With Jaryn "Stinger" DeShane
Duration: 11 ¾ hours; 4:45 AM – 4:30 PM
Length/Vertical Gain: 14.75 miles/ 4,400 feet
Temperature: Near 20F (high 30’s in the valley)
Photo Set: https://photos.app.goo.gl/zk4D...
The winter of 2017-2018 began harshly with extended periods of sub-zero temperatures. There was enough snow to deter me from pushing the limits of backcountry climbing, so I stayed along the road for a change. We then had a short “January thaw” with a couple of periods of rain. As often happens, a thaw and the possibility of a rain-crust prompted me to try and enter Panther Gorge. I had eyes on a stout line deep in the chasm south of the Chimney Wall. As with any trip, the outcome was uncertain, but the adventure was innate.
Jaryn DeShane signed on when I took a last minute vacation day to take advantage of a warm weather window. He’s become one of the most frequent visitors to Panther Gorge during the last couple years. We used the “Crofoot approach,” a way that Adam Crofoot scouted several years ago. It leverages the weaknesses in the clifftops after bushwhacking 1/3 mile from the Van Hoevenberg Trail (with 600’ of elevation loss). One just has to hit it dead on avoid the cliff-tops so this isn’t a recommended approach. Trust me when I say that unless you're carrying technical climbing gear and know how to use the equipment, you don't want to bushwhack down this area.
We departed from the Adirondack Loj at 4:45 AM; we wanted to be back early for a change. Jaryn wasn’t at 100%, and I needed to keep some energy in reserve. This year has been one of injury for many hikers, and the reason was obvious over the first 4-5 miles. The trail was almost pure ice. We found a little snow on top near the Tabletop Mtn. junction. Our walk up the trail was non-eventful other than walking into the clouds near the Phelps Trail intersection. Our bushwhack would be a “blind approach”—no line of sight navigation. I thought of all the people who have gotten lost near this area while hiking Marcy. It’s a treacherous area to become lost.
We broke left from the trail a little farther up toward the summit and wove through the ice-entombed trees on a modestly firm snowpack. It was not the hard crust I envisioned, but we only plunged a foot deep except for the occasional spruce trap. The trees were tightly woven for the first 800 ground feet, but they loosened as the grade increased and we dropped into the Gorge. I snarked, “I hope there’s ice down there.” Jaryn retorted, “Kevin, there better be ice!” Ghostly ledges riddled with thick flows sat to our north—a good sign for our concerns. Roughly 45 minutes later, we found a break in the trees as we approached the cliffs. We climbed down an icy ledge search of the gully atop the Chimney Wall. Nothing looked familiar though we were near the GPS point on Jaryn’s device. Hmm…north or south? We were close. Jaryn suggested we skirt the cliff nearby. At worst, we’d need to climb back up and search a bit more or rappel and search from the bottom. As it worked out, we contoured around the cliff and “fourth-classed” our way over to the Chimney Wall—the chimney was directly in front of us; the little detour hadn’t stymied the day. We slid down the gully to look up the dike. More ice (albeit thin) was in the chimney than during my previous winter visits. A full rack of rock climbing gear was still necessary to climb it. I spotted our potential line to the south. There seemed to be ice, and my pulse quickened.
The line may have been in sight, but bushwhack wasn’t over. This is a rugged area with small ledges and gullies down which we needed to walk. I looked up at the dual pitch climb and felt my hopes evaporate as I assessed the condition of the line. Wind and the contour of the cliff left the lower run of ice in a poor state. It was thin, hadn’t touched down and slightly overhung—scary. Thin vertical ice delaminating from the underlying black bedrock sat above. Only after about 30’ did the grade ease slightly. The upper column was climbable; a vertical pitch of blue/yellow ice some 50+ feet in height with parasols at the top. Looking wasn’t enough so I donned crampons and walked up to the base. I tapped and it resounded like a drum—hollow. …live to climb another day.
We turned our gaze 100’ to the south. Beta photos showed a northeastern aspect pitch of ice that I knew would be in climbable condition—a consolation prize of sorts. I usually hike in with a backup plan. It looked like a comfortable lead from below (famous last words) though nothing is really a “comfortable lead” this far into the backcountry. The yellow flow topped out in the trees to the right of an overhanging cliff a few hundred feet north of Grand Central Slide. The time stood at 10:30 AM so we had plenty of time to work on this and even a second line if we had the stamina. It seemed to be a solid grade 4 pitch, at least from below.
Packs dropped to the ground, and we set to the task of putting on harnesses and organizing the gear. The first swing of my axe into the climbable line was at 11:10 AM. I knew several things by 11:11 AM.
I climbed the first 10 vertical feet to a short run of low angle ice and placed a screw. The screws took time to bite into the surface even though they were sharp. I sat for a few moments and collected myself knowing that I couldn’t simply muscle my way up. Placing pro from strenuous stances would take time. I had to think and move slowly. While I’m out in the backcountry a fair amount, I’m a relative babe on vertical ice compared to many in the area. This fact resonated with each swing of the axe and kick of the crampons. I didn’t want to underestimate the route or overestimate myself. I often space protection far apart—not today. A couple more moves placed me at the bottom of the vertical wall of yellow “china”. Such was the sound when we I struck the ice where it was hollow.
I briefly thought, “Why am I doing this?” Should I have Jaryn lower me from a screw and call it a day? I reconsidered—I was well protected and I spotted enough of a line where I could get on small though uncomfortable stances to place more pro. Similar thoughts have crossed my mind throughout my sojourns when I rub against my comfort zone. It’s also during these times that I learn the most about myself.
I hooked (placing the pick in a hollow in the ice) and struck my way up a hollow curtain then found a slightly better stance from which to look around. I started up and broke a large plate off onto my shoulder before yelling, “Ice!” Higher was a larger ledge where I found an ice cave from which the lower part of the flow was building. The formation was interesting and harbored the only “soft” ice of the route.
Most people associate all ice with the term “hard.” Soft ice only makes sense when you climb it and realize that they are relative terms. One can feel the density of ice that’s seen little sunlight and been subjected to sub-zero temperatures with little seepage.
I was above the crux and had a good spot to rest so I took a moment to soak in the scenery. I had a much better view of the monster to the north, but Haystack’s cone was vanishing in the mist. The cloud ceiling was getting lower, and it was snowing harder though I could still see the lines on Marcy (Agharta and a few others) as well as a half dozen on Haystack that are still unclimbed to my knowledge. The gullies were loaded, and most of the cliffs had at least a thin tier of crystalline daggers decorating the edges. The entire Gorge seemed to be “in.” What a spectacular sight!
A short vertical pitch led to easier bulges at the top. I felt more in my element but didn’t relax. The ascent wasn’t over until I slung a stout evergreen at the top and shouted, “Off belay,” roughly 45 minutes after starting. It seemed like it had taken hours, but perspective is a odd thing. Every trip is a learning experience, and the 90’ of ice below was a strict teacher with a stiff ruler. It was Jaryn’s turn to get a taste of Panther Gorge ice for the first time.
I couldn’t see him on the vertical sections, but I could get a feel of what he was doing by a few choice words carried by the wind and the tension on the rope as I belayed. The occasional strike of a tool echoed off the nearby cliffs. I scanned the immediate scenery; the area was now socked in. The rope disappeared over the gray bulges and into the abyss. Eventually, Jaryn’s face popped into view with a smile. He was standing on the largest ledge. The perspective was particularly dramatic, so I took a few photos. It was turning out to be a good day!
He reached my stance and yelled, “That was a lot harder than it looked…what the…?”
“Yeah,” I snickered, “I noticed that on the way up!”
Our route was just one of the lines of the deep gorge. With the right conditions to build the ice, there are many short (100’-200’ range) potential new routes (WI4-5+ at a glance) in the surrounding area. It’s a difficult area to access, and it’s frustrating when one arrives and the ice hasn’t fully formed. In any case, an interesting name seemed in order: Draconis Spiritus (Dragon’s Breath) with a rating of WI4+ and probably a 5 if one adheres strictly to the climber’s left.
Jaryn rappelled first, and I heard, “Holy crap this is dead vertical.” I again laughed. Yup. We wanted something challenging relative to our skill level and had the wish fulfilled. In the end, the quality of the ice created much of the difficulty, but this is often the case with “high elevation” water ice that doesn’t see the sun, but does see frequent sub-zero temperatures.
We decided against hunting for a second route. Both of us wanted a shorter than normal day. It was only 12:30 PM when we finished the rappel so we were on track if all went well. There was just the issue of bushwhacking up to the Van Hoevenberg Trail…
Back at the Chimney Wall, it was the usual slog up a 45-degree slope with various forms of underlying ice. Thin ice smears and curtains adorned the cliff on our left: God’s “water art.” A flow ending in wind-whipped formations that looked like viper fangs guarded the exit. We changed into snowshoes once in the safety of the forest and began the slow task of trailbreaking. We angled north to intersect our approach path. The track had consolidated which helped save energy for the rest of the ascent.
Back on trail, we glissaded down the steep sections and made good time. The weather warmed to about 40F as we descended. Light rain was in the forecast, but we didn’t experience much precipitation other than the snow during our time in the Gorge. I knew we were on pace for the quickest turnaround time of one of these trips (personally speaking). Outings have always been longer than 12.5 hours with an average of 16.5. We arrived at the trailhead at 4:30 PM. Exiting with daylight to spare seemed strange. In the end; our pace, the “modest” itinerary, decent bushwhacking conditions and a short approach relative to our target cliff helped us finish the day in 11 hr. 45 minutes. It was a nice change, but not anything I expect to duplicate in the near future.