Two Visits to Pitchoff North

The top pitch possibilities of Screw & Climbaxe

The top pitch possibilities of Screw & Climbaxe

Day One

With a forecast spelling doom for North Country’s ice season, JB’s second day out options were limited. The remaining reliable sanctuaries of ice left in the Adirondacks would be busy places this day, so we had to decide where to go and get there early. JB’s choice: Pitchoff North.

A 7am pickup in Warrensburg meant a reasonably early arrival at the parking area for our destination, and as luck would have it, ours was the first car in the lot. Not for long: before we were packed up, another vehicle pulled in. Still, we were on our way before the next party geared up.

For those who don’t know, the approach to Pitchoff North involves a fifteen minute walk along the Jackrabbit Ski trail. Snowshoes (or skis) are a must here; negligent ice climbers have been – and should be – severely penalized for transgressing this dictum, as it breeds bad blood between those who maintain the trail and we who just use it for our own nefarious purpose. I’ve seen many climbers post-holing their way along this thoroughfare without regard for others, including guided groups; to me, this is a mark of shame on our profession and the ice climbing population in general. It’s a simple thing to throw on a pair of snowshoes; do it.

For much of the day the ice routes of Pitchoff North are in shadow

For much of the day the ice routes of Pitchoff North are in shadow while the rest of the world enjoys sunshine

The final leg of the approach to the most popular side of the canyon is a steep slog uphill to the first flows, Tendonitis and Arm & Hammer. I’ve been here a couple times before, close to a decade ago. I came away with a negative impression. The place is a cold, windy, dark, and steep mountainside; I recall freezing my butt off belaying or awaiting my turn to climb. On both occasions we climbed Central Pillar of Pitchoff, a difficult (grade 4) and crowded destination. Because of these earlier visits, I was none too enthused about returning here. But today would be different.

It was still cold, though nowhere near what I recall from earlier times. There was a breeze, cold enough to chill as we stood still, but not terribly bad. And it was still a dark place; sunlight did not strike the side of the mountain until the last hours of the day. We ended up staying for every speck of that daylight, and I did get to see the beauty of the place when it does finally get some sunshine. These factors added to the routes JB chose for us equaled one of the top ten days of ice climbing I’ve ever had. Perhaps it is the company: recalling some of those “best” days, I realize JB was in on at least two others.

The one huge negative factor to this day was what we found at the top of the climber’s approach trail. Here, that trail ended. JB’s first route on the itinerary lay a ten minute walk to climber’s left (ENE). Ten minutes, that is, if the trail is broken. It was not. We began an hour-long slog across the mountainside, plunging hip-deep at times as we struggled up and down each gully, backtracking once or twice as our path reached dead-end drops. At this point, I thought this was going to be another “perseverance” day at Pitchoff; I wasn’t expecting a lot of fun.

Gearing up at the base of Screw & Climbaxe

Gearing up at the base of Screw & Climbaxe

But finally, we stood below the start of Screw and Climbaxe, the most infamous climb on the mountain, not only for its racy name, but for its sketchy initial pitch. Plenty of climbers have perspired their way up it, nary a screw-placement in sight, and a few have taken huge falls, suffering severe injury on this two-hundred-plus foot run up thinly iced steep slab.

JB handed me the reins for this one. I began by climbing up verglas along the right edge of a block leaning against the main slab, diagonaling right between two cedar seedlings to gain another right-facing rock rib, this one bounded by thicker ice in the corner. Here, I sunk a 10cm screw, clambered easily to the top of the rock, and paused to catch my breath before running up the meat of the pitch. The ice was thick enough above this to take short screws, so I didn’t have to sweat much during the rest of the climb. I was wearing a pair of stiff hiking boots with mountaineering crampons, so it was challenging all the same. I was toasty warm when I finally reached trees on the right verge of the flow, especially since JB had to simul-climb a short way so I could do so.

JB leads out on the final pitch of Screw & Climbaxe

JB leads out on the final pitch of Screw & Climbaxe

I soon cooled down, belaying JB up as a chill breeze began to whisper across the shadowed slopes. But planning for this, I had donned my puffy, and so stayed reasonably comfortable until JB joined me and began leading the final pitch. This was much steeper, beginning as a short grade three step to a final vertical headwall. JB chose the shortest section of ice, but still had a lot of thinking and preparation to do before launching up the grade 4- finish. I followed with difficulty, having cooled off a bit too much at the belay stance, and suffering slightly from inadequate footwear. This terrain calls for rigid boots and crampons, neither of which I wore.

Heading down after finishing Screw & Climbaxe

Heading down after finishing Screw & Climbaxe

We stood on the top for a few minutes, clad in our warmest clothes, admiring the view, until stirred to move again. The rappel requires double ropes for both pitches; the upper pitch is over 140’ long, and the lower is, as mentioned, over 200’.

The Bomb Zone, where ice smashes everything, at the base of Screw & Climbaxe

The Bomb Zone, where ice smashes everything, at the base of Screw & Climbaxe

At the base, we chatted with some passersby, who thanked us for breaking trail before pioneering onward themselves toward their destination farther left. We packed up and headed back the way we’d come in, this time only about five minutes, to the base of Weeping Winds.

Some of the frozen scenery on Weeping Winds

Some of the frozen scenery on Weeping Winds

JB has led this numerous times – hearing him talk about it I’m inclined to think it is one of his favorite ice routes – so he let me lead away on this one. The first pitch is an easy grade 2, depending on how one chooses to tackle it. It is a very wide swath of ice, so there are a couple solid 2 options along it, with possible a grade 3 line toward the right side. I chose to start at the lowest fat ice, then head up and right of a line of shrubbery dividing the flow into a narrow, steeper left strip and a broad, sweeping main section. Soon, I was out of rope for the second time today. JB had to climb up a fair distance in order for me to go left and reach a belay among that shrubbery. It was tight, but would protect the belayer from missiles coming down the steepening face above.

I pulled out my puffy sack to gain insulation while belaying, but bobbled the job, and watched despairingly as it rolled its way gradually through the screen of bushes below me, gained open ice, and continued downward. I yelled to JB, who watched it helplessly pass by and continue tumbling into the woods far below. Fortunately, JB made good time up the pitch, and given the shrubbery surrounding the belay, I was out of the wind. The sun had peeked around enough to warm me enough to make the time pass without misery.

After JB joined me, with a bit of jostling to make room and arrange ourselves and our ropes adequately, I headed up again. My intention was to cut a diagonal line across the ice above, taking a right-rising grade 3- ramp up to the final step, then continue rightward and up across that steep wall. However, at the end of the ramp, my legs and arms were beginning to cramp badly enough that launching out across a near-vertical ice wall seemed unwise. The screws we had were abominably dull, as JB had discovered on his lead. We had one good screw, so every placement required using it to make a starter hole, taking it out, and then placing one of the dull ones; effectively doing two leads and one clean for each placement. With my flexible footwear, the strain of standing in place while performing this task was incredible.

Sunset glowing off the ice on Weeping Winds

Sunset glowing off the ice on Weeping Winds

I averred the original plan, instead taking a prominent buttress on the edge of the main face, which was still a grade 3+ route to the refuge of a ledge one step below a large moat supplying the entire face below with water. There, a small birch tree sporting a single loop of ragged nylon offered a reasonable belay stance. I brought up JB in waning daylight. Above us, a third pitch beckoned, but the lowering sun advised differently. We used a clump of birch saplings beside us to retreat, reaching a fixed belay around another birch as the sun sank to the horizon. It had warmed considerably during my last lead (or perhaps I had warmed up a lot), but with the sunset, the warmth faded. We made the last rappel, packed up, then began the arduous job of snowshoeing straight down to find and fetch my errant puffy. Successful at this task, we continued descending directly (with much difficulty) to the eastern edge of the beaver pond, where a few more steps led us to the Jackrabbit Trail. In starlight, we made the as-usual lengthened exit along that easy path back to JB’s car, reaching it at 630pm, twelve hours after I’d left home, a weary, but happy soul.

Looking down at the Bomb Zone around Weeping Winds

Looking down at the Bomb Zone around Weeping Winds

My original estimation of Pitchoff North couldn’t be more wrong. It is cold, it is dark, and it can be a horrible slog if the trail to one’s chosen route is not broken. But in the right conditions, when the mercury isn’t deep in the bowels of your thermometer and the wind isn’t howling, the climbs here are wonderful. I cannot speak for North Pillar of Pitchoff, my earlier impressions haven’t been revised by revisiting it; but the two routes we did this day fully deserve their place as Adirondack classics.

Sunset near the base of Weeping Winds

Sunset near the base of Weeping Winds

Day Two

Plans had been made to climb with Steve O., originally both Monday and Tuesday, but with JB’s schedule necessitating Monday, I’d shifted to one day with Steve, who had spent the previous day at Hoffman Notch. We had planned going there, but he reported poor conditions, with most routes out or nearly so. I suggested returning to Pitchoff North, very enthusiastic about conditions and climbing there.

So it was that at about the same time, we found ourselves pulling into the parking lot I’d left a bit more than half a day ago. We were the second car this time, soon to be followed by two more, and more after that, I’m certain. The walk along the Jackrabbit Trail wasn’t as easy this morning; its condition was no worse, but mine was. I’d felt fine on the drive up, but a short distance into the walk clearly indicated my body was past its freshness date. Short of leaving Steve in the lurch however, there was nothing for it but to persevere. He had to be patient as I panted and paused my way to and up the approach path. At least the way beyond was broken this time. We made our way without difficulty to the base of Weeping Winds. Steve has been to the area before, but had not done this route; I figured he could lead the entire thing, giving him a chance to climb something new and me a chance to taste that last upper pitch.

Steve sets out on Weeping Winds

Steve sets out on Weeping Winds

This we did without a hitch. Steve led the first pitch easily, and belayed in the same spot I used yesterday. Meanwhile, another pair came in and took the leftmost ribbon of ice, a steeper, more appealing line than ours, but also harder. Neither of us had felt the urge to push our limits today, so we were pleased to see others avail the open slot. Trevor led to his rope’s end; his follower Keith climbed a bit to enable him to reach a cramped but sheltered belay in the trees on the left verge while I followed Steve up the first pitch. As Steve launched into the second pitch, Trevor climbed parallel to us, running up a steep ramp with a little bit of rock in the left corner. As I couldn’t see Steve well through the branches of our little belay niche, I snapped pictures of Trevor instead.

Our neighbor Trevor tackles Weeping Winds' left side flow

Our neighbor Trevor tackles Weeping Winds’ left side flow

Steve opted for the same path I’d taken yesterday, the ice buttress on the left edge of the main headwall. Meeting him at the belay, he was all smiles, declaring this the hardest ice lead he’d done. We took in the scenery, and mulled over the difficulties our neighbors were having. I’d mistakenly told them they could reach the ledge with one rope length; in fact the left flow is much taller than the right side. They had to simul-climb quite a bit, on steep ice, to gain the trees. Fortunately, they were both very capable climbers, and very forgiving as well.

Steve Sets out on pitch 3 of Weeping Winds

Steve Sets out on pitch 3 of Weeping Winds

Steve led that last pitch, which was easy, perhaps barely nudging into grade 3, but probably not. It was however, lovely climbing, far up the mountain, and well worth the anticipated ascent. I followed, we gawked at the scenery some more, I snapped lots of pictures, and we began the rappels.

Steve at the top belay of Weeping Winds

Steve at the top belay of Weeping Winds

Reaching the ground, we ate lunch and discussed our options. Both of us felt that, if we had to quit now, we would still be happy. But the day was young, it was much warmer than yesterday, and we were not worn out. Somehow, we both had acquired a second wind, so we decided to head back along the trail and see if any of the routes thereabouts were open.

Heading down from the top of Weeping Winds

Heading down from the top of Weeping Winds

I did not know the names of these routes, but the leftmost of the three near the approach trails initial highpoint was taken, as it turns out by a crew Steve had climbed with at Hoffman the day before. They informed us that they were climbing Moss Ghyll, so we moved around a rock rib to the next flow. Steve led this line, which had a short vertical step to begin, some pleasant 3- rolling ice after that, leading up to a longer, near-vertical 3+ finish. The ice here was hero-sticking soft, so neither of us had trouble making the top. I did have to trail our second rope; the pitch is at least 150’ long.

Steve sets out on Tendonitis

Steve sets out on Tendonitis

Once more, we considered calling it a day. But the route to the right was sooo tempting. Grade 2 or easy grade 3 ice led to a 20’ vertical face, which could be flanked on the right to keep the grade down. In the midst of the steep wall, a large cedar had split a crevice in the face, offering possible refuge up that strenuous line. With soft ice beckoning me, I decided to give it a go. My heart rate rose as I reached the base of the vertical wall. My bravado of a few minutes ago dissipated, making that rightward escape seem awfully attractive. But the hope I had in that crevice below the cedar, and the warm, soft ice, finally urged me on. I chipped a little starter hole, plugged a screw in above my head, and began ascending the vertical wall just right of the slot I relied on. I placed another screw before reaching the crevice, then sprinted toward it. It did indeed give me a good rest stance, though a cramped one. I thrust my left leg into it and braced, secure enough despite being unable to get a good left tool stick in the limited room of the crevice. My right tool was firmly embedded two-thirds up the pick on the face to the right, my right foot well-placed on the edge of my refuge; so I was able to shake out, and place another screw at head height. Taking time to regain some composure, I then slid out right onto vertical terrain. Placing one more screw while I hung on tools, I was able to reach a large, level ledge beside the cedar that had so helpfully split the flow. Looking past it, I saw the flow continued upward. Most of it was old, pegged=out ice, but one bulge shone silvery-wet with newer accumulation. Like any creature, I was drawn to the shiny stuff. Tired as I was, it was a good thing the rest of the route was easy. I reached the top of the new ice, fought through a brief screen of cedar shrubs, onto a final ice platform, and finally moved right and up to a fixed anchor.

Steve joined me at the top of the route, shaking his head that I had spent so much of the day whining about how tired I was and yet doing something like this to finish off the outing. He was right; I have no idea where that final burst of energy came from.

Steve near the top of Tendonitis

Steve near the top of Tendonitis

But I’m glad it came when it did. With the forecast calling for 60°F days ahead, even the ice in this shadowy nook of the Adirondacks is going to be suspect. If this day had to be the end of our ice season, it was a bang-up way to finish it. Our final two routes, Tendonitis and Arm & Hammer, were new to me (Steve had done them on his second day ever ice climbing), our first one new to Steve, so we had a great time with great conditions discovering new terrain to smile about and hopefully, come back to next season.

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