Exasperating Exploration

I’ve been telling Tom about the incredible cliffs off Chatiemac Road for the whole year. After my walk out there in March, and the pictures I brought back, he was hooked on seeing them himself some time this summer. That turned out to be this past week.

 We drove to the Second Pond Trailhead (the one on Chatiemac Road, off Route 8, note that there are several Second Ponds in the Adirondacks) and began hiking the trail. For the first time, another person was doing the same. I’ve been here a dozen times or so and never seen anyone else. This area doesn’t get used much.

Soon, we said good-bye to our hiking companion and broke away from the trail. I recalled using two main ways to get to the cliffs. One holds to the trail for a long while, climbing up the side of Height-of-Land Mountain, then breaks off, through blowdown and scrub on high ground, descending gently below steep, thickly-forested mountainside before reaching the cliffs. The other option leaves the trail quickly, cuts downslope to a narrow crossing of Black Mountain Brook, gains the ridge on the other side of a series of marshes, then follows high ground north to the cliffs. Since this latter goes by some very interesting boulders (up to 40′ tall), I chose to go this way.

Mistake #1.

We found ourselves wallowing through damp ground and circumventing several swamps and marshes. We hadn’t hit upon the narrow crossing I remembered so well. Nor did we have much idea of where to go or how to get there. The woods is dense and riddled with small gullies and ridges. I had not idea if or when we had reached the ridge I wanted to follow.

After a long while of thrashing, I finally glimpsed the cliffs, well above us to our left, but across a large swale. We beelined straight for our objective.

Mistake #2.

Two hundred yards of nettles below the cliffs. 

Dropping into the low ground, patches of nettles began blocking our way. Soon, the patches congregated, coagulating into a unified nettle nation, a stinging contingent that, given our thin summer clothing, we were poorly-equipped to battle.

We persevered – by now there was little choice – stinging ourselves silly on the way to the cliffs. Once there, we were confronted with the cold, hard fact of the cliff’s serious steepness. This isn’t a dead-vertical hardman’s haven, this is an overhanging superclimber’s crag.

The cliff is steep, in fact it overhangs its base

About 8′ of overhang in 70′ of climbing.

With that horrible bushwhack behind us, we weren’t going to be deterred however. We cast about for a line that looked feasible for mere mortals, finally chosing one that appeared to begin very steeply, but offered a good hand crack and a large ledge midway along it. In my usual fashion, I chose to try leading it onsight.

The crack on the left might go…

Mistake #3.

I set out, stemming the wide alcove at the base, plugging in .7 and #1 C4s at the bulging crack where the climbing got real hard. After a few attempts at the huge stems and hand jams, I had to resort to aid. Hanging on tight rope, I fixed more gear, scrubbed some holds that were hidden under lichen, and finally worked up onto a ledge at the base of a large, sheltered alcove. Clambering into its relative safety, I looked at the next overhang blocking the way. After some inspection, I could see it required an unusual, wide stem, facing outward, to get high enough to pull around the edge. But first, I would need to brush off a key foothold.

Nearing the alcove on the one lead we did

Mistake #4.

By “brush off a foothold,” I meant “clean the dirt off it;” what happened was I literally brushed the foothold off the cliff. It disintegrated into several small flakes, hurtling down toward Tom just as he prepared to take a picture. One errant shard plinked into the camera, abruptly ending its career. The rest of the ascent would go unrecorded, my camera being out of reach for the time being.

Not that the rest of it was much to admire. I used aid once more, passing a final overhang, though I was pretty sure I could have pulled it free if I took the time to clean it. Something about the long bushwhack in, destroying Tom’s camera, and the increasingly-long time it was taking to climb this one route warranted expediting the rest of the affair.

I reached the top, a wide band of slab, wandered upslope looking for a respectable belay, and finally called “off.” A mediocre send at best, but the view here was nice: Crane to our south, looking like a fortress, Eleventh to the southwest, its v-sloped ravines subtly demarked by the early afternoon’s scant shade. Tom came up, climbing free the entire way, though the top-out took some serious defoliating to reach good holds.

The crux of the top-rope route we did 

We walked over to a large spruce we had seen from below, set a top-rope, and rappelled down to the base. We spent an hour taking turns on this line, which turned out to hold one exciting 5.10a move and a few more interesting moves farther up. There is an easy way around the hardest move that might even make it fit the “beginner/intermediate” category, though it would take a lot of cleaning before this hypothesis could be tested.

It was too late to climb more, so after our runs on this, we began to plan our exit strategy. My earliest visits had come in from the trail’s closest approach to these cliffs. I recalled it included a lot of blowdown. Perhaps we could walk westward, hit that ridge, recognize it, then take it southwest to the trail.

Mistake #5? We couldn’t tell without trying.

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