Dutton Mountain Ice

Last week, Mike Prince & I skied up the tracks from North River to the trestle crossing the Hudson at the mouth of the gorge. I planned to scope out potential climbing along the eastern side of Black and Middle Mountains, but it turned out we could not see them from the tracks. What we could clearly see were the slopes of Dutton Mountain, across the river from us. Ever ready to record the possibilities we saw, I pulled out my camera – and dropped it in the snow. No long-term damage done, fortunately, but unfortunately, the lens had moisture on it and all the pictures were “smudgy,” hence no decent visual record of the event. All the photos that day had that out-of-focus style popular with the Sasquatch-sighting crowd:

Hey, I think I see Bigfoot!

We could see several definite ice lines. The questions remaining: how could we get to them, and were they tall enough to make worthwhile climbs?

Todd Paris & I took the first foray to answer these questions, an expedition that effectively ended before it left terra cognita, when I suffered a debilitating injury, compliments of car keys and ice (don’t ask). We did spy ice on the side of Black Mountain, so the trip wasn’t a complete failure, but as it turns out, we never got close to the objectives on Dutton.

Back home, poring over maps, I reconsidered the approach. Todd & I had come from the southeast, using Fourteenth Road. However, since that road is not passable for at least a mile before the jumping-off point where we struck out into wilderness, it wasn’t really any closer than coming in from the north via Northwoods Club Road. I determined to make the next attempt from the latter.

Thursday night, Mike Prince called, suffering an extreme need to decompress. That settled it: Friday morning we met and, along with Mammut the wonderdog, headed to the parking area at the southernmost bend in NWC Road. Striking off SSE, we dropped into, crossed, and climbed out of the Bullhead Pond Brook drainage, gained the height-of-land below the northernmost ridge of Dutton, then turned due south. Soon, we were traversing along the steepening side of the mountain, across a series of small ridges and gullies. At each one, we began to see tendrils of ice draped along the north and western sides. and I openly wondered if perhaps these were the vestiges of what we had seen over a week ago. They were shorter and thinner than expected. Perhaps it was too late, the sun had reduced them to mere tendrils. Had perspective distortion made them seem much larger from our vantage across the river?

All these doubts were settled as we rounded one last small ridge and saw ahead of us, a large, conifer-crowned one, slashing up the side of the mountain. Decked out along its height were several gleaming, sinuous lines. Looking west, we could see the railroad tracks above Bus Stop rapid, where I had snapped those blurry photos a week ago. The sun had indeed done some damage, but there was plenty of ice left for us to explore.

Knowing the sun would hit the southernmost flows first, we continued past these first ones, looking for the large flow we knew lay in that direction. The cliff swept downward, ran south, then angled upward again to this last flow. Our first look was a bit disappointing. It appeared to be only about fifty feet tall, and was definitely hit hard by the thaw and sun-baking. Still, we were here, and it was worth tackling, so we geared up and began climbing.

There appears to be an easy line weaving up right and back left, but we chose a direct assault up the middle of the face. Reaching the first steep section, I adjusted my initial estimate from WI3 to 3+ for our line: the ice was steeper than it looked (always is). Working up through this to a stance below the last steep section, I realized it would require a bit more tweaking: this route was turning into a real bear. The final pillar was vertical, scarred with thaw grooves, and fileted by sunshine. With trepidation, I climbed upward. Without massive ice, I was forced to poke holes and thread runners. At one point, the axes were almost useless, I bear-hugged the pillar, laybacking up to decent feet. Reaching the overhanging upper end of steep ice, I realized I would have to plant my axes well away from the edge or risk blowing the pillar off the formation. I spent a long while seeking other solutions before surrendering to a cramped, wide stem using underclings to gain the reach I needed for those salvation swings. Fortunately, the ice was good well back from the lip; I thankfully pulled over the last difficulty onto easy terrain.

The Bear, our first route on Dutton Mountain.

 The Bear turns out to be about 75′ tall, and goes at WI4-. I suspect that, in fatter conditions, it is even steeper, probably weighing in at a firm 4. The flow is wide enough to yield two or three more lines, possibly more in prime conditions. To each side, these look to be very challenging, in the 4+/5 range. The name is both in regard to its difficulty and to commemorate a friend of mine affectionately known by the same name.

The sun had just peeked out from behind Dutton’s shoulder as we finished. We walked back into shadow, passing a couple enticing mixed-route possibilities, to the triplet of flows farther north. The rightmost looked far too thin and steep for tackling, certainly after the efforts on The Bear. The leftmost flow was the shortest and appeared to be pretty easy. The middle line had a steep section, perhaps ten feet long, but the rest looked fine; perhaps it would be the Goldilock’s option.

Once again, I found out the hard way that ice is always steeper than it looks. Longer too; while the difficulties on this route end after about seventy feet, I ran the entire rope out, climbing over gentler grade 2 and 3- flaps before straining to reach a belay tree in the woods above. Having applied animal nomenclature to the first route, we continued the trend: The Eagle also goes at 4-. In the future, I would establish a belay at the seventy-foot mark and either forego the remaining length or climb it as another pitch.

Our belay lay in an incredible sloping forest of conifers. Hemlocks, pine, and occasional cedars dotted the steep hillside, while between them tendrils of fat ice crept downward. To climber’s left, we could see ice flowing above us another hundred feet or more above the steep lower section. While both of us were tired by now, seeing that ice among the trees enticed us into tackling one more route.

We rappelled and moved the belay up left to the first flow and commenced climbing. Grade 1 and 2 ice gave way to a short section of 3 before settling back into that magical forest. I set a belay at 100′, Mike climbed by and up another pitch of equal length, before we called it a day. The Wolf offers easier climbing, really only one challenging spot, with enjoyable moves all the way into the woods.

We rappelled once more, by now approaching bone-tired, still having the march back out to accomplish. Two bone-weary boys followed that ever-bouncing pup homeward, reaching the car with the waning light of dusk.

By this time of year, climbers are usually on rock, either snatching sunshine on crags along Lake George or hauling themselves to the Gunks for a day or two. This has been a peculiar season for ice: with cold air dominating the Adirondacks, the ice climbing is about the best it has been, and it is still too cold for rock climbing. While we yearn more and more for rock season to take over, Mike and I made the most of the weather handed us last Friday, establishing three new ice routes at a new crag. With at least three more distinct lines possible, Dutton Mountain is a grand addition to the wilderness climbing venues in the Adirondacks.

Mike Prince lugged a GPS system out and back. Here’s the details he sent me on the routes: The Bear is at LAT 43.786473N LON 74.043581W ALT 1591′; The Wolf & The Eagle lie at LAT 43.788866N LON74.043189W ALT 1582′, with of course an unclimbed line between them. Thanks, Mike!

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