Group finds unique beauty by ascending above High Peaks hikers
By Kevin MacKenzie
Imagine that you are deep in the wilderness on an overhang of yellow, tannin-stained ice. Only the ice tools in your hands and the front-point of each crampon holds you in place. The wind whips spindrift across your face as you kick into the ice and send small shards spiraling downward. You focus on the environment, your body position and each movement.
There was a time when I could not understand what compelled people to climb ice. It seemed crazy and counterintuitive. Time changes perspective, and understanding opens the mind. I realized that the freedom and beauty of ice climbing is unique, even if the learning curve is steep and sometimes perilous.
The pinnacle of my 2019 and 2020 ice climbing seasons found me on two dream routes. The first, “The Matrix” (WI5+ on the water ice scale), was first ascended on Feb. 10, 2000, by Jared Schue and Tom Yandon. It forms on the wall north of Mount Colden’s Trap Dike in Avalanche Pass. Don Mellor’s guidebook, “Blue Lines 2,” calls it “a fine, hard route: direct, exposed, and varied.” Its elegant, multitiered line and high-elevation, lakeside location 5 miles from the Loj trailhead was alluring.The second, “Passion and Warfare” (WI5/M5), was first ascended on Feb. 22, 2020, when Katie Vannicola, Emily Schwartz and Harold Sutton accompanied me to Mount Marcy’s Chimney Wall in Panther Gorge. This route up a distinct chimney/trap dike is a stout, cerebral mixed climb (requiring both rock and ice climbing protection) with four overhanging sections. The ice is typically thin and brittle. Locating the climb requires an 8.5-mile walk including arduous bushwhacking and navigation over rugged terrain.
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Entering The Matrix
Devin Farkas, Marielle Matthews and I walked across Avalanche Lake to the base of “The Matrix.” It was daunting to view from below: thick yellow curtains frozen to ominously dark stone. The wind-contorted icicles that hung from each tier without touching the wall affirmed that some sections were beyond vertical. Devin was enthusiastic to lead, and after a second glance upward, I didn’t stand in his way.
Multiple freeze-thaw cycles during the winter created thick, continuous ice that eliminated the need for rock gear. Moderate March temperatures meant that we wouldn’t be battling numb fingers and toes. Marielle put Devin on belay and I watched him climb the ramp to a ledge below the first curtain. The thunk of his tools echoed off the adjacent cliffs as he climbed higher and then traversed right. His position among the long icicles made it look like he was navigating through the teeth of a frozen dragon.
He fluidly climbed the next section to a rest before tackling the final curtain. His lead was over within an hour. As an efficient climber, he made it look easy, but I knew his forearms were feeling the pump.
I climbed next. The initial moves off the ledge placed me on fluted overhanging ice formations. The traverse required maneuvering over small columns and ripples. The quality of the ice thereafter was magnificent—thick, well-bonded to the underlying rock, featured with small knobs that served as good foot stances, and the occasional oblong hole that let me insert a tool rather than striking to gain a placement. Nonetheless, I sensed the strain of climbing overhang ice—an insecure feeling. My forearms ached after such sustained climbing.
I stopped to rest on a narrow ledge below the final curtain. This gave Marielle a chance to climb while I photographed. I heard her moving, but she wasn’t yet in sight, so I turned my attention to the scenery. Avalanche Lake sprawled north through the pass as the pines 150 feet below reached skyward like fuzzy green needles. Groups of hikers passed and occasionally stopped to watch the “crazy ice climbers.” I peered behind the hollow curtain and saw the adjacent routes up smears of even brighter yellow ice. It was a breathtaking arena.
Once Marielle reached my position, I finished ascending the route and was greeted by a smile and a high-five. The upper curtain felt similar to the prior tier, but the same area would be considerably more frightening with thin-ice conditions. A single rappel on double ropes placed us at our pack with time for lunch and two more routes.
Of Passion and Warfare
There is no easy way to access “Passion and Warfare.” The location combined with winter weather anomalies can present a logistical nightmare, but nothing worthwhile is easy. Katie, Emily, Harold and I arrived at the base of the chimney after six hours of continuous hiking from the Loj and a subsequent bushwhack. Being a gentleman, I offered the lead to the others, but had no takers … hmm. I looked up and knew that this would be the most technical lead of my career.
The initial 20 feet involved climbing an easy ramp that was partially eroded from a recent melt. Every depression was filled with sugar snow, so I had to clean and assess the ice before placing each tool. I sunk a tool into the ice and tested it with a shoulder tug. It tore free. A second strike shattered the left-hand side. This was finicky climbing on brittle, bullet-hard ice. I took a few deep breaths and stopped for a moment to enjoy the setting before committing to the climb. The view included Mount Haystack, weathered anorthosite on both sides, and an array of untouched ice formations above.
The first challenge was an overhanging, lichen-splotched wall of basalt (typical of trap dikes). Delicate wrist flicks of the tool and careful footwork helped me climb to its top where the ice was more robust. This placed me below the second overhanging section where the ice narrowed and the dry-tooling choices were poor. Dry tooling involves using the ice tools and crampons on the features of the stone. I eventually found a small edge with the tip of a tool and made a muscly move to an awkward rest. Only my feet, braced on the adjacent wall, held me in place on a precarious ramp 80 feet above the ground.
Bypassing a huge chockstone was the next intimidating obstacle. I did this by transitioning from my rest to a thin veneer of ice on the opposite wall. The move sent my heart racing, though a few more movements placed me on a sure stance below a narrow, tilted ice slot. I reached high with the tools and struck. They stuck. I pulled and wriggled up through the notch, then belly-flopped onto a ledge in a cave where I recaptured my fleeting sense of calm—leading a climb this difficult so deep in the backcountry was unnerving. Continually reassessing the risks and remaining calm keeps one alive.
A thick, pale-yellow curtain rimmed with long icicles was next. I stemmed (or climbed in a semi-split) with my left crampon on ice and the other on the opposite wall of the chimney until I committed all four points to the curtain. Plates of ice fell down the chimney with each strike. A few more moves positioned me in a short gully where I breathed a sigh of relief. The remainder of the ascent was up considerably easier ice (WI4) under a huge capstone at the chimney’s top.
Two hours and 18 gear placements later, I tied off to a pine tree and screamed, “Off belay!” It was time for Emily, Harold and Katie to partake in the experience!