Monday, May 12, 2014

New State Lands: Sugarloaf Cliffs Open For Climbing

Sugarloaf Cliffs Carl HeilmanI recently got my first close look at the cliffs on Sugarloaf Mountain near Indian Lake, which are now open to rock climbers as a result of the state’s latest acquisition of former Finch, Pruyn lands.

The second edition of Adirondack Rock—due out later this year—lists eighteen routes that were put in over the years (presumably without the landowner’s knowledge), but there is potential for many more. The climbing portion of the cliff is 450 feet high and more than a quarter-mile wide.

Last Thursday, I visited Sugarloaf with Will Roth, an EMS climbing guide and instructor in North Country Community College’s outdoor-recreation program. Will had his eye on Heroes, a 400-foot route on the right end of the cliff. The guidebook gives it three stars out of five for the overall quality of the climbing.

Heroes is rated 5.8 on the Yosemite Decimal System scale of difficulty. Thus, it’s considered a moderate route—easy for Will, difficult for me.

Our day did not go quite as planned. First, we discovered that the dirt portion of Cedar River Road, which leads to the cliffs, was closed for mud season. We had to walk more than a mile down the road. We then bushwhacked through prickly woods and over a talus field to the base of the cliff. The walk and bushwhack took about an hour.

Once at the base, we spent a long time examining the features of the cliff and referring to pages from the future guidebook (thanks, Jim Lawyer) to figure out where Heroes started. By the time we were roped up to climb, it was 1:30 p.m.

Looking up, we could see far above us a huge left-facing corner, the main feature on the third pitch. “That corner up there looks incredible. It looks amazing,” Will said. “Getting to it is going to be the adventure.”

The guidebook warns that the first pitches on Sugarloaf routes are often grungy, and this was no exception. Will walked up a steep, grassy slope until he found clean rock. Soon after came the one of the day’s trickiest moves: a big step onto steep slab with virtually no handholds or toeholds. Will made several feints, advancing and retreating, before hazarding the delicate move.

Watching from below, I wondered why it took so long. When it came my turn to climb, I found out. Even though I was on top rope—and thus, unlike Will, would not have taken a tumble if I slipped—I too hesitated before taking the step. Not only was the slab steeper than it appeared from the ground, but it was covered with dry, dusty lichen, which made it slippery. Lichen is a consequence of the cliff’s not having been climbed frequently.

Continuing upward, Will climbed over easier terrain before reaching another difficult spot. After exploring several options, he finally scrambled over a sort of block, followed a finger crack along a wall, surmounted the wall, and anchored himself to the cliff next to a spruce tree.

In all, he had climbed nearly 200 feet, combining the first pitch with most of the second pitch. Along the way, he had to clean away lichen and moss from the rock and dirt from the cracks.

“The cliff is pretty cool,” Will said when I reached the belay ledge. “It needs significantly more traffic to clean up the lower pitches to make them more enjoyable.”

One thing in Sugarloaf’s favor is that it faces southeast and so is relatively sunny and dry—not the best environment for lichen and moss. Will speculated that if climbers clean the routes, whether deliberately or by simply climbing, they will stay clean. The big question is whether Sugarloaf will attract many climbers.

“The cliff itself is amazing. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and some people like that,” Will remarked.

All of Will’s gardening and route finding had eaten up a lot of time. It was now 3:30 p.m. If we tried to finish the route, we might find ourselves rappelling or walking out in the dark. So we wrapped the rope around the spruce and lowered ourselves. We were disappointed to miss out on the clean rock and interesting features of the upper pitches, not to mention the views, but now that Sugarloaf is in the public Forest Preserve, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to return.

After the road is open.

Photo of Sugarloaf Mountain by Carl Heilman II.

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine 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.

3 Responses

  1. Mike Rawdon says:

    Sounds like a typical day of ADK crag exploration! AFAIK, Heroes has not yet seen a complete second ascent.

  2. Laurie Dirkx says:

    Would hiking into this cliff provide views, for the non-climbing folk who’d like to see this cliff? If so, exactly where is this access from off of Cedar River Road?

    • Phil Brown says:

      I don’t know of any hiking trail to the top of the cliff. The views from the base are not great.

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