Around 550 feet up on a cliff face I take a break from tirelessly climbing the hard anorthosite in front of me and look around. Behind me is one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen: autumn in the Adirondack High Peaks region. Mount Algonquin is in the distance with its bald cap and steep sides. Those sides are nothing compared to what I am currently facing though. I’m right in the middle of the tallest cliff in New York state, the Diagonal route on Mount Wallface. The cliff is close to 800 feet at its zenith. I, similar to many other climbers who have climbed the route, am having an excellent time with my friends and climbing partners. Adam and Otto are probably close to 80 feet below me taking in the views as well. I look around and wonder about all of the people who have done this before me, seen this view, and shared the fears I have. What is the history of people climbing in the Adirondacks and how does that affect what I’m doing on this cliff?
The first technical rock climb done in the Adirondacks is credited to Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph. It was a summer day in 1850 when these two metal workers from the Mcintyre Iron Company decided to climb the previously unclimbed Mount Colden. They took what seemed to them to be the easiest way up it, a dike in the side of the mountain. They climbed without ropes or any equipment and upon summiting killed a deer and stayed the night. Today this climb is still done in the same manner as it was in 1850 on the first ascent. No bolts or permanent gear is placed, although some climbers may opt for a rope. To do a climb in the same style as the first ascent is to honor the first ascensionists. This is extremely important in the rock climbing community.
When someone does a climb, a certain code of ethics should be followed. In every area this is different. For example, at the top of some climbs, there are bolts with chains on them for the rope to go through. In one area it may be okay to just put the rope through those chains and be lowered by your belayer at the other end of the rope. This adds wear onto the chains and over the years they can get worn out and must be replaced. In another area, lowering in that way would be considered unacceptable. The rope should be rigged for a rappel. This method puts less wear on the chains but could be more dangerous depending on the circumstance. In a completely different area, it would be outlandish to have bolts and chains in the wall at all.
The ethics of the Adirondacks are strict and heavily emphasize that climbers leave no trace. This means no bolts unless truly needed. All gear left behind intentionally should blend in with the rock in order to reduce visibility from the ground. Hikers have complained about the neon yellow slings left behind by climbers in the past, as it detracted from their wilderness experience. This may sound harsh but it actually enhances the experience of climbing in the area. The Adirondacks offer a backcountry experience rivaled by few other places in the northeast. A pioneer of many climbs in the Adirondacks was Fritz Wiessner, who once described his attraction to the Adirondacks by saying “It is the charm of solitude. It is beautiful, remote, wild country.”
Climbers in the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks trek hours into the backcountry to climb cliffs for a feeling of adventure and solitude. Clipping into bolts the whole way up a wall does not have the same gravitas as placing traditional removable gear such as cams or nuts into the wall. Therefore, most of the Adirondacks have traditional climbing areas in which no gear is left behind, but the sense of adventure stays. The sense of solitude stays as the park is still mostly wild. Some climbs have approaches that are miles long, discouraging many.
This sense of adventure is what I am feeling 550 feet off the deck. All of the trad climbing gear is weighing my harness down. I’m tired from getting little sleep the night before. Wallface is a six-mile hike from the nearest trailhead. That isn’t that far, but when one shows up at the parking lot at 10 p.m. it can feel pretty far. The team of Otto, Adam, and I hiked in 4 miles to the Wallface Lean-to where we stayed the night. We woke up that morning at 6 ready to take on the wall. First, though, breakfast was in order. We had a bag of rice and a can of beans. I gave these to Otto from my pack and trusted he could whip up some delicious rice and beans like he does at home. He couldn’t and subsequently split much of the rice we had onto the floor of the lean-to, effectively ruining our ability to leave no trace as the rice had fallen between the floorboards. After we dealt with that hit to our morale, we got ready to hike the remaining 2 miles to the base of the climb. Unneeded equipment such as sleeping bags and pads were left at the lean-to for later retrieval.
After an hour we made it to the base of the cliff but still had to find the start of the climb. It took us a long time and lots of scrambling to find it. Upon arriving at the wall we looked up at the sight in front of us. 800 feet of beautiful rock just waiting to be climbed. At the top of the cliff, it looked as if there could be ice. The sun was starting to hit the cliff and warm it up, causing the ice at the top of the wall to dislodge and rain some chunks down. None came close to hitting us but we put on our helmets immediately.
We read about the route we were going to do ahead of time to familiarize ourselves with it. We also brushed up on the history. According to our copy of Adirondack Rock (a rock climbing guidebook for the region), the first recorded ascent was in 1962 by Joseph Rutledge, Tom Morgan, and Jane Morgan. They did it in two days, camping out on the cliff for a night.
Read the rest of the story in Part Two Here: