High-elevation backcountry offers climbers a remote challenge
By Alan Wechsler
Rock climber Kevin “MudRat” MacKenzie eyed his options on the cliff in front of him. He was standing high up on a cliff, roped in but more than 60 feet above his last piece of protection. If he fell, he would bounce and scrape his way down the steeply-sloping slab, all the way to the ground.
He was high up on Big Slide, one of the 46 High Peaks more than 4,000 feet high. Just a few hundred feet below the summit is the actual rock slide for which the summit is named. The 300-foot-high face was caused by the release and avalanche of rain-saturated soil in 1830. Today, nearly all visitors to the top of Big Slide have no idea that there are rock-climbing routes near the summit.
There are—several, in fact. MudRat was keen to develop a new one.
It would turn out to be the most daring climb of MudRat’s climbing career; at least so far. He was, in all probability, the first human to be standing in that spot. Watching from below, I hoped he wouldn’t be the first human to fall from that spot as well.
It’s no wonder he was inspired. The view from the cliff is fantastic. Ridges of green trees roll away toward the horizon, below the dark shadow of more distant mountains. It’s a four-mile hike to get here, which keeps away most climbers, but Big Slide is its own reward.
It is, in fact, one of a number of cliffs around the Adirondacks located near mountain summits. The Adirondacks are home to more than 300 rock climbing areas, and well over 3,000 actual routes. With practically a lifetime of rock so close to the road, it may be hard to justify walking hours with heavy backpacks to explore remote cliffs. But climb in one of these high places, and you’ll see why people like MudRat keep coming back.
“There’s a few people who really appreciate it, but less and less,” said Ed Palen, owner of the climbing guide service Rock and River in Keene. He says very few of his clients are interested in visiting remote cliffs like Big Slide.
Ed, on the other hand, is a great believer in remote climbs. In fact, he established a route on Big Slide back in 1988 called “Freudian Slip,” now the most popular route on the cliff (“popular” being a relative term).
“It’s the tradition; it’s combining the hiking with the rock climbing,” he told me recently. “I started in the late ’70s when that was still part of the mentality. The sport climbing [where climbers push harder and harder grades on routes with bolts fastened to the rock] hadn’t come in yet. Pushing the numbers wasn’t as important.”
For those who don’t mind spending part of their climbing day on a hike, there are many options for climbs in high places. Besides Big Slide, Gothics Mountain has recommended rock routes on multiple faces. Meanwhile, smaller peaks like Noonmark and Rooster Comb offer the opportunity to feel like a mountaineer with less of a hike. And to the south, Snowy Mountain offers a cliff so scenic it’s featured on the cover of “Adirondack Rock,” first edition.
One thing these remote crags don’t offer is an easy rescue. So it was with some relief that I watched MudRat gradually make his way to a spot where he could finally put in some gear. “I wasn’t scared,” he said later. “I was just very thoughtful about it.
When he was finally safe, he belayed partners Adam Crofoot and myself up to his stance. A new route was established. MudRat called it “Free Soul,” a pun on the term “free solo,” which refers to a rock climber who climbs without rope (and also, he said, a nod to those crazy souls who go out in search of these remote adventures).
“I felt in my element,” he said, adding: “I don’t know if I’d lead it again … .”
When it comes to Adirondack rock exploration, MudRat is a master of adventurous routes. He’s spent years exploring remote slides throughout the High Peaks, before embracing technical climbing seven years ago. He’s most known for developing climbs in the remote area known as Panther Gorge. Located in a trail-less ravine between two of the state’s highest mountains, the gorge contains a series of discontinuous cliffs up to 400 feet high. It takes a minimum of four hours to hike here, and with climbing a typical Panther Gorge day will go for 16 hours or more. MudRat has been here more than 50 times, and has 52 first ascents to his name.
“That’s where I feel in my element—in the backcountry, where I can’t hear any car noise, where I can focus on the birdsong and the rock or ice that’s under me,” he said. “My soul still drifts in the backcountry.”
Here, then, is a short guide to some of the Adirondack’s greatest backcountry high routes. Just keep in mind that these are routes for experienced and confident climbers. Consult “Adirondack Rock” for route information.
For years, the main route to climb was Slide Rules. Rated 5.7 in the Yosemite decimal system (which ascents in difficulty from 5.1 to 5.15), it’s a relatively easy route but a committing lead due to a sparsity of gear placements. Palen’s Freudian Slip is significantly safer, but still requires a clear head and good slab-climbing skills. And for those who like to live on the wild side, there’s always Free Soul.
Located at the top of one of the most popular non-High Peak summits in this area, this crag sports a half-dozen moderate routes up to 110 feet high, Included is a challenging route first put up by the climbing legend Fritz Weissner.
The queen of Adirondack alpine, this popular hiking summit (4,734 feet) also sports technical rock climbs on multiple sides. The North Face is the most visible, seen from downtown Lake Placid, but is perhaps better climbed in winter as an ice route. Its 1,000-foot New Finger route is at the low end of technical, and is sometimes soloed. The Rainbow Slide on the mountain’s east side has several moderate routes up to 400 feet long. But it’s the South Face that has the most challenging terrain, including several routes in the 5.10 range.
OTHER HIGH PEAKS
Remote, technical ascents can be found near the summits of Upper and Lower Wolf Jaws, Porter and several of the faces of Giant.
You don’t have to hike for hours to climb to a summit. This diminutive peak, located near Keene Valley, contains an easy, historical climb and two harder routes.
Outside the High Peaks, this Central Adirondacks mountain near Indian Lake offers a half-dozen top-quality routes with difficulty up to 5.10. It’s also got an approach as challenging as many high peaks.