Saturday, June 1, 2013

Rock Climbing at Lost Brook Tract

IMG_6727Last weekend I got a last minute performing gig at the Indianapolis 500 (which, goodness gracious, is the largest event I have ever seen in my life) and an unexpected financial windfall.  That allowed me to indulge myself a little bit and make a purchase to which I have been looking forward for some time.  I went to my local outdoor equipment store and picked out rope, belay devices, webbing, locking carabineers and – joy of joys – some new climbing shoes. 

I haven’t rock climbed in more than a decade – nothing technical anyhow – and  I haven’t done any serious pitches in two decades, but this summer is going to be my chance to change that before age robs me of such abilities as remain in my body.  The best part is that I’m going to do it on my own land, a circumstance that still has me pinching myself.

The impetus for this purchase is my great niece Quinn, who at age thirteen is developing into a serous climber.  My brother Steve, Quinn’s grandfather and a lifelong athlete himself, tends to brag on her from time to time, such as whenever he opens his  mouth to speak.  He told me more than a year ago that Quinn, who already possessed a myriad of other skills and interests, was taking to wall climbing at the local gym and that she was a real talent.   I didn’t doubt this entirely but I took his claims about her marvelous capabilities with a grain of salt.  Nonetheless I wrote Quinn, told her a little bit about Lost Brook Tract and invited her to climb there, informing her that I would be purchasing gear for a little fun this summer.

Then a couple of months ago Quinn’s mother emailed me some photographs from a Northeast regional climbing competition in which Quinn participated and nearly got a first place in her age group, missing it by one hold.  I opened the thumbnails and any skepticism over her climbing acumen evaporated like my mother-in-law’s mood when I beat her at cribbage.  Here, depicted in a serious of pictures working up the wall, was a climber who had it.  I was never a very good rock climber, however I have learned enough and done enough to know what good looks like.  The moves, the balance, the strategy working the route – this young lady was clearly imbued with a natural feel for it and had scads of potential.

My pictorial revelation necessitated a change in plans.  While I resolved to go ahead and purchase the gear to do some top rope climbing with Quinn at Lost Brook Tract, its modest vertical was clearly not going to be an adequate challenge for her.  So I placed a call to Vinny McClelland, got a recommendation for a guide and put together a little surprise present  for Quinn.  I have not yet revealed this surprise to her but suffice it to say that you savvy Adirondackers will know where she’s going if I tell you that when Matilda hitched up more than a century ago she had a good view of the rock in question.

In the mean time I will confine myself to climbing at Lost Brook Tract (at least for this summer).  Our summit, Burton’s Peak, is little more than a knob on a ridge that continues on for more than a mile before eventually culminating in a higher mountain.  But just below 3,600 feet Burton’s Peak becomes a pronounced promontory, thanks to the glacial sculpting that is characteristic of the range.   The result is that while there is no single wall of more than a few dozen feet of vertical extent, there is a lot of climbable rock on our land.

The northeastern side of Burton’s Peak is the steepest side overall, rising two-thousand-five-hundred feet above the valley it overlooks before culminating in a headwall that affords a jaw-dropping sixty mile view of the Giant Mountain system and the Green Mountains beyond.  The modest trail I cut to the summit involves a little bit of scrambling up the left side of this headwall.  A head-on approach would be technical, although in very short pitches as there is at most fifteen feet of rock at a time.  Below, in various places there are little sections of rock that while short, present some hard vertical.  One in particular, not far from our lean-to, looks to me like 5.10 and up.

The southern side of Burton’s Peak just below the summit was scoured to bare rock by the Wisconsin Ice Sheet.  Here, there is a lovely cliff of exposed anorthosite, that is naturally laid out in two sections, one maybe thirty-five feet and one closer to forty feet.  These beckon me.  The taller cliff is a scramble, albeit not one that would feel safe to the average hiker.  The shorter one is an easy enough rock climb but is a perfect candidate for some top rope fun.  It will be my first destination.

Oddly, though I have climbed around in the Adirondacks for five decades or so, my own little cliff will be my first time doing a canonical top rope in the park.  I’ve roped  myself or the kids in here and there to rappel or to try something tricky in places like Indian Pass but almost all of my rock climbing in the park has been either a wonderful scramble or an asinine attempt that was stupid to do without gear.  That’s the danger of being a middling rock climber with little fear of heights: you know how to go at things you really shouldn’t.

I’m certain that no one in my reading audience can relate to asinine ventures onto Adirondack rock.  My all-time champion wasn’t a rock climb per se, just a little hike up the Colden trap dyke.  Like a few too many things I do I tried it on a whim, by myself, not having read a guide or anything.  As it was my first time in the dyke I did something I now know is a common error: I exited too early and found myself on a steeper grade than I had expected.  It had been rainy the night before so the rock was wet and slick in a few spots and I had mediocre boots, not climbing shoes.  I should have immediately gone back down into the dyke and made my way higher but I could see that the grade lessened maybe sixty feet above me and there was a nice, big, easy crack to work right in front of me.   Why would a moderately experienced rock climber ignore the opportunity to work a nice, big, easy crack?

Of course the grade steepened and the crack petered out, but not until it had led me horizontally out onto the face, away from the dyke with nothing but angled rock below me terminating in the cliffs of Avalanche Pass.  Suddenly rain started bucketing down, thunder crackling off the surrounding slopes and rock faces.  For a few anxious minutes, my boots slipping on the damp rock, I faced the proximate possibility of sliding loose and not being able to arrest a long, accelerating  downward slide followed by a three hundred foot plunge into Avalanche Lake.   The less-steep section of the climb was no more than fifteen or twenty feet above me and while it was tantalizingly close, my body’s instinct was telling me that it was folly to go for it.  I had that watery feeling that all climbers and hikers have felt at least once in their lives: a continued ascent feels suicidal, a descent feels impossible and staying put seems no better than a matter of waiting for the inevitable.   I felt panic surging.  I even took off my boots, hoping bare feet might feel more sure on the dimpled rock but that turned out to be an immensely stupid consideration.

I sat in front of a tiny bush, feeling none too secure even at that, and willed myself to breathe and calm down.  The tiny crack seemed a treacherous and unreliably serpentine line to use in order to go back down but reason prevailed and down I worked.  The first few feet were gut-wrenching, even in a good, balanced, reversed position but then the crack widened and the danger was over.  I was quite relieved to reenter the trap dyke that afternoon, I must say.

I have no intention of creating similar drama on Lost Brook Tract.  I’ll teach Amy proper belaying technique and don my climbing shoes with relish.  Is there anything more satisfying than a good climbing shoe in sure contact with Adirondack anorthosite?  Is there any better rock on which to climb on the planet?  The route up my small cliff near the summit of Burton’s Peak will take me above the tree tops after twenty feet or so, opening a vista that encompasses much of the Great Range as well as the back side of a few peaks people rarely see from the angle we have.  A wide basin of virgin forest – balsam, spruce and birch – will stretch out below me.

The knots will be sure and elegant (my main sport as a youth was competitive sailing where knots are nearly as important to safety as they are in climbing; I love knots, often using knots in my climbing that are not commonly employed).  The harness will feel strong and reassuring.  My head and heart will feel young and vital.  From that elevated yet intimate perspective surely Lost Brook Tract, with its deep, mossy forests and grand vistas, with its tumbling and coursing mountain stream and its beautiful, open rock, will look like what it is: a little paradise on Earth.

Photo: Amy scrambling up the headwall, Burton’s Peak

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

2 Responses

  1. john says:

    Your wonderful tales brighten my days and remind me of the importance
    of organizing for the next phase of our family’s “explorations of the universe,”
    in particular, parts Adirondack.

    We all thank you for your sharing!!!

  2. Paul says:

    Pete, did you win the Indy 500? What a great race this year. Congratulations! I had no idea that you use Pete Nelson as a pen name. Now we know who you are (Tony Kannan)!

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