Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wallface: A Formidable Climb in Indian Pass

The speed record for climbing the Diagonal route on Wallface Cliff is 3 hours, 14 minutes. I climbed the same route last weekend and I can tell you that the record was never in any danger of being broken by us.

The speed record was set by local climbers Don Mellor and Jeff Edwards, who ran six miles from Adirondack Loj to the cliff, climbed the 700-foot-high route in a half-hour by simul-climbing (with a rope) and placing only a minimum of gear between them for protection. Then they speed-bushwacked back to their car (they were in a hurry because it was their children’s nap time, and presumably their wives didn’t know they had left them alone), according to the book Adirondack Rock.

Since neither myself nor my partner Steve Goldstein have young children, we were in less of a hurry. And that was a good thing, because Wallface is a big, remote place, and if you visit as a climber you should plan to spend the day. Unless you’ve left your kids alone.

Wallface may be the biggest cliff in New York state, but there’s a reason it sees few visitors. The is located deep in the wilderness at Indian Pass, four miles from Upper Works parking lot near Newcomb and six miles south of Adirondack Loj. It’s the deep gash visible to the west from Algonquin and other nearby High Peaks.

I don’t know about the northern approach, but the route from the south has to be one of the worst trails in the Adirondacks — a never-ending slog through mud pits until you get to the climbers’ herd path.

There’s other reasons besides the approach that Wallface isn’t popular: it’s not a pristine cliff. Climbers like clean routes — vertical, devoid of loose rock or vegetation, an obvious line up. Wallface has none of these. It’s a discontinuous face of granite, in some areas chock full of vegetation and loose, low-angle rock, at other spots overhanging and completely lacking in holds. Even finding the base of most climbs is difficult.

Clearly, it’s not a user-friendly area for climbers. “This cliff,” warns Adirondack Rock, the region’s Bible for rock climbers, “must be approached with an adventurous spirit.”

Yet Wallface does have its attractions. For ultra-hardmen, there’s the stiff route called Mental Blocks. For sport climbers, there’s several difficult, bolted routes on a pristine face nicknamed The Shield (Free Ride, rated a hard 5.11, is said to be the “best face climbing on the East Coast”).

And there’s the Diagonal, the most popular moderate route up the 700-foot-high cliff.

After years of talking about it, my climbing partner Steve Goldstein and I finally decided to pack our own adventurous spirits and hoof it into Wallface — the Diagonal our destination.

We left at dawn. After the aforementioned slog, we reached the base around 9 a.m. We eyed our route from below. The Diagonal is rated 5.8, which is just a bit tougher than the average beginner can climb. But most of it is quite easy, and the first third is rather dull.

It follows broken, discontinuous bands of rock up the lower part of the face. Once we roped up, we navigated as best we could through the choss, eventually ascending to the cliff’s most interesting feature.

The Diagonal is named for a 300-foot-high ramp that is the middle part of the route. It’s an easy section, low-angle and chock full of features. Some sections are pockmarked with tiny holes, like coral or cooled lava, which Steve figured were carved by tens of thousands of years of water drops falling from the overhanging rock above. And out before us was the ever-expanding view of the High Peaks.

The ramp ended at a grassy ledge, which brought us to the third section of the route — two pitches of vertical climbing up cracks and corners. I gratefully handed the lead (and the rack of jingling climbing gear) to Steve, the stronger member of our two-man team. And he gracefully made his way up until he was out of sight, cursing at the wet sections along the way.

I followed him up through some interesting and challenging features until I reached him high on a ledge. He had climbed further than the route description called for.

“Sorry,” he said. “I think I stole about half of your pitch.”

“Fine with me,” I said, thinking of the strange and awkward move I had just wormed up, and glad he had gone first.

Then it was my turn to lead. I took the gear and climbed the last 50 feet, making a few well-protected but awkward moves that had me yelling “Watch me!” as I felt for a handhold that ought to have been there but wasn’t.

At the top, we shivered. The sun had long since disappeared behind the cliff, and a constant breeze left no doubt that we were deep in the mountains, not at some roadside crag with a warm car and cold beer waiting only a few minutes away.

Escape from the top of Wallface comes either from walking around (not recommended due to the thick underbrush and blowdown) or rappelling. The top of the Diagonal, being popular, has fixed anchors. You thread the ropes through and then rappel off, pulling the rope after you to set up for the next rap.

For many climbers, this is the sketchiest part of climbing, especially on long, remote routes. The possibility of stuck ropes is always present, and in this location, with darkness and cold temperatures only an hour away, that would have meant for a long and miserable night.

Fortunately, the ropes pulled smoothly and an hour later we were on the ground, warmer and ready for that beer.

Unfortunately, we still had a long way to go. We raced down the approach path and made the official hiking trail at darkness. Then we spent the next 90 minutes walking by the light of headlamps, searching for ways through the endless muck as Steve regaled me with tales of his misspent college years (“The coolest explosion I was ever involved in was when …”).

We reached the car at 9 p.m., making for a 14-hour day. That three-hour ascent record was safe — after all, we had taken five times longer. But that was fine with us. We had conquered Wallface.

And we wouldn’t be going back for a long time.


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