Tuesday started out beautiful. Mild temperatures. Not a cloud in the sky. After voting, Will Roth and I drove from Saranac Lake to Poke-o-Moonshine Mountain to climb one of the cliff’s mega-classic routes, Gamesmanship.
There was just one other party at the cliff: two guys were roping up for Gamesmanship as we arrived at the base. Two parties, with more than 300 routes to choose from, and both opted for Gamesmanship.
That says plenty about this 575-foot route. The guidebook Adirondack Rock awards it five stars, its highest rating for the overall quality of the climbing. The route is also featured in Selected Climbs of the Northeast by S. Peter Lewis and David Horowitz.
Gamesmanship is usually divided into five pitches. The first is considered the best: it ascends a crack straight up the cliff for 115 feet. The crux, or hardest part, comes at the very outset, where you need to rely on finger and hand jams and small footholds to gain the crack.
Adirondack Rock grades the crux 5.8+ on the Yosemite Decimal System scale, which originally ranged from 5.0 to 5.9. The rest of the pitches are rated as follows: 5.7+, 5.4, 5.8, and 5.3. Selected Climbs rates the entire climb 5.8.
By today’s standards, 5.8 is considered moderate in difficulty. The YDS scale now tops out at 5.15, or a full seven grades higher than Gamesmanship. However, when the route was first done, in 1959, it was nearly as hard as climbing got, and it’s still a challenge today.
The guy who first ascended Gamesmanship was John Turner, an Englishman then living in Montreal. Turner was an exceptionally bold climber who put up several routes at Poke-o and elsewhere in the Adirondacks. He also established classic lines in New Hampshire and at the Gunks outside New Paltz, among other places.
Though Poke-o is one of the biggest and most popular cliffs in the Adirondack Park, it had not been climbed at all before Turner showed up in 1957. Adirondack Rock quotes him as saying, “There had been a lot of hype about Poke-O; it was rumored in Montreal that the legendary Fritz Wiessner had pronounced it unclimbable.” That year, Turner debunked the myth by ascending The Snake and The FM, in which order is not known.
Unlike most climbers of his era, Turner was willing to take a leader fall in pursuit of a new route. This was a time when climbers lacked the sophisticated nuts and cams that are placed in cracks today to protect against a fall. Turner would pound in an occasional piton and clip his rope to it. The authors of Selected Climbs say he became known as Tumbledown Turner.
Another five-star route created by Turner at Poke-O was Bloody Mary (also included in Selected Climbs). Like Gamesmanship, Bloody Mary was first done in 1959, but it is even harder, earning a 5.9+ grade. Adirondack Rock calls Bloody Mary a masterpiece, “a route that took nearly ten years for a second ascent.”
I might not be ready for Bloody Mary. Gamesmanship is among the hardest climbs I have attempted. On Tuesday, Will, who is a professional climbing guide, led the first pitch with no problem. I slipped at the crux but eventually managed to get up it and the rest of the pitch without falling. We then set up a top rope and rappelled so I could climb the first pitch again. I also practiced the crux a few more times, with mixed success.
After that, Will led the first pitch again and then the rest of the climb. The second pitch has a variety of moves – cracks, corner climbing, stemming, a few jams – but it is a little dirty and chossy and so not as aesthetic as the first pitch.
Because of the practice earlier in the day, we didn’t arrive at start of the third pitch until nearly 4 p.m., only 45 minutes before sundown. If we finished the climb, we’d have to rappel in the dark. When Will asked for my thoughts, I said I wanted to continue.
The third pitch is the least satisfying, but it’s short. It goes up blocky terrain, then traverses right to a tree on a ledge.
The fourth pitch is another good one. Climbers ascend two parallel hand cracks, nicknamed the Ski Tracks. The main crack is on the left, but I found the right crack was useful for stemming my foot and occasionally for a handhold.
By the time I got to the top of Ski Tracks, night had fallen. Luckily, the rest was easy as we ascended low-angle slab to the woods above the cliff.
We carefully made our way through the forest down to a large pine tree where climbers have established a rappel station – slings around the tree that hold two metal rings, through which Will threaded our rope (actually two 60-meter ropes tied together).
Will rapped first. Not sure where the next rappel station was, he had to hunt around, the light from his headlamp scanning back and forth over the cliff. Finally, he yelled “Off rappel!” and I started down the cliff, with Will’s lamp serving as my lodestar.
The second rappel anchor was attached to a sheer wall. After Will descended into the darkness again, I felt small and alone, a speck high on a giant cliff beneath a star-speckled sky. Brightly lit tractor-trailers carrying who knows what rushed past on the Northway, but perched where I was, I felt a million miles away from that world of commerce and all the controversies of the day. I felt lucky to be there. It was a thrilling end to a fantastic climb.
After two more rappels, we were safe on the ground. We drove home and soon learned that Donald Trump would be president.
Incidentally, John Turner returned to England in 1962 and turned his passions to fox hunting, rarely to climb again. He died two years ago. Click here to read his obituary in The Alpinist magazine.