Climbers scale the epic of Gothics
By Alan Wechsler
You would think that ice would be a key ingredient in ice climbing, no?
Axes in your hands and crampons on your feet, you pick and kick your way up what is supposed to be a giant icicle. But on this fog-drenched Saturday in December, the North Face of Gothics is hardly icy.
Gothics Mountain, 4,736 feet high, was named because it reminded one early explorer of a gothic cathedral. It offers steep rockslides on three sides, particularly at the northwest. This North Face rises 1,000 feet with a pitch of about 45 degrees. Few brave the long journey into the backcountry to scale it.
When Kevin “MudRat” MacKenzie told me he was planning a climb in December of 2020, I wanted in.
The mystique about this remote slab is described by Don Mellor in “Blue Lines 2, An Adirondack Ice Climber’s Guid.” “Every climbing area needs a notorious ‘north face,’ and ours is Gothics Mountain,” he warns. “Know that …being stranded on thinly-covered rock will be more terrifying than you can imagine.”
We set out after sunrise from The Garden trailhead in Keene Valley with Katie Vannicola, an emergency room nurse and veteran climber with much more experience than me. It’s murky and about 32 degrees.
After several hours of churning through mud, we leave the trail for a drainage that heads to the base. I’m dubious that there would even be a frozen face. But as we ascend past 3,000 feet, it becomes clear that winter is in full swing. By the time we reach the route, we are in a frosty wonderland.
Kevin has his tools out. The ice is about a half-inch thick, friable and full of air holes, but it supports his weight. A few yards over, a veneer of wet snow plasters the rock.
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The frozen steep: Don Mellor, ice climbing guidebook author, gives an overview of ice climbing. READ MORE
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The good, the brittle and the dirty: Ice climbing at Cascade Pass is a solid start for beginners. READ MORE
Jacob Furr swings his ice axe as he leads Buster on Cascade Pass. Sierra McGivney photo
This face has a dangerous history—several accidents that climbers call “epic.” One, in January 2006, involved Bob Kubiak. Kubiak was 800 feet up when he swung his ice tools into frozen tufts of moss to surmount a vertical step. But when he lifted one tool to move higher, the other popped.
He fell about 20 feet and shattered his right foot on landing. Then he slid backward down the face.
“I tried to self-arrest,” said Kubiak, 69, who lives in western New York and still ice climbs. “I remember looking at the ice pick scratching through the ice into the rock.”
After 75 feet, the rope caught on a twig. His team descended by rope. Rangers rescued him and a State Police helicopter flew him out the next day.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a super-technical route,” Kubiak said. “But any time you’re going back there, it’s going to be serious. Anything can happen.”
I keep that story in mind as we stare up at this blank, white incline. It’s hard to tell the safest climbing spot. There are patches of snow next to bare rock, and between them the glimmer of either thin ice or just crust.
Kevin heads up, “soloing” without rope. He plans to take photos while I lead Katie by rope. I keep my heels low, ensuring maximum contact with crampon points. Kevin advises: “Don’t go this way.” I can only imagine how grim his stance is.
Two inches of snow is enough to avoid me sliding. Half a rope length later, the angle eased and I pass a one-inch-thick tree into a shallow corner. My rope is more of a mental crutch. A slip would have sent me sliding 200 feet, assuming Katie’s measly anchor caught me.
“Can you come this way?” Kevin asks. I head toward the trees, but when I’m 20 feet away, Katie calls: “No more rope!”
In front of me are tufts of partially frozen moss for my ice tool to grab. I’m one piece of moss away from an epic.
I direct Katie to climb. She’s experienced what Kevin calls the “screaming barfies” that come with climbing hard terrain and clutching the ice tools, numbing fingers and leading to retching.
By the time she arrives at the belay, it’s nearly 3 p.m. We’re only about halfway up the face, with about 90 minutes of light left. We agree it’s safer to head down. From here, we bushwhack through the woods and angle back to the base.
It takes us another four hours to reach the car, aided by headlamp. We experience no epics.
A day later, stiff from the effort, I receive a text message from Kevin. He forwarded me a trip report from an early spring ascent several years earlier. It was a bluebird day, the Gothics face covered in six inches of fresh snow, rippled with veins of ice —perfect conditions.
“What’s that shiny stuff in between the snow layers?” I write back. “We should try climbing that sometime.”
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