Posts Tagged ‘Chapel Pond’

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Rock Climbing: Life on the Sharp End

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.

Photo of climber’s rack by Phil Brown.

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.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Alan Wechsler: The Beauty of Lake Ice

A few weeks ago, while trudging across Chapel Pond on our way to climb some obscure ice route, I stopped to gaze at the black, slick surface of the lake.

The wind had swept the lake clear of snow, except where it had collected in a few wispy areas. It was what drivers call “black ice,” but it was far from black.

It was dazzling, this frozen surface. A week earlier, hit by the late January thaw, it had been covered with brown runoff. But on this day it was more than a foot thick. A galaxy of bubbles were trapped in its various, transparent layers. Cracks ran across its surface, the thin ones bisecting the ice like ghosts, the thicker spaces filled with snow.

Ice formation is complex. According to one Web site: “ice has a hexagonal crystal structure with a longer ‘c’ axis and three identical ‘a’ axes (called ‘a1’, ‘a2’ and ‘a3’). The simple ice form is a hexagonal prism with the vertical direction being the ‘c’ axis direction.”

Uh, right. And we thought it was just a matter of water getting cold enough.

On Chapel Pond, the three of us paused over this surface, taking in the temporary beauty of winter. Bare ice like this in the Adirondacks is often rare, soon to be covered by snow. And it attracts visitors. Drive across Cascade Lakes at the right time and you might see locals skating across the long, narrow surface as late-afternoon snow whips across the pass.

On Lake Champlain when it finally freezes, some die-hard Vermonters skate out on Nordic Skates, a Scandinavian invention (of course). These are extra-large skates that attach to cross-country ski boots that allow for huge strides and marathon expeditions. This has its own dangers—big lakes have pressure ridges, areas of open water and the possibility of thin ice due to unseen currents. Practitioners of this sport wear garden rake-like claws on a rope around their neck, so that if the unthinkable occurs they can haul themselves out of the water before hypothermia sets in. Brrr.

Adventurers on motorized equipment are attracted to big water ice too. Ice on lakes like George and Champlain is strong enough to support snowmobiles, motorcycles with spiked wheels and even pick-up trucks. But they should be wary—occasionally, such drivers never return.

Whatever beauty the ice offers, it is gone now. The storms of last week have covered all but the windiest areas with blankets of snow. That means the ice will last longer this spring, thanks to a nice layer of insulation.

Snow adds its own interesting problems to travel over ice. Some say the weight of snow can push lake ice down, squeezing the water up through the cracks to saturate the lower layers of the snow. That means an unpleasant surprise for x-c skiers or snowshoers trudging through such glop.

So perhaps it’s too late this year, but if you happen to be traveling over bare lake ice, take a moment to stop and look. There’s magic between you and the water.


Monday, February 1, 2010

A Short History of Adirondack Avalanches

Photo of Angel Slides on Wright PeakYou can see the Angel Slides from Marcy Dam: two adjoining bedrock scars—one wide, one thin—on the southeastern slopes of Wright Peak. They are a well-known destination for expert backcountry skiers.

The slides got their nickname following the death of Toma Vracarich. Ten years ago this month, Vracarich and three other skiers were caught in an avalanche on the wider slide. Vracarich died under the snow. He was twenty-seven. The other skiers were injured.

It remains the only avalanche fatality in the Adirondacks, but it put people on notice that the avalanche risk here is real. » Continue Reading.



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