PINNACLE FROM THE NORTH
With Steven St. Pierre on 2017 September 16
Route: Panther’s Pinnacle (5.9)
Area: Marcy Chimney Wall
Duration: 19.25 hours.
Some features in Panther Gorge stand out. Some of the gems can’t even be seen unless one is looking from nearby at the correct angle. When Adam Crofoot and I walked down the gully in front of the Chimney Wall a couple of winters ago, it was impossible to miss a free-standing aesthetic needle of stone separated from the main cliff. It looked fragile, but it’s difficult to assess the stability of an object that’s located so far above the ground. I wanted to see it up close which was merely a dream at the time.
Steven St. Pierre and I set out on September 16, 2017, to see if we could climb the southeastern arête of the Chimney Wall and incorporate the pinnacle into the route. I knew we were setting ourselves up for a long day, but the daylight hours were shorter and autumn was knocking on our door. I didn’t want to wait another winter to explore the feature. I thought it would be an easy to moderate climb (hoping for around 5.7 or 5.8) and admit to dreading the extra bushwhacking required to get to the wall. The 20-hour trip from two weeks earlier was still fresh in mind.
The trail seemed damp on approach to the Marcy/Haystack col, more than I expected after the recent stretch of dry weather. I didn’t fear that the cliffs would be running like other times, but it wasn’t a surprise when some of the cracks were seeping from their base. I knew it wouldn’t be a problem on the southern aspect of the Chimney Wall. The largest question in mind was how to begin the route. There are large trees along the base of the arête and part of it is overhung and shaded—moss heaven! We wouldn’t know until we explored the options.
We reached our target at 10:30 AM. I was a bit weary from weaving over the talus and falling into a couple of small holes—and doing the same two weeks ago in the same area. We explored south around the buttress and up a fourth class grassy gully where we spotted an option. We wanted something better, so we tried starting on the Slacker Cracker line that Adam Crofoot, Jaryn DeShane and I added this past June. Steven saw a possible line, so he led the first pitch. He followed a thin crack to a small roof then continued up Slacker when an option to the left didn’t look promising. The holds were dirty and sloped downward. Nothing looked good to the right, so I lowered him so we could re-strategize.
STEVEN GETTING READY TO LEAD PITCH 2
Up we trekked to the first option where I took the lead. Two large cedars blocked an off-width crack (about 6-8 inches wide) above mildly sloped slab. It would be an easy way to kick off the route and get to the “real” climbing. The wide crack led to a chossy face where I looked down over the edge then back at the broken rock in front of me. I groaned. There were solid cracks amongst the choss in which to place gear. This boosted my confidence, so I decided to give it a go. I knew the climbing above would be better. Small ledges led to a band of cedar and the main gully where multiple cracks ran up the center and edges. A huge roof sat above—dramatic hardly describes the scene. The shadowed anorthosite of the Chimney Wall framed the north end of Panther Gorge. This was similar to the scene under the overhangs on Marcy’s East Face. Red autumn colors lit a mountain ash growing from a chimney above the roof.
Steve took the next pitch. He quickly dismissed a potential line up a wide overhanging crack into a chimney—too much lichen. He chose a 3” crack in the left corner. The slight overhang pushed him into an awkward stance while trying to place gear. The crack was arm deep and wet in the back—an additional challenge. A few moves later he stepped left over the edge and out of site. It wasn’t long before the rope stopped moving and he’d set up an anchor. Unlike the last trip, we were in earshot of each other with no communication problems. I followed and found him on a low-angled ramp at the end of a handcrack. We were situated near the lower rappel station (a large pine) that Jaryn DeShane and I’d set up after climbing the chimney in June.
VIEW NORTH FROM TOP OF P1, BEGINNING OF P2-BELOW
I looked up at the wall and asked Steve if he wanted to finish the route since the last pitch was short (50 feet). He declined and I set about finding the best way up. There were multiple choices, but the wall overhung slightly in some areas. Hmm...I saw a seam leading to a fingercrack above the large flake behind which Steve was anchored. It looked nice, but near my limit. I took a few hesitant steps upward and studied the face for what seemed an eternity. It was a hard line, but one I could protect if I could get to it. I took another step, tugged on a critical hold and overcorrected my balance when it came off in my hand. My stomach dropped and I took a few deep breaths. Not worth it; I backed down and studied further.
Meanwhile, our beautiful day turned ominous as a dark cloud moved in from the north. Haystack looked angry and shadowed. The wind shifted and the temperature dropped. I wrestled with second thoughts about climbing further—those indicators often foretell rain, but the forecast called for good weather through the day and evening. I decided to bet on the forecast this time.
A hand-crack to the right provided a good fallback option so I placed a small nut behind a small corner to protect the anchor and began the next pitch. The vertical face was unprotectable for 10’ after the nut. After it, I could get a stance on a ledge of sorts to reach the crack. I stepped out onto a ½” edge, side-pulled on another edge and halted again. I can’t remember all the moves, but I ended up in a partial split feeling reasonably comfortable (however counter-intuitive that sounds). A final committing maneuver set me on the stance and I jammed my hand deep in the crack with a sigh of relief. No turning back now without leaving gear. I was concentrating too much to notice Steve snapping photos with my camera. He captured several exciting images. I somehow looked relaxed on the multi-colored cliff face, the variegated flank of Haystack with layered clouds in the background.
THE WAY UP!
The crack led onto another much steeper ramp. I worked my feet into the now slightly rising crack and stood up before climbing classic Panther Gorge moonrock to the base of the free-standing pillar. There was abundant gear, so I protected myself and took in the moment. The base formed a 4’ square that was slightly off-set from the platform on which it stood. The outside arced up to the top while the side facing the cliff was relatively straight. A horizontal crack split it halfway up and patches of lichen grew on its surface. The view north through the 6” void between the pillar and the cliff framed a unique perspective of the east side of the Chimney Wall. I could see the arête of the chimney proper flaring out as well as the verticality of this side. Reservations as to the stability of the anorthositic spike disappeared. It would take a hydraulic jack to move the beast, at least from this position. There was an alternate way to finish the route up a huge flake to its left, but I wanted to incorporate the pinnacle and create a more exposed route. This same thought also took my breath away as I contemplated what was above the pillar.
The first few steps refocused me. I couldn’t resist slinging a sharp horn of stone sticking out from the base of the pillar. It would both protect me and save a piece of gear. I was running startlingly low. The climb up the spike can only be described as a graceless wriggle with my left leg jammed between it and the cliff. Its upper half was detached and sitting firmly atop the larger base. It too was solid and wouldn’t budge as I pushed on it using the cliff as leverage. I soon stood on the rounded top of the needle. There are no words to describe the feeling of balancing on a rounded 8” point set on an arête falling away for 150’. Breathtaking!
SOMEONE SAY, "VERTIGO!"-VIEWS FROM THE PINNACLE
I stepped off and onto a ledge. A series of other ledges led up to the krummholz. I could see the options, but connecting them would involve awkward moves especially since the cliff overhung by a few degrees. The first couple ledges were wide, but moving up required committing to less than ideal handholds. I felt like it was taking forever to get the job done, but there’s no way to rush it safely. At least not for me. Brushing off critical holds for gear with just my fingers took time and trying to connect it all required thought, trial and error. Nothing felt particularly comfortable.
The last six feet of climbing gave me the most problems. I couldn’t find a way that felt secure and stood on a narrow rail looking at the stone in front of my eyes to calm my nerves. I placed a small cam in a crack and leaned away for perspective. Ha! There was a wider ledge to the right. I moved over to it and cleaned it as best as I could, mantled up and was within feet of the trees when my left hand slipped and forearm got pumped. I backed down and took a breath. Darn off-vertical cliff. I moved left and committed to the corner of the arête, my left hand on the last small rounded horn of stone before the woods. It worked and I grabbed a handful of blueberry bush roots with my right hand. A few more moves up an 80 degree slope of bushes and I was laying in the woods at the end of a 250’/3 pitch route. My face was coated in debris from cleaning the ledges; enough that I probably looked like a miner resurfacing after a long day’s work. I gave a hoot and set up a solid anchor from a small cliff in the woods.
I screamed, “On belay,” which set Steve into motion. It wasn’t long before he crested the edge and climbed the ramp. He had my camera and continued to take stunning photos of the route details and perspective from the pinnacle. He made the climbing look easy; was I that much of a chicken or just slow? He climbed past and easily found the tree from which Jaryn and I rappelled a couple of months before. There are only a few stout trees close enough to the edge. The route took over four hours to put together which was far longer than I originally planned. So much for an easier day. That’s what backcountry onsighting is about—exploring, adjusting to ever-changing variables and staying safe in the process. At least we had the approach/exit bushwhack dialed in! It was 5:30 PM when we finally reached the packs after rappelling. I’d envisioned trying another short line on the way out, but such thoughts evaporated partway up the Panther’s Pinnacle. We were whipped and had only enough ambition for the exit. Our day ended at 11:15 PM—and this time, Steve didn’t lock his keys in the car!