Video by Matt Rhodin
Photos by Nick Grybauskas
After a late start in Syracuse, we arrived at the Garden Trailhead parking area in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. It was midnight. Four miles and two hours later, we were at our lean-to, nice and cozy (kind of) in our sleeping bags. It was cold. I knew the forecast was calling for a low of zero, but the fact that I could not get warm, despite a base layer, wool sweater, down jacket, and zero degree sleeping bag suggested it was a bit more nibbly than the forecast predicted. It must have been somewhere below zero and at best, we were looking at four hours of sleep. However due to the temperatures, that four hours was by no means an expectation. Sometime during the night, I managed to drift off. At 6:30 A.M., Nick’s alarm sounded, marking the start of the day.
Nick’s take on the morning:
Nick has an exceptional ability to raise stoke. Enthusiasm is probably not the word you would use to describe my morning address, yet Nick exudes it. It helped give me that little extra push to get out of my sleeping bag, along with the knowledge that my down pants were waiting in the base of my pack. So with great haste, I slipped out of my bag and began the process layering up for the climb, capping off the bottom layers with the sweet insulation of my puffs. That part sucked, but as Nick says, “You’ve gotta get cold to get warm.” Once Nick and Otto saw me up and about, they rose themselves and we began to gear up for the climb. We all scarfed down some food and warm water, prepared our climbing packs, and were on our way.
Beginning the hike was heaven. Our bodies got going and we were no longer freezing our butts off. After the first mile, we were all down to our base layers, huffing away as we walked up the stream-bed to the base of the face. This part of the hike was a little longer than expected, somewhere around three miles instead of the one and a half we first thought.
After a short while the sun poked above the ridges, beaming down on the pristine landscape, reflecting off the duvet of snow. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was the perfect day. In my mind there is no better natural setting. Walking through a winter wilderness with the warm sun above your head is unbeatable. We stayed warm as we moved, while having the luxury of the cold, crisp air to keep us refreshed. If we got too hot, we’d stop moving, take a couple bites of our cheese blocks, and get back at it a couple minutes later in complete comfort.
Unfortunately, as we reached closer to the face and gained some elevation, the mountain blocked out the sun and we returned to the shade. But for whatever energy we lost from lack of sunlight, we gained right back from anticipation, as the face appeared in front of us from behind the trees. Looking around I could see fantastic snow fields on the hills surrounding us. It was partly killing me that I did not have my skis. I was envisioning my lines as I was walking and realized the potential the area has to offer. Yet at the same time there was this badass mountain right in front of my face just waiting to be climbed.
After completing the last leg of the hike, a steep slope leading to the base of the climb, we took a short break and switched over to our climbing gear. We removed our snowshoes, slipped on our harnesses (not that we’d be using them), and secured crampons to our boots. After studying the face for a few minutes, we identified our line and set off.
Nick went first. At this point we weren’t roped up. The first ten feet consisted of a featureless slab of rock, completely bare of ice or snow. Nick scurried up and next went Otto. He had a little more trouble, but after figuring out his sequence, passed through the bare stretch and sunk his ice tool into the solid névé (hard compact snow).
Now it was my turn. I began to feel around with my ice tool. It didn’t catch anything. There was literally nothing. Since my hands were of no help, I felt around for little nubs that I could step on. I made maybe two steps, when suddenly I lost my footing and slid right back down to where I started. I tried again, this time making it up a little higher to where I found a mediocre ice tool placement. I brought my feet up onto what I thought were usable holds. The second I moved up with by tool, again, my foot popped off. Back at the bottom.
This isn’t how I imagined this climb going. I felt like a total gumbie. From above I heard Nick ushering me to hurry up. We had a lot of climbing to go. This time I was going to make it up this stupid thing. I got past my previous high point and placed my foot on the hold where I previously had my tool. The good névé was right above me. I had made it through, or so I thought. Thinking I was done, I broke focus, and yet again! Foot popped.
This time I was going for a ride. Since I was on blank rock, the possibility of arresting myself was nonexistent. I slid down the slab, over the little ledge we started on, and down the slope below, maybe 40 feet total. I was totally fine, but slightly disheartened. This climb was supposed to be easy! Now it was game on. I walked back up the snowy slope to our starting point and hopped right back on the slab.
I repeated the first few moves I had mapped out in my head and successfully executed the final stretch. Now we were in it. Our tools and crampons sank in with ease. Crunch, crunch, crunch, all the way up. If the rest of the climb was like this we would be at the summit in no time. We wouldn’t even have to rope up. However, even if we did want to use a rope, it wasn’t exactly a possibility at this point. We were climbing on two surfaces: névé and thin ice (barely covering the rock). Névé is too soft to place screws and the ice was too thin. Therefore, we would just have to climb until we found features that would take protection.
This wasn’t too concerning. Up to that point the climbing was pretty mellow. It was low-angle, and our tools and crampons stuck wherever we placed them. Nick still reminded us that this was serious shit and we absolutely could not fall, but it wasn’t really a risk. A little higher up, the névé turned into thin ice on rock. Now I would swing my tool and it wouldn’t necessarily sink in nice and solid on the first go. Sometimes it would bounce off rock or shatter the ice upon impact. I could always find a solid placement after a few hits, but the climbing was now a step up. It felt like legitimate ice climbing, maybe WI1 or WI2.
The conditions varied from this to névé, with névé always providing a breath of relief. We continued until we were about three hundred (?) feet above our starting point. There was still nowhere to place protection. The névé had run out and we were back on ice. Otto and I had caught up to Nick, who had halted his progress to find the best path. Unfortunately, he didn’t really find anything. There was what looked like a good line of water ice over to the right, but getting there seemed tricky. The ice was thin and was switching back to the sketchy slab style we started on, definitely not something we wanted to climb without a rope.
(Otto and I standing at the point from which we would ultimately descend)
This is where things can become dangerous and risk management is even more imperative. Obviously we wanted to summit, badly. We drove over four hours, hiked six miles, and spent a near sleepless night in the freezing cold. Turning back would suck. On the other hand, we weren’t even roped up. We had a few hundred feet of mountain below us and if we fell, we’d be going to the bottom.
Rescue would be pretty difficult. We were 6-7 miles from the trailhead and it was very likely that a fall from where we were or any higher would result in serious injury. It was our first time on the mountain. We did not know what lay ahead. Another blank, rock slab could pop up, or something even harder. The sun was now on the face as well. It felt amazing, but was also softening the ice. The chance of ice fall was increasing and although it did not pose the largest threat, the fact that we were unroped made us vulnerable.
Our options were to nut up and go, or head back. Everything was pointing towards heading back. After a short talk, that is the decision we reached. Nick made his way down first, followed by Otto and then myself. I could not have been happier. At that point I just wanted to get off the face. I knew if I had continued any further I would have been pushing it. An onsight, free-solo attempt seemed beyond my experience level for this style. The most logical choice was to descend. We were all bummed about not sending the route, but when it doesn’t go, it doesn’t go.
(Otto taking a slide on the final slab of the descent)
(Starting the hike back to the lean-to, staring up at what could have been)
After a little while we were at the base, ready to hike back to the lean-to. We further discussed what happened and although disappointed, we all agreed it was a fantastic experience nonetheless. We were able to escape Syracuse and get deep into the Adirondacks, on as beautiful of a day as we could ask for, while in the company of good friends. It’s hard to feel sour about such a day. Gothics offered a few hundred feet of superb climbing, which deserves appreciation and gratitude alone.
Upon our return to the lean-to, we kicked back and enjoyed some well deserved wraps and Mountain Brew in the magnificent company of the mountains. In no rush to return to Syracuse, we bummed around for a while and let the beauty of the area soak in. Eventually we decided it was time to pack up.
(My pack on the way out. The most full.)
It was quite a day and we still had a few miles to the parking lot with a hefty drive ahead of us. The walk out was very serene. None of us said a word. We kept moving, step by step, all deeply relaxed by the calmness of the woods and a body well worked. I felt so grateful for the day we just shared together. Did we summit Gothics? No. Did we have an awesome time trying? Yes. Will we be back later to kick its ass? Yes. With skis? Absolutely.
Let me know what you think of our adventure in the comments below!