I stopped in at Rock and Snow, the venerable climbing shop in New Paltz, New York. Its address, at least for me, is Memory Lane, in the very shadow of the Shawangunks. Inside the front door is an alcove that houses a small museum of climbing gear from days gone by. Displayed in glass cases are old ropes, vintage hardware, timeworn climbing shoes, and moldering guidebooks to the Gunks. Although I’ve never been much of a rock climber—the genial Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak in Yosemite being the most daunting of my meager ascents—I did learn how to climb in the Gunks, oh so many years ago.
In 1979 I was a college student studying forestry in Maine. That summer I was hired by the Mohonk Preserve (in those days called the Mohonk Trust) to serve as a “wilderness ranger.” I lived in a drafty shack by myself, a mile or more from any human neighbor, on the shore of a scruffy body of water called Duck Pond. My duties included managing a small walk-in campground and conducting an ecological research project. A “gas shortage” that summer meant I pretty much had the place to myself. So I spent a lot of time reading books and hanging around with the “rock rangers” up at the Trapps. The rock rangers sold passes and patrolled the cliffs of what is probably the most congested climbing area in North America, even when there’s a gas shortage. In those days, the rock rangers lived in their own shacks at a place called the Uberfall.
The rock ranger in charge was a jovial fellow in his late twenties by the name of Chuck Liff. Chuck had a big beard, a big laugh, and an even bigger heart. He was a kind of big brother to me that summer, and taught me how to climb. No matter how despondent I sometimes became over events great or small that were looming in those times—whether a wobbly romance, or the drifting plumes from Three Mile Island, or the prospect of Skylab falling from the heavens, or the roof of my shack being ripped off during a microburst—Chuck was an unfailing spring of good cheer. He always welcomed me and the other rangers into his camp. Many an evening we’d sit around the fire at the base of the cliff, shadows bouldering along the edge of the light, and devour big pans of something called “Core Meltdown Cornbread”, as Chuck regaled us with stories of the mountains, told long jokes, or read passages from Edward Abbey to stir our enthusiasm for a little environmental advocacy. Those were good days, and—looking back now—I can say they had a profoundly greater effect on the course of my life than the four years of forestry education I endured in Maine. I never saw Chuck again after that summer, but I thought of him often, and fondly.
Thanks to the internet, not long ago I was able to track Chuck down. I discovered that after completing his graduate work in Systems Ecology, he went on to career with the EPA and then the US Forest Service. I found a Forest Service webpage that invited me to “Contact Chuck Liff”. The instructions said: “Please enter your contact information and comment below. Please note–if you incorrectly enter your email address, Chuck Liff will not be able to contact you.” I did not provide my contact information. I was sure Chuck wouldn’t be getting back to me. Thanks again to the internet, I knew that he had passed away, at age sixty, a month before. Pancreatic cancer.
As I stood there in the alcove of Rock and Snow, looking over that once-familiar climbing gear now entombed behind museum glass, the grief that had been dogging me for the past month—over Chuck’s death, the missed opportunities, the mere and savage passage of time—became more acute. I might as well have been standing in a funeral parlor.
But then I turned from the glass sarcophagi and saw on the wall an 8×10 photo somebody had tacked up. It was a picture of Chuck—at the age I remember him—along with a couple of his climbing friends. They are standing smiling atop a soaring peak in the American west, big blue sky swooping down around them, range upon range of mountains cascading out into bright distances. The three friends are holding a weather-beaten Park Service sign that reads: “Climbing Registration Required For Travel Beyond This Point”. Clearly a prank. They had hauled that sign up there with them to the summit. No doubt a joke devised by Chuck himself.
Below this glorious photo is a caption that serves as a memorial. It says: “Chuck Liff Loved the Gunks, Was a Preserve Ranger, And Now Is Traveling Beyond This Point.” What’s more, registration is no longer required, apart from what is claimed by the heart.