Climbers try to duplicate historic 1896 ascent
By Phil Brown
This story starts in 1896. That year, on Aug. 20, Newell Martin and a companion, Milford Hathaway, ascended the vast rock cirque on the South Face of Gothics—no ropes, no helmets, no pitons, nothing at all to protect them from a deadly fall. Martin’s notes constitute one of the earliest accounts of a rock climb in the United States.
Ed Palen, owner of the Rock and River guide service in Keene, rates Martin’s ascent about 5.4 in difficulty, on the traditional rock-climbing scale of 5.0 to 5.10 (the scale now goes higher). In climbers’ parlance, it is a fifth-class route, one that most people today would not do without special equipment.
“It’s probably the first recorded fifth-class ascent in this country,” Palen said. “You can’t really say it was the first technical climb, because they didn’t use a rope.”
Martin, a lawyer and Yale graduate, was one of the premier Adirondack hikers of his generation. In 1875, he climbed the trailless Sawteeth Mountain at the foot of Lower Ausable Lake. In 1894, when he was 40, he set a record by climbing six High Peaks, including Mount Marcy, in one day, bushwhacking much of the way. That record, incidentally, was broken 36 years later by a couple of other strong hikers—Bob and George Marshall, the first to climb all 46 High Peaks (no, not in one day).
On Gothics, Martin and Hathaway ascended via a vertical crack in the cliff, wedging in the toe of a boot, straightening that leg, wedging in the toe of the other boot, straightening that leg, and so on. When they reached the end of the crack, it appeared they had no place to go. They must have been about 400 feet up.
“Luckily I saw a foothold projecting on the cliff to our left,” Martin wrote. “By standing on my right foot and spreading myself against the rock and stretching my left leg I could just get my left toe on this foothold. It was disagreeable to do this, as there was no handhold and the only comfort to be had lay in pressing as close against the cliff as possible. I am used to high places, but I found it well not to look down while making this traverse. As soon as I got my left foot firmly on the foothold I drew my right leg after me and soon found myself, with a little climbing, on a comfortable projection six inches wide on which I could stand against the cliff.”
Sound like fun? I thought so, too. In early September, I asked Nyle Baker, my daughter’s boyfriend, to accompany me to the South Face. If possible, we would duplicate Martin’s climb—with ropes and protective gear, of course.
We arrived at St. Huberts just before 8 a.m. In the parking lot, we met two middle-aged guys who asked where we were going. We told them. The ensuing conversation went something like this:
“A friend of mine climbed the Finger Slide on the North Face a few weeks ago,” one said.
“Really?” I replied. “I did that myself recently.”
“My friend wrote an article about the trip. It was in the Albany Times Union.”
“You mean Alan Wechsler?” I answered, astonished. “That was me he was with.”
“Wait a minute. Are you Phil Brown?”
“Do you know who I am?”
“That’s right. Glad to finally meet you.”
I knew Jim was a hiking buddy of Alan’s. Readers of the Adirondack Explorer may remember Close as the veteran hiker who wrote a Viewpoint article criticizing the Adirondack Forty-Sixers for not taking a stand against a charity trail run in the Giant Mountain Wilderness. The article sparked an exchange of letters between the Forty-Sixers and Close. Eventually, he was kicked off the board of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers Conservation Trust.
On this morning, Jim and his friend, Dave Wilber, were heading to Sawteeth. They said they would accompany us as far as the col between that mountain and Pyramid Peak. Nyle and I would then continue alone up Pyramid, where we would eat lunch and get a good gander at our intended route.
Walking up the dirt road to Lower Ausable Lake, I mentioned that many people regard the view from Pyramid as the best in the Adirondacks. Although Jim has climbed all the High Peaks, he had never been up Pyramid, which is considered part of Gothics, so he and Dave decided to go there as well.
The prospect from Pyramid
We arrived on Pyramid a little before noon. The day was gorgeous, the vista spectacular. We had an unobstructed view of Upper Ausable Lake, the rock walls on Basin and, spread out in front of us, the awesome South Face of Gothics. As we ate our sandwiches, I read aloud from Martin’s notes (which were published in 1932 in High Spots, a magazine of the Adirondack Mountain Club), and we tried to pick out the route he described.
Looking at the vast expanse of rock, I was a bit intimidated. We’d be six miles from the nearest public road. What if we got hurt? Given the late hour, I also wondered if we had time to do this. After all, we still had to bushwhack to the base of the cliff. Jim seemed concerned, too. He gave us his phone number and told us to call after we finished the climb. With that we parted, Jim and Dave heading back to the Sawteeth col, Nyle and I descending to the Gothics col.
The bushwhack from the col took about 45 minutes. We followed a wooded gully, rappelling once off a tree. Finally we reached the base of the cirque. Standing in tall grass, we looked up at a world reduced to just two elements: white rock and blue sky. Occasionally, puffy clouds scudded into view and just as suddenly vanished beyond the cliff.
Martin and Hathaway had found a crack in the middle of the cliff—“in a sort of groin” where two faces meet. Nyle and I made our way to the start of this crack, put on our climbing harnesses and tied in to opposite ends of a 230-foot rope. Nyle, the more experienced climber, ascended first. I was the belayer, feeding him rope as needed.
We reached the end of the crack in three stages, or “pitches.” As Nyle went up each pitch, he wedged protective gear—nuts or cams tethered to snap-lock carabiners—into the crack. He threaded the rope through the carabiners. If he fell, the gear would prevent him from plummeting to the bottom—assuming the gear held and assuming I held my end of the rope. (The belay device acts as a brake.) At the end of each pitch, Nyle belayed me from above. As I climbed, I removed the gear, and when I reached Nyle, we started over. During the climb, we saw three pitons in the crack. Obviously, we were not the only ones to come this way since 1896.
The ascent was fairly easy. I never felt in great danger, but one incident did give me pause. As I was going up the first pitch, the slack end of the rope slid down the cliff from Nyle’s belay perch. Normally this would not be a big deal. But as Nyle was climbing the next pitch, the rope suddenly became taut, preventing him from advancing. The rope had got stuck in the crack a hundred feet below me. Thanks to Nyle’s shouted instructions, I was able to rappel down the cliff to free it.
That episode wasted precious time. It was almost 5 p.m. when we finished the third pitch. We no longer were focused on repeating history; we just wanted to get off the cliff and onto a trail as soon as possible. We changed into our hiking boots for the last pitch, traversing to the left and angling upward to the edge of the woods. We pushed and crawled through the krummholz for 20 minutes, coming out on the Great Range Trail at 6:20 p.m. and reaching the summit of Gothics a few minutes later.
Nyle used his cell phone to call Jim. No answer. Nyle left a message that we had completed the climb and were OK. With less than an hour of daylight remaining, we fled down the mountain, hopping over roots and rocks in the gray gloom. This was probably the hairiest part of our adventure, but we reached the Ausable Club gatehouse safe and sound just before 9 p.m. As Nyle examined the register, he noted that Jim and Dave never signed out. The thought crossed our mind: Did they have an accident? When we got to the parking lot, we were relieved to see that their car was gone.
News from Jim
The following afternoon I received an e-mail from Jim with the title “Chopper Rescue on Sawteeth.” It turns out that Jim did have an accident: Coming down the Scenic Trail on Sawteeth, while still high on the 4,100-foot mountain, he snagged his left foot under a root. When he fell, his ankle twisted and broke, creating searing pain. “When I was able to get myself under control, I gingerly stood up and could feel things moving around down there that shouldn’t be moving around,” Jim wrote.
It was 2:45 p.m. They still had about 2,000 feet of descent to reach Lower Ausable Lake. Luckily, Dave had an ankle brace in his pack. Jim put on the brace and hobbled along, but progress was slow. At 3:30 p.m., Dave went ahead to get help. Jim resumed the descent on his own, hoping he would meet a rescue team coming up the trail.
“Those hours turned out to be the most excruciating, painful hours I have ever experienced,” he said. “I continued to hobble down the mountain, dangerously (including a ladder descent), sweating profusely and becoming dehydrated. …
“Several times I just thought about quitting—particularly where there was an open ledge. But I kept going. Around 6 p.m., as I was approaching (with great relief) Lower Ausable Lake, which had seemed as far away as the moon initially, I heard a chopper in the distance. …
“You can’t possibly imagine the wave of emotion that I felt knowing that someone was out there trying to rescue me. Let’s just say that I lost it, albeit momentarily. The chopper came closer and closer, and I could tell that it was up above me, circling the upper reaches of the mountain. ‘Damn it, I’m down here!’ I felt myself saying. But I knew they could not possibly know that, nor see me through the trees.”
Jim soon made it to the lakeshore. “Several minutes later, a family came by in a guideboat, heading towards the boathouse. They were the first people I had seen since Dave left me at 3:30 p.m. I yelled at them, ‘That chopper’s looking for me! Wave your shirts at them!’ Together we waved shirts, but to no avail.”
Eventually, the helicopter disappeared. The family, with an Ausable Club guide, rescued Jim by boat. “My dream of being in a guideboat on Lower Ausable Lake had come true,” he wrote, “but at a price.”
A club employee drove Jim to the gatehouse at the start of the Lake Road, where two forest rangers were waiting. One of the rangers, Charlie Platt, told him he would have been better off if he had stayed put after the fall. The helicopter had dropped Platt onto one of the mountain ledges to look for the injured hiker. “If only I had known …” Jim said in his e-mail.
Dave drove Jim to a hospital in Saratoga Springs. Two days later, Jim underwent surgery. He expected to be on crutches for about six weeks. He said he felt thankful toward everyone who helped him.
Jim Close is one of the few hikers to have climbed the 100 highest peaks in the Adirondacks. He has traversed far more difficult terrain than the trail on Sawteeth, yet it was there that he broke a bone. “The lesson is that an accident can happen when you least expect it,” he said.