Mileage/Elevation Gain: from/to camp: 4.5/4,300’;
trailhead to trailhead: 18/6,300’
Duration: 14.5 hours, 19.5 for Rich McKenna as a dayhike
Pack Weight & Gear:40 pounds to camp, 20 climbing. Harness, belay
device, helmet, rock climbing shoes, fleece layer, sleeping bag, bivy sack.
Partners:Rich McKenna (WalksWithBlackflies), Greg Kadlecik
(krummholz), Mike McLean (ensonik)
Given the conditions, technical nature and hours of harsh bushwhacking through krummholz, this turned out to be one of my most ambitious projects to date. The mental aspect and focus required to keep safe while working just short of our boundaries augmented it. This bridged a gap between slide climbing and technical rock climbing. The by-product was that it enhanced the sense of comraderie as we aided each other and reinforced the momentum to continue to the next face. In the end, we’d touch on both historic routes as ll as relatively recent ones.
Connecting the Faces:
We tried to arrange the climb to account for water availability (not a problem this time), the driest rock based on the exposure and time of day. Prior knowledge of each area worked in our favour.
East Face (Ascent to summit 900’)
The east face or Rainbow Slide has several established climbing routes and scrambles. During the last three visits, I’ve followed the terrain and not a specific route. A February 2013 winter ascent up the left-hand side was a large deviation and much harder than the Goodwin-Stanley route. This time, we planned start from the central slab (about 3,850 feet in elevation) rather than from the low angle slab a couple hundred feet lower. This is home to several routes including one called “Over the Rainbow” which is rated 5.5 by Adirondack Rock. That was our starting point. We then intersected the upper portion of the 4th class Goodwin-Stanley Route for a close-up view of the dramatic overhanging ledge below the ridge. This was a mostly scrambling on moss-laden rock, still a significant challenge.
South Face (Ascent to summit 750’)
I first explored the South Face’s “Original Route” (First Climbed in 1896) during the winter of 2012. I’ve been planning a return since. Rich soloed the route in in the summer of 2012 and had a working knowledge of the details. After traversing the bottom of the face, the climb was about 300 vertical feet starting at roughly 4,100 feet in elevation.
North Face (Ascent to summit 1,300’)
The New Finger Slide (5.1) seemed like the best choice for an unprotected ascent. I’d skirted along this in 2009 with Neil Luckhurst, Mastergrasshopper and Electric-Man when we touched it at the top and bottom, but avoided the crux and central run, opting instead for a full bushwhack in the woods. The bottom of the route up a diagonal right-leaning crack begins about 3,750 in elevation (though the run-out starts about 3,300) and ends about 800 feet higher.
Mike McLean, Greg Kadlecik and I struck out from St. Huberts at about 7:15 p.m. with plans to camp at an elevation of about 3,100 feet along the Weld Trail en route to the Sawteeth/Pyramid col. A small area of moderately sloped land after the final stream crossing held the promise of a suitable site. Sometimes the best laid plans go astray quickly. It took nearly 20 minutes to find a level
site with room for three. Blowdown was heavy and the slope was steep. By 11:00 p.m. We set up camp and settled in for the evening. I quickly drifted off into a deep dreamless sleep in the cool mountain air. The stars were out though it had rained only hours before.
The fluty tones of a resident wood thrush awakened me about 4:30 a.m. I drifted back to sleep while listening to its clear melodic tones, my favorite of all bird songs. The beeping of my alarm was a harsh contrast at 5:20 a.m. A little while later we were set to depart. The plan was to meet Rich on Pyramid’s summit, but I heard a faint whistle cut through the air. I knew he was calling and whistled back. Minutes later he tromped through the evergreens to our camp. The day had begun; I felt each of us vibrating with excitement and felt my own anxiety growing over a few unknowns. This, I knew, would help keep my decisions conservative. We first had to climb 1,400 feet to start the bushwhack/approach.
The approach for the Rainbow is via the Gothics/Pyramid col. The descent is a relatively simple task on a hard crust in winter; snow covers the blowdown, sod-holes, ledges and slick slabs that make up the route. In winter, it takes roughly 20 minutes to descend. In summer, you can safely double that.
Part of the way down I jumped down from a ledge and felt what I thought was sweat on my lower back…then it flowed downward—my water bladder had burst. Two litres of water ran down my back, rear, legs and filled each shoe. The day hadn’t warmed yet, so it wasn’t exactly refreshing so much as startling. I, long ago, began carrying redundant items. Two Nalgene bottles were my backup. We stopped adjacent to the middle face and refilled our water supply in preparation for the first climb.
All the other times in this area, I’ve gone to the low angle slab at the bottom to soak in the stunning view and looming cliffs. Rich suggested we simply aim for the technical route. Thus we saved a little time and arrived at the lowest point of the slab at about 7:45 a.m. The next half-hour was spent assessing the route and gearing up. Mike was the most skilled technical climber in the group and brought all the necessary pro to keep us safe. My thought was to attempt a solo climb of the “easiest” route on the face called Over the Rainbow (rated 5.5). The best laid plans…The face looked spectacular and dry except at the top where the moss was obviously still holding moisture from the rains over the last several days. We quickly climbed the first 5.4 rated pitch up to some flakes and a nice overlap. Things slowed down a bit after this point, but that’s w what it’s all about…adapting to change and keeping safe. The four of us soloed the first 200 vertical feet (Over the Rainbow continued upward). We fell off route at this point for various reasons—this was fine since the day was about exploring the faces while keeping momentum. Mike and I traversed right over a sketchy area to small shelf of grass where he set up an anchor to belay Greg. This gave me a chance to sit back and enjoy the scenery.
Greg tied in and Rich soloed closely behind climbing above our perch to some good quality rock atop a larger, but still small island of grass. He relaxed until I caught up. I rested for a moment and continued straight up from his stance. The rock had decent features and a small overlap on the right that helped overcome the moist stone. I felt my feet slip once as I sought a way over the wet mossy, albeit small ledge that led to an upper tributary of the slide. At this point the moss became copious. Once safe, I photographed Rich, Mike and Greg as they ascended to end our easier (yet still challenging) variation of the route.
Another 75 feet of dirty slab led to the top and into the fir where we’d traverse left to intersect the upper portion of the Goodwin-Stanley Route. This felt every bit as challenging as the slab below. It was steep mossy fourth-class climbing. Much of it had natural protection, but a fall would still remove a lot of skin in the best case. We began the ascent near the center of the mountain just to the right of a long ledge along which the route followed (from the climber’s left). The giant roof of the mountain overhung from above…it looked familiar though it was covered in ice when I last visited this route in 2012. Mike, Greg and Rich each took a slightly different line and each ran into unique challenges.
Mike found himself above the mossy slab and below a moss-covered ledge. Greg found himself precariously perched on some moderately angled slab with damp moss breaking up underfoot. He resorted full body friction climbing and committed all his energy resources to throw himself into a final move where he caught a tree. Rich was around the corner and out of my sight. I simply followed Greg and lost traction only once….ready to spin to my side and slide back down the mossy run if necessary. Mike held his position until I climbed up above and looped a tree to belay him off his mossy prison.Above, the moves were more committing as we traversed along a dramatic arching ledge culminating in a tricky traverse over a mossy, yet low angled slab. I was reliving the tension from the aforementioned winter climb when this was covered with ½ inch of ice with water flowing beneath. It required delicate movements even in summer since a fall here would have consequences. The rest of the route was well protected on grassy slopes as we traversed under the roof of Gothics. Looking back from under this anorthositic arch is unforgettable: it frames both Pyramid Mountain and the upper reaches of the east face. A climb up a mossy wall and ten minutes in the thick krummholz found us on the trail just minutes from the summit. We were already tired and bleeding…a typical result of a good Adirondack bushwhack.
It had taken a bit over two hours to ascend the face. At about 11:00 a.m. on the summit we reassessed and re-nourished. It was unanimous; we would try for the South Face.
Though a technical route, Rich soloed the Original Route in 2012 (first climbed in the late 1896); he knew the way. I’d also soloed it, but during the winter when it was covered in neve. Thus I was unable to see the features and assess the move off the crack. This was the source of my apprehension though Mike had the protection should we need it. I knew it would push my comfort zone of an unprotected ascent and continued to mull over the unknowns as we descended back toward the Pyramid/Gothics col where the descent route began…just feet away, but on the opposite side, from the approach to the Rainbow Slide.
I again underestimated the time it would take to drop down 450 feet to intercept the bottom of the face. It took twenty minutes during winter with a crust, but about 45 minutes without snow. A defined herd-path led the way, but the narrow cleft was still dense with intermittent deadfall and riddled with ledges and slippery rocks under foot. After refilling our water supply, we traversed to the bottom of the face.
The expanse of the South Face is awe-inspiring from below. Hundreds of feet of slab and dramatic arches traverse the primary face to the diagonal crack, our route. Beyond an adjacent face continues the cirque. Two voices, climbers from above, broke the stillness of the wilderness. They were preparing to rappel down the South Face Direct (5.10) route over a long overhanging roof.
We walked over to the base and I watched Rich confidently prepare to repeat the route from last year and watched Mike thoughtfully assess from a distance. He looked concerned. From a distance the crack looks nearly vertical, a trick of perspective. As we neared the base, however, the features of the stone became evident. Mike expressed some relief…after all; he’d be belaying three of us if we needed the protection. As we climbed, we found that the crack was a bit wet, though most of the surrounding stone was dry. Seepage from the recent rains ran onto the face from above. We’d face that problem when necessary. Our focus was the climb underfoot.
Mike readied his gear and we began a solo climb up the route with Rich in the lead. By this time, the other climber (Doug Ferguson--Owner/Guide at Mountain Skills Climbing Guides) was setting an anchor in the crack and courteously let us pass underneath his rope. He then did something that I greatly appreciated; he asked us if we were ok with what we were doing…climbing unprotected. Rich was completely at home while Greg and I grew apprehensive about 100’ up the face when we were forced away from the crack. We expressed a desire to rope in since it was available.
The face became steeper and the cracks were a bit moist; the risk was too great for me.
Mike set up an anchor in a vertical crack and ascended to a convenient grassy platform about 80 or so feet over head where he’d protect us from. Greg belayed him and the three of us clipped into the anchor and waited. Greg climbed first. He ascended then traversed across to what would be our exit point (a tree island left of the top, but still surrounded by slab). In the meantime, Rich and I talked with Doug and the other gentleman. We watched as they ascended the nearly vertical face; a bolted route that led to the overhanging roof. The wind kept us cool and the bugs at bay.
The wind became a double-edged sword as Mike tried to throw the rope back down to us. He was throwing into the wind and the face was rough enough that the rope slid little. Finally, it came close enough for me to climb up to it. I tied in and Rich clipped onto me with a couple slings. We had about 8’ between us; the climb was tedious and each step planned. I couldn’t go to fast and Rich
had to be secure before I moved on. We ended by traversing over to Greg’s stance where I set up an anchor and belayed Mike to our position. The rock wasn’t entirely clean in this area and the grass and moss was wet.
Our position was left of the crack and we soloed a serious of other vegetated cracks after a couple hours on the face. A 45 minute bushwhack through thick spruce finished the face. What began at the base at 12:00 ended on the trail near Gothics false summit at about 3:15 p.m. We were bleeding from scratches and hungry. A fifteen minute rest and some humorous one-liners kept us busy while we contemplated the next climb; if there was to be one. We again agreed to proceed. This time we’d descend the upper portion of True North Slide and bushwhack over to the North Face. The New Finger Slide (1990) was our target route.
After filling our bottles with some tasty water from a trickle on True North, we bushwhacked into the woods to cross-slope down to the edge of the North Face. Amazingly, I recognized some areas from my visit in 2009. We were weary and the mossy edge of the face drove us into the woods until the low angle slab at the bottom. I changed to rock-climbing shoes and descended finding an EMS rental snowshoe lying in the trees—a sacrifice to the mountain. Rich, Mike and Greg descended further to the primary drainage while I traversed the slabs to a minor and grown in drainage along the face. A Charlet Moser Pulsar ice tool, rusted and bleached pink by the sun, sat on the face nearby…another sacrifice.
The North Face is an amazing area that feels like it envelops you on approach to its sculpted slab. It is inspirational and humbling, beautiful and terrifying at once. Lines of moss rule the face for the
most part, though there are a few clean technical lines. We eyed the diagonal ramp on the far right that begins the route for the New Finger Slide. From afar, the top looked mossy and undesirable. I’d been there before and vaguely remembered it being acceptable, however.
The sheer size of the face began to overwhelm me. I enjoyed the scenery, but questioned my focus. This quiver in my self-confidence was a problem and in hindsight foreshadowed what would come. I was worn down after climbing the other faces and enduring five bushwhacks, four through heavy krummholz. But this is what I came for—a test and exploration. The time was about 5:00 p.m. when we started upward.
Mike didn’t like the look of the ramp, somewhat wet and mossy. We’d all had our share of ascending mossy stone on the East Face. I left my pack below and made a fast ascend up the ramp, across the small shelf at the top and toward the opposite side. A short traverse over dirty slab led to a cleaner line near the forest’s edge. I’d crossed this in 2009 and knew we could manage it. Our other choice was a lower traverse which has its own problems involving moss-ridden stone. It would also take more time and energy.
I yelled down that it was ok. Mike questioned what I wanted to do with my pack. I mentally slapped myself on the head for the oversight—believing that we’d be doing the lower traverse. A few minutes later Mike, Greg and Rich ascended to my stance. Rich carried both his and my pack up the route (thanks again for that!).
Together again, we weighed the options and decided to ascend up the mossy face from a small tree island to a ledge and more trees. I’m accustomed to climbing on wet moss, however much I dislike it, and volunteered to lead. I was counting on the blueberry bushes to have a firm hold on the face on top of the awaiting ledge. They’d have to bear my weight. Mike belayed and the plan worked perfectly. In the shelter of the trees, I created an anchor and protected the three as they simultaneously climbed. We were just below the crux.
The next move followed a crack out onto the face, about 50-75 feet from the edge. A run of moss, thin semi-clean line of stone and another run of moss separates it from the edge. A fall would find you tumbling some 300 feet down the slab to the base. My apprehension was rooted in the bits of lichen that interfere with traction; the stone had been exposed for 23 years. The route was absolutely viable, but lichen (or water, moss etc.) can make a 5.1 rating more difficult.
Greg announced that he was going to bushwhack up via the forest; Mike followed. My desire to stay on route and the growing realization that my ‘head wasn’t in the right space’ warred inside. I tried to friction up some stone nearby and slid back into the trees. I’d lost my focus and couldn’t calm my mind enough to stay safe. Thus I settled on climbing an adjacent line that was more protected. Rich, on the other hand, assessed and slowly soloed onto the open face. Clouds blew by in the cobalt blue sky as I took pictures. I was proud of him, but not surprised.
The rest of the climb found me vacillating between climbing along the edge and occasionally venturing out onto some clean stone away from the protective trees. My goal became one of photographer as I watched Rich maneuver up the exposed route. Occasionally, I’d call into the woods and the disembodied voices of Mike and Greg would answer, “We’re ok,” in return.
A couple hundred feet from the top when the slab decreased in pitch, I permanently moved away from the side and played on the last open rock of the day. The wind was chilly and the soft glow of the sun bathed the area in subtle tones of early evening. Rich was slowing and tiring as were we all. We exited into the cripplebrush at the top, just moments from the summit. Sitting in the soft moss beyond, I reflected on the day and took photographs of the minutiae underfoot. Our adventure on three faces of Gothics was over.
Greg and Mike met us on the summit for the third and final time of the day. It felt good to rest. It felt even better to change back into trail running shoes and pack the gear. The temperature had dropped to 50F and the exertion of the day dropped my core temperature slightly so the wind felt harsher than it normally might. Descending the trail down Gothics yielded a final panorama of stunning beauty. Haze softened the distant mountains, but Pyramid was close at hand. Lit by the setting sun, it stood out strikingly against the background. I’d never seen it in this light…the perfect close to the day.
An hour later, about 8:45 p.m. found us back at camp. Greg and I decided to bivouac a second night to close the day in a relaxed fashion. Mike and Rich went back to the trailhead. Rich had day-hiked the route for a total of about 18 miles and 19.5 hours.
The wood thrush sung its tune again the next morning, but I fell back asleep until we awoke at the late hour of 7 a.m. The relaxed hike out was a stark contrast to my usual death-march and a welcome change.
Those who know me realize that I love to define my boundaries on occasion, perhaps a few times per year with something that I’m not quite sure I can do. It usually involves combining slides or pure
bushwhacking. This sometimes yields a mixed bag of contentment and disappointment. This trip certainly clarified my current boundaries.
It involved multiple goals involving more technical routes and hours of bushwhacking. It bridged a gap. My original concerns fell around attempting this, making sure we all were of the same mind to explore our limits while remaining safe. Mike’s knowledge turned out to be a key in this regard. On that note, Rich was the singular person comfortable soloing the entire route as we did it. Could I have…perhaps, but it stepped just outside of what I felt was reasonable at the time. I’ll never question my decisions at during the moment…they kept me safe. I am sure I’ll look back and ponder what I might have done differently. I’ll also look back with a smile on what we accomplished as a team on one of the ‘daks most magnificent mountains.
To end, I want to thank Rich, Mike and Greg for joining me and making the day possible. Thanks Mike for bringing all the pro and protecting us when necessary!