Almost singlehandedly, Jay Harrison has transformed his backyard playground of Crane Mountain into a climbing mecca in the southern Adirondacks.
By Don Mellor
Some people just see clouds. Others see all sorts of things—funny little poodles, wrinkly faces, continents. And once the shapes define themselves in the minds of the beholders, they become real and clear. “What do you mean, you can’t see it?” the visionary might ask. “It’s as plain as the nose on my face.”
Such was my impression when I first looked up at the wooded slopes of Crane Mountain. My host, Jay Harrison, was pointing up. “Those are the Summit Cliffs. Way over there is Beaverview Wall. Down and to the right, that’s the Slanting Cracks Wall.”
To me, it looked like a steep woodlot, punctuated by a scattering of small, rocky areas. To Jay, it was the next Adirondack rock-climbing mecca.
Crane Mountain is probably the best moderate hike in the southern Adirondacks. It stands proud and solitary just south of Johnsburg and a bit west of Warrensburg. At 3,254 feet, it’s one of the taller mountains south of the High Peaks, and with its odd high pond and legendary summit ladders, Crane draws a lot of foot traffic. But technical rock climbers wouldn’t give it much notice till Jay Harrison came along and pointed out the shapes in the clouds.
Jay learned about Crane in one of Barbara McMartin’s Discover the Adirondacks hiking guidebooks. McMartin wasn’t a technical climber, but she liked cliffs and made frequent mention of little crags and viewpoints that would attract rock climbers for a closer look. It was March, he remembers, when he made his first trek, and as is the case with every good Adirondack adventure, he quickly got lost. But in getting lost, he also got a good look at the terrain.
Harrison began his climbing career at Hook Mountain Park in the lower Hudson Valley while attending nearby Nyack College. He says the rock at Hook was awful, but the whole experience of being on a rope and climbing steep cliffs was life-changing. While most of his partners from those college days have moved on to life on the flats, Jay “never grew up.”
Later, with the mountains pulling him north, a few other things—namely, three kids and a wife—had their own special tug. Yet as earthmovers could be heard working on the interstate near their home in Rensselaer, dreams of a quieter rural life led Harrison to pull into a realtor’s office in Warrensburg. “Come on along,” the man said. “After I show a little house to this couple here, you and I can look around.” Well the little house didn’t end up with that couple. Instead, Jay’s wife, Robin, decided that the modest perch in the woods, right on the flank of Crane Mountain, would be perfect. The Harrisons live there today.
My own first visit to Crane Mountain came at Jay’s invitation. I had begun research on the third edition of my rock- and ice-climbing guidebook Climbing in the Adirondacks. Those days I still thought that all of the decent rock was up in the greater Keene Valley region. The outlying 75 percent of the Park, as far as I was concerned, was little more than forest and pond. Neither a hunter nor a paddler, I had not been inclined to explore that outlying 75 percent.
On a summer day in 1995 then-Essex County District Attorney Ron Briggs and I drove south to see if little Crane Mountain was worth including in the guidebook. Briggs is a pretty active guy, and those years he was getting into rock climbing. He’d just been out West on the big sandstone walls outside of Las Vegas, and now he was back wandering around the Adirondack high country with the prolific cliff explorer Ed Palen of Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service. According to the story, Briggs would sneak out of his Elizabethtown office, telling his secretary, “I’ll be at the courthouse.” Meanwhile, Palen would get ready to meet him at the Johns Brook trailhead for yet another trip up to a remote hundred-foot cliff that is to this day named the Courthouse. The truth and nothing but the truth.
We met in front of Thurman Baptist Church, where Jay is a deacon and which offers the best view of the mountain. I don’t remember being dazzled by vast quantities of climbable rock that day. I do, however, recall dropping a boulder that chopped Jay’s rope, and I can still feel the fiery burn that comes from sticking one’s hand into a nest of ground bees.
Coincidentally, a few weeks later I got a 3 a.m. call from a rescue dispatcher asking for help with a stranded group of young hikers on Crane Mountain. In a noteworthy lapse of judgment, the group’s adult leader had decided to eschew the trail and make a beeline (sorry) down the southwest slopes back to their van. Jay’s multitude of little cliffs had another plan, however. By the time they were reported missing, the band had stranded themselves atop a hundred-foot wall. Arriving with ropes and climbing gear and aided by the breaking dawn light, I was able to assist state forest rangers in getting the kids back on safe ground.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but this was exactly what Jay had been talking about. The same complexity of hidden rock walls that stranded the hikers and frustrated the nighttime rescuers would decades later make it one of the Park’s most intriguing rock-climbing areas.
Developing a climbing area is a lot less glorious than one might imagine when looking at dramatically posed photos of rock climbers in action. In addition to the obvious challenges of just getting around and finding those little blobs of rock, Harrison’s other frustration was convincing folks to join him. And so he spent much of the 1990s wandering around by himself and climbing routes without a safety rope.
Rock climbers everywhere draw a huge distinction between “ground up” and “top down” climbing. Ground-up climbing means that you start at the bottom and work your way up into the unknown. Jay’s early solo—and later, roped—climbs were all done in this traditional way. Given the self-imposed limitations of this type of climbing, a lot of his first routes are little more than grass-choked cracks and tree-covered ledges.
The top-down climber, on the other hand, can get a lot more done. Simply hike around to the top, fix your rope to some kind of anchor point (at Crane this is always a fat tree), rappel down, and check things out. Not only does this eliminate much of the unknown, it also allows the climber to clean out cracks, brush away lichen, and even inspect it for protection possibilities. Old-school climbers disdain the top-down approach.
Nevertheless, except on the biggest walls out West, top-down climbing had already become the national norm by the time Jay “crossed over the line.” His words. He also briefly called himself a “scum-sucking, no-good, low-life, rap-bolter,” or something to that effect.
But that was the watershed moment, sometime around 2005, when Crane Mountain’s rock menu went from about fifty to more than two hundred route options. Nor is Harrison’s work finished. In 2012 his first ascents added over a mile of new vertical terrain.
In Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella said “If you build it, he will come.” Well, Jay Harrison climbed it, but not too many people showed up. In fact, Jay has put almost as much energy in promoting the place as exploring it.
In 2008 he and his climbing partner Todd Paris decided to pump up interest in Crane and the host of other sleepy little crags in the southern reaches of the Park with the Southern Adirondacks Rock Climbing Festival—a big fancy name for what turned out to be sixteen people drinking beer around a campfire after a day’s climbing at Shanty Cliffs near the East Branch of the Sacandaga River.
Events like this, along with the publication Adirondack Rock, by Jeremy Haas and Jim Lawyer, gave a well-deserved infusion of interest in Crane and other newly discovered cliffs. In 2011 over a hundred climbers showed up, more than a puny campfire could hold. Today, almost exclusively due to Jay Harrison’s relentless explorations, Crane Mountain is among the finest rock-climbing areas in the Park, a welcome addition to the familiar Keene Valley cluster of cliffs.
This past summer I went back for another look at Crane Mountain to see what all the talk was about. Two of my best and oldest climbing buddies were visiting, an annual reunion of a treasured partnership that began forty years ago in New Hampshire and that has taken us from weeklong ascents of El Capitan in Yosemite to first ascents of big ice routes in Newfoundland. Fueled by Ibuprophen and denial, the three of us try to get out every summer, either in the Adirondacks or back on our old cliffs in North Conway, New Hampshire.
Rick Fleming is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, but back in the early eighties, he was one of the best rock climbers in the East, establishing some of the hardest routes (among the first rated 5.12) in New Hampshire. Steve Larson is a legendary hard man, clothes all duct tape, gear all frayed or rusted. Even today, Larson is among the most respected climbers in the hot-bed scene of North Conway. Nothing rattles this guy.
Since I was hosting, and since Rick and Steve had already worked over the well-known cliffs on Poke-O-Moonshine and the Spider’s Web, I suggested a little wooded place to the south. “Seriously, it’s not going to look like much, but my friend Jim Lawyer says there’s some amazing stuff down there,” I told them. As we drove south out of the high mountains into the wooded lowlands, Rick and Steve peered longingly out the window at the big rock faces around Chapel Pond. They were even more skeptical when we stopped in front of Thurman Baptist Church for a look.
We met up with Lawyer, who led us along a faint but smartly laid-out path toward a cliff called Black Arches Wall. Our destination was Black Arches Arete, “maybe the single best pitch of rock climbing in the Adirondacks,” according to Jim. But we were told to beware: no one had taken the big fall from the last moves, but it would be a doozie since there’s nothing to clip the rope into for the last twenty-five feet.
About a half-hour later, we dropped our packs at the bottom of the route, a steep, clean blade of rock almost a hundred feet tall. It was right about then that Jay emerged from the woods, having come in on his own private little trail from his back door.
“Whatcha got in mind?” Jay asked. “Oh, Black Arches Arete? Cool. Who’s leading?”
Rick and I looked up, then at each other, and in unison replied, “Steve.”
The first part of the climb went quickly, with Larson powering up a two-inch hand crack in a vertical corner. About fifty feet up, he hooked his foot out onto the vertical ridge where the business began. Twenty feet higher was a deep horizontal crack, the last place to arrange any safety gear.
Steve spent many minutes inspecting the sheer slab above. He checked and rechecked his two cams, chalked up his hands, and rocked onto a tiny sloping foothold. No turning back. The final twenty feet was a combination of tiny side pulls, no thicker than the width of a pencil, and spooky little dents that were supposed to hold shoe rubber.
Jim, Rick, and Jay watched intently from below. But I looked instead at Jay as Steve topped and let out his celebratory hoot. A skilled and world-traveled climber had been tested on the humble cliffs of Crane Mountain. Jay was a happy man.
Yes, Crane Mountain is a bit of a Rorschach Test. If your ideal climbing area is a sheer and towering wall of yellow granite, then you’ll probably see just a steep hillside, dotted with lichen-covered little slabs. But if you are an eccentric, hyperkinetic, terminally optimistic, and generous fifty-two year old who hasn’t grown up yet, Crane Mountain is pure Yosemite, looming over the little white church in Thurman. ■