Climber’s ode to park’s remote crags won’t likely spoil the fun
By Phil Brown
Some people were into social distancing before the pandemic. They’re the ones you won’t see on the busy trails in the Adirondack High Peaks. They prefer the path less beaten, the pond less paddled, the peak seldom visited.
Such people usually have their favorite spots where they can escape the madding crowd and enjoy wilderness in peace. Usually, they keep them secret.
For Kevin “MudRat” MacKenzie, that happy place is Panther Gorge, the fabled valley between Mount Marcy and Mount Haystack. MacKenzie, however, is not shy about publicizing the merits of the gorge. In fact, he’s written a book about it.
MacKenzie’s release of “Panther Gorge” (2019) followed a decade of exploration of one of the most remote and wildest regions in the Adirondacks. In all, he and his companions made more than 40 trips into the gorge. Initially, he hiked and climbed slides. Later, he began scaling the gorge’s steep walls and ice flows—excursions that required a great deal of technical virtuosity, not to mention ropes, harnesses and other tools of the climbing trade. Since the book was written, he has made 30 more trips to the gorge.
By Kevin B. MacKenzie
MudRat Publications, Upper Jay
Softcover, 228 pages, $48.95
The bulk of the book, a section titled “The Chronicles of Panther Gorge,” is devoted to descriptions of his adventures and the rock and ice routes that he and his partners pioneered. Other sections tell the story of the gorge’s previous explorers, from Alfred Billings Street in 1865 to the technical climbers of today.
In the 19th century, William H.H. Murray’s woodsy travelogue “Adventures in the Wilderness” drove hordes of tourists to the Adirondacks. Will MacKenzie’s book do the same for Panther Gorge, perhaps spoiling the place he loves? Probably not.
“It’s doubtful that the area will attract any but the most adventurous souls that are willing to put in a full day and even bleed a bit,” he writes. “Access will always be via a long approach and requisite bushwhack.”
MacKenzie likely has donated a few pints of blood and sweat to Panther Gorge. Typically, he’d awake at an ungodly hour, hit the trail before dawn, hike nearly 8 miles from the Garden to the col between Marcy and Haystack, bushwhack deep into the gorge, do a climb or two, and then slog back to the Garden in the dark.
Consider the expedition of August 27, 2016. He and two partners—Nolan Huther and Loren Swears—put up a rock route on the east face of Marcy. They left the Garden at 4:20 a.m., encountered a bear while hiking to the gorge, and arrived at the base of their intended route at 10:30 a.m. The four-pitch climb proved more difficult than expected. It would be eight hours before they rappelled back to terra semi-firma. They then clambered over talus slopes in the dark to reach the Phelps Trail. They got back to the Garden at 2 a.m.—nearly 22 hours and 20 miles after their day began. MacKenzie named the route Revelations. “Sometimes one asks for an adventure, and God answers in the affirmative!” he remarks.
But I don’t want to mislead readers regarding the difficulty of MudRat’s outings. Most of them took less than 20 hours. In fact, on one lackadaisical day, he and his companions put up an ice route (Pi Day) in a 15-mile round trip that took only 12 1/2 hours.
MacKenzie was not the first to climb in Panther Gorge. Jim Goodwin—a local legend—did a rock climb there in 1936, but it’s uncertain where the route went. At the end of the 20th century there were just three documented routes. In the first decade of the 20th century, Bill Schneider and others established several new routes. Starting in 2010 MacKenzie and his friends—most notably Adam Crofoot—made regular trips to the gorge and put it on the radar screen of fellow climbers.
At the time of his book’s publication, MacKenzie had participated in 46 first ascents of rock and ice climbs in the gorge, some as leader, some as follower. And he’s still at it. He now has 67 first ascents to his credit. It’s reasonable to assume that MacKenzie is more familiar with Panther Gorge than anyone who ever lived—and perhaps anybody who ever will live.
Doubtless, most climbers will continue to prefer roadside crags such as Jewels and Gems, the Beer Walls, or Pitchoff Cliff. MacKenzie’s book is a reminder that bigger adventures await those bold and hardy enough to seek them.
“My guess is that this book will grab you,” Don Mellor says in the foreword. “An 18-hour round trip can’t be that bad, you’ll tell yourself from the comfort of your reading chair. You’ll see the photographs, the lines on the big rock walls, and you’ll read the story, as told by the MudRat himself. Then a few of you will actually make the trip. Yet despite all the excellent journaling, the meticulous research, the delineations, and the definitions, you will discover that Panther Gorge still protects most of its secrets.”
MudRat may be busy for a while longer.