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Adam Crofoot and I walked down to Keene Valley and arrived at his house at 9:30 p.m. after logging 20 miles over 16.5 hours. Ah, if it had just been a hike, I might not have felt as weary, but we’d logged a full day of backcountry climbing and I knew I’d feel the effects over the following couple days. That, however, is the end of the story.
Big explorations and sleep are not good partners; I woke up at 1:30 a.m. on August 16th and gave up on any solid rest at 3:45 a.m. Resigned to a hard day with little sleep, I drove down the road to Adam’s house. His girlfriend, Allison, dropped us off at the Garden. We were walking to Panther Gorge by 4:45 a.m. The primary concern in my hazy mind was, “Will the stone be wet or had the wind dried it out enough?” Nine miles is a long walk to find out that conditions aren’t safe. The dew point was equal to the temperature—not a good sign. In our minds it was worth taking the chance, however.
We had our hearts set on putting up (creating) a couple new routes one or both sides of the gorge. We were aiming high with our primary focus centered on Mt. Marcy’s Agharta Wall—the cliff about 1/8 mile north of the East Face and Grand Central Slide. A free-standing pillar at the mouth of the gorge on the Haystack side was a secondary goal if time allowed.
We crested the Marcy/Haystack col just past the junction to Haystack at around 7:40 a.m. which placed us below the Agharta Wall in a field of soaking wet ferns at 8:45. While the small waterfalls and blowing water coming off the wall around our first ascent choice was beautiful, it struck down any thoughts of climbing it. Our second objective was relatively dry, however. If foul weather held off as forecast, we’d have a window to accomplish our goal.
Route 1: Wreck of the Lichen Fitzgerald (5.8+ YDS)
The Agharta Wall has a huge scoop missing at its south end, a beautiful and dramatic feature that’s a testament to gravity and the elements. The missing stone makes up some of the talus that Anthony Seidita and I crawled under earlier in the summer. Adam and I noted a line along the right side of this. It looked like a series of flakes and cracks that might allow access to the upper wall. An close inspection is a far cry from studying a photo; it’s difficult to tell the characteristics of a feature until you’re in the arena. I knew this would be the most challenging climb of my ‘career’ as I looked up our proposed line. I reminded myself of all the reasons that I thought this was a good idea!
Walking along the base of our route.
The mist and slightly damp conditions set a dramatic stage. Small lenticular clouds hovered over Elk Lake and the wind was chilly while standing still; temps were in the 50’s Fahrenheit. It would be an Adirondack backcountry adventure with all the frills. Game on...
Adam led the route by face climbing up to a series of three corners/cracks/ramps. This part of the line was along the northern edge of the big scoop. He placed protection using a double rope system, finding protective cracks along the way and alternately clipping the ropes. He’d inspect an area, place a cam, remove it, brush a little moss out of a crack and find a better location to protect himself while I belayed. Meticulous is the best adjective I can conjure to describe the careful ascent. About 75 feet up he began to traverse across the steep face toward a crack which led to a small roof. The vertical crack then led to a diagonal traverse to an off-width crack, one that’s bigger than you can jam fists into yet too small to fit your body.
Two alders grew from the crack system and two spikes of stone were loose. Beyond, he managed to place some protection in the bottom of the off-width crack. Afterward he traversed to the sharp edge of the flake (forming the crack) and shimmied up its vertical edge to the first belay station on a 6 inch ledge. It had taken roughly 2 hours to climb roughly 150 feet in distance. This was the money pitch!
Above: Adam up near the ramps/corners. Below: Kevin near the same area.
It was my turn. I removed (cleaned) the protection he placed as I encountered it and worked my way up each of the ramps. A beautiful crack was at the base of the third corner which overlooked the giant scoop to the south. The rugged beauty of the area was magnificent. It too ran with seepage as the clouds blew over Marcy’s summit and obscured part of the forest above. Traversing across to the roof was a difficult maneuver, one that made me appreciate Adam’s skill—how easy he made it look. Only small holds in the 75 degree face gave purchase. I took a breath and traversed to the crack where I could jam my hands to a secure my position. Following the vertical crack up past the roof, I realized why he’d taken such care.
The slope increased, the blocks seemed loose and the trees were simply in the way...a simplistic summary, but you get the idea. Once on the edge of the flake I felt better, more secure as I locked a leg behind it and took a breath. There’s nothing like straddling a half inch vertical edge 100 feet above the forest floor. I then noticed that the edge got wider; it was the edge of a house sized buttress. This monstrous piece of anorthosite was detached, only gravity held it in place—not that it was going anywhere in the near future. The crack was about 30 or more feet deep, a striking feature.
Kevin near the off-width crack. Below: Adam at belay 1.
Looking down pitch 1.
Top of the off-width crack. Yup, the entire block to his left is detached.
I moved over to Adam’s position on the small ledge and belayed him as he ascended the second pitch. The obvious line was up the continuation of the crack as it leaned to the left. He soon disappeared from sight and I knew the climbing was easier as the rope quickly disappeared from around my feet. After about 170 feet of rope had vanished and stopped moving, I broke down the anchor and followed. Above the off-width crack was a network of hand/fist sized cracks, each delineating another large piece of stone that would someday fall into the gorge. The rope then disappeared around a gentle bend above a tree island. The second pitch was basically steep slab climbing, something I’m very at home on!
Network of fist-cracks at the bottom of pitch 2.
I found Adam anchored underneath a left-arching bulge adjacent to the top of the scoop. Pitch three began here with a climb up the bulge onto the lower-angled face. The top was wet, very wet and it had begun to drizzle as the cloud ceiling lowered. Combine it with wind and temps in the 50’s and it was chilly while standing still. We traversed slightly left to put the route up through a large chimney in the ledges above. It all looked terribly wet, but the feature was appealing from a distance. Moss in the protected alcove at the top did nothing to help traction. Once above, Adam belayed me from the krummholz. The time was 3:30 p.m. when we finished putting up “Wreck of the Lichen Fitzgerald”.
It took three rappels and about an hour to reverse the route back down to our packs. The weather was still holding, but we gave up the thought of trying to add another long line...there was, however, that little pillar at the mouth of the gorge! We came with ambition and it hadn’t waned. After an hour of steep fern climbing and talus hopping to the upper wall, we crossed the drainage to the pillar on the Haystack side.
Taken from the belay at the base of pitch 3 looking south over the top of the square scoop.
Route 2: For Whom the Lichen Tolls (5.9 YDS)
Yes, Adam was on a lichen theme if you look at both names! We both hummed Metallica's For Whom the Bell Tolls
during the climb.
He scouted the area around the tower and spotted an obvious line. I anchored to a tree and belayed as he climbed a slightly overhanging south face on abundant holds to a ledge on the southwest corner. I was warm from the bushwhack and didn’t put on a jacket or gloves as I belayed. This would be a part of my undoing when I followed the route. Again it looked easy while watching him place protection—clouds over Marcy spit drizzle on us as if in protest. Moving from the corner to begin the crack climb looked more difficult than the bottom. In the end, he climbed to a horizontal seam and followed the crack slightly right and up to the top.
I began in fine fashion on the overhanging bottom corner. Once on the ledge, I realized that the crack wasn’t vertical, it too was slightly overhanging. Not wearing gloves or a jacket while belaying caught up with me—I was chilled, rushed the moves and my hands were numb. After several tries my “fine” form turned into an amusing freak show as I fell from the crack grumbling under my breath. This crux ended a clean climb, but I did work my way up with the help of a good belayer from the top. The continuation of the crack was easy by comparison. The heckling continued for a moment or two on the table-sized summit with Adam. It was small and crisscrossed with deep cracks and a bit of rubble that we partially cleared.
I rappelled first, dangling freely in the air for the last 25 feet. Adam followed and we made our exit from the gorge reaching the trail around 6:30 p.m. We only had to walk another 10 miles back to his house, piece of cake (insert sarcasm). I always say that all good adventures begin and end in the dark. Such was the case as we arrived in Keene Valley at 9:30 p.m.
The satisfaction from such a successful and exciting day in less than ideal conditions escapes words. It shows that the Adirondacks still offer unexplored terrain filled with unknowns. There is unseen wilderness if you’re willing to work hard enough and search in the right places. In a world of near total interconnectivity, days like this reiterate that the heart of adventure still beats strongly. My adventures have, in fact, only just begun...there’s so much to see around the next corner. Add good friends to the mix and the journey is all the more worthwhile!
Looking up the SW corner of the pillar/tower.
Looking down from the top.