While casting her vote for the Boreas Ponds land classification known as Alternative 2 on February 2, 2018, one Adirondack Park Agency board member told the audience gathered at the agency’s headquarters in Ray Brook that we should “take a leap of faith,” even if the public wasn’t getting the wilderness classification it wanted. She said that we should trust the Department of Environmental Conservation to protect the Boreas Ponds in its forthcoming unit management plan (UMP) for the area, where environmental safeguards would be written into the proposals for recreational access.
Unfortunately, that faith has proven to be unwarranted. DEC has released a pair of management plans that will impact the future of not just the beautiful Boreas Ponds, but the entire High Peaks Wilderness. The scope of these two documents far exceeds the available time to read and assess everything they contain, but even with a cursory review it is abundantly clear that our state agencies are failing to meet the public’s expectations. » Continue Reading.
The legendary Fritz Wiessner established more than a dozen rock-climbing routes in the Adirondacks, according to the authors of Adirondack Rock. I’ve written about a few of the better ones, including Empress on Chapel Pond Slab, Wiessner Route on Upper Washbowl Cliff, and Old Route on Rooster Comb Mountain.
One reason I’m drawn to Wiessner routes is their historical interest. Arguably, Wiessner was the strongest rock climber in the United States during the 1930s. Indeed, the authors of Yankee Rock and Ice suggest that the German immigrant “was so far ahead of what others were willing to try that he did not significantly improve the general standard.” In other words, few of his contemporaries could repeat his harder routes. » Continue Reading.
If you’ve done any rock climbing at Chapel Pond Gully Cliff, you’ve probably passed a steep granite wall on your way to the routes. It’s wet, dark, and manky, nothing you’d want to get on in summer.
In winter, however, the wall is transformed into the beautiful Crystal Ice Tower, one of the oldest and most popular ice-climbing routes in the region.
The tower is just one pitch, about eighty feet long, but it’s possible to keep climbing for three more pitches all the way to the top of Chapel Pond Gully Cliff. The route above Crystal Ice Tower — a mixture of snow and ice — is known as White Line Fever. » Continue Reading.
Monday was beautiful and sunny, with leaves at peak color. It also was Columbus Day and Canadian Thanksgiving. Not surprisingly, dozens of cars lined the shoulders of Route 73 near the trailheads for Giant Mountain.
Cars also were parked along the highway near Chapel Pond Slab, one of the region’s most popular rock-climbing venues. When Philip Brittan and I arrived at the base of the slab, we saw a party halfway up Regular Route, the most climbed route on the slab. As we put on our climbing shoes and harnesses and tied into the rope, three other parties showed up, all intent on climbing Regular Route.
Fortunately, we were climbing Thanksgiving. Given the holiday, this seemed especially appropriate. Thanksgiving is one of two major routes on Chapel Pond Slab established by the Alpine Club of Canada. The other is Victoria. It, too, is named after a Canadian holiday: Victoria Day.
The Ausable River Association (AsRA) has launched an expanded porta-john program throughout the Ausable River watershed to address the persistent problem of human waste disposal. Each year, over a million people visit the Ausable River watershed according to AsRA; seventy-six percent of these visitors participate in outdoor recreational activities. These large numbers pose a challenge in terms of the proper disposal of human waste. In short, the watershed has a poop problem.
The High Peaks Summit Stewardship Program has reported a 64% increase in visitation to the high summits of the Adirondacks over the past six years. This increase has coincided with a shift towards a larger percentage of day hikers versus overnight users. In many cases these visitors are not prepared to, or informed how to, properly dispose of their waste. As a result, summit stewards, forest rangers, and other backcountry professionals have reported an increased incidence of feces and toiletry products being improperly deposited on, or directly adjacent to trails. » Continue Reading.
More than thirty years ago, Don Mellor was in a plane flying over the High Peaks region, taking photos for his rock-climbing guidebook, when he spotted a large streambed in Chapel Pond Canyon. He returned the next winter with Steve Wisenand, one of his students at Northwood School in Lake Placid.
The streambed was now a huge mass of ice, about eighty-five feet high. With Mellor leading, they climbed the frozen flow with ice axes and strap-on crampons, then the only kind available.
They named the route Positive Reinforcement, an allusion to the behavioral theory of the psychologist B.F. Skinner, whose utopian novel Mellor had assigned to his English students. The name also is a tip of the helmet to Positive Thinking, a classic ice route on Poke-o-Moonshine Mountain.
Positive Reinforcement was the first ice-climbing route in Chapel Pond Canyon. Since that winter day in 1982, climbers have established nearly twenty additional routes in the canyon, yet Positive Reinforcement remains one of the best and most popular. Though it’s considered only moderate in difficulty, many variations are possible, some harder than others. » Continue Reading.
Moving to the Adirondacks in 1998 offered new opportunities to explore the lakes and rivers in my solo canoe near Keene. I first tried Upper Cascade Lake and Chapel Pond, the lakes visible from Route 73 near Keene Valley on the way to Lake Placid. I had admired those lakes for decades while vacationing in the High Peaks.
Launching my Hornbeck at the Upper Cascade Lake was easy as it only weighted 15 pounds. Hugging the south shore, admiring the small streams cascading over the moss-covered rocks at close range was magical. But the noise from the traffic on Route 73, amplified across the lake, caused such an annoyance I soon paddled back to shore in disappointment. » Continue Reading.
The other day my neighbor Tim Peartree and I went to Shipton’s Arete overlooking Chapel Pond for some early-season climbing. When we got there we found mud, stones, and a few broken trees at the base. It was the debris from a huge rock-fall that wiped out much of the wooded area above the cliff.
We moved a tree and several branches from the base before beginning to climb. I climbed a 120-foot route called Shipton’s Voyage with the intention of setting up a top rope. Upon reaching the top, I discovered that the rock-fall had damaged the cedar tree used as a belay and rappel anchor. The tree had three trunks, and one of them had been sheared off, leaving a jagged stump. » Continue Reading.
I’d guess anyone who climbs regularly in the Adirondacks has climbed Chapel Pond Slab. For beginners, it’s a great place to get a feel for the exposure and intricacies of multi-pitch climbing. For the more experienced, it’s a place to relax and enjoy the beauty of the stone and the views of Chapel Pond Pass.
The most popular climb on the slab is Regular Route, with a half-dozen interesting and varied pitches. Not much is known about the history of Regular Route. The guidebook Adirondack Rock says it evolved from variations of an early route called Bob’s Knob Standard. The region’s first climbing guidebook, A Climber’s Guide to the Adirondacks, says it was pioneered by the Alpine Club of Canada.
I don’t need to remind you how bad the backcountry skiing has been this year. As of this morning, the Adirondack Ski Touring Council wouldn’t even recommend skiing on the Marcy Dam Truck Trail.
But it has been cold this winter, so I figured the ice climbing must be good. Just over a week ago, in fact, there were ice climbers crawling all over Keene and Keene Valley during the Mountaineer’s annual Mountainfest.
One hundred years ago this September the Keene Valley faced the second massive fire to threaten it from the south since the dawn of the young century. The irrepressible artist Harold Weston, then a young man of nineteen, was on the front lines along with his family; his father, secretary of Adirondack Trail Improvement Society (ATIS) at the time, was chief adviser to the Army platoon that President Woodrow Wilson had sent to help fight the fires.
In his collection Freedom in the Wilds Weston recounts the progress of the fire up the ridge of Noonmark and over the southern part of Round Mountain to Chapel Pond as crews of men, pressed beyond the point of exhaustion, tried to stop it with fire lines and back fires set at the edges of the 1903 fire’s advance. » Continue Reading.
Rock climbers will have a few more routes to climb this weekend, according to Joe Racette, a biologist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation who monitors the nesting of peregrine falcons on cliffs.
Racette said the Upper Washbowl cliffs near Chapel Pond are now open to climbers. DEC closes Upper Washbowl and Lower Washbowl each spring at the start of the falcons’ breeding season. DEC has ascertained that that this year the falcons are nesting on Lower Washbowl. » Continue Reading.
Fritz Wiessner, a top climber in his day, put up the route in 1938. Like most of his routes, this one is regarded as moderate in difficulty, but it’s great fun, with interesting problems, thrilling exposure, and spectacular views of Chapel Pond Pass and the Great Range.
The crux (hardest part) comes at the very beginning when climbers have to squeeze past and then surmount a rectangular block. This pitch is rated 5.6 on the Yosemite Decimal System scale, which is pretty easy by today’s standards, but the pitch would have been a lot harder in Wiessner’s era, when climbers wore mountaineering boots instead of sticky-soled slippers. In fact, one of Wiessner’s partners, M. Beckett Howorth, avoided the block altogether, according to the guidebook Adirondack Rock. » Continue Reading.
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.
Rock climbers call it the sharp end of the rope. That would be the end attached to the lead climber, the one taking the risks. Some say you haven’t really climbed until you’ve been on the sharp end.
Cambridge University Press’s online dictionary defines “sharp end” as the part of any activity “where the most problems are likely to be found.” Having experienced the sharp end of the rope for the first time last weekend, I would say that about sums things up.
Unlike the following climber (the “second’’), a leader risks injury or even death if he falls. Although the leader places protection during the climb, meant to hold him in a fall, if he slips, he will plummet twice as far as he ascended above his last piece of “pro”—and a bit more if you factor in slack and rope stretch. Thus, if he is ten feet above his last piece, he falls more than twenty feet. In contrast, when the leader belays the second climber from above, he keeps the rope taut, so if the second slips, he falls hardly at all. Although I never led a climb before Sunday, I had climbed solo on multi-pitch routes on Chapel Pond Slab. You’d think that solo climbing, with no rope or protection, would be more unnerving than leading a climb. Strangely, I found that wasn’t the case.
Anybody attempting a lead climb for the first time should choose a route well within his ability. I did two short routes — “Return Home” and “And She Was” — on the Roast and Boast Slab in Wilmington Notch (my son, Nathan, belayed me). Both are rated 5.2 in the Yosemite Decimal System. Essentially, they’re novice climbs.
So why did I feel less comfortable leading the 80-foot And She Was (named for a Talking Heads song) than I did soloing the 800-foot Regular Route on Chapel Pond Slab, which is rated 5.5?
For one thing, I think my reaction says something about the subjectivity of the rating system. Most of Regular Route is straightforward slab climbing that requires little technique. And She Was, in contrast, follows a series of cracks. Which route you find easier will depend on whether you prefer slab climbing or crack climbing. I enjoy both, but for whatever reason, I felt more comfortable on Regular Route.
More important, though, lead climbing is simply harder than solo climbing. You’ve got all that heavy gear—wired nuts, cams, and carabiners—hanging off your harness. It tends to get in the way. You’re also dragging a rope behind you. It sometimes tugs at you, and it might even throw you off balance. Finally, you have to stop frequently to wedge a nut or cam into a crack and clip the rope to it, trying to maintain your position on the cliff with one hand while the other fiddles with the gear. To top things off, if you’re new to leading, you’re bound to have doubts about whether that protection will hold in a fall. I sure did.
I suspect the fears and doubts will subside as I gain experience, but I don’t imagine they ever go completely away, and that’s probably a good thing. Fear keeps you alert.
But why climb at all? Why take any risk? I pondered that question after taking an unroped fall on the Eagle Slide last summer. I wrote about the fall briefly in this story in the Adirondack Explorer. In the newsmagazine’s current issue, I describe the fall in more detail with my commentary. Click here to read it.
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