Friday, April 3, 2015

Winter Mountaineering: North Face Of Gothics

gothics_n_face_direct_smallThe North Face of Gothics is one of the area’s classic backcountry face climbs. Add winter conditions and you set the scene for an exciting alpine adventure.

It’s over 1,000 feet tall and more than a quarter-mile wide so it’s an obvious feature when looking southeast from Lake Placid.

Until late winter or early spring, the face is often a landscape of steep windblown rock with areas of thin ice. Even then it’s usually a mixed bag of ice, snow, neve (consolidated snow) and bare anorthosite. Avalanches are a real possibility given the right conditions. Additionally, fresh snow can make route finding difficult by obscuring the underlying terrain so it’s easy to climb oneself into a precarious position.

Don Mellor states in Blue Lines, his ice climbing guidebook, “Remember that when the ice is lean and the wind howls across gray spindrifted rock slabs, this Adirondack north face can be a test.”

Over the last three weeks, I’ve taken three long duration backcountry climbs on Gothics’ east faceColden’s west face and in Panther Gorge. It was high time for a trip with the sole purpose of relaxing on familiar terrain. Additionally, I looked forward to carrying a pack without the weight of a rope. I packed only a backcountry harness, an ice screw, a few slings and carabiners in case of emergency.

The weather forecast called for crystal clear skies, low winds and an eight-degree start. Temperatures were supposed to spike into the 40s. This was quite a stark contrast to our January 2014 trip up the New Finger Slide of the North Face in whiteout conditions with 40 mph winds and a sub-zero wind chill.

We left the Garden at 8:30 am and reached the base of Gothics at 11:30. The approach was hard-packed and in similar condition to the Orebed Brook Trail. My excitement peaked when I spied the face through the sunlit trees. Freshly fallen snow from the day before was beginning to melt on every branch. The trees sparkled as thousands of tiny icicles refracted light. Icy drainage slabs were buried under feet of snow with ski tracks zig-zagging back and forth across the path.

We’re usually alone on our ventures, but on this day we found 10 people near or on the face. Three climbers were already a few hundred feet up the “Old Route”. Two women with skis were working their way up the extreme left-hand side through deep snow to the True North slide. Three others were roping up to climb a route to the left of our proposed route.

The view was breathtaking. The face felt welcoming rather than oppressive as it has in the past – most of it covered with powder. Only the ice and a few of the steepest stone pitches were blown clean. What was under the snow? Thick ice? The very thin ice known as verglas? Consolidated snow? Bare stone?

As we approached the base, my partner suddenly yelled in alarm. The three un-roped climbers were down-climbing. One lost his footing and slid about 200 feet to the bottom. He called out that he only sustained a twisted ankle, not something more severe.

Kevin MudRat MacKenzie on Gothics North Face 2015 March 29. Photo by NP Photography.I continually assess external conditions, and my own internal conditions, during each outing. While it didn’t shake my confidence, the fall triggered a hyper-pensive state of mind and sharpened my resolve to climb safely. Since we were also climbing without a rope, every crampon and axe placement was crucial.

My climbing partner and I followed the roped party up a short pitch of vertical ice and onto the bottom of the face. The hollow thud of late spring ice answered as I kicked the crampons in. The next hundred feet was consolidated snow. Where the other team trended up toward the northeast shoulder of Gothics, we angled right toward a more direct and exposed ice line.

My partner aimed for the center of the three-inch thick ice flow. I felt more secure skirting the edge and sometimes climbing with a little snow underfoot. This was entirely psychological since only the tips of the ice tools and crampons held me to the 45 degree slope of snow covered verglas.

Suddenly, my axe rang out as it struck rock under the powder. I grumbled knowing  I’d have to resharpen the picks after the trip. I poked around until I found ice and ascended into neve near a couple thin alders. They offered the only protection, and a welcome respite, in the first 400 feet.

The snow got deeper as we approached larger tree islands. I led the way and photographed from the protection of a mature alder. The carabiners and slings hung unused from my waist. This was like so many climbs before. It felt good to be perched on steep terrain under bright skies with the Upper Great Range in the background.

The next couple hundred feet entailed climbing through deep snow and some wind-packed slab – I’d rather have ice. We spied a wide swath of exposed climbing on neve and ice between tree bands. This route led to the summit ridge. I traversed left and life suddenly became very interesting.

An underlying bulge made the slope steeper than 45 degrees – no problem. The ice thinned slightly, but I adjusted my technique to compensate. I continued left and felt the crampon tips catch, barely. Expecting to reach the neve I instead found myself on a large section of powder covered rock.

Cornice on Gothics by Kevin MudRat MacKenzieThe crampons held on the nubs of stone as I swept away the snow in search of ice. An eighth inch would have made me secure, but lichen covered stone was all I found. It seemed an eternity.

Eventually, a small area of verglas accepted the tip of one axe. I breathed deeply and continued without looking at the bottom, 800 feet below.  Inch by precious inch I carefully lowered myself until a crampon finally caught some ice and a few minutes later the ordeal was over. My friend asked why I backed down. Was I tired? Before I could reply, I heard the sound of his axes on rock. The answer was obvious.

The climbing got easier and we caught-up to the other group. The last part of the route led along a narrow flow of ice with firm neve underfoot. A few minutes later we topped the ridge and broke through an eight-foot cornice to the Range Trail ending a spectacular climb. Our line had covered about 1,800 feet, over 920 feet of elevation gain from the pitch of vertical ice at the base.

The ridge behind the cornice was sheltered and warm. I took off my fleece top and  sat shirtless while we ate lunch and it dried atop a nearby evergreen. I’m ready for warmer weather.

We exited down the Gothics cable route to the Range Trail/Orebed Brook Trail junction at the Gothics/Saddleback col. The last seven miles were relaxing and we arrived at the trailhead almost ten hours from the start. The packed approach to the face paid dividends in a relatively short day on a classic Adirondack face.

Click here for the full photo set of the trip.

Gothics North Face

YouTube video

Photos, from above: Climbing an ice line near the bottom of the face; MudRat climbing on a snow slope (photo by NP Photography); snow cornice on Gothics’ summit ridge; and a mosaic of key locations on the route (background photo taken 2012). Video: perfect early spring climbing conditions.

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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.

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