Exploring an often overlooked mountain for climbers
By Alan Wechsler
Located about 25 minutes west of Warrensburg, Crane Mountain is a popular hiking spot but something of a sleeping giant in the climbing world. With more than 250 routes and located much closer to New York’s big population centers than the climbing mecca of the Keene Valley area, Crane ought to have more climbers than it gets, which is often none.
But then again, despite a well-written section in the Adirondack Rock guidebook series, Crane is an intimidating destination. Its routes are spread over a large area with dozens of cliffs and slabs. Finding them requires navigating a complicated series of unmarked paths or, in some cases, no paths.
Just finding the trailhead is a challenge. It’s located amid a warren of back roads in Warren County, with a tenuous GPS signal and few signs pointing. Despite visiting here at least 10 times, I often get lost.
The routes vary in quality. Some are classics that deserved to be climbed often. And some are scary, lichen-covered, loose-rock affairs that have never seen a second ascent.
So, why do I keep coming back?
I considered this as I brought my friend and fellow climber Abe Ferraro on his first visit to Crane. I remembered enough from previous visits to find the parking lot with only a few missed turns, and then the well-worn herd path that leads to the mountain’s most popular (a relative term, to be sure) climbing routes.
We headed toward an area known generally as “Crane East.”
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The rugged hiking trail brings visitors up several miles of steep terrain, including several ladders. It also traverses a slide area where, one spring many years ago, a friend and I were very nearly demolished by a piece of falling ice the size of an upright piano.
The rock climbing is divided into four regions: East, West, Central and Summit Cliffs. The marked hiking path traverses Central and the Summit Cliffs. West is nearly terra incognita, and rarely visited. And East contains the region’s best and most popular climbs, and thus the easiest to get to.
“Easy,” of course, is relative. One particularly complex area is known as the Upper Walls and has so many routes and approach trails at different levels that the guidebook illustration has more squiggly lines than a Chutes and Ladders game.
After about 20 minutes of slightly uphill hiking, we reached the Measles Group. This consists of several short cliffs, named for the hundreds of dimples on the face. Some of the routes here have bolts (protection permanently affixed to the rock). We roped up and tried several of the climbs (it was hard to say which ones, as they all looked alike). Despite the less-than-vertical pitch, the dimples proved hard to hold on to, the climbing harder than expected.
We took Bella Vista, a 400-foot route up a low-angle slab, with one mildly challenging section up a short, vertical crack. I let Abe have the first lead. After he belayed me up, he mentioned how he accidentally managed to skip clipping the rope to one of the few bolts on the route.
I had some trouble figuring out where to go. There were several tree islands between the long, exposed rock sections to navigate. Eventually, we made the top of something.
From that exposed perch, we looked north to the mountains of the eastern and central Adirondacks. I could also see, much closer, the home of Jay Harrison, a cabinet maker and local climbing guide, and the man most responsible for putting Crane on the climber’s map.
In 1993, Harrison moved here from the Capital Region with his family. He began climbing hundreds of routes. He followed the old-school ethics of first ascents: it only counts if you start from the ground, as opposed to scouting it by rappelling down from the top. Also, any cleaning had to be done as you climb. And only natural protection, such as by placing gear in cracks, could be used—no bolts.
Over the years, Harrison put up a few classic routes and a lot more that involved moss, lichen, dirt, or loose rock (what climbers call “choss”). Often he climbed solo. If things got sketchy, he reversed his moves, or traversed off into nearby trees. “A lot of those were climbs that nobody in their right mind would ever repeat,” he told me recently.
Harrison hurt his back in 2014 and doesn’t guide much anymore. But I’ve run into him on the cliff several times. He’s usually climbing with friends, showing off one of the mountain’s classics.
From the spot where Abe and I turned left to get to Bella Vista, the trail leads to many other areas of interest. The Black Arches Wall has several recommended routes. The Upper Walls area also has some excellent routes. For a healthy sampling, you’d have to make many trips here. Or perhaps move next door, as Jay did.
The best way to learn your way around is to come with someone who’s been here before. Or at least read the guidebook instructions carefully and hope for the best.
As for us, our day was running down. We headed back to the car, knowing we had had some adventures in a place few climbers know about.
And it wasn’t over—I still managed to get lost on the way out. Such is Crane Mountain.