Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Slide Climbing: Dix Mountain’s New Lobster Claw Slide

Kevin "MudRat" MacKenzie photographs the new Lobster Claw Slide on Dix Mountain.Several periods of heavy rain during June and July of 2013 caused local flooding and damage across New York and Vermont. The rains also added a new slide to Dix Mountain’s already impressive collection.

Two swaths of stone were exposed on the west side of Dix’ curved southern ridge. Converging below, the debris cut a channel of devastation through the forest toward Dix Pond (see inset in picture below). If you’re in the mood for a fresh adventure in a remote location, this may be your ticket to an exciting day in the Adirondack backcountry.

Approach

Park at Elk Lake’s public parking area and walk 4.3 miles on the Dix Trail to the intersection with the Beckhorn Trail. The first portion of the walk is across private land so stay on the marked trail. Follow the Beckhorn Trail just over ¾ of a mile until it becomes nearly flat near the top of the ridge at about 3,100 feet in elevation. Bushwhack to the right on a perpendicular course and cross over the ridge top. The area is covered with rotten blowdown, moderate tree growth and the occasional glacial erratic. Once on the other side, set a heading toward the southern end of the ridge just before it begins the descent into the Dix/Hough col. The heading will vary depending on exactly where you exit the ridge, but it’s roughly to the east-northeast.

Note: Strong navigational skills and familiarity with the terrain are the keys to successfully finding this slide. Dix’ southern ridge extends southeast from the Beckhorn (a large prominence south of Dix’ summit) and arcs to the south as it approaches Hough. You must navigate south of the Beckhorn, but north of a small spur off the main ridge just before the Dix/Hough col.

You’ll be bushwhacking on the slope below the Beckhorn trail much of the time. While your instincts may pull you downward (toward Hough), it’s important to stay true to your heading. The Beckhorn and Hough are hidden most of the time, but can occasionally be used to visually verify your position and readjust as necessary. The drainage for the Lobster Claw Slide begins at about 3,300 feet in elevation, so continue to monitor your altimeter.

It doesn’t hurt to err a bit higher lest you miss the bottom of the runout. The first signs of the event are rather insignificant—small snags of branches and mud in a narrow streambed followed by a small toe of rubble. The extent of the destruction is evident a few hundred feet beyond as the streambed becomes deeply recessed and ever wider. Be mindful of any loose boulders since the area is still unconsolidated and help is far away. Unabashed views lie all around:  Hough’s slides and MaComb’s bumpy profile toward the south, the upper runs of the Lobster Claw to the northeast and Elk Lake framed by the forest to the southwest.

The runout shifts abruptly to the right as it approaches the slide proper. A steep scramble around an island of trees leads to a breathtaking view up the full extent of the southern track. Wider than its neighbor, it covers about 425 feet of elevation gain over 800 ground feet. The northern run climbs about 300 vertical feet over 525 ground feet. Width, however, doesn’t necessarily make for a better climb. Though close in distance, their individual characteristics are unique.

Southern Tributary

The first major outcrop of slab lies at about 3,750 feet in elevation.  A ledge a couple hundred feet higher offers a comfortable perch from which to appreciate the surrounding wilderness; both the destruction and beauty.  The slide is about 75 feet wide above the ledge on the largest section of open rock. With wonderful traction, a moderate angle and light debris; it’s hard not to enjoy. The best line of stone reaches up along the left-hand edge to a band of mud and fallen trees.

Above, the danger primarily lies in dislodging rubble on to your partner. Beyond the debris band, large blocky overlaps with good holds lead ever higher. The center line offers the most exposed climbing options. The slide continues to narrow until it’s only a few feet wide at the top (about 4,260 feet in elevation).

Northern Tributary

The northern slide tapers from about 40 feet wide at the bottom to five feet wide at the headwall between two old-exposures of weathered stone. It’s gently concave so the steepest most exposed sections lie at the top. The majority of climbing is on granular anorthosite with excellent traction. While more appealing from a climbing perspective, it is significantly more serious than its neighbor.

Pockets, overlaps, dikes and fractures all make for an interesting climb. The largest overlap, about four feet high, sits near the middle. From there, the slope increases. A tiny shelf of un-fallen debris serves as a place to study the upper headwall or take a rest while surveying the scenery. All the while, the Beckhorn seemingly lies just over your shoulder. If other hikers happen to be on Dix, expect an audience.

The quality of the stone changes for the last twenty feet to the release point (high 4th to low 5th class climbing on the Yosemite Decimal System). It’s all about exposed climbing on small holds and friction with a bit of grit mixed in to keep it interesting. The slope is about 45 degrees with a short steeper section to start it off. A precarious perch at the top offers an unobstructed view of the slide track in its entirety with Elk Lake in the background.

Exit

Bushwhack up to the east from either slide track to intersect the herd path between the Dix/Hough col and the Beckhorn. The distance and elevation gain from the southern run is slightly shorter, however. Expect to fight your way through tightly knit krummholz.

There are several exit options once on the path. I recommend trekking over the Beckhorn and down the ridge to the Dix Trail. Numerous overlooks provide opportunities to photograph the slide from multiple perspectives.

Dix Mountain's Lobster Claw Slide

Trip Notes:

The Lobster Claw (a nickname we created based on the profile of the slide) reinvigorated the excitement I felt nearly two years ago when I was exploring the slides created during Tropical Storm Irene. This time, I didn’t have as much information ahead of time—no aerial photos or convenient line-of-sight vantage points. My imagination stoked my curiosity and I began researching the approach options based on where I envisioned the runout might be—how far down the valley had it gone?

Different slides sometimes require different approach strategies depending upon the terrain or planned objective(s). There’s more than one way to skin a cat. The traditional method usually involves following the slide’s drainage stream. This sometimes coincides with the easiest route, sometimes not. In this case, a full bushwhack up the stream from the Dix trail complicated the approach.

Top-down approaches can work if you’re able to accurately locate the highest point and are equipped to safely descend steep slides. This may work well if you plan to link several slide together. Intercepting slides from the side is another option I occasionally employ. For example, the Lobster Claw’s southern run could be approached from the Dix-Hough via a northwesterly heading. In any case, this is a personal decision that must be based on individual goals and abilities. All options considered, I believe that the approach described above strikes a good balance between efficiency and adventure.

Special thanks to NP for his company on this trip.

Slide Profile

Round-trip distance: 13.5 miles
Total elevation gain: 3,875 feet
Distance to slide: 5.75 miles
Length of slide: 3,075 feet
Elevation gain: 950-1,000 feet
Maximum Width: 100+ feet
Exit: Short bushwhack to the herd path on the ridge.

Round-trip distance and total elevation gain are based ascending only one side of the slide and exiting via the Beckhorn as described above.


Climbing slides is dangerous. A fall in the wrong place could result in serious injury or even death, and help may be hours away. Slide climbers should be familiar with off-trail navigation, comfortable with high-angle scrambling, and prepared for backcountry emergencies. Novices should be accompanied by a licensed guide or experienced slide climber. 

Photo above: Author looking up the southern tributary of the Lobster Claw Slide on Dix Mountain (Photo by NP Photography). Below, mosaic of key points on the Lobster Claw Slide. Click on the photos to enlarge.


Kevin "MudRat" MacKenzie

Kevin MacKenzie is an Adirondack writer and photographer, licensed to guide in NY state and is associate registrar at St. Lawrence University. He lives in the Lake Placid area with his wife, Deb (also a freelance photographer). His articles and photographs have been featured such magazines and journals as Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies, Adirondac, Adirondack Life and Adirondack Outdoors. Many of Kevin and Deb's photographs are featured on the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center's website.

Kevin is an avid slide climber, rock/ice climber, winter forty-sixer and member of Climbing for Christ. His passion for slides and backcountry technical climbing takes him to some of the most remote backcountry areas in the High Peaks. Kevin has climbed over 100 of the area's slides during all seasons. His website and Summitpost forum page contain trip reports and photos from many of his explorations.




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