Sunday, February 19, 2017

Climbing: The Lure of Thin Ice at Poke-O-Moonshine

Jeff Lowe is one of the greatest American mountaineers of his generation. A native of Utah, he has climbed all over the world and put up hundreds of first ascents — on rock, ice, and alpine peaks. So when asked for his favorite climb in North America, he had many to choose from. Such as Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park, Bridal Veil Falls in Colorado, or the Keeler Needle in the High Sierra.

He chose Gorillas in the Mist, an ice climb on Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain right here in the Adirondack Park.

Since Lowe did Gorillas in the Mist in 1996 with Ed Palen, the owner of Adirondack Rock and River in Keene, the route has attained near-mythic status. It has been repeated only once, just a few days after the first ascent. That was twenty-one years ago.  “Everyone wants to do it. Anyone with the skill set, of course they want to do it. It’s famous,” said Matt Horner, a Keene resident who is one of the Adirondacks’ strongest ice climbers.

Horner, who is forty-seven, moved to the Adirondacks in 1993 and soon took up rock and ice climbing in earnest. He now makes his living as a climbing guide and as a sculptor, often working with natural stone and melted steel. Earlier in his career, he soloed some of the hardest ice routes in the Adirondacks. About eight years ago, he climbed the imposing west face of Tocllaraju, a 19,794-foot peak in Peru, by himself with no rope. “It was one of the greatest adventures I ever had, going into the unknown,” he said.

But he was not nearly that proficient when Jeff Lowe climbed Gorillas in the Mist in 1996. Though he admired Lowe and had devoured his book, Ice World, the futuristic route at Poke-O was barely on his radar. Now it’s something of an obsession.

Much of the fame of Gorillas is due to its inclusion in Fifty Favorite Climbs: The Ultimate North American Tick List. For that book, published in 2001, Mark Kroese asked fifty celebrated climbers to reveal their top climbs.

Most of the climbers leaned toward big or exotic routes. Conrad Anker, for example, picked an alpine rock climb on Baffin Island near the Arctic Circle. Alex Lowe (no relation to Jeff) named the Grand Traverse, his eight-hour dash over seven summits in the Tetons.

In contrast, Gorillas in the Mist at first glance seems rather pedestrian: what’s so special about a four-pitch ice climb overlooking the Northway?

For one thing, the climb pushed the limits of the possible. It involved “mixed climbing,” a style that Jeff Lowe helped pioneer. On mixed routes, climbers move over dry rock as well as ice, sometimes wedging the picks of their ice tools in cracks or hooking them over small edges. Not only was Gorillas a mixed route, but the ice on it was extraordinarily thin, barely able to accommodate the tips of Lowe’s tools or the points of his crampons.

On the first pitch — the hardest of the climb — Lowe improbably scampered up a smooth slab coated with just a smear of ice. Palen likened the movement to cat scratching. Lowe then continued up dry rock by wedging his tools in a crack, leaning back, and pressing his crampons against the stone. This technique, known as a lieback, is used by rock climbers (with hands instead of tools in the crack).

Mark Meschinelli, a longtime Adirondack climber, photographed Lowe on that first pitch and was astounded. “It changed my life, my perspective on ice climbing,” he said. “I never saw anything like that before. He just blew me away.”

Palen, who followed Lowe on the climb, said the rest of the route wasn’t much easier. He recalls the second pitch as the scariest. Belaying on a small ledge, Palen fed out rope as Lowe gingerly climbed a spray of ice so brittle and aerated that he couldn’t risk putting his full weight on either of his tools.

Typically, ice climbers twist in ice screws as they ascend and clip the rope to protect against a long fall. But the ice was still too thin for screws. Early in the pitch Lowe did manage to insert a rock-climbing cam in a crack and clip it, but after that he was essentially soloing. If he fell and the cam popped out, he might have pulled both climbers off the cliff. Palen said he simply had to trust in Lowe’s ability: “He’s the master.”

On the third pitch, Lowe crossed a steep, icy slab and then ascended a narrow column of ice for fifty feet or so. The ice was thick enough that, halfway up the column, he finally managed to get in a good screw. Although climbing the dead-vertical pillar required less finesse than the first two pitches, it was much more exhausting. At its end, Lowe fell into a coughing fit and motioned for Palen to lead the last pitch, which was considerably easier. Palen traversed left beneath a roof, turned a corner, and went up fatter ice to the top.

“I realized he probably wasn’t even belaying me (hacking away uncontrollably as he was), but that was fine as I knew that soloing this section was far safer than what we had been doing all day,” Palen said.
It took them five hours to climb the five-hundred-foot route.

A few days later, Jeff Lowe ran into Alex Lowe in New Hampshire and effused about the new climb. Alex and another top-notch climber, Randy Rackliff, drove to the Adirondacks and together bagged the second ascent.

One reason there has been no third ascent is that Gorillas in the Mist rarely ices over long enough to climb. The lower pitches will see ice only if there’s a flash freeze when the rock is wet. And then the weather must remain cloudy to prevent the thin ice from melting. “All it takes is a sunny day, and half of it’s gone, and then you’re left with just wet rock,” Palen said.

Another reason, of course, is the difficulty of the route. Since the 1990s, ice-climbing gear and techniques have improved. As a consequence, many climbers may have the technical prowess to climb Gorillas, but far fewer possess the boldness to lead it, given the sparse protection. “I would say there would be ten people who could probably do it,” Palen said. “It takes a good head and somebody who’s willing to risk it.”

One of the few is Matt Horner. “If it were to come in, Matt would run right up it,” Palen said. “It’s a difficult route, but Matt’s done some routes that are just as tough or tougher.”

In 2008, Horner and a friend, Ian Boyer, made the most serious attempt to climb Gorillas in the Mist since the original ascents. The two ran into each other one day at Chapel Pond and agreed to give Gorillas a try that night, wearing headlamps.

As it happened, the route had even less ice than in 1996. All of the first pitch, led by Boyer, was basically dry. Horner led the second pitch.

Once again, the ice was aerated. Horner managed to pound in a thin piton (a Spectre) in a crack, but that was it for protection. Climbing far above this piece of gear on sketchy ice, he realized a fall was both possible and unthinkable. “I don’t think it was a death fall, but it would have been a very, very long fall,” he said.

Boyer next went partway up the third pitch but retreated when he got to a difficult corner. Horner gave it a go and climbed well beyond Boyer’s high point. In fact, he almost made it to the end of the pitch. He stopped at a place where he needed to make a delicate move to the left. He was now seventy or eighty feet directly above Boyer, and if he fell he would have landed on him.

“I was obsessed with this route,” Horner said. “I wanted it so bad that I wanted to go for it, but then reality sank in.”

After assessing the risk, he decided to retreat — an option not without its own risks. He set his tools in the ice, clipped carabiners to them, threaded the rope through the carabiners, and asked his partner to lower him, very gently so as not to jiggle the tools. If they pulled loose, he would have suffered a dangerous fall. “I got down to the belay and thought, ‘Thank God I’m alive,’” he recalled.

Later, Horner learned that there is a rock-climbing bolt near the spot where he retreated. Had he known, he could have clipped the rope to it and safely continued. Since the hard part of the climb was all but over, he and Boyer undoubtedly would have completed the third ascent.

Horner has yet to attempt Gorillas again, but in 2011 he and some friends climbed a route of comparable difficulty just to the right of it. They named it Endangered Species. It ranks among the hardest ice routes in the Adirondacks and, like Gorillas, has been repeated only once. “Even though it’s not Gorillas you still have to do the first pitch of Gorillas to get on it,” he said.

Horner hasn’t given up his dream of putting up the third ascent of Gorillas. Every winter, he climbs frequently at Poke-O and keeps an eye on the route. “It’s sort of my job to watch it,” he said. “We joke around. My friends say, ‘Put me on the red phone. When it comes in, we’ll drive right over.”

So far, that hasn’t happened. “That’s part of the appeal; it’s so fickle, so ephemeral,” Horner said. “Plus it was climbed by Jeff and Alex.”

Alex Lowe died at age forty in an avalanche in Tibet. Jeff Lowe was diagnosed with a debilitating nerve disease in 2003. The following year he attended the annual Mountainfest sponsored by the Mountaineer in Keene Valley and went on his last ice climb. On that climb, he would grab a leg and force it to kick the ice. Now sixty-six, he requires around-the-clock care.

After retiring from climbing, Lowe penned the introduction to the first edition of Don Mellor’s Blue Lines: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide, published in 2006.

“Climbing Gorillas in the Mist with Ed is one of my fondest memories of water-ice climbing, comparable to images that come to mind of the first ascents of Bridal Veil Falls in Colorado, Keystone Greensteps in Alaska, Curtain Call in Canada, or Blindfaith in France,” he wrote. “Such days with great partners are the real treasures of a climber’s life.”

One of these winters, Matt Horner hopes to have such a day.

Editor’s Update: Matt Horner recently suffered a serious fall while climbing at Chapel Pond. Friends have been raising funds to help pay his expenses during his recovery.

Photos from above: (1) Jeff Lowe climbs the first pitch of Gorillas in the Mist in 1996, courtesy Mark Meschinelli; (2) Ed Palen; (3) Matt Horner stands below the cliff that, when iced over, forms Gorillas in the Mist; and (4) Matt Horner holds a thin piton used in ice climbing, all by Lisa Godfrey; and (5) a climber ascends the Waterfall at Poke-O-Moonshine, by Matt Horner.

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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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.

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