2011: Warm Start, Cold Finish?

January 1st: Instant Replay 

A very warm welcome to the New Year for all ice climbers was a less-than welcome way to begin the season. Here on Crane, the mild temps, coupled with a drought that has seen snow fall in every direction except here for weeks, pretty much put an end to the high ice: it was sun-baked and meltwater-starved to near-extinction.

Lower along the mountain’s flanks, the major drainages continued to provide. The Waterfall Wall, oddly enough, became anemic on the left side – doable, but definitely thin – while the Tempest variation thickened. Farther afield, the Northern Cascade was in fine shape despite the balmy weather. Bruce Monroe, Mike Prince, and I had enjoyed a good day there on New Year’s Eve; the ice was in fine shape: easy and fun on the right, challenging and pumpy on the left. So when Val & Kevin pulled into my driveway the very next day, I suggested we head that way.

Kev, Val, & Louie gearing up at the Northern Cascade.

The four of us (Louie, the amazing Dak Dog, accompanying the climbers) tromped a mile and a half, then set about climbing. I led a direct line near the center, pushing the grade from easy WI2 to the vicinity of easy 3. Once at the top, I meandered among the trees, routing the rope with an anchor to come over that entertaining left corner. Val followed skilfully and quickly, and in no time, we were ready to TR the harder stuff.

Val works her way up the standard flow of the Northern Cascade.
The tough stuff lies in the background.

That’s when the real fun began. I had played the game a day earlier, so I knew the script. The corner demands creative technique without a lot of dawdling. It’s steep, so strength helps, but brute force won’t win the day alone. Imaginative moves (like Bruce’s flying back-step the day before) managed the skinnier, overhanging sections, while a disciplined reliance on tenuous point-placements provided occasional rests. With yesterday’s rehearsal still fresh on my mind, I was able to make it look pretty easy…perfect sandbag set-up.

Kevin and Val took their turns after me, and the trap was sprung. Val tackled the corner in her usual tenacious style, refusing to give up until she solved each step and stood triumphant on top. With the corner thoroughly examined, we turned our attention to the face, and once again, our arms were pumped to the max as we worked up the solid but desperately steep ice there. No clever maneuvers here: just hang on and climb.

Finally, we were all exhausted and ready to head out. It was late enough that headlamps came into play before all of us exited the forest and headed to our respective homes. We had all begun 2011 in good style. I was ready for a rest day. Or so I thought.

January 2nd: Alpine Ascendancy

Travis King

Travis King has been a partner-in-climb for over a decade, so his return to the North Country is a welcome event. A phone message was waiting for me when I arrived home: Travis would be up tomorrow, looking for adventure. I looked at the forecast and wondered what sort of adventure we could have. Two days at the Northern Cascade were enough for awhile; and the Waterfall Wall wouldn’t tweak either of us. I went to bed without a clear plan for what to do the next day.

Morning sunshine decided the schedule. All the high hard ice of Crane was either gone or deadly, so when Travis arrived, we discussed the options, and decided to climb the South Corner Cliff, alpine-style, then bushwhack to the summit. We packed ice gear, plus a few cams and chocks just in case, then headed out the BAW path. Arriving at Stairway to Heaven, I spotted Michael Gray’s pack, along with another, unfamiliar one. We gave a holler, but no answer. Somewhere in the distance, I thought I could hear people talking, but not close.

We shrugged and headed over to the ramps where Aslan’s Memorial Highway and Robin’s Rainy Day Route begin. The going was steep but nontechnical; mostly lunging for handy trees while our feet slip-slided up and down on the icy duff. Knowing our goal would be challenge enough, and without good rock shoes, we opted to take the easiest route available at first; but when we came to the juncture of the long traverse ledge that accesses the better pitches of Gray-Harrison, we chose the fat, dirty crack to the left. It was terrain I had probably climbed somewhere in the dark distant past, but couldn’t remember where it led or what it entailed. That turned out to be a moment of knee-wedging, axe-in-the-duff stuff, somewhat protected by an adequate cam. Once up that, Travis swung the lead, battling past one of those ubiquitous mangle-limbed oaks, tip-toeing around a pile of loose blocks suspended over an airy brink (the second, and last piece of pro on the route went in here), then wandering without much trouble back and forth on a series of ramps. My turn took us into the thickets near the top of the South Corner, where we unroped, took in the view, and packed up the technical gear.

View from the top of the South Corner Cliff

We wandered around several sheltered bluffs, crashing through the tangle of spruce and balsam as we made our way upward. Finally, we stood on the false summit. Across the high divide, Crane’s summit Prows glowed in the sun. We worked our way over to them, climbed the Access Slot to the top of the ridge, then walked over to the summit.


We stood in sunshine, but a stiff breeze was blowing, and all around us, dark clouds cloaked the sky everywhere but this one small region. That sense of impending change hung in the air: this springtime weather was about to end. Looking at those dark legions surrounding us, we thought it wise to tarry briefly, then hightail it downward. At last, the descent justified packing our crampons: the trail, without any snow, sported several long, gleaming sheets of ice, a solid WI1 for most of the way down.

The temps did drop significantly, though we got barely a dusting of snow overnight. Still, I would get my first rest of the year the next day, barely stepping outside. Instead, I worked on an article for the Adirondack Almanack, caught up on some chores, and fought the urge to wander out whenever the sun broke through.

January 3rd: Multiplication Gully

Todd Paris suggested we head up to Wilmington Notch on Tuesday, and I was more than ready to oblige. One day in restrainer was plenty, I wanted out. The weather was really beginning to brew in the morning, finally there was snow falling, enough to look like the first realistic accumulation since winter began. We were undeterred, skidding up a relatively-clear Northway and Route 73 en route to one of the most famous ice lines in the Adirondacks: Multiplication Gully.

Despite the heavy snowfall as we rounded the last bend on Rt. 86, we found the correct parking space, gathered gear, and headed up to the climb. No other cars around: we had the route to ourselves. We stacked ropes (always bring doubles for Multi), racked screws, cams – oops, forgot cams, never mind -, slings, and quickdraws, and began climbing.

The view from the start of Multiplication Gully.
Note only one car. That’s good.

The first pitch is not difficult,  but today, it gave the first hint that the climb would be harder than normal. The ice seemed soft, but extremely laminated: ever strike seemed to produce dinner plates. Clearing these and sinking the picks home deeper often produced a series of increasingly large plates, a few of which were frightfully big. Drop one on somebody and it might kill them. Fortunately, the belays are securely sheltered, and hey, we were alone on the route, right? I pulled up to the top of the first pitch, anchored, and brought Todd up.

Todd approaches the top of the 1st pitch.

Joining me at the belay without breaking a sweat, Todd informed me that we were no longer alone. Another car had arrived below, and a twosome was on the approach as he left the bottom. We would have to be careful, and hope that they would be both lucky and forgiving.

I led out, climbing through the steep but comfortable opening headwall, then came to the meat of Multi’s challenges, a tight, near-vertical pillar of ice squeezed between rock walls. To my left, chandeliered, wet ice cascaded over an overhang for fifteen feet, to my right it lay tight against bare rock. I placed a screw and began working up the drier, less-aerated ice in the center. Four feet above the screw, a series of dinner-plating swings convinced me to place another piece of pro. It was nearly vertical here. I clumsily began the process: sink the tools, pull a screw off the clipper and –

Clang! A second screw had come off my clipper, and it clattered downward, twirling like a throwing star and careening off the ice, vanishing into the depths below in an instant. I was furious. In my haste to start climbing, I had put too many screws on my clipper. Now I had watched that $60 item tear earthward, perhaps tearing into someone along the way.

Fortunately (?!), I was in no place to dwell on the mistake. It was done, other things needed doing now. I shoved the screw in hand into the ice, twisted it home, and clipped, then moved up. A large shelf afforded me some rest before going on to other difficulties. Except for the exit, nothing else was terribly hard, and that last bit was more interesting than anything else, a sort of mixed finish rather than the usual steep ice I had seen in past runs here. Anchored, I hauled rope and began belaying Todd, just as another climber surmounted the last bulge of the first pitch and began doing the same down there. Apparently, I hadn’t killed anyone with my metal missile.

This is your brain. This is your brain on ice. Any questions?

Once again, Todd arrived without losing his casual style – couldn’t he at least make it look hard? Oh well, we were happy to have the chance for a day out, both safe, and no casualties below. We would be even happier when, after rappelling to the base, we found that errant ice screw. A bit of honing and it would be good as new.

January 4th: Scoutabout on the Eastern Corner

The Eastern Boulderfield. 

I headed out alone on Wednesday, looking more for exercise than technical ice. Walking beyond the Northern Cascade, I wound through the giant boulder pile that guards the last section of cliffs and ice that Crane’s Southeast Flank has to offer. I could see Leap of Faith; it looked terribly gaunt, and since I had opted to bring soft hiking boots and flexible crampons, there was no chance of attempting that route. Instead, I came upon a gentle slab of ice just above the boulder piles. It ended in a short steep step that didn’t look too hard. It was the perfect option for the tools at hand. I climbed most of this pied en canard with piolet canne, only occasionally switching to pied troisemme and an anchored axe for security.

The Easy Route. Sixty feet of WI1 Slab with a short WI2 step at the top.

The final step was easy enough, landing me on a steep, rocky slope. I continued upward, toward a short, steep flow. Arriving at its base, I guessed it was about twelve feet tall, maybe fifteen tops; and decided to give it a try. Suffice to say, I survived, but with floppy boots and flexing crampons, it was the scariest twelve feet of the week. At its top, I slanted up and left, eventually meeting the gully that transports water to the Northern Cascade. I followed it down to that flow and, for the shear fun of it, climbed the easier side of the Cascade, then downclimbed the narrow righthand chute, making full use of the dead pine frozen into it. That was plenty adventure for one day.

January 5th: One More Inspection of the Low South Corner

I’ve wandered the route from the trailhead to the Waterfall Wall many times, but figured one more inspection wouldn’t hurt. With the paltry amount of snow on the ground, I thought it might be a good day to spy hidden ice lines. With that in mind, I headed out the BAW path once again, but this time I left the path before reaching the Measles Walls. Cutting cross-slope, I reached the cluster of boulders below Wedding Cake, then cut across, hoping to arrive at a good point to join the Waterfall Wall approach route. This turns out to be a bit high, it is better to take a lower gully and save some unnecessary climbing.

Regardless, I worked my way into the small ravine and up the other side to Parallel Ridge, then began descending. I had chores to do up at the BAW, so I couldn’t take the time to follow the route all the way to the Waterfall Wall, but I did reach a point where the going was straightforward enough that I felt I had a good sense of the route for describing it to others. With that done, I cut left, up the mountain, arriving at the base of the BAW Portal ice flow. This looked feasible, so I geared up (good boots and crampons this time) and began to climb. The ice was barely secure enough to do so: lacking meltwater, it had become poorly attached. I tread lightly all the way up, scratched bare rock on the final slab, and stepped right to the Isobuttress Left flow. This turned out to be equally bad, and in spots very thin. At one point, the ice at my feet began to disintegrate; not quite terrified, I hastened up and off that part of the route, finding better ice to the right. It was still unpleasantly hollow and sun-baked. I don’t recommend this one unless and until it heals some.

So too with the rest of the BAW ice. Fr.E.D. is dead for the time being, High & Dry has evaporated, Hunt & Peck would be an exercise in futility, and even DR. Drip looks untenable. I’m sad to report, this area needs meltwater badly.

With my ice fetish satisfied, I called it a day, taking the BAW path straight out. The sun was still shining, but it was growing late as I came out of the woods and went home. Overall, it was a saddening excursion. The snowfall of the previous day was meagre to say the least. It wasn’t enough to supply all the water required for the ice to reform and reconnect. That could be a long while, maybe not even happen this season.

January 6th: Rocksport Gym

Yep, indoor gyms to the rescue. I spent Thursday evening at Rocksport. Led the ceiling three times, top-roped with Robin and others, and chatted with a bunch of good folks. Thursday nights have become a wonderful opportunity to work those rock-crimpin’ muscle groups and keep in touch with the crowd that doesn’t slam ice. Highly recommended to all: every Thursday night until outdoor rock season begins, the Adirondack Adventure Club meets there.

I would take another rest day to round off the first week of 2011, and the weather would take this day to turn around. Real snowfall, cumulative amounts of the stuff, began in the night and continued all day long. Before day’s end we had 5 inches of the stuff; not much but a lot more than any other time this winter. Snow would come, on and off, for the next full day, so perhaps Crane’s higher ice has a chance to form again and provide some excitement before the 10-11 ice season winds down.

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