Rocky Peak Slides and Day 1 East FaceBald: 4.2 miles/2970’
Rocky Peak: 6 miles/4370’
RPR: 6.9 miles/4850’
Camp: 8.1 miles/5000’
East Face Exploration: .5 up/.5 down/1050’
East Face Exploration Day 2: .5 miles about 1050’ climbing day 2, 3.6 miles 1400’
Total Miles/Ascent: 13 miles 7500’
The East Cirque of Giant haunted my thoughts for years, first as dramatic backdrop for photos from Rocky Peak Ridge. Reading articles such “The Dark Side of the Moon” in Peeks Magazine placed it far from my realistic options at first. This detailed an ascent by Jim Close and Mark Lowell. Pictures of the seemingly overhanging cliffs and vertical crack near the north side made it appear insurmountable without technical gear. Over time, my curiosity and confidence grew until when, in 2008, Rico (WalksWithBlackflies) and I discussed plans to at least scout it after we ascended Giant’s Eagle Slide on the opposite face. After a frigid October ascent which including lying in icy runoff and then finding the top 1/3 covered in verglass, we aborted the attempt on the East Face. We tried again in early 2010, but the weather demons turned a 10% chance of rain into an all day event. So, at the last minute, we took our chances with the weather and made our way from New Russia via Blueberry Cobbles, Bald Peak, Rocky Peak and Rocky Peak Ridge.
Our day began at 9:30 a.m., late for us, but Rico drove from Syracuse so it was really quite an early start given the drive. While the 8-mile (including bushwhack) route from New Russia certainly wasn’t the fastest way to the face, it did provide Rico some on trail time to train for his upcoming trip to Colorado.
We were carrying full packs weighing in at close to forty lbs. The day’s total gain would be a little over 6000’ vertical, so it qualified as training! We kept our pace set just above our comfortable limit and ended up on the summit of RPR just before 2 p.m. As a bonus, we met “Skidoc” (and a couple 46 finishers on RPR) while climbing Bald Peak and had some humorous recourse to take our minds off the weather that appeared to be closing in. As a matter of fact, we felt a few sprinkles on Bald Peak. We groaned as we knew rain would abort our slide attempt.
During our extended break on RPR, we discussed route options for the East Face once again and agreed to follow the slab nearest the seam of the east face and steeper slab that angles off on the northern side. I was sure there was a way to pick our way through the ledges and avoid any unsafe exposure. I estimated we should be on the slab no later than about 3:30/4:00…or so I hoped.
The most direct route was to drop down to the col and bushwhack down its drainage or climb part of the way up Giant via the trail and bushwhack to the south slide of the face then descend to the northeast. We chose neither since we wanted to explore two small rubble slides on the west face of RPR. They were short slides, one about 350’ in length and the other only about 190’ in length. The best way to access them a trail descent to about 4000’ and bushwhack on a heading of about 60-65 degrees magnetic north. The trick was to follow on contour to the top while avoiding blowdown and dense tree-cover. That’s easier said than done, but this time it worked like a charm and we found the first portion of the upper rubble after only fifteen minutes of gentle bushwhacking.
Being that they were entirely rubble, Rico nicknamed them Betty and Barney…Rubble. The short northern slide reached the highest in elevation. We carefully staggered ourselves and walked down the unstable pile. I suppose “walked” isn’t really accurate since it was more of a slide, sometimes riding the smaller rocks for a few feet. The area hadn’t received much rain in recent days and the slides were dusty and very loose. Boulders of all sizes littered the surface. As we approached Betty’s bottom, the boulders increased in size where we down-climbed to approach Barney mid-slide. He was a bit thinner than Betty, but a good bit longer. The steep descent tapered into the usual moss ridden stream found on most northern exposures. As we descended, I saw a perspective of the East Face that I’ve not seen before, one that foretold of hope. The face appeared much less vertical than from RPR’s summit.
Our footing was less than sure on the moss covered slab, but this lasted only a few minutes before it took a gentle turn on its continued descent. We began to head east alongside the drainage rather than in it to avoid the heaviest blow-down. The lowest tree covered ledges did not allow us far from the stream, however, until after the first obvious, but overgrown, drainage from the southern most slide of Giant’s east face. We passed two more drainages separated by hundreds of feet of mounded forest…the valleys washed away by the violent slides above in years gone by. Our goal was the fourth drainage, which we found at about 3:15 p.m. It was not clear, but not raining as we found an appropriate place for camp.
Weather was hesitantly on our side at 4:00 p.m. after setting up camp and switching gear, Rico into climbing shoes/helmet and I into climbing shoes. Our trek would take us 1,200’ up over about ¾ mile of slab.
On The Slab
The walk up and out of the drainage slabs was interesting. The smooth rock seemed to glisten even though it was dry. Scrape marks from fallen rubble stood as testament that the face is forever changing and shedding bits of itself. Two steep pitches led to a more open slab, both more coarse and wider. The drainage from a vertical crack high above marked one possible route…the most northern option. This also marks the point where the steep northeastern exposure meets the eastern slab in a dramatic 45 degree turn. We veered onto the slabs on a slightly offset route to keep out of the trees growing in the crease. Small ledges and concave layers of anorthosite gradually got steeper as we climbed. Varying degrees of moss covered it in portions.
At about 3,500’ in elevation, we veered back toward the drainage crease. It looked more than interesting and didn’t disappoint the curious explorer in me. It was a steep and geologically diverse ascent. Looking up, the stone seem to roll around various curves. Boulders choked the way in some areas while slab ruled others. Weather worn layers of anorthosite defined the area just below the crack.
Finally, open slab with some small vegetation let up to the vertical feature located at 3,950’. We took turns exploring the crack, Rico climbing a few feet up inside. It was weather worn and not climbable from a friction climber point of view.
The main question haunting this trip was, “Could we find a way beyond this elevation due to the ledges and vertical crack?” The answer was overwhelming, “Yes.” We were even awarded several route choices. After a short break we both climbed over from the crack to a small, but comfortable ledge marking a change from 40 degree slab to 65+ degree slab. Rico tested some handholds and tentatively began the climb upward. I took photos as this was out of my comfort zone and I was curious about the section about 100’ to the south.
Once he topped the steepest section, I crossed south and upward toward a fractured piece of the face…a large boulder. The slab nearby was climbable, but steep with mossy sections, so I opted to just climb the boulder. In an effort to save time, I found a 10’ birch growing almost against the side of the vertical edge and climbed its strong branches to my next pitch.
Rico was comfortably sitting atop the huge concave upper pitch watching me comfortably work my way up and across. The slab was dirtier (Moss/lichen) but offered plenty of traction. I’d not want to be caught mid-slab in the rain, however. The area where I crossed marked the far end of the mid-slab ledges. Farther south the ledge sets appeared formidable.
Atop the steep midsection, the slope decreased to about 35 degrees and stretched far up into toward the summit ridge. This section of slab was easily negotiable. Dozens of parallel igneous intrusions ran in white stripes across the expanse. Only slightly raised above the surface, they did little to help with traction. They simply added interest to an already overwhelming amount of feature and expanse.
We saw the top of the slide, but felt little need to explore it as we, again, we felt small raindrops which stopped just as suddenly. Sudden bursts of wind and the ever building cloud-cover warned of things to come, however, and we still needed to negotiate our route back to the camp. We’d been ascending for nearly two hours, anyway and taking our time at that.
My initial plan was to head to the top of the ledges and follow south to the far slide and descend at a diagonal. The route was drawn again using the perspective-skewed pictures in which everything looks near vertical. Reality found us on a far different and more interesting course.
From slide top we crossed down diagonally in a straight line. This took us across smaller sections of lesser slides and two small bushwhacks to the center of the central slide. We took a moment for a quick bite to eat. Rico couldn’t resist exploring the edge of the ledge set located a bit farther below. I was comfortable where I was standing but as I drew closer and followed ever nearer, the yawning expanse seemed to draw me in dizzyingly. Suddenly, Rico exclaimed, “I think we can climb down this!” My hesitant, “You sure?” echoed almost immediately afterward.
Indeed, he was correct. The first step was psychologically the hardest to commit to, since the slope appeared to increase and the nearby ledges were clearly beyond vertical and about 10’ in height on a conservative estimate. My fear of heights is all-but fully desensitized, but this tested my psychological conditioning. Once on the first lower ledge, I could see the ledges were staggered. I quickly gained confidence in our choice as my excitement rose.
A bright white of a freshly broken section of stone (about 3’ by 4’) from the first ledge created a dramatic foreground against the distant mountains. Scrape marks on the surface of the face traced its path to a destination hundreds of feet below. Each successive ledge increased my confidence until we met the steep 45 degree slab. The steep expansive face awaited below, each step put the crease, now up and to the north, farther and farther from view. Intermittent ledges of vegetation grew at the leading edge of each ledge. I’d forgotten to put my trail runners in the pack so, my toes were, by this point, protesting the down-climb in rock climbing shoes.
Each section was a fun challenge requiring thoughtful foresight as to the subsequent option. We did, however, split once on the slab, each exploring the small ledges or cracks of our chosen descent. I took a more southerly route (shone in yellow on the route map) and ended up waiting for Rico far below when all was said and done. As I waited at the main drainage top, Rico came jogging down his chosen slab, switchbacking to ease the grade. He had changed shoes.
Finally, at 7:00 p.m. we arrived at camp, fully exhilarated that we’d picked a route and then modified it to surpass our expectations. The rain had, thank God, been delayed.
Day 2: Slide as a Verb: East Face in the Rain
This next portion of the adventure began in spirit the night before when Rico said, “What do you think about walking low on the slab to get to the trail rather than bushwhacking to the col in the morning?” I finalized it with my response of, “Sure.”
We awoke at 6:00 a.m. after listening to steady rain all night. Precipitation didn’t bode well for exploring Giant’s Dipper or Finger slides the next day, as was the plan. Neither of us wanted to be on wet slab. (That statement will seem like a paradox as you read on). Rico asked, “So what’s the plan?” I replied, “Let’s just pack up and head out when we get up.” We were of one mind. He commented that we’d know if the East Face was “doable” in the first few steps. I nodded.
We dozed on and off until a little after 7:00 a.m., talking on occasion. As my eyes opened, I focused on a hornet clinging to the outside of the no-see-um mesh a few inches from my head. I blew on it lightly. This quickly made it, well, mad as a hornet. Its antennae, stance and overall posture signaled its readiness for action. Gently antagonizing the insect amused us for about ½ hour as we waited for the rain to stop. We knew procrastinating wouldn’t keep us dry in the long run, but neither of us wanted to get soaked any earlier than necessary. Rico was the first to move…right after I flicked the hornet off the screen.
Forty-five minutes later and after a small 8:00 a.m. breakfast, we began. I have to say this…, “I wouldn’t recommend what I’m about to describe!” So, we began our slow trek up the smooth initial slabs of the main drainage. I slipped on the wet stone and rolled my eyes. The final pitch out of the drainage took the longest as it was completely moss covered and the rock without moss that we walked the night prior was algae covered. The treacherous climb slowly relented to some creative crawling and footwork.
Footing on the slab sections then vacillated between precarious and acceptable depending on the color of the algae or stone, where bare. We knew at that point that bushwhacking to the col was probably the best option, but decided to see what it was like farther up off the smoothest stone. Who knew?...maybe this would keep us drier and be faster. We expected to climb a few pitches and work south toward the trail. The mountain, however, had a mind of its own and the rain was alternating between heavy and light drizzle.
Each rounded pitch had unique challenges, but there were enough cracks and divots to grant us access to the next grassy shelf or, at times, short bushwhack through wet trees. Rico had, long since, shed his rain jacket. I finally did the same after about ½ hour. The wicking shirt offered plenty of warmth, even soaked in the 50-degree weather and light wind. Such was my exertion. We’d spent a good deal of energy and gained several hundred feet in elevation. I could finally see the openings in the trees signaling the lower slabs, exactly where I thought. The ledges, however, got larger and more convex with elevation. The wet edges were too high or steep to climb on a directly southern heading and necessitated a short diversion almost every time. This forced our route west thus increasing our elevation. The mild amount moss below increased with every step as the contour minimized.
Rico commented that he was going to put on his rock shoes if the relief didn’t increase or slope didn’t decrease over the next convex ledge. I went to survey the situation as he waited. It didn’t abate and he put on his shoes. I remained in my trail runners…a mistake that cost me energy, time and confidence. As Rico, with a little more surety in his step, ascended and diverted south, I was forced back to the north around a large area of algae and moss. I tried to climb it keeping a ledge of trees below. It didn’t take long for me to slip and slide back down to the ledge. This put a series of micro-abrasions on my palms and fingers, but more detrimentally, it shook my confidence. I took a conservative route and followed the vegetation north and then west. After about fifteen more minutes, I’d boxed myself in with no safe choices under heavier rain.
Rico yelled from several hundred feet away that I should consider using climbing shoes. I agreed, but not before eating a power bar to increase my glucose levels. I was frustrated and felt a distant panic. I kept it subdued. I knew how to handle the situation: change shoes and slowly down-climb, but my hunger clouded reason. As my blood-sugar rose, I went through the logical motions of changing and working my way back around the moss covered area. The prior night, the slabs were so dry that even the moss was had traction (if it didn’t crumble underfoot). The change was frustrating. Some time later, I was even with the starting point of the pitch. The cross-traverse required care as I used both hands and feet. The climbing shoes definitely adhered better than the runners. Only small patches of clean slab, no larger than my hand, interrupted the moss. At times, they were a few inches apart, other times feet apart. I’d regained some confidence so the cross traverse only took a few minutes.
By this point, we’d gained some 650’ in elevation and had worked our way within ¼ of the trail to the ridge…about ½ the distance necessary. It had taken 1.5 hours. It had taken longer than the original bushwhack we sought to avoid and placed us in a less than ideal situation. It was, however, challenging and did allow us views of the slide and ledges that we weren’t afforded the day prior. It always helps to find at least one positive note in the negative chord!
Rico watched the ordeal and, once I was safe, began scouting near the ledges. As a matter of fact, he began weaseling his way over and through the ledges once again. I’d have gladly joined him, but I couldn’t see him any longer…the fog had thickened and my glasses were water-distorted and fogged. I packed my glasses thus choosing the lesser evil of losing depth perception with a bit of blurred vision. The adrenalin was finally out of my system from the last issue, so I cared less about exploring and more about the path some distant beyond the last slide and in the soup. I bushwhacked into the small island of trees below the ledges (just prior to the final southern slide). Not surprisingly, I found a herd path leading upward through the vegetation. The ledges were still present, but much smaller and tree covered.
Rico and I had been calling back and forth at regular intervals through the dense fog. As I emerged from the crawl through the wet moss and trees, I heard a disembodied voice no more than 50’ away. I regained my traction upon the now concave, but relatively clean wet slab and began to walk upward. An apparition slowly materialized as I followed the voice. Rico was standing mid-slab where it decreased to about 35 degrees.
This portion of the face was a wide swath of clean slab that disappeared into the mist below. I vaguely remembered that it narrowed abruptly by about 50’ near the top. Not far from our position, I could see where it apparently narrowed and we trekked up to the corner to make a decision regarding our final bushwhack to the trail. Our time on the slab had, indeed ended. Farther up in the mist, we could vaguely see the dark color of a wall of trees…the slab ended.
I expected a thick push through the spruce. It was delightfully open and easy to navigate. The confining trees felt good after such precarious exposure for two and one half hours. We located the trail five minutes later. My toes were cramping and sore from the rock shoes, but the stream of water upon the rock and slabs of the steep trail convinced us to keep them on until and even down the ridge trail about ½ mile.
We arrived at the Roaring Brook trailhead at about 12:40 p.m. The day’s climb was a mere 1,050’ and not even four miles, but it felt longer. Crawling, pushing through trees, slipping, maintaining a static position on open slab and concentration of body and mind all combined into a rather arduous, but good workout.
This proved to be most uncomfortable, but an excellent test under pressure in less than ideal conditions. The last time that I experienced a test of this magnitude was in 2008 when we encountered verglass over portions of the last 1/3 of Giant’s Eagle Slide. As every hiker/climber etc. knows, each person is tested during nearly every outing in one way or another. It’s a good feeling when one learns from the test, but it’s a great feeling when one gracefully passes it, even with a few mistakes. Our initial goal of using the slide as an alternative to the bushwhack to the col was a dismal failure due to the rain. It would have been a good option in dry weather. In any case, the experience will last a lifetime in memory.