The Adirondack Park doesn’t enjoy as much cachet in the rock-climbing world as, say, the Gunks and the White Mountains. A recent geology book written for rock climbers, for instance, fails to mention the Adirondacks in its chapter on climbing venues in the Northeast.
That’s OK. We can do without the crowds. But the fact is that the Adirondacks offer superb rock routes and a rich climbing history. On Sunday, Josh Wilson and I got a taste of both at Chapel Pond Slab.
Anyone who regularly drives Route 73 from the Northway to Keene knows the slab—eight hundred feet of bare rock that rises above the highway just south of Chapel Pond. It’s an excellent place for beginning climbers to learn how to do multi-pitch routes.
The guidebook Adirondack Rock awards five stars—its highest rating—to two of the six routes at the slab: the Regular Route and Empress. Both were pioneered, at least in part, by legendary rock climbers and both are rated 5.5 in the Yosemite Decimal System. By today’s standards, a 5.5 climb is considered easy. But when the system was created, back in the 1950s, the scale ranged from 5.0 to 5.9, so a 5.5 route would have been regarded as moderate in difficulty. Nowadays, the scale ranges up to 5.15, so a 5.5 is no big shakes.
The Regular Route evolved from another route, Bob’s Knob Standard (rated 5.3), that was first climbed by John Case in 1933. Case, a former president of the American Alpine Club, helped introduce European climbing techniques to the United States earlier in the century. Case’s route was the first on the slab. Over the years, climbers tried variations of the route and eventually developed the more interesting and more challenging line known as Regular Route. The two routes still share the same beginning.
Empress was first ascended in the 1930s by Fritz Wiessner, one of the best climbers of his generation. Among his many accomplishments, Wiessner “discovered” the Gunks and established a number of routes there. He also earned fame as a high-altitude alpinist. In 1939, he came within two hundred meters of K2’s summit—fifteen years before “the Savage Mountain” would finally be conquered (four men died on Wiessner’s expedition).
On Sunday, Josh and I followed in the footholds and handholds of these masters when we did Bob Knob’s Standard, Regular Route, and Empress—altogether about 2,400 feet of climbing. Usually, each route is ascended in six or seven pitches, or stages, but we climbed without a rope except for one wet pitch on Regular Route. Climbing sans rope (that is, without belays or protection) is not recommended, but it’s sometimes done on these routes.
Although I had climbed Empress twice before, I got a little wigged out on its celebrated fourth and fifth pitches. Both involve ascending long stretches of slab with almost no holds. The holds that do exist are Lilliputian bulges, ridges, or depressions. Essentially, you trust the rubber of your climbing shoes to keep you on the rock.
Josh finished the route first. I waited several minutes while he went to the top of Bob’s Knob to take photos of me ascending the final pitches on Empress. This gave me the opportunity to look down (at that point, I had climbed five hundred feet) and contemplate what I was about to do, mindful of a nasty fall I had taken on the Eagle Slide last summer.
When Josh gave me the OK to start, I stepped onto a small ledge on the slab and began searching for tiny irregularities in the rock on which to smear my soles. Starting up, I had to fight the impulse to rush over the rock to get out of danger as soon as possible. I knew I’d be safer if I proceeded carefully, deliberately. Still, I found myself hurrying toward the end.
After finishing, I had a greater admiration for Fritz Wiessner. Yes, the routes he established are not especially difficult by today’s standards, but advances in equipment have changed the climbing game. Wiessner explored Chapel Pond Slab long before the era of sticky-soled slippers. In those days climbers wore leather boots. I suppose Fritz had on something of the sort when he first did Empress. I can’t imagine how he found the traction—and the nerve—to get up that rock.
As for protection, the old-school climbers hammered pitons into the rock instead of placing cams and aluminum chocks into cracks. And their ropes were made of hemp, not stretchy nylon. If the lead climber slipped, chances are the rope would break when it pulled taut. Hence, the motto of that time: “The leader does not fall.”
Do you think Empress is easy? Try climbing it in hiking boots.
Photo by Phil Brown: Josh Wilson on Regular Route.
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.