Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Jay Harrison: Cascade Pass Ice Climbing

Drivers heading along Route 73 from Keene into Lake Placid can’t miss the activity on the icy cliffs above the Cascade Lakes. Climbers scurry like ants, from dawn to dusk, up and along the major flows that wind down either side of the main cliff. Chances are anyone learning to climb the transient mineral we call ice will end up here before too long in their studies.

This is the most popular ice climbing venue in the Adirondacks. Parking is plentiful, the approach is short, and there is access to the top of most routes for top-roping.

All that convenience makes it a crowded place: come very early or late in the afternoon for the best chance to climb. Roadside conditions are typically inhospitable. High wind sweeps through the pass, making it a bone-chilling place to attempt any chores in the parking lot. Come completely prepared to head directly up the hillside before opening the car door.

There are three main parking areas for the central area of the pass. The western parking lot services the Buster and Sisters flows, the center one is for those intrepid souls venturing onto the main Pitchoff Cliff or Pitchoff Left, the easternmost one services climbers heading for Pitchoff Quarry or Pitchoff Right. The most impressive flow is the Sisters formation. Sister Left rises 130’ from its base, with a lot of 3+ and some grade 4 ice to reach the top. Sister Right is shorter, but presents a greater challenge, from 4 to 5 or even hard mixed climbing depending on the line chosen. While the full length of Sister Left must be climbed from the bottom up, the entire face can be top-roped, using a ledge lying about thirty feet upslope. Getting to the top still requires leading something, Buster being the easiest option.

Buster is a perennial favorite for beginners. The main flow is difficult to walk around for top-rope set-up, but by skirting the right edge, only minimal grade 2 ice is encountered, so it makes a good first lead as well. The front face ranges from grade 2 to 4-, and there is a fixed rappel anchor at the top. Above the anchor, another easy pitch provides a good introduction to multipitch climbing as well.

Buster is often crowded, but there are several nearby alternatives. In recent years, a steep flow directly to Buster’s left has formed reliably, providing 3+ to M4 mixed climbing, depending on its condition. To the right, two more flows (Boozer and Bruiser), both with good walk-around access to their tops and fixed anchors, provide enough room for at least four ropes.

Farther to the right, a large flow called Pitchoff Left begins as a vertical curtain of grade 4 ice, then settles down to easy climbing for the remainder of its length. There is no easy top-rope or lead option for this line, all comers will have to tackle it directly on lead. The good news: it has the fattest, most massive ice of any grade 4 flow in this area. Pitchoff Cliff divides the previous flows from those to the right. There are routes on the main cliff for stout-hearted ice aficionados; most mere mortals just gawk at them and move on.

Pitchoff Right is a heavy draw; it is rare to have this area to oneself. Fortunately, there is plenty of room and variety to go around. There is room for up to nine ropes along this wall, on routes ranging from twenty five to seventy feet tall. Top-roping is easy to establish, via a grade 1 walk-around to climber’s right. Difficulty ranges from the upper end of 2 to hard 4, with plenty of acrobatic mixed climbing potential as well. Be cautious about the pillars that form on the overhangs: while people climb them with reckless abandon, they do occasionally fall down.

The rightmost destination in the area, Pitchoff Quarry, is tucked back just far enough to be nearly invisible from the road. Accessed from the parking lot below Pitchoff Right, climbers walk east along the road for 200 feet, then duck into the alders and meander to the cliff. In good conditions, the quarry has a wide band of very steep ice, ranging between grade 4 and 5. Top-rope set-up is possible via access to climber’s right. The main flow dominates the center of the quarry, with enough room for a couple ropes, and flows to either side provide room for at least four more.

Jay Harrison guides both rock and ice for Eastern Mountain Sports, and occasionally writes about his personal adventures on his own blog.

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