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Panther Gorge is remote, stunningly beautiful, seemingly primeval and humbling. One has to explore it to understand the full depth of its beauty with its talus caves, drainages and hanging moss. You have to descend between the vertical cliffs of Little Haystack and Marcy to feel the power of the area. It doesn’t take long to feel completely alone: isolated. To then climb Marcy’s East Face and explore it from all sides cannot completely be described. If anywhere is my home away from home, this is it.
This was a day of learning since Azimuth (Forest Ranger Scott van Laer) was my partner. Spending a day like this with him gave me a deeper insight and renewed respect for his profession--his ethics and breadth of knowledge.
It’s difficult to top such a day…
I left the Garden at 5:30 a.m. My timing was perfect since I was later told that the lot was at capacity by 7:00 a.m. Temperatures hovered just below 60F and it was just approaching dawn. The walk up the South Side Trail faded quickly from memory in my pre-awake stupor; my body knew what to do—simply walk. What thoughts I mustered fell to what awaited atop the east face and what might have changed since last spring.
By the time I reached the Interior Outpost to meet Scott, I was awake and excited…like a kid at Christmas. It wasn’t long before we were off and making good time with a short break here and there while he checked each lean-to. By 9:30, we’d reached our jump-off point into Panther Gorge. Staying to the right of the primary drainage to avoid the boulders, we made good time given the tree growth and sod-holes. The first cliffs on Marcy weren’t too far down the drainage on the right-hand side…something I remembered from my last time down. A ten foot wide strip of ferns and grasses separated the rock from the balsam creating a pleasant descent for about 150 feet. The full-body workout began just after.
Forest Ranger Scott van Laer along the cliff.
Little Haystack was still draped in shadow, the minutiae of its cliffs seemingly flat in the light; we’d see them fully lit on the way out. I found the first sod-hole quickly and we continued the descent in good humor. I was amazed that I lost a small can of deet with all the compartments on my pack zipped. It would have remained as an artifact if Scott didn’t find it. I thanked him for not ticketing me for violating the leave no trace principle!
The gorge changed during the last year. There’s more blowdown and some of the drainages are a bit wider. Grand Central Slide’s drainage had more blowdown, something that kept me from recognizing it at first. A rock-fall a couple years ago destroyed the vegetation to the south of the slide drainage and filled the slope with blowdown…this was very familiar!
Ferns along the bottom of the face.
Along the Base & Up the East Face
I last traversed below the base in spring of 2012 just after the snow melted. We waded through 3 foot ferns this day…a beautiful green covering below the magnificent face of Marcy. Less than ½ hour later, we came to the southern margin slide. Greg Kadlecik (Krummholz) and I climbed up the margin from top to bottom last year. Scott and I opted for a different line and settled upon tackling the East Face proper, first up nice run of slab and then along a nice ramp. It wasn’t long before the magnitude of the climb began to sink in. I was home again.
We chatted while preparing to take a bit of video. Scott said the face felt a bit like Chapel Pond Slab. I realized that the thought was also in the back of my mind and voiced my agreement. About 200 feet up and to the south, I traversed over to the rougher and cleaner rock along the margin. In and of itself this was a bit sketchy and involved perfect placement of feet and hands between bits of crumbly moss. Scott continued up the slab along an island of grass and balsam in search of his preferred line.
Scott along the ramp (hidden) getting ready for some exposed friction climbing.
Photograph is of Scott from my traverse line about 200 feet up the face.
I looked over at his position and the slab above: the face grew a bit steeper with more tightly knit moss growth. The next bit of time found me setting up a belay from a tree as he descended about 30’ to some more contoured stone and roped in. Perhaps it wasn’t necessary, but the gorge is no place to test the limits and temp fate on crumbly moss. By the time he reached my position, it seemed that we’d gathered an audience on Haystack.
The remainder of the climb was still exposed, but with a completely different feel. It involved climbing through a weakness in the arching ledge that traverses the top of the face. Approaching it from the north as opposed to below (east), involved a few sketchy moves where long legs definitely helped. Thereafter, a series of shoulder height overlaps and small runs of slab led to an area of low angle slab. (Once you’re even with the top of the face proper, the slide continues for another hundred or so feet.)
Deep into the climb up the slide along the margin of the face. This is a bit of a crux point.
Bushwhacking to Grand Central Slide
We took a short break at the top of the slide to drink, eat, study the topo and feed the blackflies. Earlier in the week, I noted a couple ‘problem’ areas on a photo of the face taken from Haystack. My goal was to stay below some small ledges a bit higher on the slope and close to the top of the face in hopes of finding a decent overlook. Some things are easier said than done. We struck off on a heading of about 29 degrees true. It’s thick, very thick in places. Various truck-sized pieces of Marcy had shifted position creating deep crevices…say 15’ in depth…and fracture caves. They, of course, host krummholz and moss much of the time. It’s a place of both potential dangers and exceptional beauty.
Large blocks form crevices and caves along the top of the face.
Good old ADK bushwhacking.
Roughly 35 minutes later (and halfway through the bushwhack), we approached an opening in the canopy along a 15 foot tall wall of anorthosite. One of two things would happen. We’d either have to go back and around or across the top of the rock-fall which seemed to have little protection below when we checked from below ( See permalink here. I caught my breath while Scott ventured forward and reported that it was fine to cross. To my surprise it was moderately angled. The catch was that a slip would send you tumbling down 400 feet of ever-steepening slab before the 100 foot cliff above the debris field where our circumnavigation began. The granular stone offered great traction and the view was inspiring. A nice breeze kept the blackflies at bay…darn late-season blood suckers!
Looking down the face from the top of the rock-fall.
Neither of us could decide whether to recline for a while or continue; such was the beauty of our isolated perch. Reluctantly, we climbed up the slide track and redirected our heading to 326 degrees true. There were two small slides in between our position and the top of Grand Central Slide. Our goal was the second run (Click here:http://www.flashearth.com/?lat=44.11....6&r=0&src=msl). A direct hit at the top would minimize the bushwhack and lead directly to Grand Central.
View from the rock-fall.
The forest loosened considerably as we rounded the ridge so a few minutes later and about 80 feet higher we found the top of our goal. Given its location, the slide is hardly worth exploring as a stand-alone goal, but it was a wonderful bonus. It covers about 200 ground feet over some 120 feet of elevation loss. Descending it was precarious in places since it’s rather dirty and made up of a series of exposed ledges. (See Scott jumping down one here). Grand Central was within view from the bottom of this unnamed swath.
Scott jumping down a ledge on the subsidiary slide.
Closing the Circuit: Descending Grand Central Slide
We intersected Grand Central Slide just below the rubble zone at an intersection with a mossy stream…about the same place that Greg (Krummholz) and I entered from the other side during the Great DeRanged Traverse. The blocky stonework of the watercourse made for an easy descent though we wore rock climbing shoes to be safe. I, at least, was starting to feel the day and hungry. Even the blackflies were beginning to look appealing as little flying bits of protein!
We rested at the bottom and again soaked in the views from the tormented cliff. The area feels askew since the southern wall overhangs and a deeply recessed and weathered chute (waterfall in the spring) drops vertically to the base. I’ve visited this three times and it still is one of the most inspiring vistas in the ‘daks. The floor of the gorge sprawls toward the massive flank of Mt. Haystack just across the way.
Redirect in the slide before a ledge and the cliff.
The next portion can be one of the trickiest portions of the circumnavigation. Grand Central stops atop a cliff. The ledges to the north are wet and steep; I tried climbing them in 2009 and failed. To my knowledge, the most feasible access lies just to the south. A fairly recent rock-fall stripped much of the vegetation so the choices included descending (or ascending if you’re climbing) a precarious grassy ramp near the East Face or descending via a maze of more protected ledges in the woods just to the south of the waterfall.
The video shows how tricky the descent was, but doesn’t really show how steep the wall is that we descended…just take my word for it…we had a rope ready if needed. Nobody should be climbing any part of this area without one handy. A few steps down from our descen,t we closed the circuit and found our footsteps. It was over!!!! We only had to bushwhack out of the gorge and walk 7.5 miles back to the trailhead.
. Bottom of the slide below the cliff band.
We began our retreat at 4:30 p.m. Scott looked well rested and invigorated; I felt less than bouncy for lack of a better term. We’d scoped Marcy’s cliffs along the mouth of the gorge and saw some open areas near along the base. I came up with the “brilliant” idea to try and get close and save some effort while climbing up the next 400 feet of elevation gain. Brilliant suddenly morphed to treacherous as I led us into an expansive talus field, an area of man-eating holes amongst house and truck sized boulders stacked atop each other and overgrown with moss and trees.
I’d spent a portion of the day yapping at how beautifully rugged the cliffs were….eyeing the fractures and large missing pieces. Put that together with gravity and it’s pretty obvious where the pieces ended up! In summary, much of the area above the middle of the gorge is littered with them.
This considerably slowed our progress. With 10-20 foot deep holes and crevices scattered about, we had to be careful. Caves and passages underneath the blocks were interesting, however. It was another hidden gem, another reason to return and explore!
The block he's standing under is almost the size of a small house.
Continuation of the cave.
Once free from the boulders, we found an area that I recognized and began the trek north. I lost the exact line of our descent and the terrain pulled me into the primary drainage…another area littered with stacked boulders. Keeping to the west, we eventually found our way back to the open passage along the upper cliffs and finally the trail at about 17:30. I’d been hiking and climbing for 12 hours and was riding the euphoric feeling I often experience in the backcountry.
We found our way back to John’s Brook Lodge at 19:30 and enjoyed the company of others in the area. I sent an ‘I’m OK’ message on the SPOT and relaxed before heading to the interior outpost. Missing hikers on Gothics extended our stay for a bit, but all ended well. Continued good conversations with Scott made the time on the Northside Trail pass quickly. My dream of doing the circumnavigation ended at 10:30 p.m.
I’ve been dreaming of this little trip for a couple years, slowly putting the pieces together and waiting for the right moment. The pieces fit for the trip and I got to see more closely into the life of a forest ranger. As I said earlier, it deepened my respect and understanding. Thanks for all the insights you threw my way, Azimuth! I learned much in between clinging to the face, swatting the blackflies and avoiding the sod-holes! The day was a true blessing in every sense of the word.