’s Guide to the Shawangunks, Williams played an integral role in the local climbing scene, “but founding Rock and Snow is as much of an achievement,” says Zalewski. Indeed, Williams’ love affair with the Gunks would produce a number of great climbs and important preservation projects, but Williams had identified a gap: Great climbing towns without great gear shops are rare. With seed money from the likes of Hans Kraus, Jim McCarthy, Richard Goldstone, Dave Craft, and Raymond Schragg, Williams would take his idea live in 1969.
Although climbing would soon grow in popularity, Rock and Snow would need some warming up. “It took a while for word to get out that there was a climbing shop in New Paltz,” says Zalewski. “The Gunks in 1970 were not quite as busy as they are today.” Indeed, according to The Climber’s Guide to the Shawangunks, “the new decade began with the lowest level of climbing since the 1950’s,” coinciding with Rock and Snow’s slow start. A scant six routes were established in 1970, none of them free.
But in 1972, Williams would publish his first guidebook, and interest was on the rise again. Good news for the young Rock and Snow. “The shop continued to grow into the 80’s, until a fire in 1990 burned the original location to the ground,” says Zalewski. Ironically, according to Williams’ guide, “new route activity slowed dramatically” again in the 1990’s.
After the fire, Dick Williams and Gunks buddy Rich Gottlieb became full partners in the business. A legend in his own right, Gottlieb helped develop classic southeast areas like Jamestown, and Yellow Creek. “Rich began working here in the early 80’s and became more involved in management leading up to the fire,” says Zalewski.
Under Gottlieb, the shop would expand in 1996 with an addition to the new, post-fire storefront. The late 90’s also saw the birth of gunks.com and a handful of preservation and access projects, many of which Williams had a hand in, including the construction of the infamous 200+ stone East Trapps Connector “Stairmaster” Trail.
Fast-forward a couple decades, and Rock and Snow is making strides. This May, Rock and Snow opened a gear consignment “annex” down the street, a la Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vt. Now, customers can “breath new life into stuff that’s been sitting in their closet for years,” says Zalewski. Combined with a new e-commerce website, the annex constitutes a new look for the decades old Rock and Snow. Area climbers can “buy local” from the comfort of their couch, recycle old gear, and upgrade existing quivers. It’s a concept that’s taking this historical shop, and pointing it forward.
Now, Rock and Snow is settling into its appointed role in the climbing community. A portion of proceeds goes to local preservation efforts, and the store hosts the occasional slideshow. “For a very small shop, Rock and Snow is extremely proud of how much we are able to give back to the community,” Andrew says. “We are proud supporters of the Mohonk Preserve, where most of the climbing is, so we’re involved.” Indeed, Rock and Snow is invested in New Paltz. “The ability to thrive for 43 years in a small town instills in us a strong sense that we have a responsibility to the entire community, and not just the climbing community,” says Zalewski.
To be sure, Rock and Snow has established itself as an irreplaceable facet of the Gunks climbing scene. Although the photos on display in the shop’s entryway are curling at the edges, Rock and Snow is just as relevant as it’s ever been. “We want to continue to do what we love: serving the outdoor recreation needs of our community,” says Zalewski. It’s as simple as that.