Partner: Loren Swears
Routes: John 3:16 (WI4/140’), PG-13 (WI4/170’)
Duration: 4:15 AM-10:45 PM
Distance: 17.25 mi.
Temperature: 20’s Fahrenheit
Lugging a winter climbing pack from the Garden, over Horse Hill to the base of Little Haystack can be checked off my bucket list. This was the “easiest” of two options given the location of our target ice routes on Mt. Haystack—the V Wall. Trekking through the talus on the floor of the Gorge would have been hopeless. The conditions of the bushwhack after Horse Hill were brutal given the pack weight, slope and non-consolidated snow (1/3 mile with 450’ of elevation loss). I’m ahead of myself…
We’ve never added an ice climbing route to Panther Gorge this late in the season—during the first days of spring. The sun starts taking a toll on the Marcy lines by mid-March. I banked on a couple of lines on Haystack for this trip, hoping their aspect and location in gullies would protect them. I’d been eyeing them for several years. The snowpack from the recent nor’easter was the primary wildcard.
Loren Swears is one of the Gorge initiates that keeps coming back for more—even after the 22-hour Revelations trip a couple of years ago. I mentioned that the ice lines were pretty far south on Haystack. He said he was up for whatever I had in mind. He didn’t sweat the details. Thus we met at 4 AM and had walked the 7.8 miles to the Haystack/Marcy col by 8:30 AM. Instead of descending into Panther Gorge, we trekked up the trail to Little Haystack over Horse Hill. Carrying 45-50 pound packs up that trail was a battle of wills and the mountain almost won. Only the spectacular sunrise, the rays refracting from thousands of frost-covered limbs, distracted me. I was concerned about having the energy to bushwhack, lead the climbs, bushwhack back out, and tackle the 8+ miles to the trailhead. I was near the top of the ridge when Loren said, “Yeah, it’s hard to understand why nobody else wanted to come with you on this…”
He was feeling the pain too. I nearly tripped as I laughed at his quip.
The view of the Haystack massif always takes my breath away when approaching from the Phelps Trail…two tree-less cones jutting out from the white terrain under the soft morning sun. We descended to the col and began bushwhacking a few hundred feet before Little Haystack. The relatively unconsolidated snowpack drained our energy. We slowed our pace, usually taking breaks in a cozy spruce trap. I hoped that our tracks would consolidate during the hours it took to “put up” the ice routes if they were “in.”
Open glades led to denser tree growth as we followed the fall line down and to the right. We changed direction (roughly 45 degrees to the right) at the end of the obvious ridgeline before another subtle ridge. We then descended steeper terrain. I questioned whether this was the easiest approach and whether the bushwhack was only 1/3 mile—it felt like three. An hour after leaving the trail, we spotted a void through the trees—a cliff top. I recognized the side of the V Wall which was already home to three rock climbing routes (All Things Holy, Psalm 23 and Windjammer).
We stomped a platform into the snow, dropped the packs, renourished and pulled out the technical climbing gear. We planned to rappel down the trap dike directly below our position (it was loaded with ice), walk across the bottom of the V-Wall and put up the first route some 200’ to the north. Our exit would be back up the rappel line which would constitute a second route if the ice was safe.
We found a stout tree, clipped the ropes through carabiners and threw them over the edge. I rappelled first and tested the ice on the way down. It was solid and safe even though the sun had started to melt certain portions. Gullies in the ice indicated that there was running water in the not so distant past. The vertical wall on its north side held a few delaminating columns of delicate ice. Loren soon followed, and we plowed through the snow to the bottom of the V-shaped cliff. One hundred feet north we reached another gully and walked up to the base of what I knew was the prize line. The approach to our first route had taken 7.5 hours!
High above, fat curtains glistened as I clipped the ice screws to my harness and mentally prepared to lead.
Panning from north to south, the arena in which we stood was laid out as follows. A balanced fin of rock stood outside the gully. It looked like the wind could blow it over, but it’s been there for millennia. Above, sat the main gully which narrowed and continued into the trees. It was loaded with ice. Another trickle of delaminating ice disappeared into a large crack. To its right was our primary target—a fat line that followed Windjammer, a rock climb that John Pikus, Jaryn DeShane and I put up a couple of years ago.
There was a lot of verticality to this line, but there were also nice rests where the grade backed off. Loren set up a GoPro, and I started up the yellowish ice. Strikes of the ice tool resonated hollowly in some places. There were layers of ice along the left side—disconcerting. I veered right where it was solidly attached to the stone. It wasn’t long before I was 50’ up on a 75-degree ramp leading to a vertical curtain. A few strenuous moves up the curtain placed me on a snowy terrace where I took a break. I watched water arc out of a hole where the tool had pierced a vein. Hydraulic pressure is interesting…unless there’s enough internal pressure to fracture the ice!
I studied the crux—a 15’ or 20’ curtain—as I regained my breath. The ice in the sun was white and looked unsafe while the shaded ice was still growing and clear. The “clear” line formed a small chimney. The diversity of this option appealed to me, so I placed a screw in the back of the chimney and stemmed my way up until I was forced on to the wall. There were a few awkward moves, but I felt comfortable because the tools were firmly embedded. In the chimney or on the wall—it was all vertical. I climbed up a lower-angled slope at its top to a tree that we’d used to rappel down Windjammer. It was the perfect place from which to belay Loren.
It had taken me an hour to put up the route and I needed a prolonged rest. I relaxed once I was secure. Snow flurries blew in the light wind as I screamed, “On belay!” to Loren.
“Climbing!” echoed up from the depths.
I sat back in the harness and absorbed the scenery. Marcy was majestic, her best lines outlined in ice and shadow. The chimney (Marcy’s Great Chimney aka Empty Tomb) was directly across the valley. The great Agharta ice route was still attached though it looked like a scary/snowy climb at the top. The nearby slab was dry. Even the rock next to me was warm to the touch. Spring was at hand even with 6’ of snow on the mountain.
A half-hour later, I saw Loren’s head (accompanied by a few grunts/other sounds) emerge from the chimney pitch. This was his first Panther Gorge ice climb. He said, “That was the real thing!” True, it wasn’t a low-angled gully climb. It was a strenuous route that we rated WI4.
We rappelled down to the gully to reassess the condition of the nearby ice lines as well as ourselves. I studied the continuation of the gully while eating a snack. Loren knew what I was thinking and said, “Go ahead and climb it if you want.”
I vacillated back and forth on the wisdom of climbing it. A seed of concern sprouted in my mind, but it took time to figure out its origin. The gully looked easy; I knew I could blast up it. That wasn’t the problem. I even verbally agreed and began to clip gear back on my harness. A few small flakes of ice bounced down from our right (the rock was heating up). The bouncing ice was enough of a trigger to change my mind. “I’m not climbing this today,” I stated.
The falling bits of ice weren’t a substantial danger but my gut feeling to move south to our exit was strong. I learned to trust my instincts and play conservatively long ago (conservative is a subjective term). I was concerned about the exit route—the line that we’d rappelled. It was on a western aspect and absorbing the heat of the bright sun. We had to climb it (or make a nasty bushwhack to its south) to get back to our packs. The time was also 2:30 PM. We’re no stranger to bushwhacking in the dark, but I wasn’t intentionally trying to set up another 22-hour excursion.
Back at the rappel line, Loren walked up the gully in the thigh-deep snow to the first ice bulge. I found a belay station that kept him out of the line of fire if I broke any ice loose or if the nearby column (not our route) fell off the wall.
The beginning of the route was relatively easy though it had a short vertical section. This route also had a large terrace between sections. Thus, I didn’t place as much gear as the first route which took ten screws. The top 40+ feet, the crux, had multiple options. The right side was easy ice that fell short of vertical. Then there was an appealing vertical section of 30ish feet next to the wall. We’d spent the energy getting here so why not climb the hardest line? I knew Loren might give me an “ear full,” however!
I struck it with the tool and, despite its whitish appearance, found solid ice that safely took protection. The route was about 8’ thick and about 20’ wide. It had melted away from the cliff to its left. There were several small ledges on the wall that could provide rests for my left foot if needed. I started up the line and used the ledges while placing screws. Partway up I screamed down for Loren to tighten the rope and hung from a screw to look around and relax. I stepped onto off-vertical ice at roughly 3:30 PM and set up a belay near our packs.
Loren climbed well and reached the vertical pitch where he rested. He couldn’t see me during my climb (the first bulge occluded me) nor could I see him as he took on the wall so I used the tension in the rope to judge his progress. He eventually crested the bulge and walked up next to me.
“I knew you were going to climb the absolute section of that, you bastard,” he exclaimed as he laughed. “It could have been nice and easy, but no...”
At the end of his statement, our collective laughing echoed off the cliff face. “Well, we spent a lot of time getting down here. We might as well make the most of it!” He knows my personality well.
It was 4:30 by the time we wrapped up the climb and stumbled back to our packs. I admit that I was tired. I contemplated the trek back to the trail and over Horse Hill while eating some smoked salmon. The thought wasn’t appealing. I only hoped that our footprints had consolidated enough to support us during the ascent. Most of them did though I still found a few spruce traps to “rest” in.
The sun was heading toward Marcy when we reached flatter ground in the valley near Little Haystack. I usually visualize the shoulder as a pointed mountain. From the west and directly below, however, it looked like a long flat ridge. The perspective was unique. It was 6:00 PM when we reached the trail and began the trek to the Phelps Trail. The rest of the hike was a typical death-march except for the 30-minute break at Johns Brook Lodge where we enjoyed food, company and the wood stove.
Naming the new routes was easy. I opted for John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.) as the name of the first route. It was a week before Easter and also fit in with the other Christ-themed names on the wall. Loren named the reliable route in the dike PG-13, also a perfect fit for the feel of the climb. In the end, the day couldn’t have been more perfect. The plan worked and we executed it safely. The weather was warmer than forecast—nicely in the 20’s or 30’s with full sun and a light wind. This is how I want to end every ice climbing season!
Prior Trips to Panther Gorge