Pan­ther Gorge is a re­mote Adiron­dack mod­er­ate won­der­land—em­pha­sis on re­mote.

Climbing - - CONTENTS - Story by Alan Wech­sler

WE START HIK­ING at 4:30 a.m., and at 4:33 it starts to rain. Given our des­ti­na­tion, this is con­cern­ing. We’re on our way to Pan­ther Gorge, deep in the Adiron­dacks. The gorge com­prises two mas­sive walls of dis­con­tin­u­ous anorthosite, some of the world’s old­est rock, 200 feet tall on one side, 400 feet on the other. It’s cur­rently home to 38 trad routes from 5.4 to 5.10a, with new routes be­ing added reg­u­larly. While this is no Yosemite, there are enough cracks, chim­neys, over­hangs, slabs, arêtes, pil­lars, and faces to keep a ded­i­cated climber busy for a long time. Not to men­tion ice—there’s plenty of that too.

But here’s the thing: The ap­proach takes four hours.

From a trail­head in Keene Val­ley, in the heart of the Adiron­dack High Peaks, you hike eight miles on trails, gain­ing 3,300 feet in el­e­va­tion, and then bush­whack a quar­ter-mile to the clos­est route. Some of the far­ther climbs re­quire an ad­di­tional 30 to 60 min­utes. Pan­ther Gorge is one of the most re­mote cliffs in the Adiron­dacks, if not the East Coast.

To­day, I’m with Kevin “MudRat” MacKen­zie, who lives in the town of Up­per Jay, 45 min­utes from the trail­head. MudRat, 47, is a skinny 5’11”. He’s an as­so­ciate regis­trar at St. Lawrence Univer­sity, and a sec­ond-de­gree black belt in an ob­scure mar­tial arts prac­tice you’ve never heard of. Don’t worry, though—he’s also a very ob­ser­vant Chris­tian, so he’s quite harm­less. Un­less you try to hike with him: MudRat rou­tinely puts in 17-hour days in the woods, with trips to Pan­ther Gorge run­ning as long as 22 hours. This de­spite a low-blood-sugar con­di­tion he keeps in check with en­ergy blocks and gels, plus the oc­ca­sional sand­wich and slice of banana bread.

MudRat has been ex­plor­ing the nooks and cran­nies of the High Peaks for more than a decade, do­ing long bush­whacks and scram­bling up rock­slides. In 2004, a trop­i­cal storm drenched the moun­tains, and Hurri- cane Charley was right be­hind. Itch­ing to get a hike in be­tween the two weather events, MacKen­zie and a friend spent a long day churn­ing through knee-deep muck to bag three re­mote peaks. At one point, MacKen­zie fell face-first into a bog. He’s been known as MudRat ever since. Around 2013, he dis­cov­ered rock climb­ing, and for the past four years has fo­cused on Pan­ther Gorge.

But back to our early-morn­ing de­par­ture … and the intensifying rain. MudRat weighs our op­tions. The rain is only fore­casted to last an hour or so, but who knows what that means for these 5,000-foot moun­tains, New York’s high­est peaks. If the cliffs are wet—if this mas­sive stone cirque is socked in with mist or glis­ten­ing with runoff—we’ll have gone on a very long hike for noth­ing.

We don our shells and soldier on, head­lamps spot­light­ing a thou­sand glit­tery rain­drops as we march op­ti­misti­cally to­ward sun­rise.

RE­CENT ROUTE de­vel­op­ment in Pan­ther Gorge re­flects the in­cred­i­ble growth of climb­ing in Adiron­dack Park over the past decade. There are two rea­sons for this: a new guide­book and new pub­lic lands.

The park has al­ways been a dif­fi­cult place to de­fine for rock climb­ing. This six-mil­lion-acre pre­serve in New York State’s North Coun­try con­tains hun­dreds of sep­a­rate climb­ing sites, rang­ing from one-pitch crags like Beer Walls and Spi­der’s Web to gi­ant faces like Wall­face (600 feet) and Poke-O-Moon­shine (300 feet).

In 1967, Trudy Healy’s Climber’s Guide to the Adiron­dacks came out. It doc­u­mented 70-plus routes. The guide was one of a half-dozen guide­books pub­lished by dif­fer­ent au­thors over the next 30 years. These old-school guide­books used worded route de­scrip­tions and lim­ited photos.

More than a decade ago, Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas set out to mod­ern­ize the Adiron­dack guide­book. After three years of work, in 2008 they pub­lished the 652-page Adiron­dack Rock. Filled with me­thod­i­cally re­searched de­scrip­tions and com­puter-drawn maps and topos, the book added sig­nif­i­cantly to the climb­ing com­mu­nity’s route knowl­edge, while in­spir­ing more climbers to visit (rock gyms in nearby com­mu­ni­ties like Glens Falls and Clifton Park didn’t hurt ei­ther).

Around the same time, pa­per com­pa­nies and other large land­hold­ers sold their vast hold­ings to the state, open­ing thou­sands of acres of for­merly pri­vate land to the pub­lic. Vir­gin cliffs were sud­denly ac­ces­si­ble, such as Silver Lake and Pot­ter Moun­tain. When the sec­ond edi­tion of Adiron­dack Rock was re­leased in 2014, it had al­most dou­bled in size, of­fer­ing more than 3,100 routes on 320 cliffs in its two vol­umes.

Mean­while, Pan­ther Gorge has al­ways been open to climbers; it’s just been ig­nored. From the sum­mit of 5,344-foot Mount Marcy, the state’s high­est peak, or its neigh­bor, Haystack (4,961 feet), you can look down into the gorge. You’ll see a swath of dis­con­tin­u­ous, seem­ingly in­ac­ces­si­ble cliff, sur­rounded by spruce-and-fir “crip­ple­bush” so dense it can take an hour to crawl a quar­ter mile.

The gorge has long been re­garded as a mys­ti­cal place. Seneca Ray Stod­dard, the pho­tog­ra­pher and writer, de­scribed it in an 1891 book as “one of the wildest places in the Adiron­dacks.” In his 1869 book

The In­dian Pass, Al­fred Billings Street wrote of as­cend­ing through the gorge to reach Marcy:

Gloomier scowled the ravine, and nar­rower it grew, while the rocks com­pletely filled it. Yet above and through them I could see that the tor­tured moun­tains had at last locked them­selves in a Ti­tan strug­gle, fall­ing upon their sides to do so. The gorge was at an end, a ma­jes­tic cul de sac.… It seemed as if a mighty hor­ror brooded over it; as if some de­mon made within it his black and scowl­ing lair.

Be­fore the re­cent climb­ing spurt, there were ex­actly two doc­u­mented rock routes here: In 1936, moun­tain guide Jim Good­win used a hemp rope to lead two 12-year-old boys up a climb. And in 1965, Craig Pat­ter­son and Ron­ald Dubay plucked a plumb line up a 100-foot crack at the Pan­ther’s Den—at 5.8+, a bold lead for the era.

Don Mel­lor, who pub­lished three Dacks guide­books in the 1980s and ‘90s, ded­i­cated only a para­graph to the place: “No one can agree whether the climb­ing here jus­ti­fies the work,” he wrote in his 1988 edi­tion of Climb­ing in the Adiron­dacks. In 2003, that mys­tique lured in two lo­cal climbers: Bill Sch­nei­der, a hospi­tal nurse in Saranac Lake, and Adam Crofoot, a prop­erty man­ager and car­pen­ter in Keene Val­ley, just down the road from the trail­head. Sch­nei­der be­gan to make in­quiries around the lo­cal climb­ing scene. Peo­ple had opin­ions—but no one he talked to had been to the gorge or knew any­one who had.

“It was like a big ques­tion mark,” says Sch­nei­der. He and Crofoot made sev­eral vis­its, ex­pect­ing dirt-filled cracks and choss. In­stead, they found clean rock and stel­lar lines, and put up sev­eral first as­cents over the next two years. Then they moved on, and didn’t re­turn—un­til MudRat came call­ing. Here was a newly minted climber with a zest for ex­plo­ration. In fact, he ac­tu­ally had been through the gorge, sev­eral times, al­beit while bush­whack­ing and scram­bling. Now, MudRat wanted to re­turn with ropes and pro. About four years ago, he con­vinced Sch­nei­der and Crofoot to join him. Again and again, as it turned out.

A new era at Pan­ther Gorge had be­gun.

MUDRAT AND I reach the gorge at 9 a.m. Emerg­ing from the woods is breath­tak­ing—the rock walls stretch out for hun­dreds of yards in both di­rec­tions. Haystack’s bare sum­mit is high on the left hori­zon, and the foot of the gorge rolls down to the val­ley floor 2,000 feet below. There are dozens of smaller moun­tains vis­i­ble, stretch­ing south at least 50 miles. This is MudRat’s twenty-sev­enth trip here.

De­spite the early rain, the cliffs are dry and the sky is clear­ing. We shrug off our packs below an un­climbed line.

The gorge has a short climb­ing sea­son—black flies make climb­ing mis­er­able in June and early July, some stretches of rock don’t dry out un­til Au­gust, and ice forms in the cracks as early as Oc­to­ber. Win­ter has its own ap­peal, with the rock freez­ing over into dozens of mostly mod­er­ate ice routes up to five pitches.

Climbers en­ter the gorge near the top of Pan­ther’s Den, a 300-foot-long cliff of one-pitch routes, mostly in the 5.8 range. The

base is a grassy ramp that leads down to an arête. From there, you pass the Feline Wall, a mod­er­ate slab with deep cracks. Tra­verse a wooded class 4 move and you emerge below the largest sec­tion of cliff, an area near the ice climb Agharta— the gorge’s best-known route—and a large, over­hang­ing sec­tion MudRat refers to as the “Huge Scoop.”

Here, routes range from two to five pitches, with one climb reaching 600 feet. The rock is dis­con­tin­u­ous, bro­ken up by bushy ledges. Rat­ings go as high as 5.10a, while un­fin­ished, over­hang­ing projects mark places where even Adiron­dack hard­men have feared to tread. (When push­ing wet, runout 5.11, it’s hard to for­get just how far away a res­cue re­ally is.)

The cliff con­tin­ues, end­ing with the slabby East Face. And that’s only on the Mt. Marcy side. Across the cirque is more crack-laced rock, in­clud­ing a de­tached pin­na­cle with a 40-foot 5.9 fin­ger crack.

Some climbers ques­tion whether these re­mote routes will ever see a sec­ond as­cent. “It’s just re­ally hard to get to, and there’s other stuff that’s closer and more con­ve­nient,” says Jim Lawyer, the co-author of Adiron­dack Rock. “Peo­ple can get that ad­ven- ture-style climb­ing with­out hav­ing to do that much work.” But MudRat says his on­line reports have al­ready brought re­quests from masochis­tic strangers—sev­eral col­lege stu­dents; one re­cent trans­plant—to join the mad­ness.

To­day, MudRat and I fo­cus on a few un­climbed lines at Pan­ther’s Den. The start of our route is a 30-foot ver­ti­cal gully, maybe 5.6ish, cov­ered in wet green moss. I climb up 15 feet, place two cams in drip­ping cracks, and wa­ver. “I don’t know ,” I call down to MudRat as I eye a hold over­head that may or may not be Te­flon slick. “I’ll give it a try,” MudRat says. “I’m used to stuff like this.” I down­climb and hand him the gear. He’s wear­ing black trousers cov­ered in abra­sion-re­sis­tant patches—Bear Grylls–branded pants, pur­chased at some dis­count web­site. I, on the other hand, wear shorts.

I put MudRat on be­lay, and he makes his way up the mossy holds with­out any is­sue (a “green­point”?). At the an­chor above, I take the lead. The cor­ner flake sys­tem above looks en­tic­ing—not to men­tion moss-free—but first I must make a com­mit­ting 5.8 move into the crack. I place a cam, find a nice fin­ger­lock, and go for it.

The hand-swal­low­ing flakes above are as ex­pected: 5.7 lay­back-

ing and stem­ming along a su­per-pos­i­tive edge. At the top, a hor­i­zon­tal crack dis­ap­pears around the cor­ner with a crotch-stretch­ing tra­verse. A few more moves through well-pro­tected over­laps, and I’m safe on slabs.

MudRat fol­lows. “So what should we call it?” he asks on top.

I mull a few names aloud and then de­cide, think­ing of a 1983 Cyndi Lau­per tune: Climb After Slime.

WHEN CLIMB­ING FIRST as­cents here, get­ting down can be a ma­jor chal­lenge. In this case, we de­cide to rap Pan­ther’s

Fang, the afore­men­tioned 1965 route. At the top is the only (known) piton in the gorge, along with some more re­cent tat backed up by two nuts. It takes us 15 min­utes—yes, min­utes— to tra­verse the 75 feet to the rap sta­tion. The trees are wo­ven into a liv­ing mesh, while spiky dead branches threaten to spear an eye­ball or pierce a spleen. Now I can see why MudRat wears long pants.

Back on the ground, there’s time for one more climb. I con­sider Pan­ther’s Fang, but in­stead spy an­other crack far­ther up the wall. “Has this been climbed?” I ask. “Not yet.” It’s 100 feet high, rang­ing from fists to of­fwidth to chim­ney. Black moss car­pets the route, but it is dry. “I’ll give it a try,” I say. The climb­ing is fine. What isn’t so pleas­ant is the sharp­ness of the rock. Cracks here are not the smooth, split­ter cracks of Western gran­ite. In­stead, they trend to­ward worn, dirty, and rough. Tape is es­sen­tial for jams; long pants are use­ful in chim­neys.

I have nei­ther. The jam­ming isn’t so bad, but the squeeze chim­ney is as sharp as coral. Just brush­ing my leg against the sides re­sults in nasty scrapes. By the time I reach the top, I have so many scratches on my shins that they’ll turn into one gi­ant scab, large enough to in­hibit walk­ing for a time. MudRat names the route You Moss Be Kid­ding Me. By now it’s 6 p.m.—time for the long walk out. As we pre­pare to leave, I turn around for one last look. The west-fac­ing wall is aglow with low-an­gle light, the for­est below bathed in deep­en­ing shadow. I feel tired but elated. Sure, my mus­cles are achy, and the skin on my legs feels like it was worked over with a cheese grater. But it’s worth it. Scabs fall off; tired bod­ies re­cover.

First as­cents last for­ever.

ALAN WECH­SLER is a free­lance writer and pho­tog­ra­pher based in Al­bany, New York. His sto­ries about travel and the out­doors have been pub­lished in a va­ri­ety of mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. He has been a climber for 20 years and as­cended crags and alpine routes around the United States.




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