Almanack Contributor Phil Brown

Phil Brown

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.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Review: ‘Long Distance’ by Bill McKibben

I recently read Bill McKibben’s book about cross-country-ski racing and wrote the following review, which will appear in the next issue of the Adirondack Explorer.

Several years ago, we asked Bill McKibben to ski the entire Jackrabbit Trail in a single day and write about it. Saranac Lake to Keene. That’s twenty-four miles, but that wasn’t enough for McKibben.

When he turned his story in, I learned he started instead at Paul Smith’s, where there is an orphan piece of the Jackrabbit. By following this trail and then a railroad bed, he was able to make it to Saranac Lake and add ten or eleven miles to the trek.

Why extend an already-lengthy trip by slogging along a boring railroad track? I thought Bill must be a bit nuts, but now that I’ve read Long Distance, I understand what motivates him.

Long Distance chronicles McKibben’s yearlong quest to become the best Nordic ski racer he could. He trained like a pro, working out for hours each day, and competed on three continents. Originally published in 2000, the book was reissued in paperback by Rodale this past fall.

Early on, McKibben visits the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid to undergo a series of unpleasant tests involving a treadmill, a snorkel-like device, and numerous blood-lettings to ascertain his VO2 Max—a measurement of how efficiently his body uses oxygen. The tests reveal he has a higher-than-average VO2 Max, but it’s still far below that of elite athletes. And no amount of training will change that. The upper limit of his VO2 Max and thus of his competitive potential are determined by genetics.

It is not McKibben’s destiny to become a champion. Nevertheless, he diligently puts in six hundred hours of training over the year, all to prepare for a grand total of maybe twelve hours of racing. In one event in Lake Placid, he manages to come in first in his age group, but usually he’s closer to the middle of the pack.

What’s the payoff then? McKibben describes the “absolute immersion in the present” that he feels during a fifty-kilometer race in Ottawa, when all the cares of modern life fall by the wayside. “Everything really had come together for a moment,” he writes. “Or perhaps a better way to say it is that everything had disappeared.”

McKibben, of course, is best known as an environmental writer, the guy who sounded the alarm about global warming in The End of Nature and who founded a worldwide movement to try to get politicians to do something about it. When I saw him speak a few months ago in Saranac Lake, he struck me as an Old Testament prophet with a sense of humor.

Long Distance reveals the private side of the public intellectual. Despite all his accomplishments—as a Harvard graduate, staff writer for the New Yorker, best-selling author, and global activist—McKibben still longs to be what so many males long to be: an athlete. Growing up, he felt like a wimp, because he wasn’t much good at basketball, hockey, baseball, or the other crucibles of boyhood. He writes that “gym became a recurring bad dream, highlighted each year by the President’s Physical Fitness Test, when I got to prove to myself that I still couldn’t do a pull-up.”

He feared he didn’t measure up to his athletic father, who went out for baseball and climbed mountains in his youth. Bill gravitated toward intellectual pursuits. While still in high school, he covered the school’s basketball team for the local paper. His father picked him up after the games. “He was proud of me, I knew, but I think some part of me always wondered if he’d have been prouder had I been out on the court myself,” he writes.

Part way through his training year, McKibben receives word that his father has a malignant brain tumor. He spends the next several months shuttling between Vermont, where he lives, and Boston, where his father is dying. He continues to exercise and ski, when possible, but the ordeal of watching his father deteriorate, physically and mentally, puts cross-country skiing into perspective. Training for a race becomes a metaphor for training for life. Our real tests are the difficulties thrown in our path—depression, illness, the demands of human relationships.

“The most profound test, of course, is the last one, dealing with your death,” he says. “But if you’ve done the training, the race will take care of itself—or so it seemed, watching Dad.”

After his father’s death, McKibben travels to Norway with his wife, Sue, and their daughter, Sophie, to enter one last competition, the Birkebeiner, a grueling fifty-eight-kilometer race that attracts several thousand serious skiers each year. He’s happy to finish in the middle of his age group.

“The next morning dawned clear and cold, so Sue and Sophie and I went for another ski,” he says. “For the first time in a long time, it meant nothing at all, and that was nice, too.”

Don’t expect to find lots of tips about wax, poling technique, and such in Long Distance. You’ll learn more about life than about skiing.

Click here to see a video of a downhill run on the Jackrabbit Trail.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Adirondack Economics: How Hikers Help Wanakena

I recently unearthed strong evidence that hikers, like other visitors to the Park, spend money.

As noted in an earlier post, some local politicians deride hikers, paddlers, and similar riff-raff as “granola-eaters” who seldom part with a dime while inside the Adirondack Park.

Try telling that to Rick Kovacs, who took over the Wanakena General Store this year. » Continue Reading.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Adirondack Hunting: The Deer Debate

Adirondack hunters often contend that the region’s white-tailed deer population is falling, and they blame the decline on the forever-wild Forest Preserve and the influx of coyotes.

But an article by George Earl in the current Adirondack Explorer reports that the deer herd has been growing in recent decades and appears to be at near-record numbers.

For years, the conventional wisdom has held that the Forest Preserve is poor habitat for deer—or at least not as good as logged land. Logging creates openings in the forest for new vegetation, which is good food for deer.

But Ed Reed, a state biologist, argues that the Forest Preserve is better habitat for deer than once thought. The reason, he says, is that the woods in the Preserve are maturing, and in mature woods, openings often appear as a result of “forest decadence.”

“The pre-colonial forest was not an unbroken stand of huge trees,” Reed told the Explorer. “It was a very diverse mixture of young and old trees, with openings created by fire, wind, and dying old trees.”

Reed predicts the deer population will continue to grow as the Forest Preserve ages. » Continue Reading.


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Eagle: Best Slide Climb in the Park?

What’s the best slide climb in the Adirondacks?

Many people say it’s the Eagle Slide in the west cirque of Giant Mountain. If you look at the cirque from the Ausable Club, the slide resembles an eagle with its wings outstretched.

The guidebook Adirondack Rock gives the Eagle five stars, its highest rating for the overall climbing experience. It offers 1,300 feet of open rock, with ever-expanding views of the High Peaks.

In the Yosemite Decimal System, the Eagle is a fourth-class climb. Wikipedia defines a fourth-class climb as follows: “Simple climbing, with exposure. A rope is often used. Natural protection can be easily found. Falls may well be fatal.”

So an ascent of the Eagle should not be undertaken lightly. I’ve climbed it in hiking boots and in rock-climbing shoes. I recommend the latter.

Is the Eagle better than the Trap Dike, another fourth-class route that rates five stars? That’s a tough question that’s best evaded: although the Trap Dike climb finishes on a slide on the northwest side of Mount Colden, the dike itself is not a slide. So it’s in a different category.

Most of the popular slides in the Adirondacks are third-class climbs. Wikipedia defines third class as: “Scrambling with increased exposure. A rope can be carried but is usually not required. Falls are not always fatal.”

I suspect one reason the Eagle Slide has a five-star rating is precisely that it’s more dangerous and therefore more exciting. If you’re new to slide climbing, you’d be smart to start off on something easier. Some of my favorites are the slides on Dix, Nippletop, and Whiteface (bearing in mind that a fall in the wrong spot on any slide can have consequences). If there are any slide aficianados reading this, what are your suggestions?

By the way, I can attest to the perils of the Eagle. A few months ago, I slipped on a steep section and started sliding down the rock. Fortunately, a ledge prevented me from tumbling to the bottom (I landed standing up). The rock scraped the skin off most of my fingertips, but I was able to continue climbing.

I wrote an article about this trip for the November/December issue of the Adirondack Explorer. Accompanying me were the photographer Carl Heilman II and Eli Bickford, a twelve-year-old kid with a passion for slide climbing.

Carl took some spectacular photos. We used one of them for our cover. He also shot two short videos: one of me climbing, the other of Eli expounding on the allure of slide climbing.

You can find the story and videos on our website by clicking here.

Photo: Carl Heilman on the approach to the Eagle Slide, by Phil Brown.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Breaking: DEC Defending Paddlers’ Rights

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has sided with paddlers in the dispute over the public’s right to canoe through private land on Shingle Shanty Brook and two adjacent waterways.

In a letter to the landowners, DEC asks them to remove cables, no-trespassing signs, and cameras meant to deter the public from using the canoe route. If they fail to comply, the department warns, the matter could be referred to the state attorney general for legal action.

Christopher Amato, DEC’s assistant commissioner for natural resources, wrote the letter in September after negotiations with the owners failed to reach an agreement.

“The Department has concluded that Mud Pond, Mud Pond Outlet and Shingle Shanty Brook are subject to a public right of navigation, and that members of the public are therefore legally entitled to travel on those waters,” Amato said in the letter, dated September 24.

Amato told the Adirondack Explorer that DEC won’t take action right away. He hopes that the owners—the Brandreth Park Association and its affiliate, the Friends of Thayer Lake—will reconsider their position over the winter. Spokesmen for the owners declined to comment.

The Explorer will carry a full report in its November/December issue. The story is online now and can be read here.

The Explorer touched off the dispute last year by publishing my account of a canoe trip from Little Tupper Lake to Lake Lila. Instead of portaging around private land, I paddled down the three waterways. After that article appeared, the Sierra Club asked DEC to force the landowners to remove a cable and no-trespassing signs along the route. The landowners, however, put up a second cable and installed motion-activated cameras.

DEC contends that the public has a common-law right to paddle the waterways. The owners argue that the common law applies only to water bodies that have a history of commercial use (and the three waterways in question do not).

If the landowners stick to their guns, it’s likely that the dispute will end up in the courts.

Past posts to the Almanack on this topic, both by Mary Thill and myself, have generated much discussion. It will be interesting to see what readers on both sides of the debate have to say about this latest development.

Illustrations: Phil Brown on Shingle Shanty Brook by Susan Bibeau; a map of the Lila Traverse is online.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

You might be an Adirondacker if . . .

Jeff Foxworthy has made millions making fun of rednecks. He’s famous for one-liners that start off, “You might be a redneck if …”

Example: “You might be a redneck if you ever lost a tooth opening a beer bottle.”

The other day my son and I were wondering if we could come up with similar one-liners for Adirondackers. So I made a list of ten below.

I’m no Jeff Foxworthy, but you might be. I’m hoping my ten will inspire you to come up with your own one-liners. Please add them in the comments section.

You might be an Adirondacker if …

1. Your all-season tires are snow tires.

2. When your marriage goes bad, you blame the APA.

3. You think Glens Falls is downstate.

4. Your snowmobile cost more than your truck.

5. You’ve seen a mountain lion.

6. The family car has a plow.

7. Your kid has a firewood stand.

8. You’ve tasted bear.

9. You create art with a chainsaw.

10. Your ice shanty is better furnished than your living room.

Photo of Jeff Foxworthy from Wikipedia.

Phil Brown is editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

An Onion River Lesson: DEC Needs Our Help

Onion River by Phil BrownPeople who oppose the state’s acquisition of land in the Adirondacks often complain that the state can’t manage the forest it already owns. So, the thinking goes, why buy more?

That argument always struck me as risible. Forests can manage quite well without our help. They did so for eons before homo sapiens existed.

I assume, then, the critics mean that the state has done a less-than-superb job creating and maintaining recreational facilities on the public Forest Preserve—trails, parking lots, signs, and the like. In this, they have a point. It was driven home to me last weekend when I paddled the little-known Onion River.
» Continue Reading.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Adirondack River Access: Who’s Elitist?

This weekend I paddled the West Branch of the St. Regis for the first time. Until a few years ago, nearly all of the West Branch inside the Adirondack Park was closed to the public.

As a result of a conservation-easement deal with Lyme Timber, fishermen and paddlers now have access to about eight miles of the West Branch northeast of Carry Falls Reservoir.

However, the public is allowed in only from May 1 through September 30, so Thursday is the last day you’ll be able to enjoy the river this year. But don’t fret too much: the river will still be there next spring.

Given the looming deadline, I was motivated to paddle the river this past Saturday. Much of the eight miles contains rapids, but there is a 3.5-mile stretch that will delight flat-water paddlers. Here is a description of the trip.

The opening of the West Branch is just one example of the public benefits of conservation easements. Under easement deals, the landowners agree not to develop their land. In return, the state picks up a portion of the property taxes. Most deals allow public recreation, though the degree of access differs.

In the case of the West Branch, the public has the right to fish and canoe. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has opened four parking areas along the timber company’s Main Haul Road, with carry trails leading to the river. Camping is permitted only at designated campsites.

We all should be grateful that at least part of this beautiful river is now open to the public.

But I do have a complaint.

From the put-in, you paddle upstream through marshland for 1.6 miles. Rounding a bend, you can see the buildings of the Weller Mountain Fish and Game Preserve, a hunting club whose main lodge sits at the confluence of the river and Long Pond Outlet. At this point, you must exit the river and portage 0.3 miles through a spruce forest and put back in upstream of the lodge. You can canoe another mile and a half upriver before reaching rapids.

The river near the hunting club is perfectly navigable flat water. It’s just that the members don’t want the public paddling past their piece of paradise, which is leased from the landowner (Woodwise Land Company bought the property from Lyme Timber this summer).

OK, I understand the club desires privacy, but my portage around flat water struck me as unnecessary. Would the members (if any were there) have had their day ruined by a lone canoeist quietly paddling past their camp? They would have had to endure the sight of me for at most a few minutes.

I sometimes hear people complain that paddlers are “elitists”—because paddlers advocate banning motorboats from some waterways. But paddlers are not elitists. And certainly not in this case. If anybody is elitist, it’s the members of the hunting club who object to the public paddling by their lodge.

Some readers might wonder how the landower can keep the public off this short stretch of the West Branch. If the river is navigable, isn’t it open to the public under the common law? Unlike other rivers I’ve written about, such as the Beaver and Shingle Shanty Brook, the public must cross private land to reach the water. Thus, the landowner has the right to set conditions for access to and use of the river.

But the law doesn’t always square with common sense, not to mention common courtesy. It just seems mean to force the public to portage past the hunting club. And the portage may discourage, if not prevent, the elderly, disabled, and less-than-fit from continuing their trip and enjoying the river upstream from the lodge.

DEC should negotiate a better deal for the public. After all, we do pay taxes on this land. Ideally, this condition would be scotched. At the very least, it ought to be modified to allow the public to paddle past the club during those times of year or days of the week when the club is little used. Requiring people to portage past the club when no one is there is the height of absurdity.

I do respect the club’s wish for privacy, but that needs to be balanced with the public’s recreational claim on this stretch of river. Let canoeists paddle past the lodge, but forbid them to fish, picnic, or otherwise linger in the vicinity. And instruct paddlers to keep quiet while traveling by. This strikes me as the basis of a reasonable compromise.

George Fowler, Weller Mountain’s secretary/treasurer, told me that he will raise the public-access issue at a meeting of the club. I hope some good comes out of it.

In the end, though, if the only way we can enjoy the West Branch is by putting up with the portage, so be it. Those who can do it will be amply rewarded.

Photo by Phil Brown: West Branch of the St. Regis River.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Phil Brown: Objections to Car-Camping

Earlier this year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation proposed reclassifying the main road in the Moose River Plains as an Intensive Use Area to permit roadside campsites to remain.

In doing so, DEC recognized that the proximity of many of the campsites to each other violated the rules governing primitive tent sites set forth in Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. Those rules require that primitive sites be at least a quarter-mile apart. Many of the sites in the Plains also have fireplaces and picnic tables, both of which are not allowed at primitive tent sites.

But the campsites in the Plains are just the tip of the iceberg. A new study [pdf] by the State College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) has found that there are 508 roadside campsites on Forest Preserve lands throughout the Park.

Under DEC regulations, a primitive tent site must be at least 150 feet from roads, trails, and water bodies unless DEC has designated the site (with a yellow disk) as an official campsite. The study found that at least 149 of the roadside campsites on the Forest Preserve lack a DEC disk. Presumably, most of these are illegal.

There are other problems as well. Some sites are denuded from overuse. Some are situated close to the road, the water, or other tent sites. They often lack screening. And many have amenities such as fireplaces and picnic tables that are not allowed at primitive tent sites.

Jim Connolly, deputy director of the Adirondack Park Agency, said at last week’s APA meeting that the agency faces some hard choices regarding roadside sites.

Some argue that roadside sites should be brought into compliance with the primitive-site guidelines — a policy that would require closing or moving sites or taking away amenities. Others argue that the State Land Master Plan should be amended to recognize roadside camping as its own activity, with its own set of regultions.

Closing roadside campsites would be controversial. Chad Dawson, the main author of the ESF study, said roadside camping has evolved into an Adirondack tradition—a free, more rustic alternative to DEC campgrounds. Some families return to the same sites year after year.

“People love their roadside camping,” Dawson told the APA board. Yet most people probably don’t know about the opportunities for road-side camping. “It’s one of those well-kept secrets of the Adirondacks,” Dawson said. “You get initiated into it, but you can’t find a brochure about it.”

Dawson said the great majority of roadside sites—459 out of 508—are located in Wild Forest Areas. They include 163 in the Moose River Plains region. Other Wild Forest sites can be found, among other places, on Floodwood Road, on the Powley-Piseco Road, and along the shores of North Lake and Horseshoe Lake.

The other forty-nine sites are in Wilderness, Canoe, and Primitive Areas, where motorized access is generally prohibited. These include eight sites along Coreys Road in the High Peaks Wilderness and thirteen sites along West River Road in the Silver Lake Wilderness.

Connolly said roadside camping evolved from the 1920s, when DEC began establishing formal campgrounds. Some people question the legality of the campgrounds. How do you square the crowds and noise at Fish Creek with the forever-wild mandate of the state constitution? Legal objections aside, the campgrounds are recognized by the State Land Master Plan. Roadside campsites are not.

The car-camping tradition may be well-established, but it often appears to flout the law. Should it be more tightly regulated?

Photo: A well-used roadside campsite. From the ESF report.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Adirondack Cairns: Rocks For The Ages

Why should I be fascinated by cairns? Aren’t they just heaps of stones?

Yet whenever I come across one of these heaps on a wild and windswept ridge—on Jay Mountain, for instance—I feel cheered. Aha! I am not alone. Someone else has been here before me, and no doubt someone will pass here after me.

A cairn exists to point us in the right direction, but it often evokes an appreciation that can’t be explained by its utilitarian purpose. You don’t react in the same way to a paint blaze.

As an analogy, think of the difference between a word’s denotation and connotation. The word rose refers to a flower. That is its denotation. But a rose can symbolize love or passion, among other things. So whatever Gertrude Stein may have said, a rose is not just a rose. And a cairn is not just a heap of stones.

The word cairn derives from Gaelic and dates back at least to the fifteenth century, but the building of cairns is an ancient custom, not exclusive to the Celts. Its primitiveness is part of the cairn’s appeal. The cairn connects us to humanity across the ages and reminds us that we are all wayfarers. It is a symbol of our journey.

Cairns appeal to our creative spirit. On many mountains, they resemble sculptures. A fine example is the cairn in the photo above, from the summit of East Dix.

You can read more about cairns on the Adirondack Explorer website by clicking here.

And if you have a favorite cairn, please tell us about it.

Photo by Phil Brown: Cairn on East Dix.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Adirondack Explorer’s ‘Adventure Planner’

The Adirondack Explorer has been publishing for more than eleven years. Our primary mission is to educate people about environmental issues facing the Adirondack Park, but as our readers know, we also have a strong interest in outdoor recreation.

Actually, it’s impossible to separate environmental issues from recreation. Many debates in the Adirondacks pit muscle-powered recreationists against advocates of motorized access.

The Explorer has run numerous stories that reflect the divide over motorized use. We’ve delved into such controversies as: Should all-terrain vehicles be allowed on the Forest Preserve? Should more waterways be declared motor-free? Should old woods roads be open to vehicles? Should the Adirondack Scenic Railroad corridor be converted into a bike path? Should floatplanes be allowed on wilderness lakes? Should tractor-groomers be allowed on snowmobile trails?

Although we always try to get both sides of every story, we cannot deny that we at the Explorer prefer non-motorized recreation as more environmentally friendly. This is not to say that motorized recreation does not have a place in the Park. The debates are over where motorized use is appropriate.

Every issue of the Explorer features several first-person accounts of muscle-powered recreation: hiking, paddling, cross-country skiing, rock climbing, biking, snowshoeing. We’ve published hundreds of such stories over the years, and they’ve proven quite popular with readers looking for new places to explore.

We’ve collected some of these stories in the anthologies Wild Excursions and Wild Times, but now we have begun putting them online as well, where you can read them for free.

The brand-new Adirondack Explorer Adventure Planner is a unique online resource that allows you to search for recreational stories by sport and region. If you select “Hiking,” for example, you will get a list of stories split among six regions in the Park. Select a particular region, say “Southern,” and you’ll see all the hiking stories for that part of the Park.

The Adventure Planner has been in the works for months, but we’re not done. Although it’s complete enough to show the public, we plan to add more content and features in the weeks, months, and years ahead. We also want to fix whatever bugs arise and make the site as useful and user-friendly as possible.

This is where the readers of Adirondack Almanack come in. Please visit the Adventure Planner and let us know what you think of the site and how we could improve it. You can post comments here or send an e-mail to me at [email protected]

Click here to visit the site. We look forward to hearing from you.

Photo: The Cedar River Flow by Phil Brown.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorernewsmagazine.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Commentary: Uplands Need More Protection

Politicians often complain that the Adirondack Park is over-regulated, but a case can be made that in some respects the Park is under-regulated.

All it takes is one house on a mountaintop or ridge to spoil a wild vista, and yet the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), which was created to safeguard the region’s natural resources, has no regulations aimed at protecting the uplands from unsightly development.

The uplands are clearly at risk. Given that most of the Park’s private waterfront has been developed, people with money are turning to the next best thing: a big home on a hill with a commanding view.

An article by George Earl in the September/October issue of the Adirondack Explorer reveals that dozens of conspicuous homes—visible from roads and trails—have been built in the uplands of Keene over the past few decades. And that’s just one town. The same kind of development is occurring in other parts of the Park, most notably around Lake George.

The APA does have tools to protect uplands when it has jurisdiction over a project. For example, it can require that a house be screened by trees or situated to minimize its visual impact.

The problem is that the APA often lacks jurisdiction. The agency does have the authority to review projects above the 2,500-foot contour, but this is essentially meaningless. APA spokesman Keith McKeever could not think of a single house built above that elevation, not even in Keene (“The Home of the High Peaks”). Near Lake George, Black Mountain is the only summit that exceeds 2,500 feet, and it lies within the state-owned Forest Preserve. In short, all the development around Lake George and the rest of the Park takes place below the 2,500-foot contour.

The APA also has jurisdiction when a house is built on property classified as Resource Management—the strictest of the agency’s six zoning categories for private land. Much of the Park’s uplands fall within this classification, but many stick-out homes are built on less-regulated lands where the APA does not automatically have jurisdiction.

Finally, the APA lacks jurisdiction even in Resource Management lands (as well as other lands) if a home is built in a subdivision approved before the agency’s creation.

Most of the Park’s towns lack zoning rules or the expertise to deal with upland development. So it’s up to the APA to address the problem. It will be difficult politically and technically. Even the definition of “upland” is tricky in a region where the elevation ranges from 95 feet at Lake Champlain to 5,344 feet at the top of Mount Marcy.

If nothing is done, however, we’ll continue to see a degradation of the Park’s wild character. It’s said that you can’t eat the scenery, but this isn’t true. Natural beauty is an economic asset that has been drawing tourists to the region for well over a century. For this reason, too, the uplands should be protected.

Photo by George Earl: Upland home in Keene.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Is Adirondack Bouldering Unethical? Illegal?

Glacial erratics are part of the Adirondack landscape. On just about any trail, you can find one of these boulders left behind by retreating glaciers eons ago.

In places, you can find collections of giant erratics. One such place is near Nine Corner Lake in the southern Adirondacks—a major attraction for those who practice the art of bouldering. The guidebook Adirondack Rock describes Nine Corners as the largest boulder field in the Adirondack Park, with more than a hundred “problems” (mini-routes) on about fifty boulders.

Regular Adirondack Almanack contributor Alan Wechsler writes about Nine Corners bouldering in the current issue of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine. You can read the story online by clicking here.

Last week, I posted the link to the story on Adirondack Forum’s rock-climbing section and was surprised that it touched off a debate over the ethics of bouldering.

As hikers know, boulders are usually covered—at least partially—with lichen, moss, ferns, and other vegetation. As Alan’s story notes, climbers often scrape off vegetation when creating routes.

A few people on Adirondack Forum suggested that removing vegetation from boulders is wrong.

One poster wrote: “There are few things more beautiful in the forest than a moss cloaked, polypody fern capped erratic—I know I’d be exceptionally ticked if some climber came along and ‘cleaned’ the moss and other vegetation off of a boulder, which undoubtedly took centuries to accumulate. ‘Cleaning moss’ strikes me as a selfish act of vandalism.”

Another contended that cleaning boulders violates regulations against removing or destroying plants growing on state land.

The critics raise valid points. To play devil’s advocate, however, one could argue that removing vegetation from portions of a relatively small number of boulders in the Adirondack Park does little or no harm to the ecological system. I can’t imagine too many people are bothered by it, as most visitors to boulder fields are boulderers. At the same time, bouldering gives great pleasure to those who do it. Applying the principles of Utilitarianism , you can make a case that removing vegetation to facilitate bouldering is, on balance, a good thing. It adds to the sum of human happiness.

Anything we do in the Forest Preserve creates some impact on the environment. Hikers create erosion, trample plants, disturb wildlife, and so on. But these impacts are small, and no one suggests we should ban hiking. The question is how much disturbance of the natural world is acceptable.

What do you think? Do boulderers go too far?

Photo by Alan Wechsler: A climber at Nine Corners.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Death of Climber Dennis Murphy

In my last post, I wrote about the risks and rewards of solo climbing. I didn’t expect to write about rock climbing again this week, but I can’t help it.

The death of Dennis Murphy at Upper Washbowl Cliff in Keene Valley deeply affected his friends and colleagues and gives pause to all climbers to reflect on the nature of their chosen sport.

I didn’t know Dennis well, but I often chatted with him at Eastern Mountain Sports in Lake Placid, where he had worked for the past four years. Last Friday, we talked at length about climbing gear and about soloing Chapel Pond Slab, something we both loved doing.

As always, I came away from the conversation thinking this guy is passionate—and knowledgeable—about climbing.

The details of Monday’s accident remain a bit fuzzy as I write this. State Police say Dennis and a friend had climbed Hesitation, a classic 5.8 route on Upper Washbowl, and were preparing to rappel when Dennis slipped. When descending, climbers rappel to a ledge halfway down the cliff and then rappel again to the base. What’s not clear is whether Dennis fell from the top of the cliff (more than two hundred feet) or from the ledge (more than one hundred feet).

Perhaps we’ll learn more today. In any case, the fall was great enough that Dennis probably died instantly. He was thirty-five years old.

Whenever a rock climber dies, questions arise about the safety of the sport. Some people even wonder if climbers have a death wish. It does seem like a dangerous pastime, but most climbers are cautious, and they spend a small fortune on gear meant to protect them in case of a fall.

Before this week, the most recent climbing death in the Adirondacks had occurred in 2007, when Dennis Luther fell on Poke-O-Moonshine in a rappelling accident. At the time, Don Mellor, the veteran climber from Lake Placid, pointed out that Luther’s was only the fifth rock-climbing fatality in the region. And technical climbing in the Adirondacks began way back in 1916, when John Case ascended the cliffs on Indian Head overlooking Lower Ausable Lake.

So now we have six climbing fatalities. That’s too many, but six deaths over the span of nearly a century does not suggest that rock climbing is a reckless sport. Far more people are killed in hunting accidents, snowmobile accidents, and ATV accidents.

Did Dennis Murphy make a mistake on Upper Washbowl? Or was he just unlucky?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. His friends will miss him just the same.

Photo by Phil Brown: Upper Washbowl Cliff.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

At Chapel Pond Slab: Is Solo Climbing Crazy?

The Empress is one of two five-star climbing routes on Chapel Pond Slab—a route first ascended in 1933 by the legendary Fritz Wiessner.

Empress is long—865 feet, usually climbed in seven pitches—but not especially difficult. It’s rated only 5.5 on the Yosemite decimal scale. It’s mostly friction climbing: you smear your soles on small toeholds to progress upward. There also is an off-width crack in one section.

Click here to a read a more detailed description of the route.

I climbed Empress for the first time the other day and had a great time. My ascent was all the more exciting in that I did it solo, without a rope, without protection against a fall.

Climbers often ascend Chapel Pond Slab solo. A few weeks ago a friend did laps on Regular Route, the other five-star route on the cliff, while waiting for me to meet him. The guidebook Adirondack Rock contains a photo of a solo climber on that same route. The book also tells of a soloist who slipped on a neighboring route and slid far down the slab, ripping the skin off his palms. “He then drove to a bar using his wrists,” the authors write.

To many people, solo climbing is lunacy. In a recent issue of the Adirondack Explorer, however, the Lake Placid climber Don Mellor defends the practice. He argues that we all take risks and that what seems like lunacy to one person is an acceptable risk to another.

“The pleasure of a bushwhack comes from the uncertainty of the outcome,” says Mellor, the author of American Rock and other climbing books. “The slide hike is exciting, not in spite of the danger, but because of it. Appreciating security by tasting insecurity is an elemental human endeavor. The only real variable, I guess, is the size of the dose.”

That said, solo climbers do push the limits. Two years ago, Alex Honnold scaled a 23-pitch route on Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The sheer-vertical climb is rated 5.12a—too hard for most climbers even with a rope.

Click here to see video of this incredible feat (sorry for the German overdubbing).

If the average climber attempted to solo this route, it would indeed be lunacy. But Honnold obviously is not your average climber, and he knows his limits.

Indeed, climbers usually stay well within their comfort zone when going solo. Nevertheless, accidents do occur, some of them fatal, even to the best of climbers. John Bachar, one of most renowned soloists in the world, died in a fall last summer. He had been solo climbing for decades. Apparently, the odds caught up with him.

What do you think? Do solo climbers have rocks in their heads?

Photo from halfway up Empress taken by Phil Brown.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.



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