Friday, December 12, 2014

Slide Climbs: The Icy East Face Of Giant

Sunset on the summit of Giant Mountain.Giant Mountain offers a diversity of ascent options, but I’ll admit to playing favorites. Ascending the Ridge (Zander Scott) Trail and climbing the expansive East Face sets the stage for a day with breathtaking views on approach and a challenging slide climb as the main event. The steep dominant ledges that traverse much of the face set this apart from many other slides.

I’ve scaled the great scar several times over the years so finding new ways to breach the crux becomes part of the fun as I plan each outing.  For crying out loud, the beast is over ¼ mile wide and 1,200 high so the choices are as diverse as one’s imagination and comfort level.

Giant’s proximity to Route 73 also makes it a good option when seeking a late start as my partner, NP, and I had planned. My trips often begin at 5 am.  Here I can begin hours later and still return before dark. We parked near Chapel Pond and ascended the Ridge Trail under a bright morning sun. Conditions were perfect with temperatures hovering around 10 degrees at elevation.  There were stunning vistas from the southwest ridge.

Once at the Zander Scott/East Trail junction (East Trail leads to Rocky Peak Ridge), it only took a few minutes to descend to a tree adorned with a small disk marked “overlook.” Bushwhacking north two hundred feet led to the top southern edge of the East Face. We are both comfortable descending ice and snow so this entry point offered the most expeditious route to the bottom. (Descending is more dangerous than ascending so one can alternately continue to the col and bushwhack east between Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge.)

I thought back to January of 2013 when I began this climb in much the same way. A snowstorm followed by rising temperatures and rain left conditions questionable, but I found the face covered with consolidated snow and thin ice. I descended while studying the ledges above. The best line was 1,200 feet from the southern edge – slightly right of center. Clear ice followed the contours of the face perfectly and formed steps that allowed for a comfortable ascent.

While the slides of the western aspect of Giant (Eagle, Diagonal, Bottle) were mainly dry rock bordered by snow, our target was entombed in consolidated snow and ice – perfect. I wanted to climb a different route than 2013, so we searched for options. It took less than an hour to descend. Once at the bottom, we looked up and spotted the ideal line. The East Face changes aspect to the southeast at an obvious seam – the primary drainage and steepest area of the face. Most of the stone to the left of the seam was covered in ice. It’s no mistake this is home to several rock climbing routes listed in Adirondack Rock with ratings from 5.5 to 5.8 on the Yosemite Decimal System.

Brittle snow and low-angled ice – some only a fraction of an inch thick – made the initial climb fun and warmed us for the main event. It was a dramatic stage, set in the shadow of Giant. The sun had already fallen behind the southeastern ridge though it was only 2 pm.  Some gusty winds that accompanied our ascent, subsided as we neared the wall.

NP climbs up to the wall along the seam of the east and southeast face of Giant Mountain.NP led the way up tiers of ice to the bottom of the real climb. The tiers were the first steps of a nearly 100-foot pitch of sustained climbing with a couple short nearly vertical sections. As an experienced ice-climber, he rated it later as WI3 on the water ice grading system. I shot video while he buried his axes into the ice.  When my turn came the problems of life melted away. All my attention was on the axes and the front-points of the crampons.

Are there longer and more challenging ice climbs? Absolutely. This type of outing doesn’t appeal to everyone. It’s all about the setting; the challenge of getting to the location and then climbing in total isolation. For me, it offers freedom, expression and beauty.

My partner was comfortably seated in a pocket of snow when I crested the wall. After watching the clouds drift up Rocky Peak Ridge, it took another hour to traverse south to the center of the slide and bushwhack the 450 feet to the summit.

The sun was setting over the distant High Peaks as we made the summit. The landscape was lit in an array of colors and contrasting shadows. Wisps of vapor rose from the valley up the western cirque and crested the ridge. They diffused the light as they swirled past – the sunset surpassed any I’ve seen to date.

The colors deepened then faded to black as we descended the ridge. I often say it’s not a real adventure unless you exit in the dark. Though some may disagree, there’s a strange peace in hiking through a frozen wilderness by the light of a headlamp.

You can see the full photo set from Kevin’s trip here.


YouTube video

Photos: Top, reward for a successful climb-sunset on the summit; and below NP climbs up to the wall along the seam of the east and southeast faces. Video: Compilation of video and still photos by author and NP.

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Kevin MacKenzie is an Adirondack writer and photographer, licensed to guide in NY state and is associate registrar at St. Lawrence University. He lives in the Lake Placid area with his wife, Deb (also a freelance photographer). His articles and photographs have been featured such magazines and journals as Climbing, Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies, Adirondac, Adirondack LifePeeks, and Adirondack Outdoors. Many of Kevin and Deb's photographs are featured on the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center's website.

Kevin is an avid slide climber, rock/ice climber, winter forty-sixer, board member of the Adirondack Climbers Coalition and member of Climbing for Christ. His passion for climbing slides and pioneering new backcountry technical ice and rock routes takes him to some of the most remote areas in the High Peaks. His website and Summitpost forum page contain trip reports, photos and video from many of his explorations.

5 Responses

  1. James E. Close says:

    Kevin – that cover shot on the video is the calendar shot… go for it.

  2. Thank you, Jim. The entire day was worth the 15 minutes we lounged on the summit taking photos and watching the clouds drift.

  3. Laurie says:

    I am in awe of your abilities, and accomplishments, your strength and perseverance. You’re truly living life. Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. Coleen Snyder says:

    I am thrilled to hear of the adventures of the climbers—and see the pictures. I feel like I am participating in the experience because I, myself, can never be there—or view the wonderful sights that Kevin photographs.