That seems simple enough, but the distinction between a rock climb and a hike isn’t so straightforward. Sadly, this was demonstrated when a hiker died in a fall in the Trap Dike last week.
Matthew Potel, 22, a senior at Binghamton University, slipped while leading members of the school’s outdoors club up the dike. He fell about twenty feet while climbing a waterfall. The students were not using ropes or wearing helmets, but that’s not unusual for parties in the Trap Dike.
“It is routinely climbed without a rope,” said Don Mellor, the author of Climbing in the Adirondacks.
A rock-climbing guide, Mellor carries a rope when climbing the dike with clients or with students from the Northwood School, where he teaches, but if he’s going alone or with friends, he leaves the rope at home.
The Yosemite Decimal System divides hikes and climbs into five categories. You can find varying definitions of the categories in books and on climbing websites. The following are verbatim from Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills:
Class 1: Hiking.
Class 2: Simple scrambling, with possible occasional use of the hands.
Class 3: Scrambling; a rope might be carried.
Class 4: Simple climbing, often with exposure. A rope is often used. A fall on Class-4 rock could be fatal. Typically, natural protection can be easily found.
Class 5: Where rock climbing begins in earnest. Climbing involves the use of a rope, belaying, and protection (natural or artificial) to protect the leader from a long fall.
As you see, there are three classes between hiking and technical rock climbing. Mellor’s guidebook puts well-known slide climbs such as the Lake Placid Slide on Whiteface Mountain, the Southeast Slide on Mount Colden, and the slide on the west face of Nippletop in the class 2 category. Most of the climbing on these routes is just a steep walk.
The Trap Dike, however, is harder than a typical slide as it involves climbing a steep waterfall. The waterfall offers many ledges and handholds, but a slip in the wrong place could be fatal. So far, though, Potel is the only summer hiker to be killed in the dike.
Mellor’s book rates the Trap Dike as a class 3 climb, but a more recent guidebook, Adirondack Rock, rates it as class 4.
Mellor said the line between third- and fourth-class climbs is so fuzzy that either rating of the Trap Dike will find supporters and detractors. In his view, though, a better example of a fourth-class climb would be a big mountain out west where partners tie into the same rope and climb simultaneously, stopping to belay only on the more difficult sections. In the Adirondacks, winter climbers sometimes employ this technique on the north face of Gothics and on the slide that parallels the Trap Dike.
Ultimately, the difference between a third- and fourth-class route is subjective. It will depend on the climber’s perception of difficulty, which in turn will depend on his skill. Regardless of “official” ratings, each climber or hiker must judge for himself how much risk a route entails for someone of his ability.
Mellor said the principle applies to life as well as climbing.
“Everything is on a spectrum. It’s safer probably not to get out of bed,” he said. “If you go downstairs and get a cup of coffee, you’re starting to take risks.”
Traditionally, hikers have gone part way up the Trap Dike and then climbed out onto the nearby slide to reach the summit of Mount Colden. Tropical Storm Irene created a new slide at top of the dike, providing a new route to the summit.
Click here to read a detailed account of climbing the Trap Dike before Irene.
Photo of Trap Dike after Irene by Carl Heilman II.
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.