It’s hard to know where to begin when an outing is as exciting as this was. Big plans sometimes change--the best laid routes thwarted by things one can’t consider ahead of time. Occasionally, this leads to an even better outcome. This was one of those times. Our itinerary was ambitious, but subjectively realistic: a bushwhack of Saddleback and Basin Mountains via the NE Catastrophic Chaos tributary of the old Back in the Saddle Slide and Basin's East Face. Gothics West Face would eventually replace Basin as the second climb, but this was for the best. It was also something that NP had been discussing for months. Gothics West Face is the series of open faces to the right of the cable route on Gothics western shoulder. Its true exposure is actually southwest rather than due west. The combination of both slides and good company led to a spectacular day.
The walk from the Garden was more challenging than usual since the recent warm weather had swollen even the smallest runoff streams. Two days of near zero temperatures hadn't thickened the ice enough to support me. Conditions are what they are, and you make the best of them. They didn't surprise me or concern me, but I contemplated the logistics as I plodded along. I’d been doing the same for a week.
The thermometer read 6F at 8:00 a.m. when we left the Johns Brook Lodge area. For some reason my body didn't want to commit to what my mind was pushing it toward…a hard day in cold temperatures. I expected as much after a week of sleeping poorly. I can usually walk it off and began to by the time we reached Orebed lean-to. My core was sweating, but my hands were still numb and would remain so for another half hour even though they were in warm mitts. I met I borrowed some of DeepForest’s (Anthony, who I met for the first time this day) enthusiasm in lieu of my own. It's always nice to get to know new friends.
Rather than following the slide runout as I did this past summer, we followed the trail to save energy and entered the runout where the trail came close (just beyond the overgrown slide that crosses the trail). It placed us in the perfect position to play upon a couple small ledge climbs of thick ice. Low-angle ice and consolidated snow led to tiers of ice encapsulating the dramatic ledges a few hundred yards before the footwall of the slide. The runout harbored rock-hard ice that shattered under my ax as well as some that was considerably softer. The recent melt let some of the rock show through so the intrusion of rusty (probably ferrous gabbro) stone was easy to spot. Beyond, the slide reached up toward the summit, its details somewhat obscured by the blowing snow.
NP on the right-hand side before the midpoint of the ascent.
The sun glowing eerily trying, but failing, to break through the low-hanging clouds over the Gothics/Saddleback col set a beautiful scene. As usual NP and I took a steady stream of pictures; Anthony added to it with some video footage. We studied the slide and discussed the obvious and safest lines. The left and right held the best ice. Anthony and I settled on the left-hand flow and began to climb. I could feel the front points biting into the good ice and delicately placed them on the thinner sections. NP took up the rear on a line more to the right of ours. A bit over halfway up the slide we approached my favourite part, a large piece of stone sitting in the middle. There wasn't enough ice to cover its weathered face so its character and color showed through. Staring up, I watched spindrift swirl in small cyclones near the top.
Anthony at the top of a small gully in the face...nice ice, NP emerging.
I looked for what I considered a comfortable line to the left and followed a flow of ice that hugged the side of the hulking mass. The section of 45 degree ice was exposed climbing followed by lower angle neve from which I could comfortably watch Anthony and NP climb. Beyond were several more exposed ascents culminating in steep neve beyond some large boulders at the base of the headwall. All allowed me the courtesy of good ax and foot placement...no more points breaking through to scrape on the stone.
The 'staircase' of blocky stone cutting through the headwall and so enticing on my last climb in July didn't appeal this time. I redirected my gaze to what NP was hooting about...the final steep climb up fat yellow-brown ice on the right-hand side of the headwall, a friction climb in warmer months. Today, wind driven snow was our ever-present and ever increasing companion, one that partly obscured Gothics' North Face at times.
NP and Anthony on the headwall ice.
A thick crust with a few inches of new-fallen snow covered the ground and defined the rest of our bushwhack to the summit. Following the easiest route led to a sheer 20' ledge with a defined yet thin flow of ice. We walk around to the left as it struck me that I'd never seen it before (twice in the past I'd bushwhacked to the summit). A few postholes and some creative crawling led us to the summit at noon. Our next proposed target, Basin's East Face was completely obscured. Whipping clouds battered the trees as it whipped through the col to the west.
Gothics West Face
Typical conditions along the edge. Pic by NP.
Anthony, hold that pose...!
I asked NP and then Anthony their opinions; we were already thrilled with the day...NP asserting that it was the best climb of the season. We reassessed our relative comfort zones and how far we wanted to pursue the original itinerary. Basin via the East Face would consume another 5-6 hours in good conditions putting us on the summit around dark. At best, current conditions would deal us a hand of low visibility, 30 m.p.h. winds and wind-chill up down to -20 F (per the forecast). I believe we made the best and safest choice when we called off the remainder of the climb, comfortably settling for our ascent of Saddleback.
Walking back to the Saddleback/Gothics col, NP tossed out the idea of climbing Gothics West Face (really SW by the compass). In all, the climb entails about 600 vertical feet over roughly 1,100 ground feet (in a straight line). We considered while walking. An overlook en route provided the perfect vantage point to sell the idea and survey the route. The ghostly image of the face was there one minute, then gone the next. When it rematerialized, I snapped some pics and we discussed likely lines of ascent. Conditions looked like thin ice, open rock and either deep snow or neve. We decided to rise to the challenge; I felt my excitement rise once again. I'd not explored the face before and I love route-finding, taking each challenge as it comes. I love the single-minded focus it sometimes entails...I can feel the stressors of life flake away on such occasions.
We set foot at the intersection of the Range and Orebed trails at 12:45 p.m. which left plenty of daylight. We discussed logistics again and decided to ascend as lightly as possible. At risk of kicking off a discussion of a risk assessment sub-topic, we discussed ascending without packs. In the end, we packed emergency gear and put it in my pack...i.e. bivouac sack, down jacket, food, water, a micro-fleece layer and first aid kit. Anthony carried rope and protection (...he looked the most prepared). NP made sure he had an operable headlamp and carried the map of the ascent in his mind; something he'd been conjuring for months.
Supportive snow led to the beginning of the traverse at the lower edge of the face. To our delight the snow was supportive. The expanse of anorthosite above was awe-inspiring, its surface dotted with lichen and moss as well as a thin layer of ice in most places. NP led the route and the climb was 'on'. We trekked diagonally upward (nearly due east on average) on the neve then up the face to a small break in the face encrusted with snow and ice. Traversing across the 45 degree slab led to a central line of trees that led upward. Acceptable lines of ice were incorporated into the route though neve helped on most sections. The ensuing two hours would take us on a continual climb up varied and ever steepening terrain, bushwhacks and gullies of ice...as well as many breaks.
Every so often I'd hear NP hooting with excitement. I knew the inevitable request would soon follow, "Can you stay there, that's a great picture!" I'd reposition and plant the axes before yelling, "Sure!" …I then did the same thing to Anthony. Saddleback's opposing flank also riddled with open slab set the scene for pictures that reflected the feel of the day--cold, exhilarating, remote—while the bare bedrock of Gothics dropped away steeply below. I felt at home and at peace.
This was such a different type of climb than the exposed ledges on Saddleback just hours earlier. It was steeper, required forethought of route and was more exposed in some ways. It also held more natural barriers of protection. In a way they complimented each other making for a more complete and satisfying day with a bonus of two slide climbs on a winter outing. The most precarious moves didn't involve neve into which we could plunge the axes, but thin ice. Anything was fair game to use as additional traction including nubs of frozen moss. Then there were the short but intense pushes through the stiff frozen krummholz...an exercise in strength and stamina that left me breathless and awaiting the next open face.
The wind drove the snow from behind as we got higher. Two thirds of the way to the top led us to the steepest and most exposed climbing as we traversed under a rounded swell of stone, over some cripplebrush and up along a run of trees, a long run of 50 degree slab dropping away immediately to the right. We finally took a break alongside the aforementioned swell. This led to a traverse across a thin line in the slab that held a bit of snow and moss. Our goal was a gully of ice, neve trees on the other side. Soon after, the axes dug deep into the ground as a life-line. We were on the final ascent.
Kevin entering the gully area. Pic by NP.
There were about three distinct pitches to the top as I remember it. Anthony veered off our line of ascent toward something more compelling by his judgment. NP and I stayed between the face to the west and some ledges to the right working up runs of ice or neve. I also recall at least one short if not vertical climb in the krummholz. I enjoying the view down the gully at NP climbing some 30' below. Beyond some spruce dropped the long run of anorthosite. The increasing wind and snow added to the adventure. A final climb to the side up some tiers ice encrusted boulders led to the tell-tale signs of the top...rounded terrain and krummholz. I heard Anthony calling as he looked down on NP and I. Moments later we were on the top of Gothics western shoulder, a unique winter bushwhack and climb. The descent down the cable route was a welcome respite after a short chilly break.
Ice gully at the top.
The relaxing walk back to the Johns Brook area passed quickly, not a death march this time. I hadn’t pushed to the point of being overly tired, simply well worked-out. Our group split at the interior outpost, Anthony hiking to the trailhead and NP and I heading to the warming hut. I spent some there with friends and photographing a martin in a tree. It berated me from above as I photographed from below..just another day in the beautiful Adirondacks. By the next day there was talk of another project in a few weeks…so much adventure, so little time.