Paddlers and hikers are excited about the impending acquisition of the former Finch, Pruyn lands for the Forest Preserve, and understandably so. Over the next five years, a number of natural treasures will become public, such as OK Slip Falls, the Essex Chain of Lakes, Boreas Ponds, and stretches of the Hudson and Opalescent rivers.
But rock climbers also have something to be excited about: Sugarloaf Mountain.
Rising above Cedar River Road west of Indian Lake, Sugarloaf sports a massive cliff that, I’m told, offers some of the best slab climbing in the Adirondacks. Judging from the aerial photo at the end of this article, which I took a few years ago, I’m guessing the cliff is at least a half-mile long. » Continue Reading.
I’m a Johnny-climb-lately. After moving to the Adirondacks, I spent most of my outdoors time hiking, backcountry skiing, or paddling. I had no interest in rock climbing—until I finally tried it a few years back.
I quickly discovered there’s a lot to learn apart from the techniques of actual climbing: rope management, gear placement, belaying, anchor building, rappelling, and how to open a beer bottle with a carabiner. And the language. Like most sports, rock climbing has its own lingo. A bumbling climber is a “gumby”; a perfect climbing route is “splitter”; a route over “choss” (loose, friable rock) is “mungy”; and “deadpoint” is the apex of a “dyno,” or jump move.
All this can be bewildering to a newbie (or “n00b”) who encounters such terms for the first time in articles, books, and conversation. Thankfully, Mountaineers Books has published a guide for the perplexed: The Climbing Dictionary (softcover, $14.95) by Matt Samet, a veteran climber and writer.
The book defines more than 650 terms from rock climbing, bouldering, and mountaineering. Many of the definitions are illustrated by drawings by Mike Tea, an artist who works for Black Diamond, a manufacturer of cams, nuts, and other climbing gear.
In most cases, Samet does more than just define a word; he illustrates usage with humorous quotes and provides word histories that are like small windows onto the history of climbing itself. Did you know that before climbers wore helmets they sometimes protected their heads by stuffing mittens and newspapers under wool hats?
Many of the words are merely useful, such as the names for gear (ice screw, etrier, deadman anchor), but others exemplify the wry, irreverent outlook on life that seems indispensible to people who risk their necks for fun. For example, someone who “craters,” or hits the ground after a long fall, is likely to become “talus food.”
Samet captures this spirit in his definitions and exemplary quotations. Here’s his entry for blog-worthy: “Any rock you’ve ever climbed, videoed, and shot photos of … and uploaded to the Internet. In alpinism, any diversion, no matter how insignificant, from an existing climb is usually blog-worthy.”
Sometimes, though, the author strains too hard at humor, especially in his quotations. He illustrates the use of headlamp with the following: “Dave-o and Sha-Nay-Nay had to open a bivy a half-mile from the car because they spaced their headlamps; then wolves ate their faces off in the night.”
Never mind that the non-imbecilic have no need for a definition of headlamp; the quotation fails to illuminate meaning and it fails to amuse.
That’s OK … we all have our gumby moments. If you love climbing, you should enjoy this book.
If you’re rock climbing, you use a rope and wear a helmet (though not everyone does). If you’re hiking, you don’t.
That seems simple enough, but the distinction between a rock climb and a hike isn’t so straightforward. Sadly, this was demonstrated when a hiker died in a fall in the Trap Dike last week. » Continue Reading.
The Fourth Annual Southern Adirondack Rockclimbers Festival begins this Friday, September 9th, at 3pm. This year, participants will rendezvous at the property of photographer Gary Dean, located just north of the intersection of routes 10 and 10A, in the town of Caroga Lake.
This year’s climbing venues include Good Luck, Lost T, and Lost Hunter’s cliffs, as well as several newly-discovered crags. Additionally, location manager Justin Sanford will run a bouldering competition featuring the well-known boulders at Nine-Cornered Lake. SRCFC will again provide a dinner for participants Saturday night. Door prizes and giveaways from Mad Rock, Clif, National Geographic, and many more will be handed out during the event. Begun in 2008, the Festival provides climbers from all over the northeast an opportunity to explore lesser-known crags outside of the Adirondack’s well-known cliffs, and a chance for local climbers to meet, compare notes, and share the latest developments with each other. Past events have been held at Shanty Cliff, Crane Mountain, and the southeast shore of Lake George.
The Rockclimbers Festival is free to all. Free camping sites are available. Overflow camping is available close to many of the climbing areas. No training or guiding is supplied during this event; participants should understand the skills required in climbing, the risks involved, and the methods for dealing with them. Visit the festival website for more information.
Photos: Above, Lost T cliff; Below, A boulderer at Nine Cornered Lake (photos by Justin Sanford).
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.
When it comes to sheer number of routes one can take through the Adirondacks, rock climbing has got to have more opportunities than any other outdoor sport. Any guide that hopes to cover every single one is going to be a tome, and coming in at more than 670 pages, the newest edition of the seminal Adirondack climbing guide, Adirondack Rock, meets that description.
Adirondack Rock includes 242 cliff areas, many of which have never before been documented, and nearly 2,000 routes and variations. The guide’s authors, Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Hass, spent years visiting new and seldom visited climbs around the Adirondacks. Among the regions they turned their focus to was the Lake George basin, long neglected by regional climbing guides. » Continue Reading.
Drivers heading along Route 73 from Keene into Lake Placid can’t miss the activity on the icy cliffs above the Cascade Lakes. Climbers scurry like ants, from dawn to dusk, up and along the major flows that wind down either side of the main cliff. Chances are anyone learning to climb the transient mineral we call ice will end up here before too long in their studies.
This is the most popular ice climbing venue in the Adirondacks. Parking is plentiful, the approach is short, and there is access to the top of most routes for top-roping.
All that convenience makes it a crowded place: come very early or late in the afternoon for the best chance to climb. Roadside conditions are typically inhospitable. High wind sweeps through the pass, making it a bone-chilling place to attempt any chores in the parking lot. Come completely prepared to head directly up the hillside before opening the car door. There are three main parking areas for the central area of the pass. The western parking lot services the Buster and Sisters flows, the center one is for those intrepid souls venturing onto the main Pitchoff Cliff or Pitchoff Left, the easternmost one services climbers heading for Pitchoff Quarry or Pitchoff Right. The most impressive flow is the Sisters formation. Sister Left rises 130’ from its base, with a lot of 3+ and some grade 4 ice to reach the top. Sister Right is shorter, but presents a greater challenge, from 4 to 5 or even hard mixed climbing depending on the line chosen. While the full length of Sister Left must be climbed from the bottom up, the entire face can be top-roped, using a ledge lying about thirty feet upslope. Getting to the top still requires leading something, Buster being the easiest option.
Buster is a perennial favorite for beginners. The main flow is difficult to walk around for top-rope set-up, but by skirting the right edge, only minimal grade 2 ice is encountered, so it makes a good first lead as well. The front face ranges from grade 2 to 4-, and there is a fixed rappel anchor at the top. Above the anchor, another easy pitch provides a good introduction to multipitch climbing as well.
Buster is often crowded, but there are several nearby alternatives. In recent years, a steep flow directly to Buster’s left has formed reliably, providing 3+ to M4 mixed climbing, depending on its condition. To the right, two more flows (Boozer and Bruiser), both with good walk-around access to their tops and fixed anchors, provide enough room for at least four ropes.
Farther to the right, a large flow called Pitchoff Left begins as a vertical curtain of grade 4 ice, then settles down to easy climbing for the remainder of its length. There is no easy top-rope or lead option for this line, all comers will have to tackle it directly on lead. The good news: it has the fattest, most massive ice of any grade 4 flow in this area. Pitchoff Cliff divides the previous flows from those to the right. There are routes on the main cliff for stout-hearted ice aficionados; most mere mortals just gawk at them and move on.
Pitchoff Right is a heavy draw; it is rare to have this area to oneself. Fortunately, there is plenty of room and variety to go around. There is room for up to nine ropes along this wall, on routes ranging from twenty five to seventy feet tall. Top-roping is easy to establish, via a grade 1 walk-around to climber’s right. Difficulty ranges from the upper end of 2 to hard 4, with plenty of acrobatic mixed climbing potential as well. Be cautious about the pillars that form on the overhangs: while people climb them with reckless abandon, they do occasionally fall down.
The rightmost destination in the area, Pitchoff Quarry, is tucked back just far enough to be nearly invisible from the road. Accessed from the parking lot below Pitchoff Right, climbers walk east along the road for 200 feet, then duck into the alders and meander to the cliff. In good conditions, the quarry has a wide band of very steep ice, ranging between grade 4 and 5. Top-rope set-up is possible via access to climber’s right. The main flow dominates the center of the quarry, with enough room for a couple ropes, and flows to either side provide room for at least four more.
Jay Harrison guides both rock and ice for Eastern Mountain Sports, and occasionally writes about his personal adventures on his own blog.
Most Adirondack ice classics line the road near Keene Valley or Cascade Pass, clustered together, but Multiplication Gully stands alone, hiding deep in a crevice along Route 86 near Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort. Breaking the fortress of impenetrable cliff lining the road, that crevice glistens white once temperatures dip below freezing. Only a glimpse is afforded drivers as they pass the fault, so it isn’t surprising that Multiplication Gully wasn’t discovered for so long.
Six years after Yvon Chouinard brought front-pointing and short tools to the Adirondacks, two relative unknowns reported ascending the slot that hides within that crack. Alan Spero and Tom Worthington snagged what has become one of the most sought-after ice climbs in the Park, then they practically vanished to the annals of Adirondack climbing history. Every winter, I visit this crystalline gem at least once. The combination of claustrophobic crevice and mind-boggling exposure, with its view of Moss Cliff framed by the surrounding rock walls, creates a unique experience. I’m not alone in that regard: Multiplication Gully is one of the most popular routes in the Northeast.
This popularity comes at a price. On weekends, there’s a queue clumping up at the base, often several parties awaiting their chance to head up the ice. Since the route follows a natural channel, anything falling from above heads directly down it, so following parties become the unexpected targets of ice, dropped gear, and plummeting climbers. If another car is parked in the lot, look for climbers already on the route, and if possible, wait until they are nearing the top before hiking up to it.
Climbers should park in the pullout on the opposite side of the highway, about 200 feet east of the boulder marking the start of the access path. While the route appears close to the road, the trail to it winds among a thick stand of conifers, then meanders up a treacherous, icy talus pile to reach it, so the approach takes about ten minutes.
Once at the base of the route, place gear and the belay to the right, sheltered by a rock overhang. Handy trees provide a quick belay anchor and an initial protection point just as the real climbing begins. Be careful to put any gear staying at the bottom off the wet ice in the rock alcove, where it won’t get covered with snowfall or damaged by falling ice. Be mindful that other climbers will almost certainly be arriving; keep your items together and compact.
The first pitch provides a good warm-up for the difficulties to come: it is a moderate WI3 with plenty of rests between steep spots. These ledges accrue a lot of snow, but since the route is popular, they get packed down quickly. Work up the line as desired, but don’t stop at the fixed anchor on cedar trees to climber’s left. Instead, continue up another twenty feet to a wide, level area, then walk climber’s right along a ledge and build an anchor well out of the bomb zone (I usually place a screw in the ice face above the ledge to redirect the belay and provide a first piece of protection for the second pitch).
The second pitch begins with a short, steep WI3 wall, then narrows considerably as it winds up toward the top. Above the first step, the ice rears up briefly, with a dead-vertical pillar on the left and a bulging rock wall on the right. Most parties opt to climb the thread of ice lying between these two barriers, gaining height by chimneying with crampons on the pillar, back against the rock, and tools lashing desperately in the wasp-waisted strip overhead. Another brief respite lies after this, and then the final obstacle: the line, almost strangled by an overhanging wall of rock on the right and a steep rock ramp to the left, twists through a twelve-inch slot. There are two options for this spot: either pick oh-so carefully up the verglas on the ramp to a vertical ice pillar finish, or squeeze along that slot, making the most of rock holds and shallow ice before sinking a tool in the duff on top and working left to the fixed anchor. With two 60 meter ropes, rappel the route, being careful of climbers below. Stay to the left, gaining that anchor near the top of the first pitch.
Jay Harrison lives in the southern Adirondacks, works as a climbing guide, and occasionally writes about his antics on his own blog.
Photos: Above, climber Travis King on the second pitch; Middle, look for this stone marking the approach path’s start; Below, view of Moss Cliff from the top of Multiplication Gully. Photos courtesy Jay Harrison.
Mention Adirondack ice climbing and most people think of Keene Vally or Cascade Pass, Pitchoff or Pok-O-Moonshine. But there is a plethora of ice tucked away in the park’s southern reaches, “must-dos” for any climbers willing and able to manage the approach. The Waterfall Wall on Crane Mountain is one of these classic lines.
Crane’s Waterfall Wall lies well east of the State trailhead. Fortunately, a well-worn climber’s path leads from the trailhead parking lot in this direction, making the start easier than it used to be. The path winds through the Boulderwoods, a summertime bouldering area, then continues eastward along the base of Crane for awhile. If you cannot reach the parking lot – often the case in winter – just walk down the trailhead road about 150′ then cut into the woods, toward the mountain, when you see the first state boundary sign. You will run across an old ATV trail, turn right on this to skirt private property. When you see power lines, cut across straight toward the mountainside until you come to the climber’s path, then take it to the right.
The path parallels the mountain for awhile, then cuts uphill, heading for a rock crag called the Measles Walls. Cut off here, continuing eastward and staying low until the mountain swings away from your heading.
From there, cut uphill along any of several gullies, keeping a constant distance from the mountainside. You will eventually reach a ridgetop overlooking a small, steep-sided ravine blocking the way ahead. To your left, the ridge rises to join the flank of Crane Mountain, to your left, it runs down to private lands. Drop into the ravine and climb up the opposite side to reach another ridge. This one parallels Crane’s northeast flank; you’ve turned the corner of the mountain.
Follow this ridge, staying in sight of Crane, as it runs along level at first, then begins descending. At times, you will have to choose between walking down a boulder-strewn streambed close to Crane, or going farther east to avoid the worst difficulties; just keep the flank of Crane in sight.
After dropping several hundred feet, the ridge levels off. The stream exits the boulders and winds around the flat area before entering another bouldery copse. The Waterfall is directly left of this point.
Pitch One is a wide swathe of ice slab 115′ tall. It rates WI2 to 3+, depending on which line you choose to climb. At the base, the ice on the left is thin, the center is adequate, and just right of center is the fattest section. Right of this, thin ice (or bare rock) leads to the Tempest variation, the hardest option for this pitch, as it climbs through a short, vertical headwall. Farther right, there is often a strip of ice that flows along the right side of the headwall block; this is narrow but very easy, perhaps WI1.
The top-out is a roomy, wooded ledge. Most parties belay from a tree near the cliff edge so they can see their partner’s progress. Convenient trees provide TR anchors for the Tempest variation, but a 70m rope is required. A 60m rope can be used for rappel-descent off a small oak tree to climber’s left of the ice slab. If this is used, be careful of a rock crevice, often disguised by snow, at the bottom next to the slab.
Pitch Two‘s climbing begins a few steps upslope. A mound of ice with minimal WI2 climbing leads to a long, low-angled run of about 140’ up to a good ledge with a belay tree below a short headwall. Alternatives range from climbing the steep slab right of the ice mound (often too thin for screws), drytooling a right-facing rock corner farther right, or choss-stabbing up a large right-facing corner to the left of the mound. The traditional way is by far the best. Descent options range from a circuitous walk-up to the Pitch Three escape, or a 30m rappel off the belay tree that will barely reach easy ground (70m rope recommended).
Pitch Three is a the short flow directly behind the belay. On the left, it is a WI1, stepped corner, but one can also climb directly up the headwall for a harder start. Be aware the the corner takes screws, the headwall is usually too thin.
Pitch Four is non-technical. Coil the rope and walk up the streambed about 70′, then cross to its left side and walk uphill and left, toward the obvious flow high above. Climb a wooded ramp to reach the beginning of pitch five’s technical ice. Do NOT stay in the streambed; this leads to a remote section of the mountain. To descend: walk off clmber’s left, descending a wooded ramp until near the bouldery streambed, then curl back to the base of the Waterfall.
Pitch Five is thin WI2. While not difficult, timid leaders will struggle here. The ice is thin and may be hard to find if the slab is covered in snow. Generally, begin near the slab’s low point, climb up and left to reach a narrow band of ice in a right-facing corner. At its top, move right below a bulge, then follow another right-facing corner up, keeping tools tight in the corner or even on the face above. Step up left on top of the corner and continue up easy slab to trees below the steep last pitch. Alternatives are: weave along a narrow, technical ledge leftward then up to circumvent the pitch, or dry-tool a low-angle open book to the right. Descent from the top of pitch five can be by rappel off the lowest oak trees (WI 1 to reach these), or a long walk-off climber’s left.
Pitch Six’s most obvious line is WI4-, and runs about 100′ from the belay trees at the bottom to the huge pine at the top. There’s no mistaking the crux here: the main ice sheet flows down a steep wall and drops a curtain in front of an overhang about 50′ up. One can climb up to the left, utilizing handy trees to pull a WI3 (thin ice) lead to reach the top, or pass up the sharp end altogether and walk left to get around and top-rope the beef. There is an obvious mixed option to the right of the main flow, which has been TR’d and is estimated MI4 or 5. Other possibilities, yet to be tried, lie farther right.
In case of emergency, cell phone reception is surprisingly good for this area, but don’t depend on it. The usual rules for escaping unfamiliar woodland do not apply here: following drainages will take you far away from help. If you carry (and know how to use) a compass, follow a bearing due south to hit Sky High Road.
Illustrations: Above, the author leads up pitch one (Kevin Heckeler photo); middle photos, Patrick Gernert climbs the second and third pitches respectively; below, Jason Brechko leads the highest, hardest pitch of the route, WI 4-. (Courtesy Jay Harrison).
Jay Harrison of Thurman guides rock and ice climbing excursions in the Adirondacks, Catskills, and Shawangunks, and records his antics on his own blog and website.
Please join me in welcoming rock and ice climber Jay Harrison of Thurman newest (25th!) contributor here at the Adirondack Almanack. Jay has more than 15 years experience as a climbing guide and currently guides for Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing Schools. He’s also one of the primary forces behind the Southern Adirondack Rock Climbers’ Fest, held this past fall on the east side of Lake George.
Jay writes short pieces about his climbing experiences on his own blog and longer articles for his website. Although he’s climbed his way around the Adirondacks (and has spent a lot of time down in the Gunks), Jay says one of his favorite local spots is Crane Mountain in Johnsburg, Warren County. He makes no excuses for his obsession with Crane. “For climbers, it rocks,” he told me, “even in winter.” Jay will begin his tenure here at the Almanack today with a description of Crane’s “Waterfall Wall” ice climb. He will be contributing here at the Almanack every other week on rock and ice climbing news, issues, and culture.
Weekend warriors from New York City, western New York State, Massachusetts, Vermont and Pennsylvania often rise at the ungodly dark hour of 4 AM and on a frigid winter morning make the long drive to the Adirondacks. Many come not to ski down our mountains but rather to climb straight-up. What are they doing? Ice Climbing! It is a sport gaining fast in popularity.
Ice climbing can be crazy and dangerous but for the beginner, with qualified instructors and adequate precautions, the risk is minimized. To indulge one’s wild side with a day of ice climbing and a heart-stopping good time, Adirondack residents need only pile on warm clothing, pack lunch and travel a few miles to the nearest wilderness outfitter, a source of instructors. (Do call ahead first.) These instructors provide boots, crampons, helmets and axes, cinch you tightly into a harness and, upon reaching the ice, clip you to a top-rope, so serious free falling is not an option. They exhibit a world of patience, attentiveness and good humor while at the same time teaching the basics of climbing. Before shivery jitters can take over, you will find yourself, axe in each hand, kicking and chopping your way straight up what just a few minutes earlier seemed an impossibly slippery slope. Age is no excuse.
Last February, ten of us, several well into our sixties, cautiously ascended an ice sheet under the watchful eyes and tutelage of Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service instructors, Bill Seims and Lori Crowningshield. We spent an adrenalin pumping and rousingly fun day finding out why people indulge in this peculiar sport. The reason? – because to climb ice is a whacky challenge, to succeed is a thrill.
What did we learn? – first, that us older folks were just as able to participate and enjoy the crazy adventure as those considerably younger.
If you occasionally hike and are in moderately good shape, you can do this. In fact, because of the necessary “buddy system,” ice climbing can be a perfect cross-generational activity, challenging enough for older children to enjoy with a still active parent. I had the pleasure of doing this with my son, Christopher.
We also discovered several other things: that once on the ice, intense focus on the placement of axe and crampon sends fear of heights skittering away (unless you look down); prongs and ice axes, barely puncturing the surface, easily support a person’s weight; and last, carefully watching and belaying your partner, taking in the rope’s slack as he/she climbs, is as much a challenge as doing the actual climbing itself.
When first confronted with a 65- foot vertical wall of ice, some of us were gripped by an emotion best described as terror. However, top-roped, and with clear directions, each managed to overcome fear and climb, climb again and then, with enthusiasm, climb several more times. With each trip up the ice, understanding of technique grows, less exertion is required and the ascent becomes more fun.
What a way to practice team-building. What a satisfying accomplishment. What a high we experienced at the end of the day. Some got hooked and plan to go back again; for others, just pushing the comfort zone was empowering, a reminder of how we can often do far more than we realize.
After hours of climbing, we declared it a memorable day, one destined to be a highlight in our collection of memories. When looking for adventure, Adirondack residents should think about this great opportunity, one which exists conveniently close to home.
Getting a group together, rather than going by yourself, will lower the price. A day on the ice will cost no more than an evening on the town. For information on how to pick a guide, go to http://www.usmga.net. To find instructors, Google “Adirondack ice climbing instruction”.
Saranac Lake resident and freelance writer Caperton Tissot writes a shared weekly “Friends and Neighbors” column in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. She is also the author of two books on her own Snowy Owl Press, History Between The Lines, Women’s Lives and Saranac Lake Customs (2007), and Adirondack Ice, A Cultural and Natural History (2010).
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.
About a decade ago, I was riding a speedboat across Lake George — heading north to the Narrows — when I looked over to the eastern shore. There, right above the land formerly known as the Knapp Estate, was a series of large cliffs below Shelving Rock Mountain.
“I wonder if there’s climbing there?” I thought.
Turns out there is. It took a few years, but several local climbers have recently put up a variety of routes on the cliffs. According to Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas, authors of Adirondack Rock, there are six different cliff areas known together as Shelving Rock. » Continue Reading.
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