By Phil Brown
It’s 4:40 a.m. What the hell am I doing up?
Oh, yeah, I’m meeting Kevin “MudRat” MacKenzie to go ice climbing.
This is late for MudRat. The guy is notorious for alpine starts. Many times he has awoken at 2:45 a.m., trekked eight-plus miles to Panther Gorge, established a new rock or ice route, and then hiked back out the same day. His longest jaunt to the gorge took 22 hours car to car, 4 a.m. to 2 a.m.
So I feel fortunate. We’re only going to Avalanche Lake, a mere 4 1/2 miles from the trailhead. Nevertheless, this will prove to be one the most exhausting—and exhilarating—outings I have undertaken in a long time.
I’ve been to Avalanche Lake many times in winter, but almost always on skis. The trip to the small lake and its stupendous cliffs is a classic Adirondack ski tour. After taking up ice climbing a few years ago, I had it in mind to combine the skiing with one of the many classic climbs above the lake.
Alas, MudRat is not a skier. That’s OK. After several days of thaw and rain, followed by refreezing, the trail to the lake is bulletproof snow and ice—more suitable to a bobsled than skis.
We meet in the Adirondak Loj parking lot in the predawn darkness and divvy up the gear: two 70-meter ropes, ice tools, ice screws, carabiners, slings, helmets, harnesses, belay devices, along with the usual stuff recommended for a winter outing. With spikes fitted snugly on our climbing boots, we begin hiking. The points of the miniature crampons make a satisfying crunch as they bite into the frozen trail.
Weighted down by heavy packs, we march steadily toward Avalanche Lake without seeing a soul. I’m worried that when we arrive we’ll be blasted by bone-chilling gusts because the cliffs on either side of the slender waterway often act as a wind tunnel. MudRat, however, assures me we’ll be sheltered as the winds are blowing from the northwest—that is, not up the lake.
In 2 1/2 hours, we arrive. MudRat is right: the air is preternaturally still. Most of the lake has been blown clear of snow, leaving a sheen of pale-gray ice. Part of me wishes I had brought my Nordic skates. We walk around the lake a bit, staring up at thin smears of ice pasted to the dark rock. Most of this ice is climbable only by experts—routes such as Dream within a Dream, Gold Rush of ’96, and the Matrix.
There is one route within our ability: the Adirondike, a steep gully first climbed by Don Mellor and Bill Simes circa 1980. The gully appears to be harboring plenty of ice—“fat,” as ice climbers say—and so MudRat and I resolve to climb it if we have time after Avalanche Mountain Gully.
A little farther down the lake is the Trap Dike, a long canyon-like gash in the flank of Mount Colden. Jim Goodwin and Ed Stanley completed the first winter ascent of the Trap Dike in 1935. This was a time when climbers wore primitive crampons and chopped steps in the ice. In those days, climbing a delicate ice smear like Gold Rush would have been unthinkable. With front-pointed crampons and ice tools with drooping picks, today’s climbers have a big advantage.
Avalanche Mountain Gully lies across the lake from the Trap Dike. It’s an old climb that rated a brief mention in Tom Rosecrans’s 1976 guidebook “Adirondack Rock and Ice Climbs,” the first guidebook to catalog the region’s ice routes. Evidently, it lacked a name then. Mellor dubbed the route Avalanche Mountain Gully in his 1983 guidebook. Mellor used check marks to indicate the best climbs, and the gully was one of the best. He dispensed with the checks in his recent guidebook, “Blue Lines 2: An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guide,” but in an email, he told the Explorer he still regards the gully as a great adventure.
At the lake, MudRat and I put on our climbing crampons and head up a steep snow slope, occasionally sinking up to our knees. “Blue Lines” warns that the gully is prone to avalanches, but there is no danger this day—the snow is well consolidated. After a few hundred feet, we stop at a cedar tree to rope up and set up a belay.
The first roped pitch is not exciting. It’s mostly more snow slogging, with a 15-foot-high bulge of ice halfway up. MudRat, who is leading the climb, easily surmounts the bulge and resumes slogging to a birch tree, from where he belays me. I don’t have any trouble with the bulge either. When I reach MudRat he tells me to climb past him to another birch tree. That’s our next belay station.
Now the real climbing is about to begin. Towering above us is a 150-foot wall of ice next to an equally imposing cliff. The ice wall ends in a sort of alcove that “Blue Lines” refers to as “a claustrophobic belay cave.” We can’t see what’s above the cave. Just as impressive as the ice is the vista behind us. We have already ascended a good distance from Avalanche Lake. In the sunshine, the lake ice appears pastel blue. You’d almost mistake it for water if not for the occasional hiker passing through. Beyond the lake, we can peer into the Trap Dike. We also are treated to an amazing view of the slides on Colden.
These views, the ice tower, the rock wall, the cobalt sky, the ice tinkling as it melts and falls from the cliff—what an enchanting spot. Aside from the infrequent ice climber, who has been here, who has soaked up this ambience? Climbing in such a place feels like a privilege.
MudRat trudges a short distance through more snow to the base of the wall. He swings the picks of his tools into the ice and begins climbing. Thwack! Thwack! He reports that the ice is wet—“plastic,” in the climber’s parlance. That’s not a bad thing. It’s easy to sink your picks and points into plastic ice.
He goes up 15 feet and then angles rightward, ascending a groove in the ice that ends near overhanging rock. From there he heads straight up, traverses left, and then climbs over a ledge and disappears. I wait.
After a while, he shouts, “Off belay!” I remove my belay device from the rope. Once MudRat puts me on belay, I begin climbing, retracing his route, removing the ice screws he put in to protect himself in case of a fall. I find the climbing challenging but not desperate. Even on the steeper sections, small protrusions of ice provide stances for the feet.
As I pull over the ledge, I see MudRat about 10 feet away, where he has set up a belay anchor with a pair of ice screws and an ice piton. I climb up and clip myself to the anchor. At our feet is a wide pothole in the ice about 2 feet deep—perhaps created by rushing meltwater during the recent thaw.
The more intriguing feature, though, lies above us: the ice-encrusted “belay cave.” To reach it, MudRat must ascend a fluted column of delicate ice. As he starts up, he can’t help but knock loose chunks that rain down on me. I keep my head down to avoid getting struck in the face. This is why ice climbers must always wear helmets.
Soon he enters the cave and then disappears to the left. Several minutes later, he calls down again: “Off belay!” After he puts me on belay, I break down the anchor and begin climbing. The cave is surreal: icy daggers hang from the ceiling, some yellow, some white, while the floor is coated with verglas. Perhaps cave conveys the wrong impression. It’s more of an alcove or portal. As soon as I enter, the exit is to the left. The ice is thin, so I hook my tool around the corner and pull myself up and out.
The climb is almost over. I sink both tools into a chest-high ledge and surmount it by pushing off an icy wall on the right. From there I ascend a short distance through snow to the belay station. MudRat and I exchange high fives and a fist bump. We’re elated to have made a successful climb, especially one ending in such a spectacular spot hundreds of feet above Avalanche Lake.
But we mustn’t tarry. It’s late afternoon, and we face two long rappels and a down-climb through deep snow to the lake. No way will we have time to climb Adirondike. Indeed, by the time we reach the lake, the moon is already rising. MudRat snaps a photo of the fading sunset, and we begin the long trek back to the car. Famished and fatigued, we reach the parking lot some 13 hours after we had set off in the morning.
MudRat already is looking forward to going back. He liked the cave, the steep ice, the snow climbing, the beautiful views, the sense of remoteness. “It has it all,” he says. “It’s a little alpine experience—Adirondack alpine.”