Cliff overlooking the East Branch of the Sacandaga offers climbers of all abilities a delightful day on the rock.
By Alan Wechsler
I’ve been rock climbing in the Adirondack Park for two decades, but I never got to Shanty Cliff until Explorer Editor Phil Brown invited me to join him there last fall. Shanty is a small cliff, occupying less than ten pages in the exhaustive, two-volume climbing guidebook Adirondack Rock.
Located off a remote part of Route 8, between Bakers Mills and Wells, it offers about forty routes up to 140 feet high, many easy enough for a beginner to enjoy.
In fact, the hardest part may be getting there.
When I met Phil at the small pull-off 14.7 miles south of Route 28, he warned me the approach required crossing a shallow river. But when we walked down a dirt road to the East Branch of the Sacandaga, we found a veritable lake in front of us. Apparently, some industrious beavers had dammed the stream below.
Fortunately, we could see rocks upstream where the river was still flowing, so we bushwhacked about a hundred yards to the crossing. A slightly trampled path indicated that others had gone this way as well. We changed into sports sandals and stepped into the water.
Yes, it was cold on this late October morning, but not painfully so (though Beth, my temperature-sensitive girlfriend, found it a lot more uncomfortable). The rocks were slippery under the ankle-deep water, and I found the best technique was to make a step and let my foot slide down the smooth, algae-coated sides of the rocks until the sole came to rest in a relative flat spot. Then I’d pick up the other foot and do it again.
We made it to the other side without incident. From there, it’s about a twenty-minute uphill hike on a well-defined path to the base of the cliffs.
The best thing about Shanty Cliff is its number of moderate climbs. The Adirondacks are a hard climber’s dream, but often the beginning climber gets short shrift. Not so here—there are several 5.2 and 5.4 climbs that should please anyone new to climbing (climbs are rated from 5.1 to 5.15 in difficulty). While these low-angle routes are not highlights of the cliff, they provide an easy entry into what can be an intimidating sport.
The first line that attracted my attention was a route called Mean Low Blues, which is rated 5.7 G. The “G” indicates that it’s easy to protect—that is, there are loads of cracks into which the lead climber can place metal chocks or spring-loaded cams. The climber clips his or her rope to these pieces of protection to guard against a long fall.
Being the most experienced in our group, I would lead the climb. I tied the rope to my harness and began to climb. Beth belayed me from below. If I were to slip, she would hold the rope snaking through her belay device to stop my fall. Because she’s more than eighty pounds lighter than me, I tethered her with a carabiner to a nylon sling hitched around a tree. That would keep her from being pulled off the ground if I did fall.
Mean Low is a short route, about fifty feet. It follows a series of grooves and cracks up less-than-vertical rock to a fixed anchor at the top. I elected to start on a slightly harder variation, with a few committing moves toward the top. The route went fine. The lowering less so: Beth, still relatively new to climbing, didn’t notice that she was lowering me directly onto the pointed tip of a five-foot-high tree stump.
“Ow!” I yelled, making contact with the offending wood in a rather sensitive part of my person. On the ground, I diplomatically and with tact informed her of the need for a belayer to keep an eye on where her partner is being lowered. Although I might not have said it quite so tactfully. My right buttock, after all, was in considerable pain.
When I calmed down, I added in better humor: “If that stump was two inches to the left this might have ended a lot more tragically.”
Now it was Beth’s turn. She had climbed in a Capital Region gym for several years but hadn’t done much outdoor climbing. I showed her how to tie a figure-eight knot (connecting the rope to her harness), and she started climbing. She did well on the first half but faltered at the crux, or hardest part, where the rock got vertical and the footholds tiny and sloping. “OK, I’ll stop here,” she said after a few attempts. I lowered her, making sure to watch out for the stump.
Phil had some trouble at the crux as well, but finished the route. We top-roped a second line only a few feet away before I pulled down the rope and we moved on.
Shanty Cliff follows the contours of a steeply rising hill. As you climb the hill along the base, you can see how the cliff’s unofficial caretakers have established horizontal shelves of dirt shored up with sticks and branches. This decreases erosion from humans and gives belayers a comfortable place to stand. I was impressed by the care that climbers have shown trying to protect the base area.
Shanty Cliff was “discovered” in 1982, according to Adirondack Rock. In the early and mid-eighties, several teams of climbers established some of the cliff’s plum lines. In 2007, a group of climbers calling themselves the Shanty Team decided to establish the area for beginners, improving the trail and developing some of the easier walls.
After our trip, I reached out to Shanty Team member Gary Thomann, who helped develop the cliff with his friend Bill Griffith.
“Before 2007, it was almost impossible to get to,” he told me. “There was really no trail, and it was a blind search. Bill got interested in Shanty, and he and his son Keegan spent some time figuring out how to get to the cliff, and they laid out a trail. About then I got involved.”
Gary and Bill spent many days cleaning up the bottom of the cliff and then looking at the cliff for potential routes. “I believe we put in about twenty new routes, ranging in grade from about 5.4 to, I think, 5.11,” he said. “Our development was done primarily to make the routes safe for climbers. Although you might fall, you would not get hurt.”
I admired some of those routes as we walked below the cliff. We passed a variety of 5.10s, with intimidating but doable-looking starts, making me wish we had more time to explore on this short day. We were headed to the left end of the cliff, where Phil knew a spot where he could get some good pictures of us climbing. (Incidentally, the top of the cliff offers a wide-open vista of the East Sacandaga and southern Adirondacks.)
I set up below Flying Friends, another 5.7 that proved much more challenging than the first one. The first few moves follow a vertical crack through an overhang. Climbers have to commit to an awkward stance a few feet off the ground, jam a hand into the crack, and then pull themselves up the overhang.
The second half of the climb was also hard. The crux, nearly at the top, required a hand traverse along a crack with no feet placements at all. You have to make your way around the corner while committing all your weight to hands jammed into a sharp crack. It took me a minute or so of grunting before I was able to make the move, leaving me with a bruised wrist.
Phil had a bit of trouble at the start, so I showed him a technique called the “drop-knee,” which is useful when there’s a wall behind you, such as in an inside corner. With this technique, climbers use the bottom of their foot to push themselves into the rock from behind, easing the strain on their arms. Phil succeeded on his second try and climbed the rest of the route.
Now it was time to take Beth up something she would enjoy. We chose a route called Circuitous S**t (climbers are known for their ribald sense of humor), which was a 5.4. It followed a wide crack up easy rock. Beth got to the top without difficulty. “That was almost too easy,” she said. “Almost.”
By now it was late afternoon. But I wanted to do at least one more climb. We settled on one of the route’s classic routes, Soweto, which is named for a Johannesburg slum (many of the climbs are named for famous slums—riffing on the “Shanty Cliff” name). It’s next to another, harder route called Rocinha. “I’ve been to Rocinha,” said Beth, who spent a year living in Rio, Brazil. It is, she explained, the city’s largest favela, or slum, and not a place anyone wants to be at night.
Soweto is a 5.8, but I found it easier than Fearless Friends. The hardest move was twenty feet up, but a hidden hold allowed me to move past it quickly. From there, a beautiful, right-rising crack led me to the top, passing a ledge with a huge nest of sticks, the work of ravens. Phil went next. After a few tries, he found the hidden hold and then did the rest of the route with ease.
Time to go. By the time we reached the river, it was nearly dark and getting chillier. We put on our sandals again and waded across the river in moonlight. I knew I would come this way again. Hopefully, the water will be warmer next time.
Directions: Park at the Cod Pond trailhead on NY 8. The pull-off is 8.8 miles from Bakers Mills and 8.4 miles from NY 30. Walk 0.1 miles north along NY 8 to a woods road on the left that leads in 450 feet to the East Branch of the Sacandaga. The unmarked path begins on the other side. If this part of the river is flooded by beavers, walk upstream until you come to a section shallow enough to wade.