On Rooster Comb cliffs, climbers immerse themselves in wilderness and history.
By Phil Brown
Each year hundreds of people hike to the summit of Rooster Comb for its great views. Far fewer reach the summit by scaling its cliffs, but the mountain has a long and storied rock-climbing history. Whether you hike or climb to the top, the 2,788-foot peak offers a wonderful vista of the lower Great Range, the Brothers, and Johns Brook valley.
Rooster Comb is one the trips chosen for the Adirondack Explorer’s new guidebook, 12 Short Hikes Near Keene Valley. Since I planned to hike Rooster Comb for the book, I figured I’d squeeze in a rock climb as well. My neighbor, Tim Peartree, agreed to come along.
Our goal was Old Route, a roped climb established by Fritz Wiessner, a legendary rock climber and alpinist, in the summer of 1949. His follower on the first ascent was Jim Goodwin, a well-known Adirondack climber. Appropriately enough, the trail leading to Rooster Comb is dedicated to Goodwin.
Old Route has four pitches, each unique. Although easy by modern standards, the route is a lot of fun and the wild setting inspirational. Because of its remoteness, though, it doesn’t get climbed often. Two and a half miles is a long way to lug a two-hundred-foot rope, helmets, carabiners, slings, cams, chocks, and other paraphernalia. This is especially true for a climb rated only 5.4 in difficulty on the Yosemite Decimal System scale, which ranges from 5.0 (super easy) to 5.15 (nearly impossible).
“It’s a lot of hiking,” Jim Lawyer, one of the authors of the guidebook Adirondack Rock, observed recently.
Nevertheless, Lawyer gives Old Route three stars in his book (out of a possible five) and has recommended it to friends. It’s especially appealing to intermediate climbers. Old Route offers a chance to experience the beauty and solitude of the Adirondack backcountry, far from the crowds found at roadside crags. For that kind of experience, you sometimes have to hike a bit.
Tim and I didn’t pull into the trailhead parking area in Keene Valley until almost 11 a.m. We followed the trail to Rooster Comb for 2.2 miles. Just three hundred yards below the summit, we left the marked path and scrambled down to the base of the cliff. We hiked along the bottom of the cliff for about two-tenths of a mile to the start of Old Route: a large corner with a roof twenty-five feet above the ground. Fifteen feet downhill is another corner and the start of another historical climb, Woolsey Route, also established in 1949—by Betty Woolsey, an Olympic skier and accomplished mountaineer.
Woolsey Route was the first Adirondack climb pioneered by a woman. The details of the climb are uncertain. It is not mentioned in the Adirondacks’ first climbing guidebook, published in 1967. Adirondack Rock, however, notes that “Jim Goodwin distinctly recalls Betty Woolsey leading a route near Old Route. In Goodwin’s words, Woolsey was the ‘best climber of her day’ and ‘floated up the wall.’ It isn’t known exactly where her route goes, but this corner is the most likely line.” It’s rated 5.8, considerably harder than Old Route.
Incidentally, Woolsey and Wiessner sometimes climbed together. In 1941, with Wiessner following, Woolsey put up the popular route in the Gunks (near New Paltz) known as Betty—the first Gunks climb pioneered by a woman.
On the first pitch of Old Route, you are supposed to climb up to the roof, traverse right beneath the roof, and then ascend an inclined ramp to a wide terrace. Like the climb itself, the pitch is rated only 5.4, but in two earlier visits to Rooster Comb, I found the initial moves to be quite challenging. I was eager to test myself again, figuring that with experience gained in the few years since, I’d be able to knock off the pitch with no problem.
Wrong. I went several feet up a slab and then stepped inside a short, wide crack. I needed to reach the slab above the crack, but I couldn’t find a hold to pull myself up. After flailing around for fifteen minutes, I climbed down and looked for other ways to ascend to the roof. None of them worked. Frustrated, I returned to the crack, inserted a cam, grabbed it, and pulled myself up.
Normally, a cam is used for clipping the rope, not as a climbing aid. If you do pull on a cam, that is called (sometimes derogatorily) French free climbing. Evidently, the practice was once common in France. I was embarrassed to have to resort to this technique on a 5.4 route, but I didn’t want to waste more time.
Given my difficulty, I opted to belay Tim from just below the roof rather than at the top of the ramp. This way, we could stay in communication. In effect, this turned the climb into a five-pitch route. As it turned out, Tim made it over the hard part without much trouble and without pulling on the cam. “I think the trick was a healthy dose of adrenaline,” he told me later.
For the next pitch, I went around the roof and up the ramp. On the way, I passed two pitons, relics of an earlier climbing era (historical artifacts that should be left in place). The ramp was easy at first, with good footholds and handholds. As I approached the second piton, holds were fewer and farther between. I wedged my hands in a crack along the edge of the ramp, plastered my feet against the stone, and leaned back. The resultant oppositional forces—pulling up with the hands, pressing down with the feet—enabled me to stick to the rock and walk up the incline.
In climber’s parlance, this maneuver is known as a lieback. When Tim was struggling on the ramp, I suggested he give it a shot. It worked, but he said he found the ramp harder than the initial moves. Go figure.
The highlight of the next pitch (also rated 5.4) is a narrow chimney. No surprise, since Wiessner was drawn to chimneys. In the Adirondacks, he pioneered several chimney routes, including the Great Chimney on Pitchoff, also climbed with Goodwin. The Rooster Comb chimney is so tight that a hefty climber would have difficulty squeezing in. I slid in sideways, pressed my palms against one wall and my butt and a foot against the opposite wall, and inched upward. Once again, I passed an old piton. Just before the top, where the chimney gets especially narrow, I exited onto a ledge. Tim made the mistake of staying in the chimney to the end and was barely able to wriggle free. “I used brute force to get out,” he said.
Old Route’s third pitch (our fourth) is more of a scramble than a climb, hardly requiring a rope. What it lacks in excitement, though, it makes up for in scenery. We traversed over grassy ledges to a wide, sloping terrace with fantastic views of Giant Mountain. High above the ground, with wilderness all around, this easy pitch had an alpine feel. Tim described the pitch and its views as “a welcome reward” after the struggles on the first two pitches.
For the final pitch (rated 5.2), we ascended a corner at the base of a vertical wall that towered above us. For me, the biggest challenge came at the end, where I jammed my hand in a crack to pull myself onto a ledge (using your hand as a cam is kosher). We were now on Rooster Comb’s open summit. We didn’t tarry to enjoy the views as it had started to drizzle, and it was already 6 o’clock. I asked Tim what he thought of the climb.
“It has a lot of character,” he said. “Every pitch is different.”
But he thought it was more difficult than the rating suggested.
“5.4? When the book comes out again, it should be 6.4,” he joked.
We walked a short distance down the hiking trail before scrambling back to the start of Old Route to retrieve our packs. From the cliff, we bushwhacked to a lower part of the marked trail and began the trek back to the car.
It was indeed a lot of hiking, but we felt the climbing was worth it. If 6.4 would overrate Old Route’s difficulty, it would be hard to overrate the climb’s beauty.
DIRECTIONS: From Johns Brook bridge in Keene Valley, drive south on NY 73 for 0.7 miles to the Rooster Comb parking area on the right. If coming from the south, the parking area is 8 miles past the intersection of US 9 and NY 73.
‘Explorer’ offers new guidebook
Keene Valley is home to the High Peaks, but you don’t have to climb the big mountains to get a knockout view. For 12 Short Hikes Near Keene Valley, the Adirondack Explorer selected a dozen hikes that won’t take all day or sap all your strength. They lead to small peaks and lookouts with breathtaking vistas. These are ideal outings for families and casual hikers—or anyone who wants a quick dose of wilderness.
12 Short Hikes Near Keene Valley is the third in a series of guidebooks published by the Explorer in the past year and a half. Like its two predecessors, the book includes hand-drawn maps by Nancy Bernstein, stunning photos by Nancie Battaglia, detailed trail descriptions, trailhead GPS coordinates and driving directions, statistical overviews of each hike, and historical tidbits. The book sells for just $9.75 and is designed to fit in your pocket.
Publisher Tom Woodman and Editor Phil Brown wrote the book. Besides Rooster Comb, the hikes are Noonmark Mountain, Giant’s Nubble, Hopkins Mountain, Snow Mountain, First Brother, Little Porter Mountain, Blueberry Mountain, Nun-da-ga-o Ridge, Baxter Mountain, Hurricane Mountain, and Owl Head Lookout. A bonus chapter describes the hike to Indian Head in the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, with suggestions for other destinations.
The book can be purchased in local stores and online from the Explorer’s website, www.AdirondackExplorer.org.
The first two books in the series, 12 Short Hikes Near Lake Placid and 12 Short Hikes Near Old Forge, also are available in local stores and on the Explorer website.