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Slant Rock to Haystack trail junction-Bushwhack south into Panther Gorge-Traverse bottom of Marcy’s East Face ¾ of the way across, Climb face up and to the right to top-Rappel down central fracture-Bushwhack 160 magnetic from southern slide to Marcy Brook-Follow Marcy Brook to Trail near PG Lean-to—Hike Trail over Haystack/Little Haystack to Range Trail-Phelps Trail to Slant Rock.
Panther Gorge holds a place in my heart like no other in the Adirondacks. The remote wilderness, deep forested valley and magnificent rock on all sides tickle my imagination and curiosity every time I bushwhack it. Pillars of stone in front of towering fractured walls…nature’s masterpieces guard the northern entrance; the south is gentler along Marcy Brook though it’s a test to enter or exit from any direction.
Then there’s the stunning east face of Marcy is arguably the crown jewel of the gorge in my opinion: about 550 feet high and a quarter mile wide between Grand Central Slide and the southern edge of the face. The slab is cleaved in the center by a mighty fracture…still a questionable route down before this outing. Neither slide nor the slab was an area that I dreamed of being near since I first viewed it from Mt. Haystack in 2004.
A half a decade later its mystique (and report by Craig i.e. ElectricMan) drew me into a climb of Grand Central Slide. Each subsequent visit (this was my fifth) added another piece to a puzzle I didn’t even realize existed. Scott van Laer and I climbed a portion of the face a couple weeks prior to this; for a week I thought about returning to climb the face directly. I couldn’t see all the way across from the side and the view from Haystack makes everything look vertical, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Therein was some of the draw!
I studied my photos for hours, memorizing various nuances of the area and possible belay stations until I had a vague idea of what to expect for at least a portion at the top. The day would involve a bushwhack down into Panther Gorge from the north, 500 vertical feet of face climbing and 6 rappels down the central fracture. Our exit back to camp would involve a second bushwhack in the gorge to Marcy Brook and Panther Gorge Lean-to. The final leg would take us up one of the steepest trails in the ‘daks over Mt. Haystack and Little Haystack back to Slant Rock.
A restless night’s sleep over 5.5 hours did nothing to help my ambition as I begrudgingly rolled out of bed. We embarked up the Phelps Trail at 7:45 a.m. upon what would become a 16-hour day. The trek up to the Range Trail junction marked the start of the bushwhack into Panther Gorge—a nice warm up. Once off-trail, I found traces of my passage from two weeks early and smiled inside while pushing the balsams aside; I was “home” again.
Bottom of Grand Central Slide in morning light.
Though I can usually retrace my steps, I fell slightly askew of my normal route which landed us too close to the central drainage, an area of immense boulders, rotten logs and hanging moss. Man-eating holes, leg-breakers at best, were all around and our descent slowed. It took over an hour to reach the bottom of the gorge where a new band of deadfall slowed us further. We arrived low in the drainage of Grand Central Slide which had been gutted slightly since last year.
We’d traversed across the base of the East Face and were ready to climb by noon. I could feel my internal butterflies come to life--frantically flapping from a mixture of excitement and urgency to be cautious as we began a committed climb up a route based on a few pictures and some educated guesses. After a silent prayer, we were ascending.
We began the route up a beautiful brown and white water line; the rock was grippy with small pockets from differential weathering. The occasional flake provided a nice hand or foothold when needed. We approached a bulge in the face where I traversed left toward a grassy ramp—nice natural protection. Anthony explored a more exposed area, but ran into crumbly lichen and traversed to my position. The pitch grew steeper and our exposure increased with every step while climbing alongside the corner. Chunks of feldspar offered bomb-proof security underfoot.
Anthony approaching a bulge in the face near a bit of lichen.
Kevin looking at the choices.
Crossing over a grassy corner.
I watched Anthony climb over the small wall and continue upward. We were now fully committed and my inner voice changed from a distant drone to an imperative yell. I vocalized my desire to begin a protected climb and Anthony agreed. I only needed to wait for him to reach a small ramp where he could set up an anchor and belay. Such was our first half hour on a beautiful face with the western flank of Haystack as witness.
A precarious island of trees about 100 feet up to the right was our target. A large dead tree differentiated it from some other smaller islands. There was no beta, so the nature of the anchors and stance itself were unknown; we were now exploring in every sense of the word. It was time to create a safe route by simply reading the terrain. Anthony led the way as I belayed. A decent overlap of anorthosite held a cam firmly, but protection was quite limited overall. The first traverse went well and I followed as he belayed from the tree island. The face broke 45 degrees with many steeper segments en route. We were now about 200 feet from the southern edge.
Route over to the distant belay point with the dead tree...about 90 feet.
Distant pictures from Haystack hinted at what was beyond, but everything looks nearly vertical from afar. My pictures from the trip with Ranger Scott hinted at a possible line at the same elevation to the north where balsams trees grew near a dihedral. My stomach dropped as we studied the daunting traverse over to that position. Above, however, was a dicey section of steep face overgrown with moss. Small areas of rock showed through, but it looked dangerous. More concerning was the fact that we were above an ever enlarging bulge that crosses the center of the face from left to right. It begins as a small hump and becomes a broken vertical cliff as it approaches Grand Central Slide to the north. Falling would be catastrophic so protection was critical.
I belayed Anthony as he crossed the face and walked up a minute ramp to a nearly level break in the face about 40 feet over. A small overlap held a cam after he cleaned it out. This was my first multi-pitch climb and I felt the pressure as I watched. He spent nearly an hour searching various places for a decent line of ascent. The face adjacent to the aforementioned dihedral was mossy; he tried a few steps up before backing off. I watched the moss crumble underfoot and tumble down the face and out of sight. Finally, he settled on cleaner yet less protected slab climb leading to a 10 foot wall. He placed a 2” cam elbow deep in a crack and set his mind to the next problem.
Anthony standing on a break in the steep pitch, the crux just above.
I briefly felt a bit out of body as I watched him try to scale the nearly vertical wall; groping for a hold on next run of slab. (In hindsight the top was rather featureless after looking down upon it). He found nothing and after 10 minutes made a traverse to the left over stone with small pockets and bits of moss. He anchored at a sturdy stand of alders and yelled that it was my turn.
I’m used to soloing and, when possible, keeping some sort of natural protection below. The route seemed counter-intuitive and intimidating. I compartmentalized the internal outburst and replaced it with the knowledge that he was protecting me. He was exposed to considerably more risk than I and had made it with style. With the comforting feeling of a taut rope, I realized that the face had a lot of feature so I could always keep three points of contact securely placed even if some were small chunks of protruding feldspar. The traverse from the wall to his stance was psychologically easier, but physically more difficult with the moss involved. Once in the trees, the knot in my stomach eased and I enjoyed the splendid views.
Nuances in the face with a view north.
Final traverse to the alder stand.
Anthony had previously said the face got easier above the alders, something I assumed based on pictures from my last trip. We were perhaps 100 feet below the cliff that traverses the top of the face. I soloed the last pitch while Anthony coiled the rope around himself. It felt good to be at the top on a narrow shelf of grass. We’d been at the game for about three hours. There were more uncertainties ahead, concerns that flitted about in my head during the climb. We still didn’t know if a rappel down the fracture was feasible. If that failed, was there a weakness up through the cliffs into the krummholz?
Soloing the last pitch to the top.
Looking down our route from the base of the cliff line.
Other than a few nagging questions, the top was enjoyable with only a few exposed sections on grass…slippery grass=possible tumble down the face…not so good. A heavy band of trees soon negated such issues as we walked along the base of the cliff, an area of beautiful stone creations and small shallow caves along the bottom.
One of the interesting portions of the cliff.
We soon found ourselves in a gully after climbing over a small tree covered ledge. Beyond laid slab and trees. I studied my pictures and poked about the area to see if this was indeed our target fracture—I expected something grander. By all appearances it seemed to be, but the walk along the cliffs felt too short. I didn’t want to guide us into a rappel off the wrong area and wind up on dirty slab with no place to set subsequent anchors. We were about 550 feet from the base and evening was drawing ever nearer —the face was in shadow and the temperature was dropping. The time stood at 4:30 p.m.
Top of the gully (fracture), something that got wider as we got lower.
Down the Face
The first rappel was over a small ledge and through some trees where we set up to descend a larger section of slab for another 100 feet. Photography became more difficult to say the least; my focus was on staying safe and checking that I was set up properly before leaning backward onto the rope. Anthony again led the way and found suitable anchor trees where he set up slings while I rappelled.
Looking down the second rappel line.
The fourth rappel was the most interesting involving a drop down a vertical chute about 10 feet wide. The 80 foot chute was broken by platform part of the way down which gave me a photo opportunity. Thereafter, we moved to the south across the face in an attempt to minimize the traverse across the bottom. With all the climbing ‘problems’ out of the way I knew we’d successfully found a route both up and down. Two more full length (100 foot) rappels led down mossy slab to the bottom. Our day was only partly completed; camp was far away. My mind was already in navigation mode; how to avoid the beaver ponds as well as blowdown fields between the face and Marcy Brook as we exited the south end of the gorge.
Short vertical section between the cliffs (about halfway down the face)
It's all over, but the cryin'.
Exiting the Gorge
Two weeks prior, I bushwhacked out of the gorge up the north end. We lost the desire to do the same as darkness set in especially given the amount of deep holes and boulders. We climbed down the runout from the slide on the south side of the face, an overgrown area that led to several areas of heavy deadfall. A heading of about 160 degrees magnetic avoided the ponds yet gave us a distant glimpse. The forest loosened on approach to Marcy Brook. Twilight embraced the valley as we traversed along the flowing water and found the confluence with the Old Slide on the south flank of Marcy (facing Skylight).
Small flumes and cascades interrupted the rock-hop on occasion and the last remnants of light faded as we replenished our water near Panther Gorge lean-to at about 7:30 p.m. We’d been in the gorge for about 11 hours and still had to climb the steep path up some 1,700 vertical feet to Haystack’s summit and then over Little Haystack. Little did we know that our adventure was far from over.
A bit of deadfall in Panther Gorge.
A tranquil pool in Marcy Brook.
A Windy Mt. Haystack and the Milky Way
The trail up to the Haystack junction resembled how I felt…eroded and dirty. With conversation as a distraction, it passed quickly. The next section of trail is one of the steepest in the Adirondacks. We climbed for what seemed like a longer than normal time until increased winds hinted that we were nearing tree line. In the shelter of the last stand of conifers, we added a layer and fleece hat. We extinguished our headlamps as we ate and reveled in the view: Elk Lake, Plattsburgh, Burlington and a host of other communities were all that broke the thick darkness of a moonless night. I settled back with my eyes closed briefly. Upon opening, I was staring at a magnificent sight. The darkness revealed the light of the Milky Way overhead. I let my mind wander into the infinite void and ponder the great distance it represented. If Haystack made me feel small, this made me feel almost non-existent.
Our first steps above tree-line were eye-openers and garment removers! Anthony nearly lost his hat. I only heard the hood of my jacket flapping violently against my head. Heavier gusts would come from nowhere to check our balance. Only on occasion did the mountain block the wind as we looked for cairns and blazes in the inky darkness…I loved it! Step, balance, look for a blaze—repeat. This continued for about 300 more vertical feet until we found a sheltered nook on the summit proper at 9:30 p.m. We’d earned a 5 minute break.
The northwesterly wind picked up as we worked our way north down the ridge. The first couple gusts knocked me several yards to the side as I used my trekking pole to try and counter-balance myself…finally bracing against a wall. Haystack is hardly a knife edge, but it felt narrow as it dropped off into the abyss. It only took a hundred or so feet to realize that the walk down to the col was going to be a full-body workout (as if the bushwhacks and climb weren’t enough).
The protective trees between Haystack and Little Haystack were all too short before we climbed up to an even windier prominence. Tired, but exhilarated, we exited back to Slant Rock via the Range Trail. It was 11:30 p.m. when we arrived. I’d bottomed out on food so Anthony was kind enough to do the cooking as I tried to raise my blood sugar levels.
Memories of the day seemed surreal as we reminisced and gave thanks for a safe outing. My rest would be sound until we awoke at 7:30 a.m. to get ready for Basin’s Amphitheater. That, however, is another story.
Night on Haystack.
Other trips into Panther Gorge can be found here: