Veteran climber Don Mellor regards Moss Cliff in Wilmington Notch as the best crag in the Adirondacks, but it’s not a place for newcomers.
By Don Mellor
Why would a climber want to visit something called Moss Cliff? Though the name conjures up some dank, low-angled slab wrapped in a living green carpet, the reality is quite different. This best of Adirondack cliffs is not so mossy. In fact, it’s among the cleanest, driest, most appealing rock walls in the Northeast—in my opinion, the most Adirondack of all Adirondack crags.
The name probably comes from a misreading of the 1953 USGS topographical map that put the unflattering label on a dirty slab about a mile to the west of the clean and elegantly sculpted wall that we now call Moss Cliff.
Moss Cliff isn’t hard to find. You’ve all seen it looming high above the Ausable River on the Sunrise Mountain shoulder of Whiteface. Zooming by at 55 mph, however, doesn’t give you the chance to pick out the climbers, the colorful little dots who have been playing out the evolution of climbing, out of sight, but in plain view if you ever stop to look.
There’s an unconfirmed story that the first to seriously check out the wall was Fritz Wiessner, the most prominent climber in the world during the 1930s and 1940s. And though he was schooled in the bold style of Dresden, Germany, where the standards far exceeded those in our country, and even though he had nearly succeeded on K2, the world’s hardest peak at the time, Wiessner declared Moss Cliff to be out of reach. The walls were too sheer, the cracks too smooth and too steep to imagine with the rudimentary gear of the time.
Then around 1970, Al Rubin happened upon a copy of Adirondac magazine with a photo of Wilmington Notch on the cover. His friend Rocky Keeler had just opened up a climbing shop in Wilton, Connecticut, and a little New Haven climbing club had emerged—Mud and Slush, a self-deprecating tip-of-the-cap to the famed Rock and Ice group of Manchester, England. While Rubin, one of the band, had kept Moss Cliff in the back of his mind, it was Jack Maxwell who knew of the cliff’s unexplored status and who invited Rocky to bring some friends up to his family home in Wilmington to give it a try. So with an unclimbed cliff and a free place to flop, the boys headed up on Labor Day weekend, 1971.
Al Rubin said that he became “moderately obsessed” with Moss Cliff. They didn’t make it to the top on their first go, but in 1974 he, Al Long, and Dave Hoffman completed Touch of Class, a direct line of cracks and corners that weighed in at 5.9+ (a Yosemite Decimal System rating), pretty high on the national difficulty scale at the time. Today’s climbers might call it 5.10, and while it’s probably the easiest full-length route on the face, it’s available only to experts. Moss Cliff is not in the regular vocabulary of lesser folks.
Directions: From the intersection of NY 73 and NY 86 in Lake Placid, drive 6.1 miles east on NY 86 to a pull-off on the left. The cliff is visible across the Ausable River. Cross the river (no bridge) and hike to the base of the cliff.
Left of Touch of Class is one of the longest and most distinct natural climbing lines in the East, a long, steep, right-facing corner. Rubin and Alan Long ascended this line, too, but resorted to hanging on gear in one spot, instead of “free climbing” it with hands and feet alone. They gave it the most appropriate of names, Hard Times.
A couple of years later, Dave Cilley, manager of Lake Placid’s Eastern Mountain Sports, invited his friend Henry Barber for a tour of the region. Barber was one of the most influential climbers in the world at the time. The gangly kid from Boston had learned the ropes from the Appalachian Mountain Club and first took his skills to North Conway, New Hampshire. The difficulty of his routes on Cathedral and Whitehorse Ledges made for one of the biggest leaps ever seen in the sport of rock climbing in the Northeast. Henry then went to Colorado, and he dazzled them there. Then Yosemite, where the climbing skills of the Camp 4 denizens were matched only by their territorial arrogance. But there, too, Henry Barber left them shaking their heads in awe. His unroped solo of the 1,500-foot Sentinel Rock was considered the most audacious achievement in American climbing, and the world came to know him as Hot Henry.
Still, even though Barber has been around the world climbing, he looks back on his Adirondack climbs with fondness. “The ’Dacks always felt like a new frontier, lots of possibilities in a place that wasn’t in vogue. Climbing felt remote, like I had one foot back in the 1950s.” And yes, he climbed the difficult overhanging corner of Hard Times without resorting to artificial aid, using just his very strong hands and his legendary footwork.
A few months later, I arrived in the Adirondacks and asked Dave Cilley to give me a list of things I ought to climb as a newcomer. He told me of Poke-O-Moonshine’s Great Dihedral, an amazing laser-cut corner with a crack barely big enough for fingertips and tiny edges for the feet. He raved about the Spider’s Web’s On the Loose route, whose second-pitch chimney exit overhung the ground by almost fifteen feet.
“What about Hard Times?” I asked. Bad idea, he said. “It’s really hard. Henry was a little gripped up there. Protection’s bleak in one section.”
To his day I cannot recall why this somehow appealed to me. Yet I knew that I could back off with the best of them, so I figured I’d get to the dangerous part and then retreat. But voila! Where Barber had just climbed without good protection I was able to excavate dirt from the thin cracks with a nut tool, placing sound wired stoppers most of the way up the slick-as-glass slab. Barber uses skill and self-control. Mellor uses a little metal stick. Hot Henry, Chicken Don, what’s the difference?
A year or so later I was back on the route, this time with my friend Mike Heintz, another of Connecticut’s star climbers. We were feeling good, dispatching easily the chimney section and the hard overhang at its top. Same for the scary slab and the final unprotected wide crack.
Then schwooooosh … something buzzed me so close that it made my hair move. “What the?” Schwoosh again. It was some kind of bird, a hawk or an eagle, we guessed. Turns out that it was an angry mother falcon, first to breed successfully on an Adirondack cliff since the extirpation of the species from DDT decades earlier.
In the years that followed, I have seen a lot of peregrine falcons. I’ve helped with nest identification. I’ve assisted with chick banding. I’ve even scraped ledges and filled little baggies with fecal matter so that researchers could see what our new friends were having for dinner. But never was I so scared of a birdie than on that afternoon when she had Mike and me cowering for almost an hour behind a scrawny cedar. This bird didn’t want to scare us. It wanted to kill us.
Moss Cliff is built like a ship’s prow. All of the climbing so far had been on the vertical left face. One November, when it was too cold for barehanded rock climbing and too early for ice, some friends and I decided to climb the big overhanging wall to the right, with an overnight bivouac on the lone ledge that splits the face. I’d been up the wall once before, aid climbing, of course. The rock to us had simply been too smooth to even consider climbing conventionally. So instead of using fingers and toes, we did it Yosemite big-wall style, by nailing pitons into little cracks or placing tiny hooks on edges of rock and climbing up five-step ladders of nylon webbing called etriers. It had been time-consuming and technical, but it got us to the top in a two-day push a couple of years before. After a full day of climbing, we had rappelled to the ground, completing the climb the next day.
Like so many other lofty projects, this next one started innocently enough. We packed the gear and loaded the car. Then one guy invited his wife (who wasn’t a climber). Then another climber’s girlfriend offered to cook up a banquet chicken feast and pack it in Tupperware. I don’t recall who went to the liquor store or who bought the case of beer.
Given the prodigious planning involved, it was night before we even got across the river. Since it was November, and since I didn’t want to risk getting my clothes wet, I had just stripped down to my bare essence (sneakers only), shouldered the big pack, and headed into the water. Oops … halfway across, face down in the rapids, I learned the hard lesson that forty pounds of rope and pitons makes a very poor floatation device. Anyway, once I got righted and onto the far shore, I was shivering too violently to stop and dress. Likely that this has been the only naked hike up to the mighty Moss Cliff.
In the yellow circle of a headlamp, we aid-climbed the lower wall, taught the newcomers how to “jumar” a rope (using a mechanical ascending device), and hauled up the beer and the whiskey and the sleeping gear and the huge and still-hot gourmet dinner. That night, a mixture of fine rain and light snow fell straight past us on this very overhanging wall. Boys had an easier time than the girls arcing the used beer cans into the misty night. (The Bud cans chucked giddily into the darkness would all be picked up the next day.) By morning, though, bad weather and dull headaches suggested that we abort the climb, and it really didn’t seem too funny until some time had passed and the site took on its forever name, Party Ledge.
About five years ago, I was driving through the Notch and noticed a colorful dot high above Party Ledge. Wow. Someone was actually doing one of the rare big aid climbs of the Adirondacks. I was impressed to think of a kindred soul so high up there, hanging on a little hook or tiny piton hammered into the razor thin cracks.
Later that evening, the phone rang. “Hi, Don Mellor? My name is Peter Kamitses, and I’m wondering if you’d have a problem with me putting in a bolt on one of your old routes. I’m pretty close to getting it free.”
Say what? There are no holds up there. There’s zilch for protection. One measly bolt on three-hundred overhanging feet of blank rock ain’t going to change that, I thought. But I didn’t know Vermont’s Peter Kamitses. Nor could I conceive just how good he was or how willing he was to make crazy-hard moves so far above protection. Nor did I know that he was talking about his second route on the face, where that lone bolt low on the route would be the only artificial addition.
Like Rubin, Peter Kamitses says he was mesmerized when he first saw that overhanging wall of Moss Cliff. “I got goosebumps,” he told me. With Dave Sharratt on the other end of the rope, he grabbed and fell his way up what would become Fire in the Sky, rated 5.13c on the Yosemite scale. Finally getting it free, though, would take many days’ work and a lot of air time.
It’s this air-time thing that keeps lesser folks away. But Kamitses, adhering firmly to an ethic of adventure climbing, somehow put it into a different place in his mind and now looks back almost incredulously at those days, taking the biggest, scariest falls of his career. “Just seconds before you were your own master,” he says, “making decisions, making progress, moving with purpose, and then poof! You’re in the wind, along for the ride, relying on instincts and body awareness to keep yourself upright and square to the wall. Everything slows down, you see the loops of slack rope fluttering below your feet. On one grand lob I distinctly remember having the time to scream twice as the rock rushed by, and I was still falling.”
Yet persistence paid off, and he ultimately climbed it free. The national magazines picked up on this ascent (and a couple others he did on the same wall), and climbers all over the country would see that photo of Kamitses way above a lonely wired nut, making what would be one of the hardest traditional routes in America.
Moss Cliff, thus, is an important piece of rock, both for us locals and even for national stars. All the while most of its viewers hardly notice, too fixated on their upcoming day on the ski slopes. They round the bend heading to Whiteface. There it is, the intimidating “Ice Face … Greatest vertical drop in the East! … That’s Mr. Whiteface to you.”
But in the foreground is Moss Cliff. And to me, that’s really where it is happening.