A trek up King Wall with the climber who named it
By Phil Brown
I met Don Mellor in Chapel Pond Pass. We parked our cars along Route 73, walked through the open woods, and began scrambling up mossy boulders in a clear, tumbling stream. After 20 or 30 minutes, we rounded a corner and found ourselves dwarfed below a 300-foot-high cliff called the King Wall.
I had been here a few times, but the sudden appearance of the wall still left me awestruck, as if we had stumbled upon a Mayan pyramid in the jungle.
Of course, Don had been here many times. He gave the cliff its name in the first edition of his guidebook, “Climbing in the Adirondacks,” back in 1983. He chose King Wall as a complement to Emperor Slab, the name of a nearby cliff. That name, in turn, was inspired by a rock-climbing route on neighboring Chapel Pond Slab called Empress, which was pioneered in the 1930s by the celebrated Fritz Wiessner.
When Don’s guidebook came out, there was but one climbing route on the King Wall—Elusive Dream, established by Pat Purcell and Francois Paul-Hus just the year before. Today there are 21 routes, according to the modern guidebook “Adirondack Rock” (written by Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas).
The best routes on the King Wall are too difficult for most climbers. These go up vertical or overhanging rock with skimpy handholds and footholds. Yet there is one stellar route that intermediate climbers like me can enjoy. Don put it up with Pat and Mary Purcell in 1989, and in keeping with the regal theme, they named it Prince.
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My outing with Don took place in mid-April. He hadn’t climbed Prince in several years and was looking forward to renewing his acquaintance with this classic route.
“I don’t know it at all,” he remarked while lacing his rock shoes at the base of the cliff.
“That must make it more fun for you,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I’m scared.”
He was joking. Don would have no trouble on Prince. He led me in four short pitches to the top of the cliff. The first pitch is relatively easy: we climbed up a short corner and then traversed right on a foot-wide ledge a belay station. Just before the belay, though, I came to a short gap in the ledge and pondered how to get past it.
“Up or down?” I asked.
“Down,” Don replied without hesitation. “Usually you step down on a traverse. It puts the rope in a better position.” That is, if I were to slip, I would not fall as far before the rope caught me. One perk of climbing with Mellor is that you glean bits of wisdom he has earned in 45 years of climbing and guiding.
The second pitch is harder and riskier. Don surmounted an overhang above the belay and began traversing left across rock without any cracks in which to place cams or nuts—gear that can be clipped to the rope to arrest a fall. “Now we’re getting into the business,” he said, whether to himself or me, I’m not sure.
He made it safely across this “runout” section, placed a cam, and then climbed up and to the right to the next belay. Because of the danger of a long, nasty fall on this pitch, Don cautions that Prince is not a route for beginning leaders.
On the third pitch, we pushed past a large boulder sitting on a ledge and then followed a crack up and left to a belay in a hidden nook. Toward its end, the crack was wet and grungy and, in my opinion, posed the hardest part of the climb. I solved it by shoving my arm in the crack for leverage and stepping on small holds on the adjoining face.
The last pitch offered fun, easy face climbing to a large tree at the top of the cliff, where we enjoyed a wild vista that stretched east to the Green Mountains of Vermont.
We reached the ground in three rappels. The only hitch came on the third and longest. We planned to rap to the bottom on two strands—our climbing rope and a thinner “tag line.” But, stupid me, I had forgotten the tag line. This complicated things, but we managed to get down safely, thanks to Don’s skill.
Though not too far from Route 73, the King Wall is more secluded and quiet than most of the cliffs in Chapel Pond Pass. It’s worth a visit even if you’re just hiking. But I can’t think of a better way to enjoy this spectacular cliff than to climb it—preferably in the company of Don Mellor. In the Adirondack climbing community, he’s royalty.
NOTE: Prince is rated 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal System scale, which runs from 5.0 (very easy) to 5.15 (nearly impossible). The hardest route at the King Wall is 5.12.