Old markers have vanished from two Chapel Pond Slab climbs
By Phil Brown
This summer I traveled west in part to seek out historical rock-climbing routes pioneered by the great Fritz Wiessner in the 1930s and 1940s. After returning home in mid-September, I climbed Wiessner’s route on Chapel Pond Slab–the Empress, first ascended in 1933–and made a disconcerting discovery.
Evidently, someone removed an old ring piton on the fifth pitch of Empress. I’ve climbed Empress dozens of times and always enjoyed seeing this artifact in a crack high on the slab. No doubt other climbers felt the same.
In his prime, Wiessner was perhaps the best rock climber in the country. Even if he didn’t hammer the piton into the rock himself, the rusty piece of iron harked back to an era when climbers scaled cliffs in mountain boots or felt-soled shoes while dragging a hemp rope tied around the waist.
The next day I returned to Chapel Pond Slab and discovered that another old ring piton was missing from the fifth pitch of Bob’s Knob Standard, another historical route. The leader in the first ascent of this route, also in 1933, was John Case, one of the first to introduce European climbing techniques to the United States. He served as president of the American Alpine Club from 1944-46.
Some climbers say it’s possible the pitons were not intentionally removed. For example, they assert the pitons could have fallen out on their own. Or if a climber clipped a rope to a piton and later fell, the piton might have been pulled out by the force of the fall. For a number of reasons, I think both scenarios are far-fetched. Also, I would note that a more modern angle piton is also missing, this one from the first pitch of Empress.
No one knows who placed the ring pitons or when. However, they were of antique vintage, probably made before World War II or soon after.
RELATED: Climbers retrace history on Chapel Pond Slab
“They were ancient when I arrived in 1977,” said Don Mellor, author of Climbing in the Adirondacks and American Rock. “They are archival, communal artifacts. … Taking these is wrong.”
Not only is it wrong; it very well might be illegal. State education law forbids the removal from state land of “any object of archaeological, historical, cultural, social, scientific or paleontological interest.” The state Department of Environmental Conservation once informed the Adirondack Explorer that collecting old beer cans on the Forest Preserve violated the law. Evidently, beer cans qualify as historical artifacts. Surely a piton left by an early rock climber holds as much cultural significance as a beer can tossed in the woods.
Pitons are seldom used today. In the past, climbers would hammer them into cracks and clip their ropes to them for protection against a fall. Early pitons, such as ring pitons, were made of malleable iron. It’s difficult to remove such pitons without damaging them. That could be why climbers left them behind on Empress and Bob’s Knob Standard. Modern pitons are fashioned from sturdier metal and are easier to remove for reuse. (An angle piton of more recent vintage also was removed from the first pitch of Empress.)
If you happen to see a ring piton on a climb, you’re likely on a very old route. That piece of iron is a piece of history. Reflect a moment on those who came before you, who scaled cliffs without modern equipment such as nylon ropes, belay and camming devices, or shoes with sticky-rubber soles. Reflect, and then climb on.
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Looks like someone finally cleaned up the trash. It’s important that we as climbers clean up our own messes and don’t leave unsafe old gear on the rock. Regardless of who placed it. Just remember Lynn only sent the nose because they pulled a pin to use that crack as the crux hold. This behavior is completely acceptable.
Your comment about Lynn’s send is silly, at best
People do clip, and fall, on fixed pegs all the time, especially those who never went through a mentorship period with a knowledgeable and experienced leader. There are folks who regularly climb the slab these days who lack that formal education.
Some Pins pull remarkably easy. The older they are, the easier they pull. I’ve been responsible for more than one broken piton in the Gunks (all backed up with other gear). One of them came from a classic 5.9 at Millbrook called White Corner, and had to be over 40 years old. It still decorates a shelf in my house. I claimed that right when I took a thirty footer on it and snapped it in half.
Why are we so quick to paint the climbing community as would be thieves? These things are probably all similar ages, and thus would stand to reason that they would fail at a similar time. Most likely someone fell on it and ripped it out, or tested its merits with a funkness device, and found it dangerously loose.
Consider it a proactive safety mitigation and be happy someone didn’t die clipping that relic.
Phil Brown says
I would hope anyone leading a multi-pitch climb on the slab would possess enough common sense not to clip a piton as old and rusty as those on Empress and Bob’s Knob Standard–especially since it’s not necessary, given the good cracks nearby. Those ring pitons had been there for decades, perhaps since the 1940s or ’50s. It’s too much of a coincidence to think they both pulled out this summer. And what about the angle piton on Empress? Did that also pull out this summer? The only reasonable assumption is that someone removed them.
The title of this article is misleading and dangerous. There’s no evidence presented that these pitons were stolen. Saying so is accusatory and demeans the climbing community. Old fixed hardware rusts out overtime and whether a human was there to remove it or not could never be known.
Phil Brown says
See my reply to earlier comment. I have no doubt the pitons were taken. Saying so doesn’t demean the climbing community, only the person who took them.
Bill Keller says
I understand leaving this piton behind in the 1940’s was acceptable, but “leave no trace” applies today. Remove all the human litter you find.
Seth Gross says
Phil, your perspective on this is bizarre. If those pitons could be removed by hand, then the person who removed them was doing a great service to the cliff and the community. Your blithe insistence that no one would ever rely on these relics for safety is unrealistic. People would and very likely did, until someone with better sense took these time bombs away.
Phil Brown says
Seth, I’m familiar with the piton on Empress. I don’t think it could have been removed by hand. It’s even less likely that the angle piton on the first pitch could have been pulled out by hand. Hard to imagine someone skilled enough to lead a multi-pitch climb clipping a rusty ring piton on the fifth pitch.
Paul Hekinon says
I’m a little confused. Were they stolen, which implies a crime, or are they … not there? Oddly clickbaity headline for the Explorer.
I’d say more, but Seth Gross already did.
Melissa Hart says
Thanks for the feedback on the headline. I have tweaked it to change “stolen” to “missing”
Paul Hekinon says
Cheers, Melissa. I didn’t expect but applaud the willingness to do so.
Melissa Hart says
Thanks for keeping me on my toes. 😉
Worth Gretter says
Nice to see a vigorous debate without insults, lies, or name calling!
Maybe we could do the same with Covid?!