Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Rock Climbing: A New Route Deep In Panther Gorge

Panther Gorge-The Huge ScoopI’ve taken thousands of photographs in the High Peaks, different areas I want to bushwhack, climb or pitch a tent. I’ve been focusing on Panther Gorge over the last several years and my collection of photographs has grown accordingly. I was studying the photos and dreaming of warmer days last winter when a close-up of a rectangular scoop at the southern end of the Marcy cliffs caught my eye. The lines in its face begged to be climbed.

The scoop is really a 200 foot tall slab capped with an intermittently vertical and overhanging cliff riddled with parallel cracks. The cracks run an additional 200 feet up through various smaller roofs, chimneys and overhangs to the forest above.

My attention further focused on the large central crack that dissects the area, a plumb line from the bottom to the top. It had potential to be a stellar route. Bill Schneider, a veteran of Panther Gorge, joined me on June 14th to attempt a climb of the crack – it was too wet so instead we added new route to the Panther Den Wall to the north. We called it Cat on a Wet Tin Roof on account of the wet conditions. Neither wet tin or wet cracks are easy to climb.

I don’t often give up on an idea once it’s drawn my attention, so I waited for drier weather to plan another trip. The Huge Scoop, our name for the area, is farther from the col between Marcy and Haystack than any current rock climbing route in the gorge except one on the East Face of Marcy. It’s an hour’s bushwhack after walking eight miles to the Marcy/Haystack col from the Garden Trailhead in Keene Valley. I explained the logistics to my friend and fellow climber Hunter Lombardi. He was up for the challenge.

We met in Keene Valley just before 5 am, discussed logistics, and began the long trek in. Panther Gorge dayhikes including a climb usually take from 13 to 18 hours if all goes well. We arrived at the north end of the gorge and began the bushwhack to the base of the first of several cliffs.

As we exited the dense spruce forest onto a grassy slope at the base of the Panther Den Wall, I heard Hunter exhale with awe. It was his first visit to this remote location. He turned and said, “This IS the promised land!” I retorted, “There’s no place quite like it, just wait until you see what lies below to the south.”

After braving talus, sodholes and more sharp branches, we arrived at the base of the Huge Scoop. It was 10 am. A horde of hungry blackflies arrived soon after. Each wall of the scoop is riddled with fractures shooting in every direction. It is a dizzying arena with the slab running at a slope of more than 45 degrees along a vertical wall on the right.

Hunter Lombardi on pitch 2 of Rumours of War in Panther GorgeI studied the cracks. The nine-mile walk would be for naught if the cracks were too wet to climb – it had been raining heavily, though not in several days. The running water Bill and I found weeks ago had been reduced to seepage, but the cracks were still wet. We discussed climbing an adjacent line and opted to make a decision at the base of the headwall. I led the first pitch of 180 feet up the technical slab placing protection only occasionally before setting up an anchor at the top.

A light wind kept the blackflies at bay as I looked at the nearby cracks and found that the center offered the driest option. Perhaps the day wasn’t lost. I belayed Hunter to my position while soaking in the scenery. The blocky overhangs and split anorthosite made me feel insignificant. Evidence of nature’s power surrounded us.

First ascents can be tricky and I feared the line might appear deceptively easy. I had studied every nuance of the crack over the last year, but a photograph only reveals so much information and reality sometimes surprises me in disconcerting ways. After significant internal deliberation, I conceded the lead. Panther Gorge is a bad place to test one’s skills only to find them lacking.

Hunter assessed our proposed line once he was below the wall; he felt confident that he could lead it. This would be our second pitch and, in hindsight, the crux.

Hunter describes the experience, “We weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into which is, perhaps, what drew me in the most. The gorge climbs are, for the most part, terra incognita and we are the first ones to explore this high in the scoop. There are few places nearby that offer that type of mystery.  I guess that’s what I love about the Adirondacks – it’s always an adventure.

“Pitches two and three were just as exciting and enjoyable as the slab climb. They were easy to protect, in fact they ate gear except for the last 25 feet of pitch two. The moves were fluid for the entire length – 405 feet – yet required diverse climbing techniques. The route was a combination of hand, finger and off width cracks as well as slab and chimneys.”

I always find it amazing that a single route can hold unique experiences for each climber depending on one’s experience level. While I found much of the route fluid, I also felt some moves were quite awkward. This cemented my confidence in the decision to relinquish the lead to Hunter.

A small grassy island 75 feet above the first pitch served nicely as a belay ledge. A vertical crack with a few cams anchored us securely in place as we discussed options for the third pitch. Weathered slab led to a rising ramp that led into a chimney with a hand crack in the back. Again, it was wet deep in the crack, but easier than below. I felt the sharp feldspar crystals dig into my arm as I jammed it into the crack to secure myself while looking at the scenery.

The cliff fell away along a distinct buttress that local climber Adam Crofoot and I climbed twice in 2014. My position offered a new perspective of other potential ascents in the scoop and up the buttress. Once above the crack and on lower angle slab, it was child’s play to climb to the spruce above and finish the route.

Panther Gorge-Pitch 2 Rumours of War

We used a single rope (as opposed to double ropes which would have doubled the length for both climbing and rappelling). Our options were somewhat limited since we could only rappel 100 feet at a time. We angled south to a small tree island adjacent to a large gully—another feature on Marcy that I was curious to explore.

For the second rappel, we again found trees strong enough to support our weight and descended the vertical wall of the gully. Twin Fracture Gully, as I labeled it, was roughly 25 feet wide. Two distinct fractures joined at a confluence about 100 feet below the top. Large overhangs capped each. Hunter coiled the rope and wore it backpack-style as we made a dicey descent down the chossy gully. Further along, we reached a large chockstone that blocked the way.

A few exposed moves led around the chockstone. Ten minutes later at 4:30 pm, we were back at the base of the slab (so were the blackflies). The route had taken six hours to complete. It was harder than we’d anticipated and I looked like I’d battled a bobcat. My arms, chest and back were scratched – a fair price to pay for adding another route in a new area. All that remained was to bushwhack out of the gorge and walk another eight miles back to the trailhead. We had one final bit of business to attend to before leaving, however.

The Huge Scoop’s central line begged for a route name with a dark theme—“Rumours of War” seemed appropriate. The Book of Revelation speaks of “wars and rumors of wars”. Even a secular interpretation holds meaning; if you want to climb this route, you will battle to get to the base and climb hard to top out. Make it a 19-mile round-trip dayhike for the full experience – to make it a war.

Hunter recounts, “The route was quite the journey.  Forget the hike in and the thick bushwhack; the gorge itself is expansive. Once you gain a glimpse of it for the first time, you’ll understand it’s pretty inexplicable. Kevin stated it best when he said that it’s like the promised land.

“It just looks so wild – perhaps more than anywhere in the park. The route offered a comprehensive introduction to the type of climbing that the gorge has to offer.  I couldn’t believe the quality of the rock – clean! Needless to say, I’ll be venturing back there again.”


Exploring Panther Gorge: Previous Bushwhacks, Routes & Reports:

  1. Grand Central Slide (w/Mark Lowell)
  2. Down Grand Central Slide, up the Margin Slide & Skylight Bushwhack (w/Greg Kadlecik)
  3. Marcy to Haystack Bushwhack with Great Range Traverse (Great DeRanged Traverse w/Greg Kadlecik)
  4. Marcy East Face Circumnavigation (w/Ranger Scott van Laer)
  5. Marcy: A New Route on the East Face (new rock climbing route w/Anthony Seidita)
  6. Haystack Slides and Haycrack Route-Day 3 of 4 days in the gorge (w/Anthony Seidita)
  7. Haystack: New Multi-Pitch Route-All Things Holy (w/Adam Crofoot)
  8. Marcy & Haystack: New Routes on the Agharta Wall  & a Pillar on Haystack-Wreck of the Lichen Fitzgerald & For Whom the Lichen Tolls (w/Adam Crofoot)
  9. Marcy: New Routes on the Agharta Wall-CrazyDog’s Halo & Watery Grave (w/Adam Crofoot)
  10. A Snowy Panther Gorge Bushwhack (w/Adam Crofoot)
  11. Marcy: A New Ice Route – Pi Day (w/Adam Crofoot)
  12. Haystack: 3 New Routes in a New Area (the Ramp Wall) (w/Allison Rooney and Adam Crofoot)
  13. Marcy’s Panther Den Wall: Cat on a Wet Tin Roof (w/Bill Schneider)

Panther Gorge Rock Climbing-Rumours of War

Click to view in high resolution.

YouTube video

Photographs: Top, view of pitch 1 and 2 with Hunter leading the crux. Second, Hunter Lombardi below pitch 3. Third, view of the “Wreck” buttress from the top of pitch two-the crux of the route is hidden. Bottom, route details and position on Mt. Marcy. Video: route details and time-lapse sequence.

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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.

3 Responses

  1. Fantastic Kevin and Hunter! Congratulations on all your wild sojourning and climbing route discoveries in Panther Gorge. Truly, truly amazing. I hope to spend some time there in August.

  2. Roger Soucek says:

    Hey Kevin,

    Wanted to say thanks for the ride from Garden to Rooster last night, you make a wet rainy walk a little less torturous. By the way do you know Ron Mackey from Deerfoot?

    • MudRat says:

      My pleasure, Roger. I know the name, but haven’t been out with him. We spent about 2 hours walking in the rain on the exit after bushwhacking out of Panther Gorge as darkness fell in a wind driven rain/fog. Adirondack adventuring! I’m working on the new route we put up Saturday. I’ll shoot you an email when details are up.

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