Gothics North Face is like an old friend — engaging, fun, familiar, and even a bit moody. I look forward to visiting it annually, usually during mid-winter. Early-season climbing conditions involving thin ice and expanses of bare anorthosite generally set up in December or January, so a trip during November is a novelty.
I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend than by involving another old friend in my visit, Adirondack Forest Ranger Scott van Laer. Together we’ve explored several of the Adirondacks’ most dramatic backcountry slides: Marcy’s East Face, Saddleback’s Chicken Coop Slide, and Big Slide Mountain. While he’s certainly in it for the adventure, he also views each trip through the lens of a rescue professional. The more he knows about the approach and exit, features of the slide, types of available climbing protection, etc., the easier he can assess it if a rescue is needed.
Our trip began the night before when we spent the night at the Interior Outpost near Johns Brook Lodge. Scott walked in a couple of hours ahead of me to light a fire. I took my time and enjoyed the three-mile trek under a full moon — no headlamp needed. Its light cast long shadows through the blue-tinted forest.
The frigid weather during the preceding days ensured the log cabin was like an icebox, but a roaring fire in the wood stove created a small pocket of warmth. Scott’s a regular there, but it’s a treat for me to spend the night. Upon arrival, I found Scott wrapped in a blanket with his feet propped up near the burning logs. The soft glow of candles, a propane lamp, and the stove were all that illuminated the room. A hot bowl of soup topped off the evening, and a negative 15 degree-rated sleeping bag ensured a warm night’s sleep.
The alarm sounded at 5 a.m. It was tempting to remain curled-up in the sleeping bag near the stove and ignore our itinerary. We mustered the ambition to leave the cabin and were soon following snowshoe tracks up the Orebed Trail under the glow of headlamps. The trail was packed enough for comfortable walking, but the warm wind on my face foretold that it would soon soften.
I mentally sorted through the various conditions we might encounter during the approach and the climb. It was only November, so I imagined several grim possibilities, but the optimistic side of me vowed to make do with whatever we encountered as long as the objective hazards (there are always a few if you’re in the wilderness) were low. The face is only about 50 degrees in slope, so I can deal with ultra-thin ice or sections of bare stone, but a snow-loaded face ready to avalanche would end the day early.
The work began when we left the trail in two feet of unbroken snow. I usually walk up the stream to approach the base of the slide, but it was unfrozen, and swimming wasn’t part of the itinerary. Instead, we navigated through the woods and used the brook as a navigational rail, zigzagging our way through the evergreens before entering the drainage ½ mile upstream. Breaking trail through deep, untracked snow requires patience. I couldn’t rush it and have the energy to lead the climb. The bushwhack to the unobstructed view below the face took an hour and a half.
I’m always pensive when considering what line I should follow up the North Face. I generally seek a route that follows the most appealing sections of snow and ice even if the line meanders. The right-hand side, known as the New Finger Slide and left-hand side (which is slightly lower in angle) are often climbable when conditions are thin. The center usually takes the winter to set up nicely. In the end, current conditions always determine the best option, and I can rarely tell what looks safe until I’m standing at the base. Much of the face was bare, but a few minutes of study revealed several lines by which we could safely reach the summit. I chose one that started on the left and traversed toward the center.
I watched swirling spindrift dance across the lower face as I donned the crampons and flaked the rope. Stronger gusts rushed down the face at regular intervals. It was going to be spicy. Adapting to the weather is all part of the game; that’s why we bring a variety of layers.
Climbing the Face
Once we were ready, Scott said, “On belay,” and I began climbing. The first pitch of 200 feet was up easy snow and ice to a stout tree where I set up an anchor and belayed him. Pitch two was a slog through shin-deep snow—hardly exciting, but it looked better up higher. I scouted the third pitch as I belayed. I vacillated between two options, one of which offered negligible protection. I’m accustomed to soloing the face (climbing without the protection of a rope), but I wanted to protect Scott from a solid anchor — not a ½ inch sapling. We opted for a line straight up a run of thin ice.
I essentially soloed for 150 feet to a small tree and clump of frozen turf. There was ice nearby, but ice screws were useless since the flows were too thin. A creative anchor in the turf was enough to keep him safe. Scott followed, his crampons scratching for purchase on the stone hidden under a thin layer of powder at the base of the ice flow. I kept the rope tight in case he slipped.
The following few sections were similar in character until we gained a large area of trees at the center of the face. The snow was neck-deep between the trees, so I traversed below them, belayed, and, when he was at the anchor, took a break to re-nourish.
An essential part of climbing is paying attention to one’s surroundings. This includes recognizing subtle clues that hint at weather changes. I felt the wind shift and looked west as we were eating. An ominous blanket of gray flowed like liquid over the western peaks that were visible only a few minutes before. A front was moving in.
The weather triggered a change in strategy as I knew rain was in the forecast for early evening. It was only early afternoon, but “mountain weather” doesn’t always follow the forecast. To save time and since we were now on a field of consolidated snow that offered secure climbing, I switched to a running belay. We both climbed at the same time (200’ apart), but I placed slings around small trees to protect us in case one of us slipped. Scott simply removed them as he passed by. I switched back to belaying from an anchor when the terrain got more challenging, and the ice and snow all but disappeared.
The wind increased as we climbed the last several pitches. The gusts were strong enough that I flattened my profile when I felt one coming. They weren’t as bad as during a January climb up the North Face several years ago, but they were substantial. I looked down the face as the sun dimmed. The forest below nearly disappeared from view. Vapors funneling up Gothics’ southern cirque swirled over the summit. We were climbing into the clouds while being pelted by blowing snow. Conditions such as these stir my blood. Bluebird days offer delightful climbing, but inclement weather adds an interesting dynamic if one is prepared. If you’re climbing the High Peaks during winter, you better be prepared!
We scaled the last pitch via a few sections of thin, brittle ice and bare anorthosite. It was steep, tedious work. The tailwind strengthened as I reached the krummholz on the ridge and bushwhacked to the trail. A cornice often forms in this area. It was in its infancy stages, but the snow was still nearly five feet deep. I found the trail and body-belayed Scott until he reached the security of the trees.
The time was 2:15 p.m. It had taken four hours to climb the face. We still had to walk to the summit and trek back down the steep Cable Route to the Orebed Trail. Hikers had broken the way, but the snow was soft and insecure underfoot. It was difficult to keep balance especially with the wind still blowing strongly. The summit ridge was a winter wonderland in November. The spruce trees were entombed. Their branches sagged and touched the surface of the snow. It will be interesting to see how the winter plays out at elevation.
There was no rush to get back to the cabin once we were in the Orebed Brook valley. Slow and steady was the best way to walk on the slushy trail at lower elevations. The headlamps came out as the sun set and our depth of field disappeared. It took roughly 13 hours from the time we left the cabin until I reached the trailhead — not a bad time given the snow depth.
Photos, from above: Clouds roll in over the High Peaks toward Saddleback Mountain; Scott van Laer warms up by a fire in the Interior Outpost; Kevin climbing good ice about 600 feet up the face; and Scott follows a pitch of thin ice.