Panther Gorge’s scenic wonders were featured in Adirondac Magazine’s September/October issue—the secluded talus fields, beaver ponds, a waterfall, the moss covered forest floor and meandering brooks. Above the forest lies the technical climbing area. A multitude of cliffs adorn the sides, but one stands out from the rest – Mount Marcy’s Agharta Wall.
The name was inspired by the Miles Davis’ Agharta album after Christian Fracchia and Charlie Dickens made the first ascent of the Agharta ice route in 1999. The alternate meaning, a Buddhist reference to a mythical subterranean world “also fit with how the gorge feels,” noted Fracchia. Walk deep into the gorge, especially on a dreary day, and you’ll realize how true this is.
Rock climbing routes are continually being created or “put up” on cliffs inside the blue line. Adirondack Rock’s recently published second edition adds 1,162 new routes to those in the first edition. In comparison to many areas, Panther Gorge has seen little route development. The first recorded technical ascent in the gorge was in 1936 when local guide and climber Jim Goodwin ascended cliffs on the Marcy side of the north end; his exact line is not clear. Only eight more routes were put up between 1965 and 2010, five of which involved Bill Schneider during 2003 and 2004.
Since 2012, six more have been added. Two lie on Marcy’s East Face, three lie on the Haystack side (including a free-standing pillar) and another called Wreck of the Lichen Fitzgerald ascends the Agharta Wall.
If Panther Gorge was a roadside attraction, it would be riddled with named routes. Both the problem and the appeal of the gorge lies with its remoteness. Who wants to shoulder pounds of rock climbing gear in addition to the normal backcountry necessities nearly nine miles just to reach the base of routes that vary from 40 feet to around 700 feet in length? Only those drawn to long days with a healthy dose of bushwhacking enjoy such climbs.
Local climber Adam Crofoot and I added a route on the Haystack side of the gorge called All Things Holy this past July. I knew that wouldn’t be the end of our adventures. I’m trigger happy with a camera and always planning for future outings so we had several photos of the Marcy walls to study. We focused on several options, one being a series of connected cracks to the right of a huge square scoop in the Agharta Wall. Whether they would hold gear, be flakey, or require cleaning was conjecture. Part of the appeal is to see if the plan formed in comfort at home will work out when it counts on the rock.
In all likelihood if they didn’t completely connect, we still had a good chance to make it work. While I’m relatively new to technical rock climbing, Adam is a veteran and this didn’t appear to be as difficult as The Fountainhead, a 5.11d YDS rated route he put up in July. It took six lead attempts over four days to free it. This would take only a fraction of that effort.
Based on the photos and foreknowledge of the gorge, Adam packed enough gear to meet obvious challenges without overdoing it. We used his alpine setup – double ropes, cams, nuts and a variety of carabiners and slings. Poor weather was an issue so a couple layers, light gloves and a shell were critical. The mileage into the gorge also made pack weight and an early start time important considerations.
Into Panther Gorge
Darkness reigned over forest when we began the trek toward Marcy from Keene Valley. As the canopy began to glow with dawn, I grew concerned about the state of the cliffs. Would the stone be wet or did the winds overnight dry them out? Recent rains made conditions uncertain. A low cloud ceiling and dew point equal to the temperature also worked against us – “mountain weather,” as Adam might say.
The benchmarks along the approach passed quickly – Johns Brook Lodge, Bushnell Falls, Slant Rock. We crested the col between Marcy and Haystack just after 7:30, but the remainder of the route entailed a rugged bushwhack through wet forest.
Mount Marcy was capped with a cloud and the view was uninspiring as we broke onto a grassy slope at the base of the Panther Den wall. Always scouting, we surveyed a free-standing pillar across the drainage on Haystack’s flank. A crack on the west side might be an option for later in the day.
An hour after leaving the trail, we reached the base of the Agharta Wall and studied the last documented routes before Grand Central Slide – Toma’s Wall and The Cloudsplitter. Most of the wall was seeping water and small cascades turned into blowing mists as they flowed from various overhangs. Even the waist high ferns around us were sodden. A line to the left of what’s called the Black Buttress appeared to be dry – our silver lining! If the foul weather held off, we’d have a short window to try a new route.
Putting up Wreck of the Lichen Fitzgerald
After bushwhacking five minutes to the south and up a narrow streambed we found ourselves at the bottom-right of a huge square scoop . This dramatic feature is most commonly seen from Haystack’s ridge. The rocks that once filled the void laid in the forest-covered talus field below. The rugged beauty was magnificent and the clouds blew over Marcy’s summit and obscured the forest above.
As we donned helmets, harnesses, and climbing shoes I reminded myself of all the reasons I thought this was a good idea. It’s a duplicitous feeling when excitement wars with apprehension; there’s no guide to follow, no rating and no guarantee that the route will be a success. This is also the time when the connection to the outside world completely melts away as I immerse in the experience. These are some of the moments for which I live.
Adam led the route by face climbing up to a series of three corners. I watched from below as I belayed with a view over the edge of the scoop. His style was meticulous; it needed to be. It goes without saying that a mistake could be disastrous and rescue is over 24 hours away in the gorge. He’d inspect an area, place a cam, remove it, brush a little moss out of a crack and find a better location until satisfied with the placement.
About 75 feet up he traversed the steep face toward a crack below a small roof. Above the roof a right leaning crack led to an off-width crack (bigger than you can jam a fist into, yet too small for your body). Two alders grew above the roof near two loose blocks of stone. A final climb up the sharp vertical edge of the flake (forming the off-width crack) to the first belay station completed the first pitch.
It was my turn. Traversing across to the face below the roof was a difficult maneuver. Following the vertical crack up past the roof, I realized why he’d taken such care. The slope increased, the blocks seemed loose and the trees barred the way. While riding the thin edge of a large flake may not sound secure, I felt comfortable as I locked a leg behind it and caught my breath. It’s a thrill to straddle a thin vertical edge 100 feet above the forest floor. The edge grew thicker as I climbed. Looking into the deep crack, I realized the monstrous piece of anorthosite was detached, only gravity held it in place.
Pitch two followed an obvious line up the continuation of the crack as it leaned to the left. Adam soon disappeared from sight on the low angle stone above. As my turn came, I climbed up and found a network of hand/fist sized cracks. Each delineated another large piece of the face that would someday plummet into the gorge. Beyond, the rope disappeared above a steeper bulge and around a tree island.
The bottom of the third pitch began underneath a left-arching bulge adjacent to the top of the scoop – slightly to the left was the vertical edge of the void. A climb up the bulge onto the lower angled face was the trickiest maneuver of pitch three. We traversed slightly left toward a large chimney in the ledges above. Though the entire area was wet the feature looked appealing from a distance. A short section of slab above the chimney marked the end of the ascent at 3:30 p.m. Wreck of the Lichen Fitzgerald was born. We rated the route 5.8+ YDS (see Adirondack Rock’s “New Routes” page).
The weather had turned as we climbed the third pitch and clouds tightened their grip on Marcy with a light drizzle. The combination of rain, moderate winds and temperatures in the 50’s chilled us as we prepared to rappel. It felt more like autumn than mid-August. Three rappels over an hour’s time placed us back at our packs.
A Second Route and Exit
It’s not over until it’s over… we were 12 hours into the day and still had a little ambition. Since the weather had eased slightly, we opted to check out the previously mentioned free-standing pillar. Its position was convenient to our exit and about 525 feet south of the Phelps Trail. The climb is another story, but in the end we put up a forty-foot route that followed the finger/hand crack. In staying with the lichen theme it was named For Whom the Lichen Tolls (5.9 YDS).
We arrived back in Keene Valley at 10:30 p.m. some 16.5 hours after starting the trip. In a reflective mood, I thought about the reasons that I continually put myself through these sometimes exhausting days. The answers quickly jumped to mind; camaraderie, freedom, drawing closer to God, adventure and an unrivaled sense of accomplishment. Technology and inter-connectivity have a strong grip on daily life so cutting those ties and exploring such a wild place in my backyard is therapeutic. It offers a chance to reduce life to a lower common denominator and search for clarity. Many more days await and the allure remains.
Panther Gorge on Mountainproject.com: Includes additional routes and aerial map of the gorge.
Wreck of the Lichen Fitzgerald: Full trip report, additional photos and video documenting the first ascent of the route. Link also includes the first ascent of For Whom the Lichen Tolls on the free-standing pillar.
Photographs: Top, Kevin climbing below the roof on the first pitch of the route-by Adam Crofoot. Second, Mt. Marcy with route location on Agharta Wall. Third, Adam Crofoot climbing the top of the off-width crack at the bottom of pitch two. Bottom, route line with key areas.
Special thanks to Deb MacKenzie and Adam Crofoot.