Sunday, November 6, 2016

Wiessner Left His Mark On Cliffs All Over Northeast

The legendary Fritz Wiessner put up a dozen or so rock-climbing routes in the Adirondacks in the 1930s and 1940s. That doesn’t make him the most prolific climber in the Adirondack Park, but he was one of the earliest.

In truth, Wiessner is better known for his exploits elsewhere. Perhaps his greatest contribution to rock climbing was his “discovery” in 1935 of the Gunks outside New Paltz, now one of the most popular climbing destinations in the country. In 1937, he famously led Bill House and Lawrence Coveney on the first technical ascent of the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming – an extraordinarily bold feat for its time.

Wiessner also did notable first ascents on cliffs in New Hampshire and Connecticut, among other places. In 1935, he put up a route called Vector at Connecticut’s Ragged Mountain that may have then been the hardest in the country. It’s now rated 5.8 in the Yosemite Decimal System. 

Last weekend, while visiting New Haven, I had the chance to check out another early route in Connecticut established by the master: Wiessner’s Rib in Sleeping Giant State Park.

Wiessner’s Rib is easier than Vector. It’s rated 5.6, or two grades lower in difficulty. I thought I would lead my girlfriend Carol up the route. After hiking up a talus slope and finding the start, we decided against this. The route begins with a steep crack that Carol, a novice climber, wasn’t ready for.

wiessnerWhile we were discussing what to do, a guy wearing running shoes and athletic wear showed up in search of Wiessner’s Rib. His name was Michael Spencer. He had just returned to the U.S. from Kenya, where he worked for several years as a trekking and climbing guide on Mount Kenya. Now he was attending business school at Yale and looking for places to climb in the vicinity.

I had more than climbing in common with Michael: I spent five months in Kenya as an undergraduate, studying anthropology. We talked about Africa, about Mount Kenya, about climbing, and before you know it, I was offering to let him wear my climbing shoes to lead me up Wiessner’s Rib. Carol graciously gave her consent, saying she’d take a walk and meet us at the top.

(Here’s a coincidence. Before embarking on her walk, Carol was standing on a trail below the cliff watching us climb. Several other people stopped to gawk as well. A woman who engaged Carol in conversation turned out to be from Kenya.)

Wiessner’s Rib proved to be an excellent climb. The Sleeping Giant cliffs are said to have chossy (loose or unstable) rock, but Wiessner, as usual, picked a clean line. We did it in two short pitches, as recommended by the modern guidebook.

As we tied into the rope, I assured Michael that I had experience belaying. “I don’t expect you to fall,” I said, “but if you do, I’ll catch you.”

“I don’t expect me to fall either, but that’s good to know,” he replied.

With that, he started ascending the crack while I let out rope. After 30 feet, he reached a ledge and disappeared from view. A while later, after getting to the end of the first pitch, he built an anchor and put me on belay, and I set off.

The initial crack posed no real difficulty. It followed a corner with plenty of good footholds. At the top, I pulled myself onto a ledge and then stepped to the right, below a crack that was just wide enough to fit my fingers. This is considered the crux (or hardest part) of the climb. With my fingers in the crack, I leaned back with straight arms and planted my feet on an adjoining wall. I then walked my hands up the crack and my feet up the wall. The technique, known as a lieback, is strenuous, but in this case the crack was mercifully short.

Soon I joined Michael on a spacious ledge. The next pitch was great fun. It began with an airy step to a small ledge and then climbed a steep face. At a tricky spot near the end, I hesitated for what seemed like ages (probably five minutes) while testing out various moves. Finally, I found a solid handhold, pulled myself onto the next little ledge, and scrambled to the top.

By this time, a small crowd had gathered below us, and one guy started applauding.

“I bet you don’t get an audience like that on Mount Kenya,” I said to Michael.

Apparently, Wiessner climbed the route a bit differently. He did it in one pitch, without going to the spacious ledge where Michael had set up an anchor. Done either way, the climb packs in a lot of variety and a lot of fun in 100 feet. Michael and I agreed it was a challenging 5.6.

I tried to think of short climbs in the Adirondacks of comparable difficulty that are this good. Two that came to mind are Sword and Labatt-Ami, both at the Beer Walls in Keene Valley. The guidebook Adirondack Rock gives Sword four out of five stars for the overall quality of the climbing. Labatt-Ami rates three stars.

In Yankee Rock and Ice, authors Laura and Guy Waterman described Wiessner’s Rib as “a splendid line … which remained the standard of the area for years.”

Wiessner put up equally splendid (and longer) lines in the Adirondacks. Among the better ones are Empress on Chapel Pond Slab, Wiessner Route on Upper Washbowl Cliff, and Old Route on Rooster Comb. None of them is hard by modern standards, but they’re all worth doing – both for the joy of climbing and for their historical interest. If you think they’re too easy, try doing them in hobnailed boots with a hemp rope tied around your waist.

Top photo by Michael Spencer: Phil Brown nears the top of  Wiessner’s Rib.  Middle photo: Fritz Wiessner. Bottom photo by Carol MacKinnon Fox: Michael Spencer on second pitch of Wiessner’s Rib.

Click here for more photos of Wiessner’s Rib on Mountain Project.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

2 Responses

  1. Chris says:

    Wonderful article that covers a lot of ground!


  2. Jim says:

    Before Wiessner came to the U.S., he opened some impressive climbs in the Elbsandstein (Dresden). During my visit there, I was curious and climbed one of them, in the 5.10 range. After coming to the US, he was prolific and established routes all over the U.S. (and the World). As far as I know, none of them approach the difficulty of his early routes along the river Elbe. His routes in the Shawangunks, for example, while ultra-classic, don’t go beyond 5.8 in difficulty (I believe Minnie Belle at Skytop is his most difficult). His most difficult route in the U.S. (that I’m aware of) is his namesake route on Noonmark Mountain, rated 5.8+ (probably closer to 5.9). Like many of his routes in the Adirondacks, the exact date is unknown.

    Another bit of trivia surrounds Wiessner’s propensity to name routes “Old Route” (Chapel Pond Gully Cliff, Hurricane Crag, Rooster Comb). The tradition in the Elbsandstein is that the first route on a formation be named “Alter Weg”, which translated means “Old Route”. Since Wiessner’s routes were the first on the Adirondack cliffs, this now makes sense.

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