Hoffman Notch Ice Climbing Trip 2017

Steve heads up to the Trailside Wall

Steve heads up to the Trailside Wall

Hoffman Notch harbors a lot of ice. Outside of the traditional venues around Keene Valley and Lake Placid, this is probably the best climbing locale in the Park, with a lot of different flows to climb, a wide range of difficulty and style, and almost-guaranteed solitude. Other than the occasional skier passing by, a climbing party here will probably meet no one else.

The approach explains the lack of crowding: it is relatively long, two to two and a half miles; so the majority of ice-seekers will congregate elsewhere. But the trail leading in is easy and the time it takes – about an hour – passes quickly. It first enters a conifer woodlot, descends to cross the Branch, meanders through a sparsely-wooded floodplain, then heads into and up Hoffman Notch itself. The ascent is very gentle, with occasional gullies to cross or blowdown to circumvent; but nothing greatly hinders snowshoes and stout trekking poles. It would indeed make a great ski-through trip but for those obstacles.

The first ice reached when coming from the north is known as the Tractor Wall, named for the derelict vehicle of unknown affinity alongside the trail just before coming in sight of the ice (note: this is not a farm tractor sort of thing, but a treaded vehicle, more like the undercarriage of a small tank). There are intermittent ice flows within sight of the trail for another ten minutes or so up the trail, until the final nearby flow, the expansive Trailside Wall comes into view. Past this, the Notch opens up, the slopes to either side are more distant, and they appear less steep. There is ice on a cliff sloping up and away from the trail, a continuation of the Trailside Wall, but few go there, as it is a long, uphill slog.

Steve O. had been into the Notch the weekend before, when he had sampled several of the Tractor Wall ice routes. After mentioning the size and quality of the Trailside Wall, he took me up on heading back there this weekend to climb at that crag.

Steve, Tom L., and I met at a reasonably early hour, and before 930a we were heading to exit 29. Turning west on Blue Ridge Road, we drove the few miles to the trailhead, passing a Buffalo farm and several hunting club driveways as we did so. The trailhead lies on the west side of a small bridge; to our surprise, it was not plowed. However, directly across the street was a plowed parking area, with a sign for (I think) Ragged Mountain Gun Club. We saw no posted signs in the parking lot, nor any “no parking” signs; I believe this may be part of the recent State acquisition of land on the north side of the road, though the hunting club itself appears to be still active. In any case, it was the only viable option: there is a lot of snow on the ground, and a three-foot mound of plowed snow blocks access to the south side parking area.

Packing up at the parking lot

Packing up at the parking lot

We took our chances, parking the car in the lot and crossing the road to head south on the trail. Tom had come to sample the skiing potential of the route, and was soon well out ahead of the two ice climbers. We would lose sight of him shortly after reaching the flood basin, but would catch up as those gullies and blowdowns slowed his progress.

The three of us kept about the same pace for the rest of the approach; Tom hampered by the trees and branches and gullies enough for Steve and I to easily keep pace. We passed the closest ice, followed the trail through a narrow spot with the brook tight to our left, and a short boulder-choke where Tom had to remove his skis. Just above this, we had a good look at our destination.

After watching us gear up, Tom decided to ski onward, hoping to reach the south end of the trail with enough time to meet us again for the hike out. Steve and I picked our lines, and I opted to start off. Officially, there are two routes on the main ice flow, Cinnabun and Rejects and Beggars; but the flow lends itself to a plethora of options. The ice is broken vertically into a short beginning stretch, a grade 1 midsection for about fifty feet, and a final steep headwall of fifty or sixty feet. The bottom ranges between grade two if one runs up a notch on the extreme left, through to easy grade 4 if one tackles the longest, steepest initial ice in the middle. I chose a slightly easier crease up the steepest ice, perhaps nicking into grade 4 slightly, but if so, barely so. Still, it was certainly a wake-up call; though I suffered the Screaming Barfies in my fingers after leading this, I had plenty of adrenaline to carry me warmly through the upper part. This was admittedly easier, though still a solid grade 3. I’d chosen to take the rightmost section of the main flow, which worked up to a notch filled with mineral-stained golden ice, the top-out of Rejects and Beggars.

Steve heads for the start of the first ice climb. He is 200' below.

Steve heads for the start of the first ice climb. He is 200′ below.

After Steve cleaned the sixty-meter pitch, we rappelled down, which required a bit of creativity on our part. The top is sprinkled liberally with rap-tat from previous parties, most of it in good shape; but the low-angle section at mid-height is devoid of usable trees or anchors. I’d left my V-thread implements at the bottom, and didn’t want to spend time hacking an ice bollard, so we swung around the ropes until reaching good cedars on climber’s left of the flow to make the last fifty feet to easy ground.

Steve has just finished the steepest part, and is heading up easy stuff to the last headwall

Steve has just finished the steepest part, and is heading up easy stuff to the last headwall

Without much rest, Steve geared up and took a rising traverse, starting on the right, running diagonally through the easy midsection, and finishing on the leftmost obvious option, creating an excellent grade 3 run using the Cinnabun top-out.

Steve starts out on his lead

Steve starts out on his lead

When I joined Steve at the top, we decided to continue up the drainage to see what was there. The answer: not much. It’s a pleasant grade 1 ramble upward, with some grade 2 options along the way, but the ice quickly succumbs to snow cover and low-angle woods. We ran one entire 70m rope length before turning around.

Looking north from the side of the Trailside Ice Wall

Looking north from the side of the Trailside Ice Wall

At the base, we packed up and began heading out by 4p. Tom had already passed by, having experienced “catastrophic equipment failure” – one of his ski boots soles completely detached from the shoe. With one ski and one truly slippery slipper, he had wisely elected to head out without waiting for us. Steve and I made the trek outward, rediscovering as I always do that trails stretch through the day. This one trail in particular seems to grow momentously; I’d swear it was twice as far going out as it was going in.

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