Panther Gorge-Moonraker Runout on Mt. Marcy

Panther Gorge-Moonraker Runout on Mt. Marcy

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 44.11337°N / 73.90853°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jun 16, 2018
Activities Activities: Trad Climbing
Seasons Season: Spring

Photo Set: Parnter: Ken Hebb Route Details: Route Line with Nearby Routes:

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Each year I plan a camping trip to Panther Gorge. It's a time to get away, reflect, awaken and fall asleep to boreal birdsong, and try to get a little climbing in. My days off don't always coincide with the weather. In fact, they rarely do for the duration of my itinerary. Rain the day before this year's outing (Thursday) dampened our hopes that the lines we sought would be dry. I decided to roll the dice and camp for its own sake regardless of wet conditions. Ken Hebb was of like mind.

My other goal was to fulfill a promise of sorts--to bring Ken up a new route. He'd accompanied me on two prior trips to the area. The first trip found us standing at the head of the Gorge in a light rain for two hours; a hanging cloud on Marcy (some of the nearby areas were remarkably clear). We walked out soaked but in good spirits. He then followed me in during early December. The ice was too thin for me to lead so we walked back out and climbed Little Marcy Gully which lies about 10 minutes north on Little Marcy. It was new and fun, but not in the Gorge. I hoped this trip would find him on an engaging route.

Friday, June 15 I walked in alone to set up camp deep in the Gorge. It was approaching the longest day of the year, so starting at 3:30 PM found me with a bivy site set up and dinner cooked by 8:45 PM--even with a 60 lb. pack. I found the cliffs running with small cascades as I passed by and prayed that they would drier in the morning so we could climb.

Regardless of the condition of the cliffs, my heart relaxed. I was in the bosom of the mountains where my soul feels at home. Boreal chickadees, thrushes, and other high-elevation songbirds sang melodies until the last remnants of light disappeared. Wisps of wind rustled my tarp as I drifted off to sleep under a cloudless sky. Thank God for moments like these.

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Saturday, June 16: Moonraker Runout (5.8+) I awoke and bushwhacked back up to the Panther Den near the head of the Gorge. Within minutes I heard a distant voice and whistle--Ken was working his way through the tangled hemlocks. He appeared in the glade 20 minutes later. We descended together, cooked breakfast, and walked up to the tallest cliff--the Agharta Wall. I ran various options through my mind. The cascades had only lessened slightly. This and the fact that we’d added many lines to this area in addition to the Crofoot & Schneider routes from 2002-2003 limited our options. We had to thread the needle so to speak, but I believed that there was a viable new route.

The more I climb, the more I realize that much of climbing is psychological. One can make an itinerary with the best intentions and feel "off" which immediately changes the dynamics of an outing. I also recognized that I'm a better climber in my mind while sitting on a computer chair studying beta photos than nine miles from the trailhead. I don't know if it was the effort of carrying the pack on Friday, the knowledge that I'd be doing the leading (a good thing that expands limits), or if I was just psychologically off my game; but I had a hard time motivating myself as I looked up the dripping wall. I moved the ropes around, organized gear, took photos of flowers, refilled water, looked at various starting options, and generally procrastinated until vocalizing, "Ok, let's do this," to Ken. I did NOT have an overpowering sense that I shouldn't be climbing (I listen to my inner voice when it's insistent enough).

I tied in and began climbing up a series of three convex overlaps of dimpled rock, some wet and some dry. The apprehension melted under the weight of focused intent once I made the first moves. A few left-rising cracks allowed me to protect myself between runout (no gear) sections. The faces were significantly steeper than they looked, and the third necessitated traversing over a ceiling. It took time to figure out the moves required to accomplish this task and get into a crack. In the end, I had to lay back on an edge to press my left foot on a vertical, sloping surface while stepping high up onto a tiny nub with my right foot. A few more delicate moves set me in the crack. I then moved to a wide right-rising crack that offered easy climbing to a ledge where I settled my heart rate and belayed Ken. I'd only climbed 90 feet, but I wanted an unobstructed view of him while he climbed.

He was about halfway up and approaching the second ceiling when I yelled, "A bit steeper than it looks from below?" He affirmed this was the case, figured out the crux moves, and tied in beside me with a smile.

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Moonraker Runout

I had no idea what the condition of the rock was above our perch. Was it soaked? Did it offer protection on other hard areas? There was only one way to find out.

Pitch two was 170 feet long and fun five climbing--around 5.4. The rock was low angle and had plenty of cracks. It was also intermittently wet and had areas of moss to avoid. The area offered spectacular views of the expansive wall to the north--and the main watercourse dancing down the rocks. This followed the pitches of the Toma's Wall route. I belayed Ken from a tree. We rested, ate a snack, and watched people walk down Mt. Haystack's ridge. I also noted that the bright sun was drying the rock, but that would not help what we encountered at the top--I'm ahead of myself.

I had beta on pitch three from a climb a couple of years ago. I knew there was a green colored slab with very little protection. I was curious which is what draws me to routes like this. I saw the green lichen on the slab, but I also saw the defined dimples and a small rising crack where I could protect the bottom at the least.

I ascended a nearly vertical corner, placed a cam and moved onto the "moon rock" section of runout slab. This pitch later added context the name of the route, Moonraker Runout. I climbed the steep face using small edges for about 30' before angling left to a right-facing corner where I rested and placed a cam. This was exciting climbing, but not for those who like to place protection every body length. The remaining distance to the overhanging cliff above consisted of ascending the corner to its end with good protection then face climbing black rock with loose pancakes of stone underfoot. I was careful not to dislodge any of the flakes. One hundred and fifty feet higher, a wide crack under the cliff allowed me to belay Ken.

I heard Ken's breath as he worked his way up the strenuous green slab. It was "pumpy" on the hands and gave the big toes a good workout! He arrived with a grin, and we took in the stunning view as I heard someone hoot from Mt. Haystack. I snapped a photo of Ken with the overhanging cliff in the foreground and crag-riddled flank of Haystack in the background. The rugged terrain seemed all-the-more rugged from this perspective. The glade at the bottom of the wall formed an arc that mirrored the convex curve of the wall. It was an obvious blast zone for annual ice falls. This explained the many trees growing at unnatural angles, missing bark, or with limbs snapped off.

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There were only a few ways to break through the overhanging cliff, and all options were soaking wet. The corner to the right was the end of Toma's Wall; overhead was a wet, chossy area with moss and an unprotectable traverse; and a wide series of cracks and overhangs that finished the CrazyDog's Halo route sat 25' to our left. The last option seemed like the most aesthetic finish. I'd followed it, but I'd never led it especially wet. The fun never ends.

I traversed left on wet rock before reaching the wide cracks of the interlocked blocks--such a dramatic and cool area. There were abundant holds, but it got dicey quickly. Though rated 5.7 when dry, the experience becomes frighteningly sketchy when it's dripping wet. There were cracks for gear, and I took advantage of each. My most vivid memory was of crossing (slithering across) a blank area. I braced with foot on one of the blocks, laid down on the soaking stone and probed the wet cracks with my hands to find purchase while the upper tier dripped on my face. I yelled down to Ken to be ready in case I fell. A committing foot maneuver placed me back on my feet. I moved on and broke through the remaining ledge and into the woods to set up a belay. My heart was racing from the exertion, but it would further elevate when one of the ropes lodged in a crack as I pulled up the slack. The friction was overwhelming.

We were using double ropes, so I belayed Ken on the red one while he worked his way through his crux of the route. He dislodged the blue rope, and we finished around 6:00 PM after the 11:45 AM start. Adventure climbing at its best! ...but we still had to get down.

Two hundred foot rappels placed us back at the base after a final exciting rappel where we were freely hanging in the air--nothing low angle about that. The last rappel allowed me to study an option that I'd briefly considered as a start to the route. The wet stone inside this chimney made me glad that we chose another option.

Day one of climbing was over. It had taken roughly seven hours to relaxingly "put up" the route. We kept it free of all other lines except the linkage with the CrazyDogroute. In hindsight, this offered the most aesthetic end and kept us safe if not a bit wet

Good food and a sound night's sleep ushered in Day 2 of climbing.

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