“Both of us are in disbelief at what just happened. It was positively insane. It’s the last day of our trip and we’re three pitches up this absurdly steep four-pitch wall above the Riviere Sainte-Marguerite, five miles from the road.”
Two New Ice Climbs in Panther Gorge
by Kevin MacKenzie
Charybdis (WI4/400’): FA Kevin MudRat MacKenzie, Laura Duncan, Brent Elliot
Scylla (WI4/180’): FA Brent Elliot, Kevin MudRat MacKenzie
“Kevin continues to find excellent climbing and adventure in Panther Gorge”
Twin Fracture Gully is a deep gash that slices into the side of Marcy along the southern border of the Huge Scoop. The distinctive feature is 20’ wide and deeply inset into the southeastern aspect of the ridge. The main channel splits into dual gullies amidst roof systems at its top. As a drainage for the ridge, it is a chossy wet mess during non-winter seasons, but that sets it up for fat ice
when the snow flies. It’s been on my winter tick list for a few years, but the thought of trudging that far into the Gorge was unappealing for several seasons. I kept it in my pocket as a backup option in case a target line wasn’t fully formed.
Enter Laura Duncan and Brent Elliott, two climbers I met in Panther Gorge during February of 2017. They drove 7 hours to share in an Adirondack adventure. We met at the Garden Trailhead in Keene Valley at 4:15 AM on Saturday, February 17. Our primary target was a smear about 100’ north of the Agharta ice route. The potential line looked fat from afar during a January trip. I questioned whether the bottom of the curtain had touched down and, if not, whether we’d be able to find a way up to the ice. Recent rain followed by a flash freeze sparked my hopes, but longer daylight hours and the dark anorthosite of Marcy were working against it. The only way to find out was to visit.
Hard-packed trails aided with the nearly 8-mile approach to the northern pass of the Gorge. The crust off-trail wasn’t entirely supportive, but the underlying snowpack was firm enough to keep us afloat except for the occasional spruce trap. We walked out on the snowfield below the Agharta Wall 45 minutes later after some bushwhacking acrobatics in the talus. Its namesake route, and Just Nickel and Iron were fat. A blue sky and warm sun were overhead in contrast to the forecast which called partly cloudy skies with 15-20 m.p.h. winds—not good for the smear. Our hopeful line looked terrifying. Melted daggers were 15’ from the ground, and there wasn’t enough feature in the rock to climb up to their start. The middle of the smear was nearly melted out. I grumbled to myself, reset my ambitions and suggested we trek about 15 minutes south to Twin Fracture Gully at the edge of the large northern walls. If that wasn’t in, we could climb Agharta and throw new-routing to the wind.
The snowfield showed the evidence of the recent warm spell. We passed a spear of ice sticking out of the surface while descending to the Scoop. A few minutes later, we were catching our breath in the alders in the snowfield near the gully. I climbed up high enough to view the top, and my heart jumped with excitement. I could see ice capping the cliff at the end of the gully. It wasn’t simply climbable; it was fat. The 6-hour approach suddenly seemed worth the effort. I said a quick prayer for a safe climb before the action started.
Laura tied in and zipped up the first pitch. Several women have made their mark in the Gorge including Emilie Drinkwater who climbed Panther Gorge Falls (aka Grand Central Waterfall) during her historic solo of Joe Szot’s Adirondack Trilogy (https://www.neice.com/2009/03/the-trilogy-adirondacks-ny/ ). To my knowledge, Laura is the first woman to be part of an ice climbing first ascent in the area. She took the first pitch 180’ up to a bulge below the confluence of the dual gullies. It didn’t take long before she had Brent and me on belay.
Marcy enveloped us as we climbed side by side on the blue ice and through the snow. Upon reaching the anchor, we climbed another 50’ up to a stance that was protected from icefall. We assessed the options and discussed strategy. Our initial thought was to put up a single long line, but it was early, and there were two obvious choices. After discussion, we agreed that I would lead the left, we’d rappel, and Brent would lead the right. The terrain after the top was likely just a low-angle gully.
With the climbing logistics under control, I looked around and was amazed by the ice formations on all sides: ramps, bulges, smears, hanging spikes and wind-whipped icicles. The gully had some similarities to Multiplication Gully as well as Haggis and Cold Toast (on steroids). I climbed 30’ up the first bulge, placed a screw and disappeared from view into an ice-entombed chimney. A fat curtain on the right, several inches of clear ice on the left and a thick ramp underfoot set the stage for comfortable if not occasionally awkward climbing. Higher, the right-hand wall opened for an unobstructed view to the north. Large black roofs and hanging daggers were overhead. I rested in a large cave under the roofs. Curtains of ice continued north, but I planned to take the line straight up an exposed vertical curtain and into an icy constriction. Twenty feet higher, I worked my way into a squeeze chimney of freshly formed ice. The route was still building. I didn’t expect to find “plastic” during the climb since we’re usually fighting bullet ice at this elevation. I stemmed and squirmed my way into a good stance for another rest. I looked down, and Laura and Brent were back into view. Another short vertical tier led onto a bulge and into the trees. I was nearing the end of the rope, so I slung a solid spruce and set up an anchor. The length of the new route was 400’ with three pitches. It was thrilling to find such a challenging and aesthetic line to lead.
Laura, then Brent, followed. It was impossible to see her progress until she entered the upper chimney. Her smiling face popped into view and she yelled, “This is the best pitch of ice I’ve ever climbed!” That alone made my day. I love sharing these experiences with people who appreciate the rugged beauty (and a bit of suffering). Brent soon appeared as Laura took photos of him cresting the top. Instead of climbing directly to our position, he explored right to see if we should continue the line. A low angle snow gully led to another short bulge, but it didn’t seem worth the effort, so we rappelled down to the confluence and prepared to take on the northern gully.
Our warm, cozy nook turned into a blustery freezer as high-level clouds, and a moderate breeze moved in—the conditions of the original forecast. The temperature was in the single digits with windchill. Laura and I were shivering even while wearing belay jackets. She decided to rappel to the packs to heat some soup and take shelter. Brent and I remained to continue the quest though I admit that at the time I’d have been just as happy to have descended with her. I knew the climbing would eventually bring my hands back to life. I watched the cedars whip back and forth along the cliff top and shivered again.
It was easier to keep sight of the leader on this line though showers of ice chips occasionally sent me scrambling for protection against the right-hand wall. A few short vertical sections led to a ramp below a vertical curtain. The crux was at the top. A half hour later I saw Brent’s head pop into view as he yelled, “Off belay!” I tried to climb fast enough to regain feeling in my fingers. It worked just as I reached the curtain. I stopped to rest and deal with the “screaming barfies.” It was a visually intimidating arena with a few columns that had touched down and plenty of free-hanging mass. One could put up a WI5 here if they were so inclined. A line up the right side offered a more comfortable option. It had the requisite awkward exit into a dense cedar grove—classic Adirondack adventure climbing. The belay station was…intimate—what happens in Panther Gorge stays in Panther Gorge. Brent’s line was 180’ long.
Two rappels later found us back at our packs and behind the shelter of a small ridge. Laura emerged from the trees looking reinvigorated from a hot meal. It was 4:30 PM and the waning sun looked like a soft orb as it moved toward Marcy’s ridge behind the clouds. My motivation shifted from new-routing to something more simple—bushwhacking back to the trail before darkness swallowed the Gorge. I knew the way, but trail-breaking out through the north pass in the dark is dispiriting. We slowly followed our tracks, connecting glades until we reached the Panther Den at the top. Here we diverged from our entry path to avoid the talus in the center of the drainage. By Tooth and Claw (a route Bill Schneider, Devin Farkas and I added in 2016) was in thin but climbable condition. This is another reliable route when other lines are delaminating. Several new possibilities including what looked like a WI6 on the Panther Den’s prow were in as well.
The off-trail situation became humorous during the final push from the cliff to the Phelps Trail. Laura broke trail for a bit and did a fine job of finding the powder stashes which brought her to a screeching halt on some of the steeper slopes. Brent quipped that she was a skier at heart. At least I knew where not to step. It was around 5:30 PM when we reached “civilization.” With 8 miles to go, the day was far from over.
We named the routes Charybdis (WI4/400’) and Scylla (WI4/180’) during a discussion at Slant Rock. Twin monsters of the deep Gorge seemed appropriate and Laura liked that Scylla is depicted as a female in Greek mythology. A warm fire at Johns Brook Lodge seduced us into another rest. In the end, we reached the trailhead at 10:30 PM after roughly 18 hours over as many miles—a full day, but appropriate for the route location and snow conditions.
The number of named ice climbs on Marcy and Haystack has grown from a single backcountry classic, Agharta (ca. 1999), to 14 routes as of 2018. The grades range from WI2 to WI5-. Additional details may be found at:
A New Test Piece in the Catskills
by Christopher Beauchamp
I could feel a familiar tingle in my fingers warning that were I not careful, the barfies would soon arrive. I cursed myself for letting my hands go numb and whined to no one in particular about the cold. My feet were numb as well, but that was more a result of hanging in my harness for too long rather than any environmental condition. What the hell was I even doing up here? I was the only one who had been in the canyon all day. And of course I was, it was a random weekday, people were at work, busy being productive members of society or whatever it is regular rational people did with their days. Given what a fiscal disaster the previous year had been, shouldn’t I also be at work? Shouldn’t I be franticly courting new clients? Or at the very least massaging the relationships I had with existing ones? Certainly almost anything would be a better use of a day than driving 6 hours round trip in order to freeze while dangling on the end of rope with a crowbar and hammer, cleaning loose rock off some random bit of steep choss while sinking $100+ of stainless steel, epoxy and chain into the rock in the hope of possibly climbing it on some unknown future date. I’d already invested 3 days into this route and was again beginning to ponder my life choices.
The first day Lucho Romero impressively climbed and aided up the faint knife blade crack to the roof before handing over the reins. The second, we attempted some bizarre back-tensioned top rope setup, but I was far too chicken shit to commit to pulling on the holds in the ceiling. The Catskills rock can at times be dubious at best and on such a flat roof I’d be pulling them directly towards my face. Now I’d squandered a third day removing the loose bits and putting some glue-ins in the roof so we could properly work the route, all the while continuously attempting to rationalize . Does it even go? I could be donating blood. Can I climb it? Or volunteering at a soup kitchen. Would anybody else even want to climb it? Or wandering the streets picking up litter. It was getting dark and I was hungry and numb so I abandoned the crack I was mining frozen mud out of and jugged up the rope out of the canyon, half laughing at the absurdity of it all.
“I think I can knee bar the ice!” I gleefully exclaimed two weeks later from the small ice dagger guarding the edge of the roof down to my partner Ryan Stefiuk. I was ecstatic to find even the slightest respite for my completely flamed forearms. We had dialed in a very manageable sequence to get up to and out the roof over a few previous sessions but finding a viable way to turn the lip was proving to be more elusive. We had taken turns all day groveling up into the awkward icy corner above the roof in search of beta that felt right and would allow us to put the whole thing together, but all we were finding was a deep, fatiguing pump. Ryan and I have very different climbing styles. He actually knows what he’s doing, while I’m usually busy perfecting the art of flailing. Accordingly, it’s not surprising we were arguing about the “best” beta. He was vigorously advocating a series of free hanging campus moves knowing damn well that I’m terrible at campusing while rock climbing let alone with ice tools. Also I’m not nearly strong enough to do the moves he was proposing. I was arguing for an upper grip figure four followed by some foot jiggery and the aforementioned ice knee bar. We were both trashed and had been planning to head home that night but spurred by my new beta and knowing that the ice was likely going to melt out in the next few days, we agreed to give it another go in the morning. Unfortunately the route had other ideas, the ice dagger was gone when we returned leaving a shell of unbonded and fairly useless looking ice above the roof so we immediately set about searching for a new dry sequence through the final moves. Our quick morning send would have to wait.
We returned a few days later for the send, fittingly accompanied by Lucho with whom we who had started the route. That night making the long slow drive home, I was blissfully floating along the snowy back roads of the Berkshires. But as I looked back on the climbing days of the previous month I came to realize that it wasn’t about the sending. It was about the process, despite seeming so futile in moment, the people who shared in that process and the opportunity to make something to be shared with other climbers. I’ve read that people are notorious for operating as though the way things are is the way they will continue to be, despite knowing that change is inevitable. Reflecting on that idea, I attempted to appreciate the moment and the fact that I felt incredibly lucky to have a crew of rad climbers who are psyched to go try, just because, and access a place with awesome potential, at a time when that potential is still waiting to be unlocked as most of the routes we’ve established would’ve been done years ago were they in a different location. This route sits less than 100 yards from the first route I’d ever established a decade previous. Their physical proximity belying the changes and what feels like completely different lives playing out in between establishing one and the other. Driving along in my heightened awareness of the evanescent nature of life and climbing, my thoughts wander and I start to wonder what the next route will be like.
“Danse Macabre” is located on the Gomorrah Wall of the Upper Devils Kitchen in the Catskills, NY and is currently the most difficult M route in the Cats, more importantly it is arguably the best, being marked by secure powerful dry tooling, graceful movement and perhaps just a touch of grovel.
Mainstream mixed climbing is here. How do we protect the climbs for future generations?
THINK before you climb rock with ice tools. The marks you make will last many lifetimes
We have to be careful. Dry tooling causes damage to the rock. With time, the damage dry tooling causes becomes tolerated, accepted, and sanctioned by some. This will ultimately destroy a rock climb and the experience for future generations of climbers.
It’s real simple. Be respectful of the rock and it’s environment. Think about future climbers. Keep your impact to a minimum. Leave as little trace as possible and remember, cumulative damage is always the problem.
Some recent posts from Facebook on Dry Tooling.
~Thanks Janet for motivating me to do this post. We need this awareness.
Janet B. Wilkinson
February 11 at 9:06pm ·
I really wish people wouldn’t dry tool and dry crampon rock routes on Cathedral (or at least wouldn’t post photos here or elsewhere of it). That includes Diedre. There, I said it.
Indeed, in the 90’s we saw significant rock damage at Rumney from picks and crampons…those scars are (almost) forever!
Some thoughts from the Lake District, basically if it’s a popular rock route it’s worth more as such to the general community.
Dry tooling should just go away.
Janet, even worse is the damn rock climbers thinking they own the cliff and bolting up sport routes where runout winter mixed routes were put up first!
Yes! Diedre is climbable as an ice route when it’s in; you don’t have to touch rock on the 5.10 pitch when properly formed. Thinking it’s ok to dry tool when it’s bare rock isn’t so hot. I know it’s a weird trip down ethics lane for visiting climbers, but consider: if there’s no ice on a pitch, you’re ruining a classic rock route for future aspiring leaders.
There are no hard and fast answers. But here are a few questions that need to be answered
- Where do aspiring climbers practice their craft?
- What is considered unacceptable?
- What are the ethos to preserve the climbing experience for future generations?
- Can popular rock climbs and dry tooling coexist?
- How do we deal with excessive traffic on popular climbs
-Where do aspiring climbers practice their craft of dry tooling?
Dry tooling should be practiced in areas not good for rock climbing and not on established rock climbs.
Train and refine your skills on artificial walls.
Find areas where rock climbers never go.
Most climbing areas now have designated cliffs where dry tooling is accepted. Find out where they are.
Go to alpine areas for the best training.
Seek out advice and guidance from professional climbing guides.
-What is considered unacceptable?
Dry tooling on popular and classic rock climbs with no ice.
Scratching your way up a climb. If you are inexperienced and at your limit, think about leaving it for another day. Strong and skilled climbers can often do a climb leaving hardly a mark.
Not asking for local information on what is acceptable and where to go. What’s acceptable at one cliff is completely off limits at another. Educate yourself in the local ways.
-What are the ethos to preserve climbs for future generations?
Think about the damage you may do to the rock if you climb it with ice tools.
Think about the cumulative effect of many climbers over time.
Think about future generations, and how you might change their experience of the climb.
Have the common sense to move on when conditions are not right for a non-destructive assent.
Be careful when rappelling. Crampons scratch the rock more during rappels than during ascents.
Mixed climbers need to think about their actions to prevent future access problems.
-Can popular rock climbs and dry tooling coexist?
The universal consensus is that no popular, established rock climb should be dry tooled.
If it’s a popular rock route, it’s worth more to the climbing community as a rock climb, than as a dry tool climb.
Guidebook authors need to include dry tooling areas, information and local ethics. Don Mellor, author of Blue Lines 2: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide, says, “While I have no interest in or right to tell others what to do in their recreation time, as a guidebook writer I do not want to be complicit in encouraging people to scar rock with ice gear.”
Popular rock routes have been climbed in winter for years, but not with the frequency we have today. We must be aware of the cumulative damage we are causing and take action to prevent it.
-How do we deal with excessive traffic on popular climbs?
We need to generate public knowledge and awareness of the problem.
We need leaders in the community to promote good dry tooling ethics.
We need to be specific with what climbs are acceptable to dry tool in a given area and ones that are forbidden.
Posting less on social media about sensitive climbs will help keep the traffic down.
Posting more on social media about good dry tooling ethics and setting good examples is the right thing to do.
When you are out climbing, think about the damage you may cause before you climb rock with ice tools. Most often, you have two choices. Do, or try the climb, no matter the condition or what your impact might be. Or you can be thoughtful, respectful, and considerate of others, the environment and the future. Make the right choose for the environment and others. Our climbs and climbing areas are a finite resource that we need to protect!
More on Dry Tooling
The Access Fund – (pdf) MIXED EMOTIONS: THE IMPACTS AND IMPLICATIONS OF DRY-TOOLING
Sources: Facebook, The Access Fund, Blue Lines,
A Route, Friends, and Getting Over an Injury
~ Michael Wejchert
Watching Bayard mix climb is always entertaining. The guy’s so strong when he’s rock climbing, he makes massive, dynamic leaps of faith from hold to hold, bouncing upwards with glee on teeny edges until he finishes the climb or falls off, unhampered by any type of discernible fear.
In the wintertime, it’s pretty much the same. Bayard completely trusts those dicey placements most folks cringe while pulling on, swinging from ice tool to ice tool like a prizefighter dancing around a ring before a match. Half the time, he waltzes up something incredible, but half the time a hold breaks or a crampon skitters off and he’s flying through the winter air on a set of well-traveled double ropes. His confidence in gear and his own ability lets him surmount the head games most of us seem to wrangle with in winter mixed climbing.
So that’s one part of the Bayard show.
“I don’t like being told what to do,” Bayard said to me the first time we ever went climbing, as he was driving the wrong way down a one-way driveway in North Conway.
And because Bayard is my boss in the summer renovating houses, and in the winter for Cathedral Mountain Guides, (and because he could pick me up and throw me into a snowbank if he wanted to) I don’t think I’ve ever told him what to do.
So usually, when he neglects the tagline or half the rack and I or another of our partners ends up tossing him the pitons or the number three or the second rope, we just let him do his thing. After all, he’s better than us, and even if he wasn’t, it turns ice climbing into a fascinating sport of coordination, which I suspect he’s after anyways. I guess you can only climb so much M8 trad before you need to make it more interesting.
Repeating a Bayard route still garners the young guns press in New England, though Bayard himself doesn’t have much interest in posting about the climbing he’s doing. Too much time away from hanging out with his wife Anne, or sci fi shows on Netflix, or climbing.
When you get older, you get busy.
The past four years or so, things have gotten in the way of winter climbing. I wish I’d realized how rare it was to have a week, or a day, or a half-day off in the wintertime. My count of personal ice climbing days has dropped into the single-digits in the past two years. As Alexa and I struggle with career changes and hectic schedules, we have to put prospective winter climbing on our calendars. I can’t drop everything when something cool comes in anymore, and it’s frustrating to watch friends with more flexible schedules tramping around the routes I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve probably gotten about 20 days of ice climbing in the past two seasons; the rest is made up of headlamp soloing, Nordic skiing, and dry tooling on our little home wall after work.
In the fall of 2016, I tore my right shoulder’s labrum on a sport climb in Canada. I knew, right away, I’d done something bad, but I thought I could climb through the injury. I wanted to have fun with my friends. I figured I’d be able to get out a little with the little cadre of smack-talking north Conway-ites I’d come to call my regular climbing partners.
If Bayard Russell’s a little blip on the social media radar these days, Ryan “Rhino” Driscoll flies under it entirely. I don’t think the guy’s ever, ever posted about his climbs. Pound for pound, Ryan’s one of the most promising young alpinists in New England. But he still climbs in fleece gloves, he wears black and brown, he’s got a Johnny Waterman-style penchant for substances, and he thinks it’s pretty shameful to post a single photo on Facebook. He hangs out with his dog. The first time I climbed with him, we scratched our way up something in Huntington Ravine.
“That was the best climb I’ve ever done!,” Ryan chirped.
Of course, every climb I’ve done with Ryan since, he’s said the same thing. I quickly realized his steady temperament and tree-trunk legs were the perfect antidote to my twitchy, skinny personality in the mountains.
We worked our way up a few routes in the Canadian Rockies last season. He’s got the head and the endurance for longer climbs, lumbering uphill like a truck in low gear. He and Justin Guarino were hit by a falling snow mushroom on Mount Bradley in Alaska last year, sending them careening 200 meters down the route’s easy upper snow slopes. A rope snagging on a rock band saved their lives. Ryan got up, shook off his smashed Sirocco helmet, made sure Justin was OK, and they kept climbing, too far up the mountain to retreat.
Sponsors should throw him gear but they don’t, choosing instead to go for twitter-happy Instagrammers with half his ability.
“It never happened unless it’s on social media,” we joke, then Ryan goes back to texting his fiancée Angela on his flip phone, wondering about Rupert the dog.
Before my shoulder surgery, I eked out a few climbing days last winter, and the most fun one was the first. Bayard, Ryan, and I trudged up the talus into Huntington Ravine, where there’s some unglamorous mixed climbing to be had, especially when it’s Scottish outside, which it certainly was: freezing cold and blowing us over as we stood racking up. We’ve always adhered to Nick Bullock’s rules up there: no snow, no go. There wasn’t much of a question as to who would lead the crux pitch, and we loaded up Bayard, our senior-most member, up with pitons, a hammer, slings, and hexes and pointed the ringer in the direction of the cliff. He prodded his way up around the crux corner of a route Ryan had checked out the year before; an old, obscure rock climb called Misty.
He banged in a piton and launched. I was hardly paying any attention to the ropes: Bayard would send the pitch and then we’d do the route’s first winter ascent. Just like always! But his tool popped and off he went, a shower of spindrift and ironmongery. The old double ropes stretched, but the piton held, and Bayard lowered off, still in high spirits. If Bayard fell, it meant the route was hard.
I guessed I was, and racked up, scared shitless. I scratched my way up to Bayard’s high point, banged in another piece of gear, and found the hook Bayard had popped off of. My right shoulder flexed. I was scared. I tried to weight the shoulder for a few seconds, unsure if it was the injury or my abilities in general that were holding me back.
“I dunno, guys.”
I lowered gingerly off the piton and we sent Ryan the Rhino up. I cursed myself for not hanging in there a little bit longer.
When Bayard’s on, he’s on. Unstoppable. But, like me, Bayard loves bailing, and when the psyche has been drained, he’s a pretty easy sell for swift retreats. The wind hammered us in the ravine. We took turns soloing the first bit of Cloudwalker to stay warm, belaying Ryan as he inched his way up the pitch. Bayard hadn’t brought any food, and we were running low on calories. Ryan couldn’t hear us through the wind, lost in his own terrifying world.
“Michael.” I saw a twinkle in his eyes through several layers of down.
“We could be at the Shannon Door in an hour with pints in our hands. It’s so warm in there.”
It sounded so good. Ryan clipped our piton. He was about to launch up the crux. He was holding it together really well up there.
“Michael, have you had the BBQ chicken pizza at the Shannon Door?”
I had. It was really good. Ryan had better fall off soon so we could get pizza and beer. I considered yanking on one of the double ropes. Ryan’s pretty thick-skinned. He’s had worse falls.
As luck would have it, poor Ryan had to take in the same spot I’d bailed, shaking his fleece gloves to re-warm his hands. Still, he kept going higher. Past the 10-foot crux, the route became easier, but with little opportunity for good gear. There was a terrifying fifteen feet where he was looking at a massive fall onto the piton.
He finally crawled onto a ledge.
“OFF BELAY,” yelled the Rhino.
“Hey Ryan!” we yelled. “We wanna go to the bar! Leave the anchor and clean the gear and we’ll get outta here.”
“WHAT!?” The poor guy had just worked though the cold for an hour. Now his friends wanted to leave him on New England’s deadliest mountain.
“Michael! They’re your cams in the anchor. Now you two tie in and get up here!”
We sighed, cold, hungry and thirsty, and tied into the ropes. As we kept climbing, our hands warmed up, and Bayard became excited about climbing again. It was getting dark.
“Wanna do another pitch?” We managed to clip half the rack onto Bayard’s harness before he charged ahead like a bull at a rodeo, furiously climbing a corner of neve and turf. The pitch was classic alpine terrain, and we dangled from pitons, fifty feet from the top. None of us had headlamps or puffy coats. It would be dark in twenty minutes or so.
We rappelled, shoving our way through the crowded Shannon Door a few hours later.
For some reason, I thought a lot about our obscure little route in the hot summer days after surgery. I’d bailed on my Alaska partner and went under the knife in April. (Clint ended up climbing one of the wildest routes in Alaska, the south ridge of Huntington, over a week with Jess Roskelley. I think I would have been too scared, anyway.) As the anesthesia pulsed through my veins, my surgeon pulled my arm out of the socket and flopped the useless joint around.
“Oh man. This thing is loose.” I passed out.
That summer I furiously pedaled our exercise bike, unable to leave the house. My shoulder sling sweated and itched. As July turned to August, I worked with my physical therapist to raise my arm above my head.
I started trail running with the bulky sling on. The consequences were like soloing. A single slip would be catastrophic. By the time November rolled around, I’d managed to lead a single 5.9 outside. I was weak and completely filled with self-doubt, afraid of the new anchors holding my labrum together. I’d taken a year off from climbing.
“Wanna go up into Huntington ravine?” Ryan asked one day. I had the day off, and the weather was cold. I did, assuming Ryan would claim his lead and finish the route. Bayard was off in the Canadian Rockies with Raphael Slawinski and Nick Bullock. We figured he wouldn’t mind if we gave our piddly old rock route another go.
As we hiked up the trail, I remembered what it was like to carry a winter rack in my pack. I felt that old feeling rush towards me again, the wind up high carrying the cold air through the thinning spruce trees by the Harvard cabin. Huntington ravine is small and old school, but I’ve loved climbing there for 17 years, ever since my father dragged me up Yale Gully.
The Instagrammers were bludgeoning their way up ice climbs that had been put up when Calvin Coolidge was president. It was winter up here again.
“Want to lead?” Ryan had pulled me up upper refuse, my first climb post-surgery this summer, something most of our friends wouldn’t stoop to climb without a paycheck.
“Really? It’s your pitch. You almost sent it last year.”
“I don’t care at all.” And he didn’t. He just wanted to climb with his friend.
I wasn’t sure if leading an M7 pitch was a good re-introduction to winter, or to leading, for that matter. I tried not to think about it as I hemmed and hawed, hammering in pitons and retreating to rest on the big ledge below the crux. I was taking a long time.
Finally, I forced myself around the corner. My feet cut for a second before I stood on the teeny edges, hammering in a little spectre hook.
You’ve been thinking about climbing for a year. This is gonna be your only shot. All winter. Come on, youth. I cajoled myself.
I committed to the right-handed hook. My tool held, and my new shoulder did, too. I pulled up. I crept past the bad placements, gingerly working my way towards the belay. I finally clipped in to my anchor, worked, and let out a whoop of contentment. I was climbing again!
Ryan sped up the second pitch, and we hung on our old pitons, staring at that final fifty feet. What had looked like fifty easy feet of climbing in last year’s twilight before was anything but. (Winter climbing rule number one: it’s always harder than it looks.) Ryan stated up. It was slabby and scary. At one point, he committed to a turf blob above an overlap, heel hooking his crampon to pull his way up. Perhaps two or three of the six pieces he placed on the pitch might have held. I followed, worked, and fell, dangling on toprope in space. The pitch was steep.
Finally, we were both on top. The shadows grew long in the sky. It would be dark soon again. I’d forgotten my headlamp again, too. We jogged down the trail to the car. A few days later, Ryan and Bayard added a new route to what we’d dubbed the “Rhino Wall,” and I became inundated with work, sneaking out here and there for a few hours of winter fun. I guess when you don’t get to climb a lot, the days start to really matter, but who you get to spend them with matters even more.
I want to give a shout out to the Mount Washington Valley Ice Fest Crew. You do a spectacular job, better every year. Thanks for all your hard work and for inviting us to this great event. Congratulations on 25 Years.
I wonder what ice climbing will be like in another 25 years. It boggles the mind! But for now, enjoy this footage I shot with my drone at Cathedral Ledge on Sunday.
It starts as a series of fully inverted moves right from the ground. Zac hangs from ice tools perfectly planted into the cracks along the rock. The placements are solid and his body is relaxed despite the muscle strain. Climbing up the overhanging wall, the teeth of his ice pick hang more precariously now from their placements as they become less secure the farther up he goes. His muscles tense as he takes too much time finding stable places for his crampon points. Still several moves away from the hanging icicle, Zac lets go.
Meet Zac St. Jules. If you don’t know him, you will soon. He’s young, motivated, and he’s going after the hard mix lines that New Hampshire has to offer. Zac was born and raised in the rolling hillsides and farmlands of Ontario and moved to the States in the summer when he was 15. Three years later, his soon-to-be wife and father-in-law took him climbing for the first time on some small flows near Humphrey’s Ledge. Although he didn’t start climbing on a regular basis until he was 22, he was deeply moved by the mountain landscape of New Hampshire. “My wife talks about how when I first moved to New Hampshire to be closer to her, I didn’t have friends here. She says that the mountains became my friends. The same time I fell in love with her, I fell in love with the mountains.”
Living in Moultonborough and working for a footwear company in North Conway, Zac gets out whenever he can, not leaving a second to waste when he could be out in the mountains. I was climbing with a mutual friend, Billy Bevans when Zac came up in conversation. He tells me, “So Dave and I are decked out in our winter climbing gear. I mean, we have our battle gear on and we are ready to tackle Pinnacle Gully and everything that could happen up there. And then I’m talking with Zac about a strategy to do the line, and he has New Balance track pants on and I’m trying to focus on our plan but I can’t keep looking down at these track pants. Zac leads the first pitch, always solid and calculated. I meet him at the belay and then he announces it was time for him to go to work. So he just raps down and walks out alone, wearing his clothes for work!”
Over the course of his short four year history, climbing moved from a hobby to a passion very quickly. “Climbing has a significance to me and carries a certain weight in my mind, that other things do not.“ The sport caters to his goal-oriented mindset. He finds his grounding in the pursuit and importance of obtaining real, positive implications for setting a goal and reaching it. This year, he’s set some high ones. Seeking out hard mix routes in obscure areas has become his style and he’s getting good at it. “Matt Ritter and Phil Schuld have been inspirations to me in that department. They have both been people in my life that motivated me to not just do the same ole routes.”
I caught up with Phil to gain some more insight into what makes Zac tick. He wrote me, “Zac’s confidence has always inspired me to be a better winter climber. It’s sometimes tough on the ego to climb with somebody like that, but I think all of his partners would agree that his confidence and optimism are contagious. If you spend a day climbing with Zac, you’ll get up something. And that something will likely be really cool.” Phil continues, “I remember the first time we went out winter climbing, at the Ace of Spades area in Franconia Notch, this fact was quickly driven home. I spent a lot of time hemming and hawing about leading the Ace of Spades, which would be my first proper grade 4 lead, all the while, Zac just ate up every possible line you could take on this climb, culminating in a mixed lead of a very thin, steep curtain. I didn’t even see it as a possibility, yet Zac just sauntered up it. That memory really sticks out to me because as a newer winter climber, it showed me what was possible. I suppose this also goes to show that he has the talent to back up the confidence. It manifests itself in his body language when he climbs: efficient, poised, and no hesitation.”
Pocket Rocket (M9+) is a short but stout route on what was named Slander Crag, tucked away on the northwest side of Lower Baker Pond and first scouted out by Freddie Wilkinson around 2003. “Slander Crag was Freddie’s stash.” Bayard Russell recalls, “He’d seen it driving back and forth from Dartmouth to North Conway. He used to come and stay with Josh Hurst and I in our apartment behind the Discount Bev in town. Later, Freddie and I were the young guides at IMCS. Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore also worked there and we thought they were really cool, obviously. Freddie somehow talked them into coming over to this little crag with us, an hour and half away, without ever having been there himself. It worked out and we got pretty psyched about the place.”
Phil was with Zac on a very warm day in December 2015 as they stood beneath Pocket Rocket. He remembers, “As I scratched my head wondering how something like this could possibly be climbed, he went up there and figured it out. I think this route, among others, was the impetus behind his push toward an emphasis on physical training. He may have an innate sense of self-confidence, but I think he knew he had to put some work into the fitness aspect in order to take down these hard mixed lines. And two years later, he’s done just that with his recent sends.”
“I first tried Pocket Rocket my first year ice climbing and every year since with comical outcomes.” Zac recalls. In order to be able to send routes like Pocket Rocket, he knew he needed a lot more physical and mental training. His mental energy would be spent finding a way to feel comfortable on moves that don’t always feel secure, and part of accomplishing that is getting and feeling stronger. Zac built a climbing wall in his backyard and through the summers he would spend an average of an hour a day on the wall doing various endurance and power training exercises to build the fitness he needed to reach his climbing goals. “When the colder weather hit, Erik Howes and I went to Slander, and I found myself at the top of Pocket Rocket where the ice would normally be, feeling pretty fresh. It’s a good feeling to know that your training has paid off.”
One of the first routes at Slander Crag was Poached Eggs, which has a steep M7 crux. Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore put it up in trad style with a lot of ice and rock gear placed on the lead. Bayard remembers, “They used to climb with ground down sky hooks bolted onto old Black Diamond Vipers and lashed with hockey tape for a second grip.” Meanwhile Freddie and Bayard were working on other routes which were all very short and done in a very traditional way, despite the fact they were establishing steep mixed routes to hanging icicles. A lot of the bolts hand drilled on lead, without a drill, just a bit and an ice ax. “Either Freddie or I would go up, start drilling, whomever was on the ground would tie them off to a tree and wander off. I remember once driving to Plymouth to try and find a new bit while Freddie was hanging upside down in slings, hand drilling. When I got back, he was still hammering away.”
Pocket Rocket was the last route that Bayard Russell did over at Slander Crag. It was bolted over a few days, partly from the ground up because of its steepness. Sean Issac was the first person to send it, in heel spurs. After that, Bayard and Kevin went back and topped out as well. Now, 15 years later, on a freezing cold New Years Day, Zac St. Jules and his crew start up the hill to the crag. As the sun began to thaw out their bodies, Zac warmed up Pin Head, an M6+ on the right side of the cliff. “I examined Pocket Rocket a little before I got on it. I looked at which section of ice I was going to join up with, and if it seemed stable. I checked what bits of ice I may need to knock down while I was up there. I didn’t really go over the moves in my head except for the very last one.” He knew there was a hold that would be helpful in transitioning to the ice but I couldn’t remember where it was. “I violently swung my hands for several minutes before I started up. I wanted to make sure my hands were as warm as they could be before getting on it. I had my tools inside my jacket to keep the handles warm. I even considered starting a fire to warm up my tools!” The lower part of the route went quickly and Zac was now facing the tough transition from overhanging rock to vertical ice. He would snake up between two hanging ice daggers, but to get to it, he’d had to knock down the ice blocking his way. He felt his muscles beginning to fail as he hung for a long minute excavating his exit. Once a passage was cleared, it took several swings to get a stick through the tight space between the two ice flows, but he made his way safely on to the ice. The ice was in good condition and he even managed to get a screw in. Once he clipped, he knew he was only a few easy swings from the top of the climb.
Zac St. Jules. Pocket Rocket (M9+). January 1, 2018. Photography by Brent Doscher.
Zac is a husband and father of a son with another child due in February. When talking about his wife, Sarah, “She is unbelievably supportive.” After his successful ascent of Pocket Rocket, Zac walked away knowing how much his training pays off. All the elements needed to bring his climbing to the next level have come together for him this year. He enjoys putting all of his energy into one route and the physical and mental commitment it takes to reach the top. As far as his next project? “I’ve got several routes on the ticklist but don’t want to talk about them too much.” Looks like we all need to stay tuned!
Steve House shows you how to make a naked A-thread rappel anchor for descending from an ice route.
We like Naked A-thread rappel anchors. Threads with rope or slings left behind are nothing more than Alpine trash.
Steve will be at this years Mountainfest in the Adirondacks, Jan. 12-14, 2018. Don’t miss his slideshow Saturday Night. NEice will be there with hot soup and flying the NEice Drones to capture this event from the air. It looks like the cold weather will continue and the conditions should be great! Hope to see you there. Information on The Mountainfest can be found here…
A year ago, the Mount Washington Railway Company announced their intention of building a lodge at 5,600 feet on Mount Washington. Despite growing opposition, they still intend to move forward with their plans. The Protect Mount Washington campaign needs your support!
It was a snowy December evening and the Coos County Planning Board meeting was packed. There were over 40 members of the outdoor community in attendance to hear what Wayne Presby, owner of the Mount Washington Railway Company (MWRC), had to say about his latest plans to introduce more development on the tallest and most iconic mountain in the Northeast. The MWRC owns a 99-foot wide tract of land on which it operates the Cog Railway, a mountain train that has been taking passengers to the summit since 1869. It is at 5,600 feet on this tract of land, perched above the cliffs of the Great Gulf Headwall, where Presby intends to build a 25,000 square foot, 35-room ‘luxury’ lodge.
That same evening, a small group of North Conway based climbers began preparations to organize opposition against, what Presby called, Skyline Lodge, with the intention of halting the formal building application to the Planning Board. Soon after, the group formed Keep The Whites Wild (KtWW), a New Hampshire non-profit organization. Their mission: to preserve and protect the diverse biology, natural aesthetic, and intrinsic value of New England’s White Mountain region. They quickly launched Protect Mount Washington, a campaign specifically designed to stop MWRC’s lodge proposal.
When the news broke, it made both regional and national headlines. The Washington Post read: “Coming Soon: a Luxury Hotel With the Worst Weather You’ve Ever Seen”, while the Boston Globe and New Hampshire newspapers published articles interviewing those for and against the development. As time went on and word spread, the opposition grew. Two months after the announcement, six conservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy and Appalachian Mountain Club, submitted a letter to the Coos County Planning Board stating the development would be harmful to the sensitive alpine habitat and is contradictory to County Master Plan which was adopted to conserve and protect these natural and ecological resources. The Protect Mount Washington campaign started an online petition just days after the announcement and it has now received over 17,000 signatures.
Since that time, Protect Mount Washington has been on the front lines defending the alpine tundra which is in danger of being irreparably harmed by the Skyline Lodge proposal. Backed by scientific expertise, they contend that the rare alpine habitat, which comprises less than 1% of New Hampshire’s landscape yet holds numerous rare and some endemic plant and insect species, is too ecologically important to lose. Using that reason and others related to safety and view-shed impacts, they have undertaken public advocacy by fielding thousands of emails and phone calls, sending out press releases, organizing events and networking with numerous conservation organizations and countless individuals. Perhaps the biggest move the campaign has made was hiring an environmental attorney, Jason Reimers of BCM Environmental Land Law to defend the recreational, ecological and economic benefits that Mount Washington provides to the region.
The MWRC has also been busy since their announcement. Wayne Presby continues to inform the public that Skyline Lodge is still on the table despite having not formally applied for permitting through Coos County; and there is no evidence to the contrary, as surveyors were recently seen in the proposed building area. In a recent move which could be interpreted as a step toward the reality of the lodge, the MWRC sent excavators from the railroad base station up along their tracks and began moving soil. Without any local or state permitting, they cleared and widened an old utility trench scar that serves the summit buildings with the stated intention of driving passenger-carrying snowcat machines up and down the mountain. Although they own the land, it is zoned as a Protected District (PD6), and only certain activities on that land can happen without permitting. According to the Coos County Zoning Ordinances, the purpose of PD6 is to regulate certain land use activities in mountain areas “in order to preserve the natural equilibrium of vegetation, geology, slope, soil and climate in order to reduce danger to public health and safety posed by unstable mountain areas, to protect water quality and to preserve mountain areas for their scenic values and recreational opportunities.” Lands are zoned as such in areas above 2,700 feet in elevation or slopes in excess of 60 percent (27 degree angle) over ten contiguous acres.
Keep the Whites Wild argues the use of the land as a road intended to bring tourists to the summit of the mountain would be prohibited according to County regulations and they’ve requested the County Commissioner cite MWRC and require it to restore the land that was disturbed by the excavator work. Presby responded to reporters stating he is well within his rights and told InDepthNH.org that he built a trail, not a road and didn’t need a permit.
According to InDepthNH.org, he said Keep the Whites Wild misunderstands the zoning regulation and his plan for the three-mile trail is for maintenance and to provide emergency responders and others quicker wintertime access to the summit than the auto road, which is eight miles long. However, the Berlin Daily Sun reported that during a Mount Washington Commission Meeting in November, Presby stated the Cog had just opened up a trail to the summit that he believes will be able to accommodate passenger-carrying snowcats up the three-mile route in winter, a concept that would soon be tested. At the upcoming Coos County Commissioners meeting on December 13, 2017, commissioners plan to discuss KtWW’s letter and potential violations brought up by the Protect Mount Washington Campaign.
When the MWRC is going to formally apply for the permits to move forward with the Skyline Lodge is a question still unanswered. In the meantime, the alpine of Mount Washington puts on its coat of white as winter settles in. The large majority of hikers and tourists leave the high peaks as the plants and insects continue to find a way to survive in the harsh extreme. Ice climbers, backcountry skiers and hardy winter hikers will start coming to the mountain now to watch the landscape transform into a cold, strikingly beautiful world. To all who seek out the mountain’s ravines, trails, rocky cliffs, icy gullies, alpine gardens, famous weather and tallest summit, Mount Washington is a precious and finite resource. It is a resource that provides not just significant ecological value, but also solitude, challenge, appreciation, reflection and inspiration.
Support Protect Mount Washington’s efforts
Previous NEice Article: Cog Railway Announces Intentions to Build a 35 Room Luxury Hotel on Mount Washington
Other Recent Media Links:
Caledonian Record: Group Opposed To Mountainside Hotel On Mt. Washington Claims Illegal Road
Berlin Daily Sun: Keep the Whites Wild Accuses Cog of Constructing Unpermitted Road
And How to Avoid Them
by Doug Millen
Yes, it’s great to get that early season tick and bragging rights, but the risks are high for those with little experience with early season ice climbing. Are you inexperienced? Think before you ice climb and take an honest look at your skill set, gear and abilities. Your life could depend on it. If you climb WI3+ on a normal day that doesn’t mean you can get up a climb of that grade safely in poor conditions. Often WI3+ climbs are for grade WI5 leaders in the early season.
Falling ice is one of the biggest hazards in early season ice climbing. Always be aware of the ice above your climb. Early in the season most ice is not well bonded and frequently falls off, especially later in the day as temperatures rise and the sun works the climb. Early starts are best, and most often are mandatory.
The 2nd greatest hazard is unbonded ice. In the early season, the water, rock and ground are still warm. Ice will build out with those first few cold days, but the bonds to the earth haven’t been established yet and you will often find hollow spaces under the ice. One must determine if the ice can support your weight and if it’s connected to more substantial ice to let you pass safely. The top outs most likely won’t be frozen turf but wet, soft moss over rock. Sometimes the crux is getting off at the top of the climb. You must be prepared and resourceful. Once I topped out on a climb only to find wet, thin, and delaminated ice with no secure way to make it off the climb. I untied one rope and tied it to my tool and then tossed it up unto the woods where it caught a small tree. Then I “batman-ed” up the rope to safety. Aid climbing for sure, but better than taking a fall.
Early season free hanging columns are not safe to climb. They are often brittle and candled. Give them time. It takes many freeze / thaw cycles to temper and solidify the ice so it is safe to climb. Also, columns may not be well connected at the top and will not support your weight. Early season columns offer poor protection and very poor sticks for the tools due to the new, candled and brittle ice.
This is not sport or gym climbing. Most often the gear you get is just for the head and would not hold a fall. Short screws, Spectres, pins and a small rock rack are standard for most early season ice climbs. Sometimes a small tied off tree in a crack is the best you can hope for. Use anything you can and the more protection you use, the better off you are. At least with a collection of bad gear, it will slow you down should you fall.
Wet and Frozen Ropes:
A wet rope is not as strong as a dry one and there is often a lot of water running early season. If it is a cold day, your ropes could get frozen and useless in no time. Dry-treated ropes are best and be sure to manage your ropes, keeping them out of the water. Your old fuzzy rock climbing rope will act just like a sponge. Leave it home.
A cloudy day is your friend. The sun can quickly change the condition of your ice climb. Think about what the sun will be doing when you are on the climb. For instance, the upper reaches of Fafnir on Cannon Cliff gets the sun late in the morning, often showering the lower reaches of the climb and the approach to the Black Dike with falling ice. Think ahead as to where the sun will be shining and where you want to be when the sun hits. Any time the sun leaves or shines on a climb it will cause expansion or contraction. This will cause rocks and ice to move and fall off.
If the forecast is for rising temperatures think about what that might mean for your ice climb. Above freezing temps at night and rising temps during the day should send up a red flag. Be aware of what the temperatures have been leading up to the day of your climb and plan accordingly. Consecutive days of rising temps are not good. One warm day after many days of cold is not bad and may offer good safe climbing.
You may also like: Protecting the Ice We Climb