Thursday, June 11, 2015

Panther Gorge: Climbing New Routes on Haystack

Panther Gorge Climbing-Allison RooneyMy anticipation reached a crux; the snow was gone and the rock was exposed. It was time to venture again into Panther Gorge. Two local climbers, Adam Crofoot and Allison Rooney, were my willing partners, eager to explore new routes in the gorge after a winter of backcountry skiing. The only disagreeable partner was the weather, which left us only a small window of time on Saturday, May 30th.

Adam and Allison trekked to Slant Rock Lean-to from the Garden in Keene Valley on Friday afternoon and I joined them near midnight. The lean-to was full, so I found a comfortable place in my bivouac sack in the woods nearby to watch the moonlit clouds blow by.

Beep, beep, beep! The imperative tone woke me at 4:45 am. We readied our gear, 140 meters of climbing rope and enough hardware to climb Half Dome. With sleepy resolve we began the trek up to the col between Haystack and Marcy – it got interesting in short order.

The bushwhack is through dense stiff-branched evergreens during the descent to the Panther Den Wall on Mount Marcy. Leading the way, I heard an explicative. A branch had whipped from Allison’s shoulder had poked Adam’s eye. We inspected it with concern, but he resolved to press on with blurry vision and a red eye.

The gorge was socked in with clouds which blew up from below as the trees shifted to and fro. Rather than descend deep into the gorge we sought dry stone on the Haystack side. Adam and I had spotted a wall the previous year. It was about 80 feet high with an obvious left rising ramp – the Ramp Wall.

Several cracks and interesting possibilities existed on the front. It was also separated from Haystack by a 15 foot wide corridor which we explored before committing to a route. Looking out the corridor felt like peering out of a tall tomb into a dreadful fog that obscured the view of the gorge. Allison decided to lead the first route.

She chose a line slightly uphill from the lower right-hand corner of the ramp. The face had horizontal scores and some interesting moves. Everything looks easier from below and the route was more challenging than it suggested. Forty feet higher, she entered a wide slot between opposing corners and disappeared onto the ramp.

After scrambling a few feet downhill she climbed a right rising crack and belayed me to her position. Adam followed. While managing the rope Allison managed to punch me in a region that’s best left unpublished (there’s a point to revealing this).

Adam led up a blocky corner holding himself in position by stemming, a position in which one’s legs brace on opposing faces. Following another crack he found the top and belayed from a huge boulder. We followed. There was no view, but we put up our first route of the day, “All Battered Boyfriends” rated at 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal System. Lest anyone take offense at the name, it was derived from the limb that pierced Adam’s eyelid and the light punch I received.

Our next route was about 50 feet uphill on the same wall. The line began along a grungy left facing corner below the upper end of the ramp. An appealing lightning bolt shaped finger crack drew Adam’s attention. He chose to lead even with a bloodshot and tearing eye.New Rock Climbing Route in Panther Gorge Loose blocks and a closer inspection of the crack changed the direction of his ascent. The crack was shallow and moss filled, but the adjacent face offered an easy climb up to a small ledge.

The final few moves involved climbing a wet corner with various cracks to an annoying moss cornice. I remember throwing my leg high to hook my heel on an algae covered ledge, wet from seepage—ah, backcountry climbing! Adam set an anchor and lowered from stronger trees above. The route became “Less Than Zero” rated at 5.5. It deserved less than zero rating stars.

Adam’s eye worsened as the day wore on, he was done leading and I wasn’t in the right head-space to lead. The clouds had lifted and we studied a cliff about 100 feet north beyond a small drainage. Allison was up to one more lead; this would become the gem of our new routes.

An appealing wall of flaking yet anchored stone with various cracks high above on its southern wall dictated the line. She led up a fist-wide crack in a square block to a right facing corner. Small loose looking blocks led ever upward to two small pillars. I belayed and watched her disappear before climbing a deep vertical crack about 80 feet above. I climbed next then Adam. The route was called Eye for an Eye rated at 5.8 YDS.

The sun finally came out and revealed a spectacular view of the various walls on Mount Marcy and valley below. This is what climbing in Panther Gorge is all about; new routes, rough terrain exuding a deep sense of wilderness and interpersonal camaraderie – not to mention a certain amount of blood, sweat and pain.

We moved into the mouth of the gorge and re-climbed a route up a free-standing pillar that Adam and I added last year – For Whom the Lichen Tolls (5.9), undoubtedly the best documented route on Mount Haystack. Allison led and Adam and I climbed in turn while thunderstorms began to build. The wind was stronger and droplets of rain intermittently dotted my sunglasses as the temperature dropped. It was time to retreat.

At this point, one might think the adventure was over, yes? No!

We bushwhacked out of the gorge avoiding a few deep pockets of snow (I couldn’t resist lobbing a snowball at Allison). Adam commented that he would laugh if we got back to the lean-to and it started to immediately rain. In truth we expected to be rappelling in a downpour and were prepared. To our delight that didn’t happen, but Adam’s comment was prophetic. It began to rain the moment we arrived at Slant Rock Lean-to at about 6 pm.

A strong storm blew over the region shortly after the rain began. Trees bend, lightening illuminated the skies and the rain blew sideways. We witnessed nature’s raw power in relative comfort with a hot dinner in hand from our sleeping bags. We committed our new routes to paper as the storm blazed. Two nice gentlemen from Canada shared the lean-to.

No sooner had the weather relented than a trail runner came up from the trail to the lean-to. Dressed in only a pair of spandex, short sleeved shirt, and thin rain poncho with a camel-back, he was trapped above treeline on Mount Haystack during the storm’s fury. He asked where a good crossing was since Johns Brook was running high. All along I had thought the roaring was the wind.

We walked down from the lean-to wide-eyed with disbelief. Small rivulets near the lean-to were swollen and the normally dry trail next to Slant Rock was totally under water. Johns Brook is normally ankle deep at the crossing, but it had risen four feet and turned into an impassable torrent (video). The runner, Richard, was shivering and temperatures were supposed to plummet to the upper-30s so we loaned him some clothing and suggested that he spend the night in the lean-to.

Storm after storm passed by during the evening. Cracks of thunder occasionally shook me from a light sleep. I think each of us checked on Richard at least once to see if he was OK. At 6 am he awoke and checked the brook. It was down enough for his departure, but the rain continued until late morning when we left in a light yet miserable drizzle.

Johns Brook was roughly thigh deep and the trail ran like a mountain stream for miles to the next crossing at Bushnell Falls. Here, the brook was about three times as wide with a greater volume. Strong waist-deep currents made the crossing more difficult, but we watched each other closely while fording the brook.

I arrived home around 3 pm and learned some tragic news. While we enjoyed the fury of the storm on the 30th and considered it yet another part of a wonderful adventure, Julie Belanger lost her life in Feldspar Brook on the other side of the mountain.

It leaves me unnerved to think back on our contrasting situations. The Adirondacks are a place of unparalleled beauty, full of adventure. Nature however, is a powerful force in any season. I like many, feel the loss of a fellow hiker – may she rest in peace.

Panther Gorge Ramp Wall

YouTube video

Exploring Panther Gorge: Previous Bushwhacks, Routes & Reports

  1. Grand Central Slide
  2. Down Grand Central Slide, up the Margin Slide & Skylight Bushwhack
  3. Marcy to Haystack Bushwhack with Great Range Traverse
  4. Marcy East Face Circumnavigation
  5. Climbing Marcy East Face
  6. Haystack Slides and Haycrack Route-Day 3 of 4 days in the gorge
  7. Climbing on the Haystack side of the gorge-All Things Holy
  8. Climbing on the Marcy Side & a Pillar on the Haystack Side-Wreck of the Lichen Fitzgerald & For Whom the Lichen Tolls
  9. Climbing on the Marcy Side-CrazyDog’s Halo & Watery Grave
  10. A Snowy Panther Gorge Bushwhack
  11. New Ice Route-Pi Day on Marcy

Photographs: Top, Allison Rooney leading a free standing pillar in Panther Gorge (photo by Adam Crofoot). Second, Adam Crofoot belays Allison on “All Battered Boyfriends”. Bottom, routes with key areas.

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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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