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Crystal Tower First Ascent
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Attack of the Daks

27-Feb-2012
By Karl Swisher

In 1850 Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph took just 90 minutes to fourth-class the 2,000-foot Trap Dike on Mount Colden, the first rock climb in the Adirondacks of northeastern New York. Besides the ascent, their day included shooting a deer, mining for minerals and cutting a cord of wood. Thus, tradition was established for old-school, adventure climbing in Adirondack Park.

That was why nearly 150 years later, in the 1990s, Scot Kippy Carpenter laughed when he heard bouldering described as the most pure form of climbing.

I thought it was crap, he recalls.

Kippy's skepticism toward bouldering reflects attitudes held by many Adirondack trad climbers, me included, over the years. The tone set by Clarke and Ralph has left little room for things like bolts, rap inspection and bouldering. Fritz Weissner, John Turner, Henry Barber and members of the Ski to Die Club further cemented the hardcore, trad-climbing practices in the Park. However, this strict traditional ethic led some people in recent years to believe that the Adirondack climbing scene was dead.

But one day Kippy tried bouldering, and he never roped up again. In fact, he became a driving force in the Adirondack bouldering scene over the following decade.

In that time bouldering has exploded, becoming a vigorous part of the Adirondack climbing world, so much that it is included in the recently released Adirondack Rock guidebook. Authored by Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas, the book details an incredible amount of activity in the park during the 13 years since Don Mellor's 1995 guidebook. The new guide describes 1,923 routes, 1,122 more than the previous book, as well as 342 boulder problems.

We might even see hardened trad climbers buying crash pads, says Haas.

It's not just the boulderers who've been busy. Route developments in the Lake George Region and the High Peaks Backcountry are also noteworthy. The Lake George area offers an incredible variety of climbing, everything from five-pitch trad 5.11s to bolted one-pitch roadside routes to climbing that is accessible only by boat. Located in a rain shadow, the area is one of the driest spots in the region, and it has the longest climbing season, early spring to late fall. High Peaks climbing provides solitude in a remote wilderness setting, approaches which can take several hours and involve extensive bushwhacking, fantastically textured anorthosite rock, and routes up to 1,000 feet long.

Overall, the 6-million acre Adirondacks, a parcel roughly the size of Vermont, now hold more than 240 cliffs with documented climbing. New crags like Snowy, Potash, Deadwater, Bald Mountain and the Courthouse possess the high-quality rock, routes and position necessary to become popular destinations.

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Other classic Adirondack cliffs have also seen tons of new route activity in the past decade. For example, the Daks' premier cliff, Poke-O Moonshine, has nearly doubled its route count to almost 300 great lines.

I catch a ride with Kippy to McKenzie Pond, the premier site in the Daks. Here, ironically, it was trad climbers training for roped routes who introduced bouldering to the Park three decades ago. In 1978 local climbers Jim Cunningham, Rich Leswing and Chuck Turner began visiting the boulders. Shortly thereafter, Todd Eastman, another local who pushed free-climbing standards in the Park, developed a training circuit at McKenzie and established the classic V5 Eastman Problem in 1986. In 2002, Kippy and his frequent partner, Arien Groover Cartrette, wrote the online guide to McKenzie.

We arrive at McKenzie and park behind several cars with Ontario plates. Soon we're joined by a strong crew who've made the three-and-a-half hour drive from the Gunks.

We head for the first set of boulders just a hundred feet from the car. Thick stands of pine and maple quickly seal off any road noise, creating the sense of serenity and seclusion. A steady breeze rustles the branches and, thankfully, clears the air of black flies. The short walk brings us to a clearing dominated by granite giants. The rock is clean and solid, and the landings are soft and level.

I watch as two of the Gunkies, a jacked guy in jeans and a thin dude with multicolored tattoos, throw themselves at an overhanging arete called Sketches of Pain (V9). The guy in jeans hollers with effort as he slaps his way up the prow.

The tattooed guy, Freehole, as he's called, yells encouragement, Come on, Peaches!

Peaches peels off near the top and lands on the pads with a whump!

The crotchety trad climber in me is at first put off by a bunch of grown guys referring to each other with nicknames like Peaches and Freehole. But these boys are cranking hard and having a hell of a lot of fun and I can't argue with that. Later in the day both Peaches and Freehole send the arete.

Kippy crushes a dozen problems up to V9 within just a couple of hours. Then he pops off a hold on the sit start of Flux Capacitor (V8), an overhanging arete, but sends next try.

Meanwhile I learn that wire-brushing backcountry crags is poor training for bouldering. I've spent the past few years stumbling around the Indian Lake region of the Daks, an area which holds the distinction of being one of the most roadless wilderness areas east of the Mississippi, finding and climbing some of the virgin cliffs that lurk there.

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My bushwhacker's fingertips are quickly shredded by McKenzie's coarse anorthosite and sharp edges. Around noon Kippy says, Let's take Karl over to Giant Sucker. Someone adds, Better bring all the pads.

Tall but only V2, Giant Sucker teaches me that boulderers define slab differently than do trad climbers. Halfway up the thing, I think that nothing with a 2 on it, V2, 5.2, or A2, should be this hard. Then someone says, It took me six trips here before I got this. That's all the excuse I need to jump down and save it for another time.

During the day we cross paths with other boulderers. However, McKenzie is laid out in distinct sets of blocks separated by forest, so the sense of solitude remains even when the place is busy. Still, someone in our group comments wistfully, This place just isn't like it used to be.

Late in the afternoon we run into a crew from downstate and Jersey, including Vadim Vinokur and Brian Kim. They've just cleaned a new line up an overhanging, blank-looking face that tops out at about 20 feet. Both Brian and Vadim work out the moves to a tenuous stance where they can throw a big dyno for the lip. Brian pumps, lunges, misses and bounces spectacularly off the pile of pads below. Vadim hesitates at the big toss, but, encouraged by his friends, he goes for it and misses. Brian tries again and nails it. After a few more attempts, Vadim sticks the lip, too. They call it Starboard.

Stiff V10, says Brian.

I wonder if Brian's stiff V10 holds as much sandbag value as old-school Adirondack 5.10. On Moss Cliff in 2006 Peter Kamitses freed several old aid lines, creating two stunning and mostly trad 5.13 routes, both nearly 300 feet tall. On the same cliff, Kamitses then climbed the classic 5.10 offwidth Creation of the World. According to the guidebook, Kamitses called Creation the hardest route he had ever climbed, including the 5.13 lines he'd just freed. In the new guide, Creation has been grade-corrected from old-school 5.10 to 5.11b.

As evening gathers, people heft crashpads and backpacks for the stroll to the road. Kim, Vinokur and crew make plans to check out the Snowy Boulders tomorrow. On my way out I can't resist trying some of the problems again in spite of my stinging fingertips. Like Kippy 10 years ago, I'm finding that this bouldering crap gets under your skin. I wonder if a crashpad is in my future.

The future of Adirondack climbing certainly includes them. Since 2002 a half-dozen new bouldering areas have sprung up in the Park, with Nine Corners and the Snowy Boulders being the most well-known and developed of these. The Snowy Boulders in particular, like the recently developed 250-foot Snowy Mountain cliff high above them, offer wild climbing on huecos, fins and knobs unlike any other experience in the Daks.

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People could come to the Adirondacks for the bouldering alone, wrote Jeff Achey 12 years ago. Today they do.

They come for crack climbing, too and for the face climbing, the short routes, the long routes, the roadside, and the backcountry. The Daks has enough room and enough rock for all of it. After more than 150 years of climbing, the developments of the past decade have shown that climbers have only scratched the surface of what can be done in the Adirondacks.

Many of the newly discovered crags have not even come close to reaching their potential, says Lawyer.

Another key to the future of Adirondack climbing lies in the complex matrix of state and private land which comprises the Park. Occasionally the state acquires a parcel of private land which makes a cliff publicly accessible for climbing. One example is Henderson Cliff in the High Peaks region, which came into the state fold in 2006. Another similar acquisition is set to take place within the next few years and will mean that climbers can access what might be the last great cliff in the east, Silver Lake. Actually a series of about 20 cliffs, with 10 of them being more than 200-feet tall, Silver Lake offers miles of unexplored rock.

It's the equivalent of four Poke-Os, says Lawyer.

That should keep everybody busy for the next 10 years and might keep me from trading my wire brush for a crash pad.

Karl Swisher is a 44-year-old weekend bushwhacker who has climbed in the Daks for nearly 20 years, establishing first ascents from 5.6 to trad 5.13.

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