|Page Type:||Trip Report|
|Lat/Lon:||44.11144°N / 73.91171°W|
|Date Climbed/Hiked:||Jan 5, 2019|
I began making a list of route options in Panther Gorge during 2013. The list grew larger over the years, but specific lines floated to the top based on aesthetics, length, reliability, or other factors. We crossed many off when we climbed them or as I ruled them out as undesirable options. Our target for this trip was high on my priority list and a line that remained elusive after two years of attempts. It is located deep within the Gorge near Grand Central Slide, the bottom curtain rarely touches down, and the thin layer of ice above the curtain quickly rots in the sun on the dark anorthosite. Jaryn DeShane and I tried it in February of 2018 but climbed a nearby route instead since its bottom was brittle, delaminated, and thin.
I slept through my 3:15 a.m. alarm. My friend and partner in alpine starts, Alan, spent the night on January 4th. This was a blessing in disguise. I rarely sleep through alarms, but I did this time. After calling my name several times at 3:30 a.m., he gently kicked the bed. I jumped up like my head was on fire and readied myself. We stepped out the door and were on our way to the Loj trailhead twenty minutes later. My mind was fuzzy from the jump-start, but I walked it off as we ticked off the miles.
Most of our trips begin from Keene Valley, but the deeper targets are easier to access via the Loj as long as I remember the navigational details from the Van Hoevenberg Trail. The logistics are less straight-forward than entering via the north pass.
The trail had little snow on it most of the way to Marcy Dam, but the snowpack grew as we gained elevation. Indian Falls marked the point where it was what I’d consider normal for this time of year. We walked under the light of headlamps for nearly three hours. The early morning vistas were beautiful as we approached Marcy. The mountains wore shrouds of dark blue which contrasted against the snow-covered slide tracks.
We arrived at the jump-off point from the Van Hoevenberg Trail at 9:15 a.m., donned waterproof shells, ate a snack, and set off on a firm snowpack a few minutes later. We enjoyed clear weather with line-of-sight navigation (much different from last winter’s descent). The ridge is topped with thick krummholz, so walking atop the rain crust was a much-needed break compared to wading through deep snow. Anything that saves energy is a blessing. Dense growth eventually loosened as the slope increased. We glissaded, walked, and tumbled down the various glades and gullies until we reached our access point at the top of the steep gully below the Chimney Wall. As usual, it had been swept by a small avalanche.
We switched from snowshoes into crampons and carefully descended under fangs of wind-contorted, yellow icicles and small roofs of stone. The front points bit into the crust and occasional steps of ice until we reached Marcy’s Great Chimney. I looked up and its top was fat with ice. I grumbled under my breath. It was in good shape, but we didn’t have the time to try both the chimney and the target climb. Another hundred feet of walking brought us below the Panther’s Pinnacle rock climb and an overlook of our quarry. I saw pillars of blue ice at the top and breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps, I’d assessed the weather correctly. A sketchy down-climb led to the base of the cliff where my heart sank.
The upper and lower tiers of stone overhang, so the ice needs enough time to form. The top always builds heavily via seepage that forms hanging pillars until they touch down onto a terrace. The water continues to seep down a lower angle ramp before dripping from the bottom overhang—a void of 25 feet. The warm weather (it was above freezing as we surveyed the cliff), recent rain showers, a southerly aspect, and dark sun-baked anorthosite had delaminated the bottom of the climb. The curtain hadn’t touched down. Worse yet, I saw inches of space between the ice and stone with water running underneath. Aaron said, “It’s rotten.”
I sighed, “Yup,” and kept studying the ice as thoughts raced through my mind.
A 20-foot section had recently snapped off and fallen down the glade. I picked up a plate of the 2-inch thick ice. It broke easily. As Aaron noted, it was rotten. There were a couple of seams where some of our rock gear might protect the start, but a crampon or tool strike in the wrong place could bring another thousand pounds of ice down on us. It wasn’t worth the risk. These are the moments when it is important to keep one’s ego in check.
I walked up-slope on the left and spied another option. Some of the ice was rotten, but enough looked bonded to the stone to chance it. With luck, it would lead to the ramp and we could access the money pitch. The alternate start looked fun in any case, so I volunteered to give it a try.
Alan belayed while Aaron took photos with his phone. It was the only camera that found its way into the backpacks, but that’s another story. I stepped onto the ice and found it was better than I expected. I had to chip the rotten surface away to place screws, but the underlying ice was solid. A small cam in a crack protected me higher up. I wriggled through a small chimney on a ledge and stepped in front of a huge bulge of ice. Another screw protected a sketchy traverse that led to an icy wall below the pillars.
I poked around to find suitable ice for an anchor and avoided creating a belay directly below two would-be pillars that were now hanging swords of ice. The recent rains had carved a channel through one. The blue color of much of the ice was a surprise. Previous photos showed this area loaded with yellow ice. I scratched at the surfaces facing the sun—it was much like scratching a snow-cone. The ice in the shadows, however, was clear and solid—perfect for screws. I incorporated my longest one (22 cm) into the anchor.
Meanwhile, the sun was battering the routes to the north. Pops and cracks followed by the sound of crashing echoed off the cliffs. Most of the noise was coming from the Agharta wall. Such sounds do nothing to bolster confidence when one is attached to a frozen wall nine miles from the trailhead. I expected the ice below our terrace to calve off at any moment. Thin clouds intermittently drifted over the sun and cut its warmth. I prayed that it would become more overcast.
Alan followed first, then Aaron. It didn’t take them long to reach my position. Alan and I have done plenty of leading in the Gorge, so Aaron volunteered to lead the crux. Crampons and tools easily bit into the soft ice which made the lead more of a pleasure than a battle as it would have been on the usual “bullet ice.” I looked up into the “U” shaped cavity between the dripping pillars. Most of the ice looked appealing, but some appeared whitish and aerated. It wasn’t long before Aaron was stemming (climbing with one foot on either side as in a chimney) up the last steep run. He yelled, “Turf!” when he reached the top and buried a tool in frozen soil. A loud hoot sounded quickly after. His enthusiasm was contagious.
Alan climbed next casting small bits of ice near me as he kicked into the wall. His departure left me to take photographs and enjoy the peaceful setting. Distant voices on Haystack’s summit sounded close without wind sweeping the Gorge.
The route was much as I expected once I started climbing, though the vertical sections were longer than they looked from below—typical foreshortening. It only took a swing or two to find a good axe placement as opposed to the multiple strikes it took to procure a safe “stick” while leading Spiritus Draconis last year. I love this type of ice—a rare treat up this high. The cavity between the hanging pillars seemed to swallow me as I stepped into it and looked up the final vertical section. The thought struck me that I was nearing the end of a two-year-old dream. I was consumed by the peace of the moment and appreciated each second of the climb.
My smiling companions greeted me at the top. They were standing on a few feet of snow and attached to a large balsam. I felt a surge of accomplishment (and a little relief). The sting of the failed attempts faded and made the climb that much more meaningful. Alan asked if I had a name in mind. Nolan Huther had suggested Apex Predator. It seemed fitting given the feline theme we often try to conform to. I ran it by my partners; they agreed.
We took time for a quick stroll south to the top of a knoll. The view below was of the side of Marcy’s East Face and several ice lines on its vertical north side. In the obvious gully below, but out of sight, was Grand Central Slide.
We rappelled the length of the route from a stout tree set 20 feet back from the cliff top. I slowed down after the terrace and gingerly stepped down the low-angle ice above the initial curtain. I wanted to inspect it. As expected, the sheet was hollow, and I saw fracture lines about 40 feet above the ground. We were wise to avoid poking this particular dragon.
We ate lunch in the glade below the cliff, standing amidst a “yard sale” of gear. Spiritus Draconis beckoned from the south. We discussed climbing the nearby route. Alan needed a lead, and the route needed a second ascent. Aaron was satisfied with what we’d already accomplished. He relaxed and enjoyed the serenity of Panther Gorge and the majestic views of Haystack while Alan and I climbed.
The route was thinner than when Jaryn and I climbed it…and softer. Ice always looks less steep from afar. Alan angled toward the left side of the flow and said, “It looks a lot steeper from here.”
I retorted, “That’s because you’re below the sustained vertical section—a good 50-foot wall. There are rests on the right side.”
He picked a line in between the two and, after about 20 minutes, disappeared onto the lower-angled top section and into the woods. I followed as quickly as I could to save time and topped out a few minutes later. We were done by 3:50 p.m. It took less than an hour for this route, especially without the route-finding details.
There wasn’t any time for another. We wanted to make this an “early” day, and I hoped to reach the trail by dark. There was also cooler weather approaching. We trekked back up to the gully and made the thigh-burning ascent back up to the “rabbit hole.” Another difficult ice climb that I didn’t notice previously was on the Chimney Wall near its top. One more for the list.
Navigating out of the Gorge was easy—we simply followed our path. It was grueling, however. The packs felt heavier. Perhaps we were just wearing down. Multiple breaks to take photos of the glowing crown of Haystack and multi-colored sunset allowed me to catch my breath. The slope eased after 45 minutes of exertion which signaled that we would soon enter the grip of the dense growth. A yell from Alan brought us to a halt. He’d fallen into a spruce trap and was searching the hole for his snowshoe. Meanwhile, the weather changed, and clouds rolled in from the northwest. I watched the summit of Marcy disappear in an eerie cloud as the winds increased.
Ten minutes later (and one blueberry muffin for me), Alan still couldn’t find the shoe and gave up with the intent of returning during the summer to continue the search. I thought That should be a hoot…
Trekking out was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. I was still feeling the inner peace that such a day always triggers. The headlamps lit the fog as I mentally ticked away the benchmarks—Indian Falls, the Phelps summit trail, Marcy Dam, etc. We’d started at 4:45 a.m. and it was only 8:15 when we reached the trailhead again. A day that’s under 15.5 hours is below my average (16.5 hours). That, in my book, is a good outing! Safe, successful, and happy we parted ways. Finishing the route was a prayer answered.