Wrestling the Darkness in Panther Gorge
By Kevin MacKenzie
By Kevin MacKenzie
Waking Cerberus on the Panther Den by Kevin B. MacKenzie
Lake Willoughby Vermont
Bayard and Peter have been busy with family life, and busy at the cliff. On Friday, after days of work they finished up a spectacular project. Maidenhead (M7+, NEI5+). Have a look at the photos below. They speak volumes about this monumental climb. Nice work!
Kevin MacKenzie, aka “MudRat” of www.adirondackmountaineering.com gives us a tour of “Apex Predator” in the remote 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
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:
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.
February 21, 2017
Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, Canada
Joe Terravecchia,Will Mayo and Anna Pfaff climbed a new, and spectacular line today, “Dreamline” (WI6+, 1,260′). Dreamline is a spray ice climb to the right of The Pissing Mare Waterfall on Western Brook Pond. Joe and Casey Shaw have been dreaming of, and eyeing this line since 1997, waiting for it to come into condition. Today it was in condition. Unfortunately, after waiting out a week of storms and bad weather Casey had to return to work and was not around to finish his dream of climbing this phenomenal ice route.
Will Mayo – “It’s the raddest ice climb I’ve ever done”. Anna Pfaff – “we sent a new mega line up wild medusa like formations of spray ice and other worldly features”.
“This was the most adventuresome and satisfying ice climb of our careers, we all agree.” – Will Mayo
Sources: Facebook, Wikipedia, Instagram, Gripped.com & Will Mayo
by Kevin MacKenzie
Date: January 30, 2016
Climbers: Kevin MacKenzie, Bill Schneider & Devin Farkas
Duration/Mileage/Elevation Gain: 15.75 hours /18+ miles /5,300 feet
Approach: 8.5 miles from the Garden Trailhead, Keene Valley
I needed my Panther Gorge fix and the warm January temperatures in the valley prompted me to consider how much ice might have formed up in the gorge. The low snowpack made it even more tempting given the 8.5 mile-long approach. Panther Gorge veteran Bill Schneider and Devin Farkas, assistant director of the Outdoor Program at St. Lawrence University, jumped on board. It’s nice to have friends that like to suffer! We met at the Rooster Comb parking lot at 5:00 am to sort gear and drive a single car to the Garden Trailhead. Temperatures hovered at 15F though they were forecast to rise to the mid-thirties in the valley.
We hoped to have a firm crust on which to bushwhack from the Phelps Trail to the climbing walls. It was 10:00 am. when we stepped off trail at the Marcy/Haystack col. I sank to my knees in snowshoes…so much for easy. I broke trail to the Panther Den wall while dodging snow bombs from the balsams. Bill and Devin emerged soon after I crawled out of the last, particularly dense section. This was Devin’s first visit to the “promised land”—God’s country—and he wasn’t disappointed based on his reaction.
A large right facing corner, usually wet during the summer, held ice though it was thinner than I expected. Haystack was decorated with fat ice flows from nearly every ledge. Linking them could be an interesting route for the future. We continued lower to southern end of the Panther Den wall. Continuous tiers of ice led up to the vertical wall that Bill and I climbed this past summer when we put up Cat on a Wet Tin Roof (5.8). Enticing as it appeared, we wanted to explore deeper in the gorge.
Bill broke trail to the Feline Wall where Devin took over. A smear touched down though it was partially delaminated and thin. The line was fatter in November when Adam Crofoot, Allison Rooney and I spotted it while bushwhacking along the Haystack side. Longer days of sun on the black rock had taken a toll. A nearby gully held interesting possibilities.
We climbed up along the left side of the Feline Wall; Bill and Devin continued down to the Agharta (NOT pronounced AgarTHa) Wall where the Agharta ice route was fat and tempting. There were no options for a new independent line so we re-ascended to the aforementioned ice at the Panther Den Wall (44°6’49.4”N, 73°54’23.9”W). The approach and exploration had taken seven hours. It was 12:15 pm and time to climb.
The first strikes of Bill’s tools shattered the ice. It was very dry. We’d hoped that the recent rains at lower elevations might have kept the water moving up high. Apparently the precipitation was snow at 4,000 feet in elevation. Yes, it gets colder with elevation, but temperature inversions have been common lately. Moderate winds swirled the snow as Bill climbed out of sight. I considered the possibilities as he climbed—would it be more of a snow/ice mountaineering route or consistent ice? The gorge is a roll of the dice, summer or winter so I hoped this would turn out to be a good choice and go the full length. About an hour later he set up an anchor and pulled up the slack.
I started via a short vertical pitch into a narrow gully and up to a tier of thick white-yellow ice. The tiers continued to a large right facing corner. Another higher vertical section led to the belay station 150 feet from the base. Any concerns about the quality of the line evaporated. It was interesting, consistent and had a killer view.
Valley temperatures in the 30s Fahrenheit didn’t make it warm on Marcy where the ambient temperature was probably around 20. Strong winds accompanied the ascent and dropped the wind-chill to somewhere around zero degrees. Devin followed and we regrouped on the spacious terrace. An ice filled chimney (a mossy dripping mess in the summer) sat in a huge corner on the left side of the terrace—the money pitch.
Bill led again. Delicate strikes kept falling plates to a minimum. The wind strengthened and cleaned nearby snow covered ledges. Smaller pieces of falling ice combined with the spindrift and took flight to the south. Devin belayed while I photographed and studied the ice flows on Little Haystack. It would be a war to get to them, but a couple could be worth the effort.
It was impossible to hear anything except Devin who was only a few feet away so three tugs on the rope from Bill signaled that it was time for me to climb again. A series of awkward moves in the chimney led to another terrace. A lightly iced corner led to a committing step up and left to lower angled ice below a right facing corner. Twenty more feet led into the krummholz and into a talus cave, Bill’s man-cave. He’d found a protected nook about 30 feet deep and was belaying from a pinch-point between two pieces of talus. The 250-foot By Tooth and Claw route was up.
Two rappels later found us back at the base at 4:30 pm. Only a bushwhack out of the gorge and 8-mile walk back to the trailhead stood between a hot dinner, cup of coffee and comfortable bed. The steep climb out of the gorge was in sync with a setting sun and still-increasing winds that whipped through the pass. The previous effort of trail-breaking paid dividends during the exit; it had consolidated into a supportive trail. The best adventures begin and end in the dark and this was no exception. We arrived back at the trailhead at 9:05 pm, 15 ¾ hours after starting—about average for day trips to the gorge.
Prior Panther Gorge Explorations:
On Mountainproject: http://www.mountainproject.com/v/byt…claw/111600381
FA: Peter Doucette & Travis Weil
Jan 22, 2016
WI6, M6+, 30m
Peter Doucette and Travis Weil did a what they believe is a new route on the South Face of Frankenstein Cliff, Crawford Notch NH. It is to the right of Bayard’s and Josh Hurst’s line “Strippers” and Left of Wrath of the Valkyries.
It was first tried by Bayard Russell last year. Bayard and Matt Ritter tried it again, with reports of some pretty proud whippers on the pins up there.
It formed differently this year and there was a mixed sequence leading left to an ice exit through a thin curtain. “It was a wild pull over the lip with an important heel hook between two small pillars under the roof”.
A stack of stubbies in thin ice up to the middle of the climb gets you started. 2 pins right from previous attempts protect the next section. The pins are 12 and 15 feet to the right when you pull the crux. There is a decent thread under the roof that was the key to protecting the route. A heel hook gives you time to get established on and above the curtain.
“We named it “Last Call” to go with the Indecent Exposure, Cocaine, Nosebleed, Strippers, Pole Dance themes previously established in the area. It was a cool technical ice climb, sustained throughout”- Peter
It has been a tough week for any routes that get sun. Frankenstein’s South Face went from really good, to non existent in a weeks time.
Information & photos provided by,
AMGA/IFMGA Mountain Guide
The Washbowl Cliff
Keene Valley NY
Location: Upper Washbowl Cliff, Keene Valley NY
FA: Kevin Mahoney, Nick Bullock & Matt McCormick 1-20-2016
“Kevin Mahoney on his way to the first winter ascent of “Flight into Emerald City” ( M7+) Yesterday (1-20-16) at the Upper Washbowl, Adirondacks NY. It was an amazing day racing the sun at one of my favorite spots in the Adirondacks with Kevin and visiting climber Nick Bullock who grabbed the 2nd ascent shortly after”. – Matt McCormick
When you get great climbers and rare conditions together, this is what happens! What a spectacular climb. Great work Kevin.
It’s early in Nick’s East Coast Ice Fest Tour and he is wondering “How the hell did this happen all over again and so soon?”…see his blog for more
Photos by Matt McCormick & Doug Millen
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