Friday, Saturday, Sunday October 20 – 22, 2000
Friday, October 20th
I called Leon at around 8:30 am. He was ready but I was still packing. He gave me a couple of hours before showing up with “the dude”, his battered old Subaru XL. We said our goodbyes to Leila and roared off in a cloud of blue smoke. headed north. We were off to New York’s Adirondak mountains to climb one of the tallest cliffs in the eastern USA, Wallface.
At around 3.30 pm we arrived at Heart Lake, home to the High Mountain’s Adirondak Loj. After asking the Park rangers where we register (a few hundred yards after the trail starts) we put on the packs and get ready for a quick hike. The packs weigh about a thousand pounds each. Leon and I look at each other with dread, I realize that I have probably never hiked anywhere with a big pack in my whole life. We are carrying all the necessities for two days of camping plus two complete racks of climbing gear and two ropes.
The four mile hike along Indian Pass Trail between Heart Lake and Scott’s clearing lean-to (our intended base camp) went pretty well. We stopped for a break after two miles, close to Rocky Falls, and took a couple of happysnaps with our el-cheapo kodak disposables (we bought these because Leila’s little Olympus was getting battered on our previous climbs). The condition of the trail was a little worrying and it deserves some comment here. They must have had some rain in the previous few days because it was very muddy and wet. Just to make things interesting we were wearing sneakers (having decided against heavier hiking boots to save a bit of weight). So we spent a lot of time rock hopping along trails that looked more like muddy, swampy, streams. It was quite an effort (and not an entirely successful one) to keep ourselves dry. Apart from this the hike was beautiful. The fall was over here in the far north of upstate New York, the golden husks of dead leaves covered everything and the Park looked spectacularly stark under a brilliant blue sky. It was very cool, about 12 C according to the day’s weather report, but the walk was keeping us very warm. We reached Scott’s Clearing lean-to at 5.30 pm, having covered four miles in two hours. Organized the gear, found out that there was a nearby thunderbox (outdoor toilet), hunted down some dry(ish) branches and bark for a campfire and actually had some warmth going just as it got dark. It was now getting quite cold.
The sky above was perfectly clear and packed with shining constellations. If we watched for it we could see the bright streak of a falling star every few minutes. Utterly fantastic.
After having some trouble with my little gas cooker we finally got some dinner (cheese and potatoes with kielbasa sausage) heated up and made a little tea. We were pretty tired out and it wasn’t long before we crept into our sleeping bags and off to dreamland.
Saturday, October 21st
At about 7:30 am I woke up and, after borrowing Leon’s sandals, lumbered off to the thunderbox with my breath steaming in the cold still air. Leon woke up shortly after and we shiveringly made ourselves some breakfast, eventually got the bloody cooker going and had some tepid tea. We organized our gear and consulted the topo map and found that we had about two miles to hike south along the trail. At 8:30 am we headed off, carrying ropes, climbing racks, food, water, extra clothes and the guidebook. Weather predictions for this day suggested a 40% chance for rain, and while it was very cold (probably less than 10 C) the sky looked clear.
The trail rapidly desintegrated into a series of connected winter swamps. It took great concentration at almost every step to keep our shoes dry. The trailmarkers were spaced well out of sight of each other and we actually lost our way at least once. This was one tough walk. We were hoping to do this in about an hour, based on the previous day’s hike to our base camp, but our progress was very slow. After crossing and re-crossing streams, and negotiationg our way up a steep and slippery boulder field, we finally came in sight of our target.
Awesome. Enormous. Huge. Frightening. It’s difficult to convey exactly how we felt upon sighting it from across the valley. It is a cliff that dwarfs any other that I have seen before. From it’s base Wallface stretches, breathtakingly sheer, 800 feet up into the sky. It’s size is further enhanced by the depth, steepness and size of the talus field below it. Leon and I looked at each other and we could barely speak. We were about to take a giant leap into some really serious climbing.
But first, we had to find our route. We wanted to do “Diagonal” a 700 foot climb, rated at 5.8, near the southern end of the cliff. It was easy to spot, the big steep ramp that gives the route its name stands out like a giant slash mark half way up. Quickly working out where we wanted to begin we descended from the trail down into the talus field.
The talus field was amazing. With building-sized blocks of stone we felt like mice navigating through a maze of stone walls and heavy forest. A thick blanket of leaves carpeted everything, including numerous and treacherous holes between boulders. A couple of times we would plunge a foot through into one of these and grab desperately at a tree, or moss, or rock, or each other to keep from falling into the unknown nothingness below. Eventually we scrambled up to the base of the cliffs, it was 11.15 am. Late. We had taken almost three hours to get here from the lean-to!
THE CLIMB SUMMARY (details omitted because of space limitations and because this is principally a hiking forum):
We didn’t finish “Diagonal” but got to about 550 feet and had to bail due to our running out of time time. The descent was a hellish lesson in what not to do on rapell and we were lucky to survive it. If you really want to read about this part of the trip email me, and I’ll send you this part of the full TR. Some important details for continuity – we found that our torch, in the bag, was on when we stopped climbing up (we didn’t know for how long, and we didn’t know how long the battery would last), and finally when we got to the bottom of the cliff it was past 7pm and fully dark.
On our descent from the cliff, Leon had tried to pick out a line that might allow us to avoid the worst of the talus field and get us up the other side of the valley to the trail. The thought of making our way through this minefield of deadfalls was frightening. But we didn’t have much of a choice. Leon shouldered the back pack (I had carried it in that morning) and his rope, I carried my own rope, we both carried our own climbing gear. As ready as ever we plunged into the blackness, one of us in front and forging a path and the other following with the torch. I think I was in front for much of the way, pretty much blindly trying to cross the talus in as straight a line as the thickly forested terrain would allow. We wanted to move down and left, but we kept being pushed to the right and further south than we wanted, the talus was forcing us to go down the valley rather than across it.
At some point, as we struggled through the darkness, I stopped cold. I had heard something that sounded too much like a large annoyed mammal to be ignored. It sounded precisely, to me anyway, like the angry exhalation of a surprised bear. We were in the Adirondaks, this is black bear territory, although uncommon it is not surprising to encounter bears here. All I could think was that we had stumbled too close to a lair deep in the talus and now we were going to be visited on by its resident.
I asked Leon to listen and the sound came again. Leon said it sounded like way-off thunder. I couldn’t tell if the sound was close or distant. We heard it again, now it sounded like some sort of far-away explosion. But I could not shake the feeling that we were making some large animal uncomfortable by being here. We could either stand here and be frightened or we could keep going and be frightened. We kept going. We didn’t hear the sound again after that.
Somewhere in the middle of the talus field, as I was driving forwards through clawing branches, the light behind me went out. I thought Leon had pointed it at something else or, horribly, the battery had gone dead. But no, the branches beside me were lit up and in front of me was a big open light-swallowing space.
“Keith. Stop.” Leon said. He came up beside me and pointed the torch down. We must have been crossing over a big block of stone, because we were standing right at the edge of a 30 foot drop. He shined the torch down and we looked around a little wondering what to do. I was tired of going backwards to go forwards and looked seriously for ledges or something that would allow us to get down there, I even crawled down onto a ledge I spotted to the right. Leon kept urging me to forget it, to come back up. I must have been tired in the head or something because he practically had to come down to get me. I followed him back away from the edge, which was scary, because now the guy with the torch (Leon) was in front and the guy behind (me) was just following a flashing dancing ever-changing shadow-show of branch-rock-Leon profiles. He found a little gully that would take us down to where we thought we wanted to go. He gave me the torch and led the way down for a while.
We were exhausted and breathing hard. Trying not to lose heart we kept talking to each other to work our way through it. Stopping to flash the light around whenever we got confused or turned around. Each of us deliberately holding back our concern. The torchlight seemed to dim. Branches kept catching on our ropes and gear at almost every step. This bloody talus field was taking forever.
Suddenly, we came up to what we thought was a wall of rock, and then when we got closer we saw that it was an upward slope in front of us. Finally, we were out of the talus! All we had to do was climb up that slope and find the trail. About halfway up I asked for a break. Leon stopped and turned off the torch while I grabbed some water and something to eat out of the pack. In the darkness and under a brilliant starry sky we talked quietly about our situation, I forget exactly what we said, but it was something along the lines of if we find the trail and our torch holds out we will probably make it back. The trail might be tricky to recognize given the difficulty we had in following the bloody thing during the daylight. We got moving again pretty soon because, even with our fleece and gore-tex jackets, it was getting very cold.
Amazingly, and not long after that stop, we did find the trail. There was even one of those infrequently placed trailmarkers nailed to a nearby tree. We felt elated, but that offered only a brief respite because we quickly recalled that during the morning it had taken us over two hours to walk the two miles of trail here from camp. Now it was after 8 pm and we were both very tired.
We followed the trail north, heading back the way we had come earlier. We moved a little faster now and felt relatively good now we were out of the talus. Just a few minutes along the trail we heard voices calling to us.
Two guys we had bumped into and chatted with briefly that morning, who had climbed nearer the north end of Wallface that day, had been watching our progress (they could see our torchlight) through the talus field from their campsite by the trail. They called out to us as we neared their camp and asked if we wanted water. We gratefully accepted their hospitality and sat down with them to talk and drink.
When they heard our predicament with the torch battery and learned that we still had hours of hiking to do they gave us a spare from their own stores. They refused any compensation for this generosity. So I gave them that pink tricam I had found during the climb, telling them that it’s a trophy from the mountain and I wanted them to take it if nothing else. It was no repayment, but they wouldn’t take anything else. So with profuse thanks we left them and continued on knowing now that it was only a matter of time. Leon made a joke about it the next day, it was like a mastercard advertisement “Cost of one 6 volt battery, $7. Cost of the piece of mind it gave us, priceless.”
So now all we had to do was finish the hike. No more worry about the torch dying out somewhere along the way. No more concern about a possible night spent in the woods in near freezing conditions waiting for the dawn. Just one last long hard slog.
That’s what it was. With our growing tiredness we got lost several times, but somehow managed to relocate the trail each time. At one point we were convinced that we were not following the same trail that we had used on the way in. And I had some wild idea about old forgotten trails or parallel alternative trails in an effort to explain it. I think my mind was in a parallel universe for a while. It turned out that we did follow the same trail all the way back, and we finally struggled into Scott’s Clearing and our lean-to at just after 11 pm, fourteen and a half hours after we left it.
We immediately drank down the little packs of orange juice I had bought for the trip. That was it for me. Completely and utterly exhausted I could do little more than climb into my sleeping bag and watch as Leon somehow found the energy to fight with that damn cooker. He wanted a cup of tea, that’s all he wanted, just one lousy cup of hot tea. He was cold and tired and this goddamn blasted cooker would not light! After a while he gave up and crawled into his own sleeping bag. I took the gas canister and put it at the bottom of my sleeping bag, perhaps I could warm it up and we would have less trouble in the morning. I shouldn’t have bothered, the damn thing woke me up every time I touched it’s frozen surface with my feet and it never, ever warmed up.
Sunday, October 22nd
Woke before dawn and watched as the morning light slowly increased. My legs and shoulders felt some slight ache, I had a marginal headache, but nothing else to show for the trials of the previous day. It was freezing. I dragged out the gas canister, still stone cold despite a night at my toes, and threw it disgustedly aside. I grabbed the cooker and messed around with it while still wrapped in my sleeping bag. I eventually took the little bugger apart, smacked it around a bit and heard some pressurized gas escaping from the inlet pipe. So that was it, it had been blocked. I screwed the gas canister back in and fired it up, worked like a charm. So I made some tea as Leon woke up (it’s hard to sleep when a sound like the launching of a space shuttle erupts in your right ear), made some hot chocolate milk from dried milk/coco mixture and poured it over a little cereal. After breakfast I got back into my sleeping bag to keep warm.
We both felt somewhat amazed that we had survived our ordeal. Although we still had to hike out four miles back to the car, this seemed like nothing compared what we had been through already. Then again, I was in no hurry to don the full backpack just yet, so I argued for another hour of quiet rest and reflection before we leave. Finally, at about 10 am we packed up all of our gear and left.
Despite the condition of the trail (it was iced up a little, temperatures must have really dropped in the night), the half dozen or so rest stops we took and Leon slightly twisting his ankle, we got back to the car in just over two hours. I was whipped. We grabbed something hot to drink at the ranger station and then agreed to drive 12 miles to Lake Placid and stink up some italian restaurant while we gorged ourselves on pizza or pasta or something.
We did just that, a pasta fest was enjoyed by both, and I’m surprised that the waitress didn’t use a stick to hand us the check. We must have looked like sub-human wrecks and probably smelled worse. On our way out we noticed that they were offering scenic-flights from the Lake Placid airport and we convinced ourselves to check it out. If it’s cheap and we can get them to fly us over Wallface, maybe we can get some aerial photos of the place.
It was, we could, we did. Too cool.
Drove home, took many hours. Leila was there to give us both a hug and make us feel human again. Most excellent.
Submitted by Keith Hoek
New Haven, CT
Thu, 26 Oct 2000