Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Climbing the North Face of Gothics

A wall of rock 1,200 feet high and a quarter-mile wide tends to stand out. Indeed, the North Face of Gothics is one of the most conspicuous landmarks of the High Peaks, drawing the eye whether you’re in downtown Lake Placid or on top of Mount Marcy.

Yes, the North Face is big, and if you want to climb it, plan on a big day. The same goes for the other two rock walls on Gothics: the South Face and the Rainbow Slide. All three offer rock climbers spectacular routes in a wilderness setting to one of the Adirondacks’ most beautiful summits.

I first climbed the North Face in August 2006 with Alan Wechsler and Nola Royce, who has made it to the highest point on five of the seven continents (she has no interest in summiting Everest or Aconcagua). We went up a route called New Finger Slide, first done in 1990 by Don and Janet Mellor and Bill Dodd.

New Finger Slide is rated only 5.1 on the climber’s scale of difficulty, which ranges from 5.0 to 5.15. Although an easy climb as far as technical difficulty, it’s demanding in other ways. To reach the start, you must hike nearly six miles from the Garden trailhead in Keene Valley, including a mile of bushwhacking. That’s a long haul if you’re carrying ropes, carabiners, cams, and other climbing paraphernalia. And New Finger route is one of the longest in the Adirondacks (1,200 feet). In 2006, we did it in nine pitches. For most pitches, Alan would go ahead, set up an anchor, and then belay Nola and me, one at a time. Safe but slow, even a bit tedious.

As it turned out, the climb itself took six and a half hours. The whole trip took eighteen hours. We had left the Garden at 6:15 a.m. and got back at midnight.

Since then I had dreamed of returning to the North Face to do New Finger by myself, without ropes or other climbing gear. By traveling light and climbing solo, I could knock many hours off the time. Yes, I would be unprotected if I were to fall, but I figured I could manage a 5.1 route without trouble. After all, I had soloed harder routes on Chapel Pond Slab several times. I discovered, however, that perceptions of difficulty can differ and that conditions can change.

Even though it would be a shorter day, it would not be a short day. So I got to the Garden early, hitting the trail at 6:20 a.m. I wore trail-running shoes and carried a light day pack with my climbing shoes inside. Walking fast and occasionally jogging along the Phelps Trail, I covered the 3.3 miles to Johns Brook Lodge in just under an hour. I crossed Johns Brook and Orebed Brook and followed the Orebed Brook Trail to a stream that drains the North Face—reached 4.75 miles from the Garden.

Rock-hopping up the stream, I eventually came to bedrock slabs that led to the base of the North Face. On the slabs I saw a small jawbone with a long incisor. I later sent a photo to Larry Master, a zoologist from Lake Placid, who said the bone probably came from a beaver. “Beavers can forage far upslope, but a predator might also carry body parts upslope and stash them,” Master said in an e-mail.

A mile from the trail, I arrived at the Dugal Slab, a huge block that rests against the base of the cliff. In 1966, Dugal Thomas and Molly McNutt established a 5.7 route that started at the slab that now bears his name. There are two other 5.7 routes on the North Face. In 1948, Jim Goodwin described another, easier climb, now known as the Old Route, but the guidebook Adirondack Rock says this route is overgrown and no longer considered a rock climb.

Even if you’re not a climber, the North Face is a worthy destination. Standing below this immense amphitheater of rock, you get a sense of awe not felt when viewing Gothics from Lake Placid or a distant summit. You feel puny, actually. But bear in mind that you will need to travel off trail for a mile—a hard mile with substantial elevation gain. Hikers who want to continue to the summit can bushwhack left from the North Face to the True North slide (see sidebar).

Climbing the North Face is a breathtaking experience. Not only does it give you a heady sense of “exposure”—the empty space beneath a climber—but you feel immersed in the wild as you scramble up ancient rock with ever-widening views of mountains.

Given its northwest aspect, the face doesn’t get a lot of sun, making it attractive to moss and lichen. New Finger Slide avoids most of the vegetation by taking an indirect route up the cliff. To reach the start, you traverse right for a hundred yards from the Dugal Slab, following the base of the cliff, until reaching an obvious right-rising corner. Just beyond is an expanse of bare rock that extends downward a few hundred feet.

This spot is 5.8 miles from the Garden. After changing into my rock shoes, I scrambled up the corner. There were plenty of handholds and footholds, but the exposure was immediate, given the expansive slab below. From the top of the corner, the route traverses to the right along vegetated ledges to a short strip of clean rock at the North Face’s right margin. After ascending this, climbers are supposed to cross a mossy slab to reach another strip of clean rock next to an island of trees. I was afraid of slipping on the moss, so I went up the cliff’s edge, grabbing onto grasses and shrubs, to find a safer place to cross to the clean rock.

After climbing around the tree island, I followed a large crack that soon became a crevice wide enough to stand in. From this secure perch, I gazed up at the route’s crux: a hundred feet of steep slab. The slab was rather featureless, with few cracks or bulges for holds. I would have to rely on the sticky soles of my shoes to keep me on the rock. Stepping out of the crevice, I climbed slowly and carefully, pressing my palms and toes against the slab, looking for tiny nodules and indentations that might provide additional purchase. High on the pitch, I scrambled over a section partially covered by dusty gray (and slippery) lichen. Mindful that several hundred feet of rock lay below me, I was relieved to reach the safety of a ledge.

Although the crux is rated only 5.1, I thought it similar to sections on Chapel Pond Slab that are rated 5.4 and 5.5. Later, I e-mailed Don Mellor about the rating.

“When we arrived right after the slide had occurred, the rock was clean and the crystals made climbing easy. I bet that the slightest, even imperceptible lichen would make it a whole lot harder,” he said. “If you are way up there without a rope, that makes a huge difference.”

The message here is that New Finger Slide is not to be undertaken lightly. If you’re a slide climber don’t be fooled by the name: the route is much steeper than the typical Adirondack slide.

Above the crux, the rock is more featured and mellower, but you can find steep sections to test your friction-climbing skills. The upper parts of the route offer fantastic views of the North Face and the large new slide on Saddleback, created by Tropical Storm Irene. Beauty also exists close at hand in the bluets and mountain sandwort blooming in plush green moss.

When the rock ran out, I tramped a short distance through the krummholz to arrive on the summit of Gothics at 11:20 a.m., exactly five hours after leaving the Garden. Bob and George Marshall and their guide, Herb Clark—the original Forty-Sixers—ranked Gothics fifteenth out of the forty-six High Peaks for its views. Many hikers think they shortchanged Gothics, and looking out at the green sea of mountains, I joined the dissent. Some thirty High Peaks can be seen from the summit, including Marcy, Colden, Algonquin, Big Slide, Dix, and Giant. It’s a view not to be missed.

After hogging down the scenery, I decided I must be going. If I had been in a hurry, I would have descended to the col between Gothics and Saddleback and taken the Orebed Brook Trail and the Phelps Trail back to the Garden. But I had plenty of daylight, so I opted to go in the opposite direction over three more High Peaks—Armstrong, Upper Wolf Jaw, and Lower Wolf Jaw—and then descend to the Johns Brook valley via the Bennies Brook slide, which was greatly enlarged by Irene.

I was halfway up Armstrong when I realized I had left my camera on Gothics. With some reluctance and much cursing, I turned around and climbed Gothics again.

“Are you looking for a camera?” a young man asked when I got back to the summit.

“Yes, I am,” I replied. “Did you find it?”

“I just picked it up. I was going to give it to the lost-and-found at the lodge.”
His name was Ben Goldschmidt. An employee of High Peaks Cyclery in Lake Placid, he spends his days off climbing mountains, lots of them. On this day, he had already been on Saddleback and Gothics and planned to take in Armstrong and Upper Wolf Jaw as well. It didn’t take much prodding for him to agree to add Lower Wolf Jaw to the itinerary.

Ben and I hiked the rest of the afternoon together, bagging the three other peaks over the next two and a half miles. We got to Armstrong at 1:05 p.m., Upper Wolf Jaw at 1:35, and Lower Wolf Jaw at 2:50. We descended the other side of the last summit on a steep, eroded trail and then picked up a short herd path leading to the Bennies Brook slide. I had climbed Bennies a few times before Irene but had not seen it since. I was astounded by the change. The storm’s heavy rains had stripped away nearly all the remaining vegetation and widened and lengthened the bedrock pathway. It now is well over a mile long, extending from the Lower Wolf Jaw ridge all the way to Johns Brook.

Descending Bennies, though laborious (I used my hands in some steep sections) proved to be a spectacular finish to a spectacular adventure. A backcountry rock climb, four summits, and a slide—all told, more than thirteen miles of travel, with more than five thousand feet of elevation gain. No wonder this old fellow started to lag behind young Ben as we hiked back to the Garden on the Southside Trail (partly washed out by Irene). Still, we got back to our cars at 6:30 p.m., long before midnight.

Photo: The North Face of Gothics by Phil Brown.

More stories about the Adirondacks can be found in each issue of Adirondack Explorer, the non-profit news magazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park.  Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

7 Responses

  1. Brian Mann says:

    Phil – I loved the article. Beautifully written. I think it would be a good idea for you to write an honest-self-appraising article about the safety and smarts of making these treks solo. I worry that others might be encouraged to follow in your footsteps without understanding the (really very significant) risks that you take. I’m not suggesting that you discourage others from pursuing true solitude and solo treks. They are an important part of the wilderness experience. But I think a lot of your readers may not grasp the unique challenges and dangers that they bring.

    –Brian, NCPR

  2. JimH says:

    Sounds like fun…Where are the photos?

  3. dave says:

    This article that Phil wrote last year comes close to the type of commentary Brian M. suggests.

    Pasting link here in case anyone missed it, it is a good read: http://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/2011/05/02/on-heroes-and-fools/

  4. Phil Brown says:

    Brian, you raise valid points. I hope people will know that they should not undertake the same outing without understanding the risks involved. I did include some cautions in the story.

    @Jim, we ran a number of photos with the article in the current issue of the Adirondack Explorer.

    @Dave, thanks for the link. That should give people an appreciation of the risks involved.

  5. Paul says:

    I think that if you talk with many experienced mountaineers in the big mountains some will tell you that they expect to be killed doing what they do. And some of them are. Look at what just happened to Glen Plake. Very lucky to be alive. But Brian is right many people who hit these mountains don’t have a clue.

  6. Really enjoyed this piece Phil. I would point out that a solo ascent of New Finger is not much riskier than a roped ascent with a partner. My recollection from climbing it (roped, with a partner) 10 years ago is that the roped pitches offer few opportunities for protection: essentially a leader is exposed to the same risk that an unroped soloist faces.

  7. Phil Brown says:

    Jeff, you raise a good point. A leader cannot put in protection on the crux, so he risks a big fall even if roped. On the other hand, a belayer would prevent him from falling all the way to the bottom of the slab and would be there to assist in event of an accident.