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Panther Gorge-Kitty Cake & 2nd Ascent of By Tooth and Claw 2017 January 14

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  • Panther Gorge-Kitty Cake & 2nd Ascent of By Tooth and Claw 2017 January 14

    Winter 2017 began with storms and created a snowpack greater than that of 2016. I held little hope of heading into Panther Gorge and focused on roadside climbing when I had the time. I didn’t have the ambition to hike any peaks. A warm front with howling winds and an inch of rain created an opportunity that I couldn’t ignore. Last minute plans to invade the gorge materialized with Mountain Skills Climbing Guides owner Doug Ferguson, and his client Walker Wolf Bockley. I’d been trying to do a trip with Doug since I met him in 2012 on the South Face of Gothics. We crossed paths several times in the backcountry, once last year as I was topping out on an ice climb on Mount Haystack. We yelled back and forth across the north end of the gorge for a few minutes as my partner, Nolan, snickered.

    2017 January 14: We met at 3:50 a.m. and drove up to the Garden. The temperature registered at roughly 5 degrees Fahrenheit as we walked on the icy trail to Johns Brook Lodge. After two hours of walking under the light of headlamps and a nearly full moon, the blue-black glow of the rising sun dimly silhouetted the ridgeline. I wondered about crossing Johns Brook as we approached Bushnell Falls, but it was frozen solid, even with the recent rains. The high water had left its mark in the form of blocks of ice along the trail and gullies through frozen snow.

    Low humidity and cold temperatures helped keep moisture to a minimum though Doug’s pace pushed me into making slightly better time than usual during winter. We reached the Haystack/Marcy col after 3 hours and 45 minutes of hiking. It was time to test the snowpack. Did the recent rains and sudden freeze harden it? We put on snowshoes and stepped off trail. The snow was hard enough that we hardly made a dent. Thus descending was easier than during summer.

    The winds whipped my face as we exited the spruce along the Panther Den. It was going to be a good day; the gorge was alive with ice. Many of the flows were fatter than February of 2016. There is nothing more inspiring and humbling than seeing acres of ice flows—the variations of color and wind sculpted creations.
    I’d been yammering on about adding new routes and gave Doug and Walker an idea of the options. Basically, the Haystack side was wide open except for two routes that Nolan Huther and I added last year. Marcy has four which are documented in Don Mellor’s new guidebook, Blue Lines 2.

    Kitty Cake WI2
    Fast forward to noon—our second climb of the day and a new route. We walked to Haystack from Marcy and snuck in a small easy route directly to the right of Orson’s Tower. From Marcy, it looked like an good target to climb during our exit. Walking across the center of the north pass was pleasant on the consolidated snowpack; was this the Panther Gorge I knew? We should be falling into man-eating holes in the talus. Ascending to the base of the route, however, was tiresome. Once at the route, blue-white ice beckoned; the triple group of free-standing pillars was only 20 feet to our north. I love this area!

    We knew it would be easy, but that played into the strategy of an early exit—Doug had to guide the next day thus he had to drive three hours south after the trip. Choices of a steep or stepped start led upward. He quickly disappeared from sight not bothering to place any screws. It was an easy solo for him; he belayed Walker and I a few minutes later. The top had a short vertical step before a good belay about 15 feet into the woods.

    What can I say—it was fun, but hardly epic! While it would be unworthy of a trip to the gorge in and of itself, it is worth climbing when combined with the two nearby routes on Haystack (Orson’s Tower WI3+ and Fly By WI3). The three can reasonably be climbed when day-hiking the gorge and they offer stellar views of Marcy. Doug named the 60’ route Kitty Cake after his cat and rated it WI2. While the route was quite laid back, apparently his cat is NOT.

    By Tooth and Claw WI4
    The highlight of the trip was not the new route, but the second ascent of By Tooth and Claw, a reliable route tucked in a NE facing corner that Bill Schneider, Devin Farkas and I put up last February. Let’s jump back to 8:30 a.m...

    We descended along the Panther Den and assessed a couple lines until stopping at the corner about 300 feet down the glade. After three months of being away from the gorge, I was simply ecstatic to be back in the area. Tiers of yellow and white ice blanketed the ledges below the crux 150’ higher. We’d arrived at a route that Bill Schneider, Devin Farkas and I added last February. Instead of the windy conditions in 2016, we had blue sky overhead and temperatures hovering around 5-10F. Doug looked up the route and took his pack off saying, “Let’s climb this!” Game on.

    The dark anorthosite was covered in thick ice; conditions were considerably fatter than a year ago. I look up at the crux, a vertical chimney largely hidden from view. Parasols of ice capped areas on the cliff, intimidating structures formed by the wet rain and strong winds of the past week. It might have well been a different route.

    Doug began climbing, meticulously and efficiently. There were about four or five tiers to climb before the crux of pitch 1. Walker belayed while I climbed a tree to photograph from a better position than on the ground. I scanned the scenery. Haystack loomed to the east with cliff after cliff glistening as ice fell from Marcy...small chunks that shattered under Doug’s tools. There was little sound other than the axe strikes and the occasional shout of, “Ice!”


    Given the temperature, I felt quite comfortable. Only my toes grew cold, but that would change when I began climbing. Doug approached the belay corner so we readied ourselves to follow. I climbed first and felt a bit of déjà vu as I followed the familiar line. The difference being that the brittle ice of last year was replaced with good hard ice that didn’t shatter as easily. A small amount of seepage ran over the surface in some areas...areas of soft ice. The route was still building. I endeavored to keep both myself and the rope out of the water. One of the ice screws that Doug placed was already encased in 1/8” of ice.

    The last tier was about 10’ high and wet which allowed the axes to sink deeply into it. Aesthetic icicles decorated it to the right. Doug had set up an anchor in the crux chimney. I tied into it and Walker began to climb.


    I had time to reflect on the day and compare it to last year. I felt warm and comfortable. There was no wind. The entire scene was different from last year when we climbed in 40 m.p.h. winds with spindrift and ice crystals stinging our skin. Instead of snow, a mackerel sky and intermittent sun added depth to the scenery. Overhead, a large curtain of ice clung precariously to the cliff top. There was a 4” space between it and the black rock of the cliff—it had delaminated. The wind-contorted icicles looked intimidating. I scanned across to Haystack whose ledges were coated in gleaming white ice flows. I recognized the aforementioned routes and reminisced. Such beauty mixed with an intensely rugged scene.

    Doug led the next pitch up the vertical chimney and easily crossed onto lower angled ice at its top. It looked so much easier than the last time. Indeed it was when I had my chance to climb. Both walls of the corner held ice and the chimney was all but closed off. Climbing up to an obvious ledge led to an exposed step to the left where there was lower-angled ice. The rope disappeared along another corner and up a short gully. I whacked away at the ice which spooked a mouse or vole. It ran up into the krummholz.

    I found Doug belaying from a pinch point in what we named Bill’s Man-Cave last year...a small ice encased talus cave at the end of the gully. Walker stood up to the left looking out over Marcy’s East Face. ...the end to a good climb.

    I think many of the routes we’ve added are quite good, but I’m absorbed in the experience and a little biased. It was music to my ears when Doug stated that this was a really great route and people would be lined up for it if it was located along the roadside. My mind was on one additional line as we rappelled. It was early and though the sun still set early, the days were getting longer once again!



    May you always be a student of the journey. God Bless.