The Empress is one of two five-star climbing routes on Chapel Pond Slab—a route first ascended in 1933 by the legendary Fritz Wiessner.
Empress is long—865 feet, usually climbed in seven pitches—but not especially difficult. It’s rated only 5.5 on the Yosemite decimal scale. It’s mostly friction climbing: you smear your soles on small toeholds to progress upward. There also is an off-width crack in one section.
Click here to a read a more detailed description of the route.
I climbed Empress for the first time the other day and had a great time. My ascent was all the more exciting in that I did it solo, without a rope, without protection against a fall.
Climbers often ascend Chapel Pond Slab solo. A few weeks ago a friend did laps on Regular Route, the other five-star route on the cliff, while waiting for me to meet him. The guidebook Adirondack Rock contains a photo of a solo climber on that same route. The book also tells of a soloist who slipped on a neighboring route and slid far down the slab, ripping the skin off his palms. “He then drove to a bar using his wrists,” the authors write.
To many people, solo climbing is lunacy. In a recent issue of the Adirondack Explorer, however, the Lake Placid climber Don Mellor defends the practice. He argues that we all take risks and that what seems like lunacy to one person is an acceptable risk to another.
“The pleasure of a bushwhack comes from the uncertainty of the outcome,” says Mellor, the author of American Rock and other climbing books. “The slide hike is exciting, not in spite of the danger, but because of it. Appreciating security by tasting insecurity is an elemental human endeavor. The only real variable, I guess, is the size of the dose.”
That said, solo climbers do push the limits. Two years ago, Alex Honnold scaled a 23-pitch route on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The sheer-vertical climb is rated 5.12a—too hard for most climbers even with a rope.
Click here to see video of this incredible feat (sorry for the German overdubbing).
If the average climber attempted to solo this route, it would indeed be lunacy. But Honnold obviously is not your average climber, and he knows his limits.
Indeed, climbers usually stay well within their comfort zone when going solo. Nevertheless, accidents do occur, some of them fatal, even to the best of climbers. John Bachar, one of most renowned soloists in the world, died in a fall last summer. He had been solo climbing for decades. Apparently, the odds caught up with him.
What do you think? Do solo climbers have rocks in their heads?
Photo from halfway up Empress taken by Phil Brown.
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.