By Phil Brown
Whenever I drove past Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain and saw rock climbers clinging to the cliffs, often hundreds of feet above the ground, I used to say to myself, “Look at those nuts.” Now I’m about to become one of them. The other nut in this story is my friend Mike Virtanen. It’s mid-May, and we’re standing in a dusty pull-off on Route 9, looking across the highway at Poke-O Slab, a hulk of bedrock that rises four hundred feet above the forest, maybe a half-mile south of the mountain’s main cliff. From this distance, the rock looks almost vertical. It makes me wonder what we’re doing here.
Even the craziest among us have moments of lucidity. Ours came when we asked Mark Meschinelli to join us. The guidebook Adirondack Rock credits Meschinelli with nearly forty first ascents of technical routes—many as the lead climber—on the mountain’s various cliffs. “He’s Mr. Poke-O, as far as I’m concerned,” Jim Lawyer, the book’s co-author, told me in an e-mail a week earlier. “I once asked him if he wanted to join me in Joshua Tree [a climbing mecca in California], and he said, ‘Why would I go there when I have Poke-O just down the street?’ Good point.”
As the leader of our expedition, Meschinelli will assume most of the risk. He’ll go first at each pitch, or stage, of the climb and belay us one at a time from above, keeping taut the rope between him and whoever is then climbing. If Mike or I were to slip, we wouldn’t fall far.
The route we’ve chosen is Catharsis, discovered in 1957 by John Turner, a legendary British climber. It was one of the very first climbs at Poke-O. Since then,
climbers have put up more than two hundred routes on the mountain, but Catharsis remains a classic. The guidebook describes it as one of the best moderate slab climbs
in the Adirondacks.
Catharsis is rated 5.5 on the climber’s scale of difficulty. In Turner’s time, when climbers wore mountaineering boots, this would have been a fairly difficult route. Back
then, few people in the Northeast had climbed routes harder than 5.7. With today’s sticky-sole shoes, even a 5.7 route is regarded as pretty easy.
Meschinelli and others have put up routes at Poke-O rated as high as 5.11 and 5.12, which once would have been unthinkable.
To reach Catharsis, we hike uphill through the woods on a faint path for fifteen minutes and then scramble up several ledges. By the time we get to the base of the slab, we’re already feeling a bit of exposure. The most conspicuous feature on the slab is a narrow overhang called the Visor that arches across the face like the brim of a hat. Several expert routes ascend the steep rock below the Visor. The Catharsis route ascends the easier grade to the Visor’s left and then angles upward to the right, finishing near the top of the slab.
After Mike and I fasten ropes to our climbing harnesses, Mark inspects our knots. “This is the most important thing we do all day—tie in,” he says. “So we want to make sure we do it right.”
Mark then informs us that he intends to climb without a belay, meaning if he falls, he’ll probably fall a long way. He could get badly injured or die. This is not recommended practice, of course, but Mark assures us that he won’t fall. He feels so comfortable on
Catharsis that he often climbs it solo without a rope. Besides, he’s pressed for time. A third-generation cobbler, Mark runs the Plattsburgh Shoe Hospital (where he has developed a niche business resoling climbing shoes), and he wants to be at work by noon. Climbing without belay will be quicker.
Before starting up, Mark tells us that there are few hand holds on Catharsis. On a slab, you usually climb by finding tiny toeholds and smearing your sticky soles against the rock. “Everything we do today is all feet, not hands,” he says.
Mark ascends gracefully up the rock to a small ledge a hundred feet up, where he anchors himself and prepares to belay me. Suddenly, the rope connected to my harness is pulled taut.
“On belay,” Mark shouts down.
“Climbing,” I shout back.
“Climb on!” he replies.
As advertised, the cliff is hard to get a grip on. I spread out my palms for maximal friction and feel with my feet for small bulges to stand on. Following Mark’s tip, I raise my butt so my feet press into the rock. This is much steeper than the slides I have climbed in the High Peaks, and it takes me a few minutes to feel comfortable, to trust the shoes. After that, the pitch goes off without a hitch.
“Good job,” Mark says as I reach the ledge. He anchors me to the cliff and then begins belaying Mike, who climbs up without incident. Normally, Catharsis is climbed in four pitches, but to save time, Mark combines the next two. We climb two hundred feet to a grassy ledge above the Visor, passing an old rusty bolt on the way. The ledge offers a view across Lake Champlain of Camel’s Hump, one of Vermont’s tallest mountains. As we wait for Mike to do the pitch, Mark relates that he and some buddies once spent
the night on this ledge.
“A bunch of us climbed this by moonlight back in the seventies, when we were crazy,” he says. “We brought sleeping bags and beer. Some guy on the road saw our flashlight and yelled up, ‘Do you need help?’ We yelled back, ‘Yeah, we’re out of beer!’”
Now fifty-four, Mark not only has played a big part in the regional climbing scene for three decades, he also has helped document it. Over the years, he has taken hundreds of photographs of climbers. You’ll find a number of them in Adirondack Rock. His photos also have appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, Adirondack Life, and other publications. Since he’s usually behind the lens, there are few shots of him. So I take a bunch with his camera, a digital zoom, while he’s belaying Mike.
As Mike gets up to the ledge, four or five turkey vultures are circling overhead. “Do you think they know something?” he asks.
“They’re always looking for their chance,” Mark answers.
For the last pitch, Mark walks right along the ledge, then dances up a steep bit of rock to a small overhang. It requires the climber to step up onto an overhang while trying to maintain purchase and balance with the other foot. “This is a classic move,” Mark says as he executes it perfectly.
As I soon discover, it’s harder than he makes it look. But I manage, perhaps not in classic style, and then angle up and left to a second overhang. Mark is just thirty feet
away, waiting for me to finish.
“Pound on that flake,” he says. When I slap the rock on the overhang, it reverberates
like a bass drum. “It’s hollow,” he says. “Is it dangerous?” I ask.
“I wouldn’t want to put too much weight on it,” he replies.
“Is that how they came up with the term flaky?”
In a few minutes, I catch up with Mark and anchor myself to a tree on a wide ledge. Soon enough, Mike joins us. We sit awhile, taking in the view of Lake Champlain to the east and a number of Adirondack peaks to the south, including Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak Ridge.
As we change from rock shoes to hiking shoes, a peregrine falcon soars above us. The once-endangered falcons nest on Poke-O’s cliffs nearly ever year. The state closes
climbing routes near the nests until the chicks fledge. Mark has had more than one encounter with peregrines over the years. He recalls a time when a falcon
dove at him “like a rocket” and came within inches of his head. “We could hear it,” he says, “we could feel it going by.” The bird continued to buzz him and his partner, so they retreated to a slot in the rock and watched while the falcon glided back and forth across the opening. Eventually, it went away.
We finished the climb in good time, about two hours, but we need to get going. Mark leads us on a bushwhack to the mountain’s hiking trail, which we start down. On the way, we meet a hiker who had been watching our ascent from the road.
“Were you the guys climbing the cliff?” he asks. “You’re braver than me.”
I don’t bother to tell him that only of one of us had been in real danger.
When we reach the highway, it’s almost noon. Mark is in a hurry to get to work. We shake hands, and he gets in his car. For him, this is just another day at the office. Not so for the two nuts watching him drive off. ?