Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Don Mellor: Climbing OK Slip Falls

Don Mellor on ok slip fallsIt was suggested to me recently that “if God wanted us to climb ice, He wouldn’t have made it so slippery.” Theology aside, there’s probably some inverse truth here: we want to climb ice precisely because it’s so slippery. We shouldn’t be doing it. It defies everything fundamental about the world as we learned it. It breaks some heavy rules.

Still, we put nasty spikes on our boots and grab tight to a razor pair of ice claws—and there we are, halfway up a hundred-foot icicle. Right where we aren’t supposed to be. And the bliss defies words.

This is a piece about the ice-climbing prospects of OK Slip Falls, jewel of a long-awaited land acquisition, one that has gotten a fair amount of coverage in this publication. Just to see this waterfall once took either connections, patience—or stealth.

Google it, and you see what the falls inspires in the imaginations of Adirondack wilderness explorers. There’s a lot of spray (sorry, I’ll try to avoid the tempting puns, OK?) about the elusive OK Slip Falls, the one they call the highest in the Park. You’ll find page after online page of chatter about its inaccessibility (without trespassing), about guided raft trips that scurry up into the side gorge just past Blue Ledge on the Hudson River for a peek, about the dream that someday the public will gain access and maybe even enjoy a path from Route 28 to the top of the falls, about three miles in.

Well, it’s dream time. As of last year, the 2,823-acre OK Slip Falls Tract has joined the state’s Forest Preserve, and the mysterious cataract is ours.

I’m just finishing the second edition of Blue Lines: An Ice Climber’s Guide to the Adirondacks. Certainly, I’ll include OK Slip Falls as an ice climb. My fellow violators of divine law are all abuzz in anticipation, wondering if this waterfall, said to be 250 feet tall, might be one of the region’s best ice climbs.

Confession: in 1986 that question got the better of me, and in what remorseful politicians are wont to call “a youthful indiscretion,” a friend and I found ourselves skiing in from above to have a look. It was exciting, and given the implications, I was in a hurry. I arrived at the top of the falls well ahead of my more patient partner, so instead of waiting for him to set up a rappel, I butt-slid down through the steep woods on the side just to have a look.

The bottom was a huge spray cone of frozen mist. This stuff is remarkably easy to climb because tools sink deeply and such ice doesn’t tend to fracture. It’s the kind of ice that makes Keene Valley’s Roaring Brook Falls one of the best intermediate climbs in the country. I clicked on my crampons and tested out the lower section. Tools stuck securely. Conditions were perfect. Sun shined bright in a deep-blue winter sky. Heaven, it seemed, was smiling.

There comes a time in all of life’s decisions when turning back is harder than going forth. Such was my conclusion when I looked down from about fifty feet. Alone, ropeless, and as I said, breaking some heavy rules. The falls turned out to be well short of the reputed height, maybe eighty or ninety feet, though the snow cone at the bottom probably hid some of it. It was steep, but surprisingly easy. And just as my partner was arriving at the top of the falls so was I just smugly placing my last tool into the flat ice where the stream bed began its drop.

Boom! A fracture line ripped wall-to-wall across the falls right between my axes. I recall my heart pounding more loudly than the water screaming through the half-inch crack, or so it seemed. Boom! Another settling, and the fracture widened.

I’m not a brave guy. I don’t handle things like that well. By the time my friend had uncoiled and tossed me a rope to grab as I belly-flopped onto the top of the falls, I was crying.

I didn’t write that climb into my guidebook. I should respect private property, and I don’t want to stir controversies. But when I read about the state’s purchase of sixty-nine thousand acres from the Nature Conservancy, including the OK Slip Falls Tract, I certainly had to return, twenty-eight years later, just to check it out, to see how hard and how high it really was.

And so I did in early January. OK Slip Falls was rumbling, even after the Polar Vortex of the previous weeks. It was unlike any ice climb I’d ever seen. It loomed thick and green, with a yawning mouth alive with river. Trees below, deep in the woods, hung heavy under the weight of its frozen breath. At the risk of getting too poetic here, it really looked and sounded like a living thing, a very powerful living thing.

The crack that turned me back this time was a diagonal fissure that started in the lower left end of the falls and snaked about halfway up. It’s the same crack line that I saw in a photo that accompanied an editorial by Tom Woodman in the Explorer. About forty feet up, I stuck my head in and listened: creaking and groaning noises echoed deep within. Things were settling under the unthinkable weight of it all. Something was moving, and so was I. Less than a minute after receiving these messages from the deep, I had wrapped my lead rope around a big icicle and lowered myself to the bottom.

So what am I going to say about OK Slip Falls in Blue Lines II, due for publication next fall? First, I’ll clarify access, as it comes down from Albany. Then I’ll say that the falls is awesome, and not in the teenage hackneyed use of the word. Awesome in a biblical sense. I’ll say that it’s alluring because it’s big and steep but really easy. I’ll admit that I might not go back. I’ll suggest that climbers sit for a long spell of deep cold, maybe waiting till February. I’ll advise as well that this might not be just a typical ice climb, that it will ask for some wisdom, some sober decision-making. I won’t recommend it.

But for the disobedient or the impulsive, climbing the ice of OK Slip Falls will feel really good, those tools thunking so easily into frozen spray. It will feel sinfully exhilarating, just being on such a place when so many universal laws are suggesting otherwise.

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Don Mellor is a climber, teacher, writer, and guide who has spent most of his forty-plus years of climbing here in the Adirondacks. His resume ranges from multi-day ascents of the biggest rock walls in Yosemite to first ascents of ice routes in Newfoundland. Locally, he’s done more than a hundred first ascents, including Big Brother (NEI 5), Airie on Moss Cliff (5.12) and the first free ascent of Mental Blocks (5.12) on the big backcountry cliff of Wallface.

Among his books are four rock and ice guides to the Adirondacks, the instructional Rock Climbing: A Trailside Guide, American Rock, and Alpine Americas. Don also serves as a volunteer for the high-angle rescue team, the peregrine falcon restoration project, and the steering committee of the Lake Placid Outing Club.

But fundamentally he is a teacher, serving as school counselor at Northwood School, volunteering for a local children’s climbing program, and guiding professionally for more than thirty years. These days, he gets more of a kick seeing the light go on in the eyes of a newcomer than in any climbs he gets to do on his own.

One Response

  1. I was wondering when someone would write about this, Don! That was a riveting post with just the right amount of ‘poetic’. What would you say its true height is?

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