|Page Type:||Trip Report|
|Lat/Lon:||44.11390°N / 73.90541°W|
|Date Climbed/Hiked:||Mar 10, 2017|
Partner: Alan Wechsler
Duration/Mileage: 17.5 hours (4:15 a.m.-9:45 p.m.), about 17.5 with meandering
Temperature: 10-20 Fahrenheit
Warm weather, 72 Fahrenheit at our house, was followed by a couple inches of rain. Then it cooled. The unseasonable weather created a veneer of hard crust and depleted the snowpack by roughly two feet. The conditions were ideal for a visit to the gorge. Veteran Alan Wechsler was on board to go hunt some ice. We watched the forecast during the week preceding March 10; predicted temperatures for the weekend dropped daily and, with wind-chill, settled at about -40 at the elevation where the climbs are located. We moved the climb to Friday so we’d be racing the oncoming cold weather. There always seems to be a caveat. At least we wouldn’t find the route melting out from under us from the heat like several weeks before when we were on Mt. Marcy’s slabs!
Alan spent the night at my house. We awoke at 3:15 a.m. and were walking an hour later. I contemplated crossing Johns Brook at Bushnell Falls while my body plodded on; something I was concerned about much of the week. Had it refrozen after being open earlier in the week? I didn’t feel on top of my game for various reasons preceding the hike, but that’s how it rolls sometimes—you push through and pray for the best. Alan began fighting a large blister about 20 minutes’ walk from the trailhead. Would we even make it as far as the crossing? So many things were amiss that I wondered if the day wasn’t meant to be.
Alan tried a variety of blister remedies before a 3 inch square of mole-skin did the trick. We later found the crossing at the falls was well frozen—I’d worried about nothing again. Persistence and a rock-hard trail eventually got us to the jump-off point for the bushwhack. The snowpack was two feet lower than in February and a bullet crust enabled us to walk down the center of the drainage without snowshoes, a narrow sloped glen that descended into an arena of possibilities. It was time to explore.
We sought a moderate multi-pitch ice line—I had a couple new ones in mind, but the options on the first three cliffs of Marcy were thin. Even Agharta, the largest of the routes, was depleted though still apparently climbable. We spent about an hour and a half walking to the Agharta Wall then contemplating whether options to the south were worth the trek. There were many possibilities, but nothing seemed certain and we wanted to exit by dark.
We finally bushwhacked back up to the Ramp Wall on Haystack. There was a line that I’d been contemplating for a couple years...aesthetic and fat with ice. The wall, as the name suggests, has a left-rising ramp about 8 feet wide and 50 feet long. It’s an obvious feature with two rock climbing routes on it. I liken it to a miniature version Upper Washbowl Cliff across from Chapel Pond. The ramp divides the wall into a nearly vertical bottom wall and a vertical top wall. The top left corner usually has ice as does the bottom right side below obvious opposing corners. Alan noted that the line running directly to the top would be the best (and hardest) option. I later compared photos from February of 2017 and January of 2016—the ice was fatter this day than it was in either photo. This trip presented the perfect opportunity for a first ascent. Thanks be to the recent rains and cold snap.
ALAN AT THE PANTHER DEN/FELINE WALL DELINEATION
It was about 11:30 when we reached the wall and noon when we began climbing. I knew I could lead the bottom below the ramp, but questioned the top—I’m not stupid enough to experiment in the gorge. I told Alan that we should “put up” the best line possible and he should lead if he wanted to try the plumb line. Thus began the start of Ride the Lighting, a name I had tucked in my mind for a worthy route in the gorge. A ten foot vertical section with good stances laid back slightly before easy ice bulges led through the corners and onto the ramp. After about 20 minutes he had the first screw in the upper wall, something that would save him from sliding off the ramp if there was a mishap.
Meanwhile, the weather began playing games. Intermittent snow showers seemed to be more on than off in nature. Moderate winds swirled the snow down the ramp and across our line. Magnificent views of the southern gorge and Mt. Skylight disappeared as the sun transmuted into vague orb of light. The temperatures were still comfortably in the 20’s which felt perfect.
Alan’s progress was slow, but steady up the last 50 feet of the route. It looked short from below, but I knew that to be a trick of perspective. He progressed up along a 10 foot hanging spear of ice and moved right to a small bulge before finishing the line. As if to congratulate him, the sun came out for the finish.
ALAN AT THE CRUX AREA
As expected, I was comfortable climbing the bottom to the ramp. Hard, but not brittle, ice took the tools well. I listened as the sound of metal on ice echoed off the broken crags of Marcy—directly west of our position. Once on the ramp, I looked north. What a view! The ice in the corner formed a series of parasols; hollow formations sculpted by the wind and quickly freezing seepage. Alan later described the icicles along their rims as dragon teeth. Looking up the line above was inspiring and intimidating even though I wouldn’t go far if I fell. It was a two foot thick wall of mostly-vertical crystal beauty.
LOOKING UP THE RAMP
Breath in, breath out, start. I struck with the first tool in and began the deliberate series of movements that would take me to the first screw. Once there, I clung with my left hand, front-points on small nuances in the surface and unscrewed the protection. This route was strenuous compared to anything I’d climbed in the past and I was still feeling less than 100 percent. It was taking more effort than it should. Forty more feet to go and 60 feet below.
The sun was now out as the ice glistened and I worked my way up to a fragile hanging dagger on the left. I tried to focus on the beauty surrounding me, not my desperate technique. I seemed to be fighting the ice, the tools and my inner Zen. I can usually compartmentalize the negatives and focus on the task at hand, but there was too much mental noise for some reason. Three quarters of the way to the top I felt my forearms weaken; I was mismanaging my strength and my grip on the tools suffered. Enough retrospective whining--persistence paid off in the end as I topped the route and drove the pick home in an ice bulge at the top. I was out of breath and shook my head as I looked up at Alan who was tethered to a few small spruces.
I bushwhacked by him to unwind and enjoy the view. We were sitting next to a 10 foot wall with an ice flow off to our right. The spruce covered platform on which we sat was in reality a fin of rock separated from the Haystack massif by a 15 foot wide corridor to our west about 30 feet. The fin was attached only on its north side. This is one reason why the gorge is so intriguing, so magnificent.
We rappelled down as more snow moved in to cover our world in white. We noted a possible mixed line and tried that before backing off. The idea was to do a second route up the ramp to the highest corner with the parasols of dragon teeth ice. We instead used the start of the first route to attain the ramp and moved up to the corner. My heart wanted to lead, but my gut knew better based on how I felt so Alan again took the sharp end and made short work of the much easier line. The snow was moving in full force, the winds were whipping and the temperature began to dive when I began to climb around 3:30 p.m.
We rated the bottom (common start of the lines) at about WI3+ so the climb was easy for me. I buried my axe into a void in the softer ice and spent about 5 minutes trying to extricate it while hanging on with my left. I snickered at having a problem again. The pick was trapped by the sharp teeth on its bottom edge (it was a new pick), but eventually came out after the ice melted from around it. With cold hands I climbed up to the ramp and into another predicament.
We were using double ropes and this route meandered: first up, then left about 50 feet up to finish. Alan had left the blue rope free of clips to avoid drag from two ropes running through zig-zagged protection. Unfortunately, the blue roped caught on the cliff to my left and brought me to a standstill. Already tired I fought, but couldn’t free it. There’s nothing like the disconcerting feeling of being tied in place...until you realize that you can safely untied from one of the ropes. Thus I untied, climbed the ramp and retied at the corner. Here I got a close-up view of the beautiful ice formations.
Multi-tiered hollow parasols of translucent yellow-white ice looked magical. Delicate icicles hanging in a haphazard array of directions lined the edges of the hollows. Some dripped with seepage and others were covered in rime. From a practical standpoint, they were supportive enough to climb so I followed the rope to the outside and ascended easy ice bulges to Alan’s position from another snag of spruce trees. With the second route done, we moved 20 feet south to the rappel station for the first route and rappelled once again. Alan went first and retrieved the gear left during the failed mixed ascent.
DRAGON TEETH PARASOLS
TOP OF SKIP THE LIGHTNING
It was snowing hard when my turn came; Alan captured a dramatic photo of me—a bad weather souvenir. The warm weather in the mid-20’s was being pushed out by the cold front, but it was time to leave regardless of the temperatures. We talked about the routes as we packed settling on Skip the Lighting (150’/WI3+) for the second, easier route. Ride the Lighting was about 110’ and considerably more difficult at WI5-. It was 5:00 p.m., about 13 hours after leaving the trailhead with 5 hours of climbing in the mix. It was setting up to be the usual long day, but we enjoyed an easy exit after bushwhacking back to the center of the drainage.
By 8:00 p.m. we’d arrived at Johns Brook Lodge and the temperature had dropped significantly. I was comfortable while walking, but chilled quickly upon breaking. Such is the way of winter mountaineering. Motion=warmth. The best days begin and end under cover of darkness. This was one of those days. We were tired, but happy with add a more difficult route in the gorge. I was resigned to the possibility that this would likely be the last winter climb in Panther Gorge. Longer days take their toll on the ice and it starts rotting. We’ll see what winter brings, but it could be months until my return.
RAPPEL DOWN TO THE BASE
CURRENT LAYOUT OF ICE ROUTES IN HAYSTACK'S HIGH NORTH END