EMS guide Matt Wiech never tires of taking rock-climbing clients up a historical route on Upper Washbowl Cliff.
By Phil Brown
FRITZ WIESSNER is a legend in the history of rock climbing, and he put up many stellar routes in the Northeast: in the Shawangunks in downstate New York, on Ragged Mountain in Connecticut, in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and right here in the Adirondacks.
All told, he pioneered some eighteen routes in the Adirondacks, including one of the earliest (in 1938) on Wallface, the region’s tallest cliff. His most famous route is the Empress on Chapel Pond Slab, which the guidebook Adirondack Rock awards five stars, its highest rating for a climb’s overall quality.
But Matt Wiech’s favorite Fritz route is on Upper Washbowl, a vertical wall on the west side of Giant Mountain. He likes it not only for its historical significance and the variety of the climbing, but also for the breathtaking views of Chapel Pond far below and the High Peaks to the west.
“It’s a treat whenever you get to climb this cliff,” remarks Wiech, a guide for the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School in Lake Placid.
Certainly, the climb is more intriguing than its name: Wiessner Route. You can find similarly named routes in other parts of the country, a testament to the German immigrant’s passion for adventure and travel. Indeed there are four other Wiessner Routes just in the Adirondacks: on Wallface, Noonmark Mountain, Mount Colden, and Indian Head. And there is a Wiessner-Austin Route on Big Slide Mountain. For sheer prosaicness, though, it’s hard to beat “Old Route,” the appellation of four other Wiessner creations in the Adirondacks, on Noonmark, Hurricane Crag, Chapel Pond Gully Cliff, and Rooster Comb.
When first done, these were tough climbs. In Wiessner’s heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s, people climbed in hiking boots and protected themselves with hemp ropes (liable to snap) and pitons. The motto then was “the leader must not fall.” Given today’s sticky-soled shoes, nylon ropes, and chocks and camming devices that can be slotted into cracks, most of Wiessner’s routes are now regarded as fairly easy—which makes them appealing to novice and intermediate climbers with an appreciation of history.
As an EMS guide, Wiech is usually leading clients up moderate routes. Expert climbers, after all, seldom need to hire a guide. Wiech has a whole repertory of such routes, including the one on Upper Washbowl. Some of the others are Pete’s Farewell on Pitchoff Cliff, Quadrophenia on Hurricane Crag, Tilman’s Arete overlooking Chapel Pond, and Regular Route on Chapel Pond Slab. Though an expert himself, he never tires of doing the easier stuff.
“Some of my favorite days in the mountains are climbing more moderate terrain but covering a lot of ground,” he says. “There is something to be said for moving smoothly and quickly on rock rather than always being at your limit.”
And so he doesn’t mind taking me up Upper Washbowl’s Wiessner Route even though he has already done it three times this year. Early on a fall morning, I pick him up at his home in Saranac Lake. On the forty-five-minute drive to the trailhead, we chat about his love of climbing.
Wiech, who is thirty, has been climbing more than a climbing gym near Buffalo and was hooked He soon got to know older climbers, who began taking him to real rock, first to the Niagara Escarpment in Ontario, later to the Adirondacks and to New River Gorge in West Virginia.
On one trip to the Adirondacks, the crew rolled into the state campground below Poke-o-Moonshine Mountain in darkness. When he awoke in the morning, Wiech was astounded by the giant cliff rising four hundred feet above them, much higher than the crags in Ontario and West Virginia that he cut his teeth on. One of the first climbs he did was Gamesmanship, a six-hundred-foot route with five pitches, or stages.
“It was exciting to explore another aspect of climbing—long routes—and that continues to be a draw for me to this day,” he says.
After graduating high school, Wiech spent a year driving around the country in a van, visiting such iconic climbing destinations as Red River Gorge in Kentucky, Hueco Tanks in Texas, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Devil’s Tower and the Tetons in Wyoming, and Yosemite and Joshua Tree in California. In those days, climbing was all: “It was just like, ‘Well, we have enough gas money to make it there, then we’ll just see what happens.’ Finding food in dumpsters, not enough gas money to go anywhere else—it really didn’t matter as long as we were in a place with good climbing and good weather. I felt like I had all the time in the world, and I suppose I actually did, looking back on things.”
Eventually, he moved to the Adirondacks to attend Paul Smith’s College, where he earned a degree in environmental studies. “Living here really opened my eyes to how special this place is, from a recreation standpoint as well as a conservation standpoint,” he says. “The natural world rules around here, and you are reminded of that every day.”
He married a woman from Tupper Lake (Jamie Konkoski), fathered a son (Jasper, now eight), and tried to make a go of it as a free-lance guide, supplementing his income with a variety of other jobs. In 2009, he started working for EMS, which has grown into a full-time gig.
We park along Route 73 near Chapel Pond, where we meet three others who will join us: Josh Wilson, a photographer; Will Roth, another EMS guide, and Monique Wicks, a friend of Will. From the highway, we follow a herd path past the Creature Wall, another climbing crag, to the talus below Upper Washbowl. In a half-hour or so, we reach the base of the Wiessner Route, a short chimney-like feature next to a corner in the cliff.
The crux, or hardest part, of the 335-foot climb lies only forty feet above us: a large rectangular block, about the size of a refrigerator. Even Wiessner had trouble surmounting the block when he made the first ascent in 1938. He did the route with two partners, Bob Notman, a former president of the Harvard Mountaineering Club, and M. Beckett Howorth, a physician afflicted with the climbing bug. Howorth later wrote: “Having observed his labors in circumventing the block, and being naturally lazy, I found a way to traverse from the sloping slab to the top of the block, thereby avoiding the crack, much to Fritz’s disgust, and Bob followed.”
Matt and I are determined to do it Fritz’s way, but we have to wait while Will leads Josh and Monique up the cliff on a different rope. After Josh gets in position to take photos, Matt climbs to the block, places a camming device in a crack, clips the rope to the device to catch him in case of a fall, wedges his foot in the crack, stands up, and hoists himself over the block. He makes it look so easy. He then continues to a ledge about seventy-five feet up, placing cams en route, and anchors himself to the rock.
“On belay!” he calls down.
“Climbing!” I shout back.
The moment of truth arrives. I am at the block and reach upward to retrieve the camming device. Normally, this is a simple matter: you pull on a trigger on the shaft to retract the cams, allowing the device to slip out of the crack. But this one is set deep in the crack and under the block, making it difficult to grasp the trigger. As I struggle with the trigger with one hand, my other hand is wedged in the crack, holding much of my weight. It doesn’t take long for my arm to tire. I start to worry that I’ll slip. Since I’m attached to the rope, I won’t get hurt if I fall, but I want to climb the route cleanly. I retreat to better footholds to rest, then have at it again.
Eventually, I get the sucker out, but I still have to climb over the block. Following Matt’s example, I wedge my right foot in the crack and stand so I can grasp the top of the block. When my hands find some good holds, I know I can do it. With the four climbers above shouting encouragement, I work my feet higher and pull myself onto the block. Yes! I did it the Wiessner way, albeit with more grit than grace.
The rest of the climb is easier. On the second pitch, we find generous handholds and footholds to facilitate the ascent. The pitch ends at a cedar tree near Slanting Ledge, a wide ramp that bisects the cliff. The comfortable ledge offers climbers a respite and a chance to savor views of the Great Range.
For the third pitch, climbers typically walk 150 feet along the ramp to a short chimney at the far end, where the final pitch begins. When Matt guides, however, he divides the ledge into two short pitches so he can stay in communication with his client. Thus, he sets up a belay anchor next to a giant inside corner. The crack in the corner is Partition, one of the best of the harder routes on Upper Washbowl. It’s also a sober reminder of the risks of climbing. In 2010, Dennis Murphy died in a fall while preparing to rappel from the top of Partition. He hit the ledge and then plunged to the bottom of the cliff. Murphy was a manager at the EMS store, and Matt knew him well.
From Partition, it’s an easy scramble (mostly walking) to the start of the final pitch, a wide crack in the corner. It’s the hardest part of the climb after the rectangular block. Matt makes quick work of the short pitch, following a large crack on the left. I follow without much trouble, finding plenty of footholds and handholds on the way. The exit at the end entails a slightly tricky move.
I’m the last in our group, and when I finish we all exchange hoots and high fives. After we take in the views again, Josh, Will, and Monique begin following a path that leads back to the base of the cliff. Matt and I stay behind so I can get video of him talking about Wiessner.
“He put the route up wearing mountain boots, using hemp rope, pitons—it was very bold, brilliant climbing for the day,” Matt tells me. “As we found out today, the climbing is just as exciting as it ever was.”
On the same weekend in 1938 that he climbed Upper Washbowl, Fritz established the Wiessner Routes on Wallface and Indian Head. The one on Wallface is seldom climbed, and the one on Indian Head is on private land and closed to the public. The Upper Washbowl route, though, is a classic that continues to attract climbers of all abilities. It’s included in Selected Climbs of the Northeast, a compendium of the best climbs in New York and New England.
“It is an impressive route, especially when considering how early it was first climbed, not to mention the commitment involved with heading so high up into the unknown,” the guidebook says.
Wiessner made his mark venturing into unknown vertical realms. Among his feats: in 1935, he established the first routes in the Shawangunks, the most popular climbing cliffs in the Northeast. That same year he put up perhaps the hardest route in the country on Ragged Mountain. In 1937, he became the first to scale Devil’s Tower in Wyoming without artificial aids. In 1939, he nearly made it to the top of K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth, a remarkable achievement for the time. The generations of climbers that followed, in the Adirondacks and elsewhere, remain in his debt.
Notes for climbers
CLOSURES: All of the climbing routes on Upper Washbowl are closed in early spring to give falcons a chance to nest. If the falcons do nest on the cliff, the routes usually remain closed until July 15, sometimes later. If they don’t, the routes are opened in early May. This year falcons didn’t nest on Upper Washbowl, so the routes were open in early May.
DIFFICULTY: Adirondack Rock rates the Wiessner Route 5.6 on the Yosemite Decimal System scale, but only because of the rectangular block that must be circumvented on the first pitch. The second and fourth pitches are rated 5.4 and 5.5, respectively.
The third pitch is a fourth-class scramble over Slanting Ledge.
DIRECTIONS: Park at Chapel Pond, cross Route 73, and walk north along the road to the start of a guardrail. Look for a trail and follow it across a stream and uphill to the Creature Wall. At the Creature Wall, turn left and follow the trail to the talus at the base of Upper Washbowl. When you reach the cliff, turn left and go 150 feet to the start of the Wiessner Route, at a corner. The block on the first pitch is a landmark.
REFERENCES: Descriptions of the route can be found in Adirondack Rock, by Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas, and Selected Climbs of the Northeast, by S. Peter Lewis and Dave Horowitz.