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Panther Gorge-New Ice on Mt. Marcy-Chimaera-2017 February 18

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  • Panther Gorge-New Ice on Mt. Marcy-Chimaera-2017 February 18

    Duration: 4:40 a.m.- 8:00 p.m.
    Partners: Matt Dobbs & Jace Mullen
    Mileage: Approx. 16
    High Resolution Mosaic:

    The Feline Wall, about ¼ mile into Panther Gorge on Mt. Marcy, sometimes hosts a thin ice smear down its center line. It seems reliable in that it forms every year. The caveat is that it is thickest at the top where the water feeding it seeps from the krummholz. Sun heats the dark underlying stone and often delaminates the bottom portion. Whether it is bonded to the anorthosite when one visits, is a persistent wildcard.

    Temperatures were forecast to be in the 40’s F in the Keene Valley; a little elevation should have kept it in the 30’s on February 18th when I and friends Matt Dobbs and Jace Mullen went searching for ice. Only when I returned home did I find out that the thermometer in the shade had reached about 60. This explained the conditions we encountered, but I’m ahead of myself.
    I picked Matt up at 3:40 a.m. We met Jace at the trailhead and began hiking the hard-packed trail by 4:40. Some mornings we are chatty, but only short conversations broke the silence as we each struggled to wake up. The sun breaking over the ridge to the east a couple hours later aided the effort. Blue skies and occasional winds accompanied the trip from Slant Rock to the Haystack intersection. I scanned the cloudless sky and wondered how this would bode for climbing.

    The last .6 mile was covered with about 6 inches of powder. Once at the col, I put tails on the snowshoes for the trudge through two feet of fresh snow over the buried rain-crust. In all, the bushwhack was pleasant with gravity on our side. The dread of a horrendous bushwhack slowly evaporated as we gained ground on the cliffs. Slow and steady won the day though several snow laden trees served as wrestling partners.

    We stepped out from the forest at the base of the Panther Den on Marcy and got blasted by strong persistent winds. The forecast called for 55 m.p.h. winds on the summit, but our climbing would be at around 4,000 feet in elevation. I hoped we’d be protected. I scanned the gorge and noticed some lines were thinner than last month...hmm. Matt broke trail from the ‘Den’ to the Feline Wall. The snow slope below the slab was riddled with debris fallen from above. Climbing it was a slog, but it gave us the best perch from which to view the smear. It was in, but thin and obviously soft.

    A loud crack from the nearby Agharta ice route brought me to attention. Something had come off or expanded while small plates of ice fell from above us. Thankfully they were soft and shattered into small pieces on the slab before rolling by. The sun was punishing the gorge. Small rivulets ran down the face and it was obvious that we should move quickly. Matt said, “Ok, decision time.” After discussion, we decided to give it a try.

    Voices suddenly distracted me. ...from the summit? No, that was too far away given the direction of the wind. I asked Jace if he heard them. On cue, a pair of hikers (we didn’t yet know any different) appeared from the north. Our first thought was, “Oh, crap, they errantly followed our tracks!” No, they were here to climb. Thus we made the acquaintance of Brent and Laura. They looked at Agharta, but ended up climbing Sorry, Kevin—a gully route about 75’ north of us. Matt Dobbs and his friends put the route up last year. To my knowledge this was the first time that the gorge has seen two separate climbing parties at once. It was turning into a good day!

    I noticed that my usual problem with cold toes and hands wasn’t an issue as the sun rose ever higher It was much warmer than I anticipated. We were protected from the wind at the base and I didn’t need gloves. This was both pleasant and disconcerting given the thickness of the ice smear and rills that seemed to grow in volume by the moment.

    It was about 11 a.m. when Matt climbed onto the line. Ice broke or rather degenerated into slush along the edge. After finding a meager tool placement, he put a chock in a vertical crack and attained the center of the route. It was about 15 feet wide and only about 50 degrees in slope at the bottom. The run of ice was adjacent to a large flake (in the summer) with a small ledge at the top. Thereafter the slope increased. He placed a screw before climbing to the ledge in search of more gear. After various attempts he hammered in a short piton. He later confessed that until he found that placement, he didn’t know if it was wise to climb higher.

    The ice was separated by a small island of rock; he climbed along the left-hand side up toward an obvious outcrop about 175 feet from the base. It looked like a good belay station from below. His tools found purchase based on the sounds I heard from below. I was growing fidgety; it was nearing 1 p.m. and the heat of the sun was melting the line. Small pieces continued to melt off various areas of the route and gully to the south. Meanwhile, I watched Brent ascend the tiers of the gully. That line was solid if not a bit wet.

    Matt eventually found a suitable anchor (a slung outcrop of rock backed up by clipping to tools buried in frozen turf) and it was our turn to climb. With a questionable tool placement in ½ inch of ice for balance I front pointed across the slush covered slab and found began climbing decent, if not soft, ice. I didn’t dally. The screws that I removed were baked out; they’d melted the surrounding ice negating their effectiveness as protection—at least by the time I reached them. The face grew ever steeper and the ice thinner until an ice filled corner where I found a thicker run. By now a portion of the face was nearly 80 degrees (it is convex). Water ran down either side spraying me as the wind gusted. It didn’t take long to reach Matt’s position. Jace was soon on my heals.

    I scanned the scenery. It felt good to be back on this wall. It’s a moderate wall with deep cracks in the summer—home to three routes from ranging from 5.8+ to 5.10 YDS.
    With Jace tied into the anchor, I began to lead the second pitch. I looked down and water ran out from under the ice. The ice was thicker, but delaminated from the slab by several inches in some areas. Most of the axe strikes made a disconcerting hollow sound. The first real protection was about 15 feet up. I fiddled with a screw and nut, but settled on a cam under a small overlap of stone while being soaked by a small cascade...nothing different from what Matt experienced below. It was certainly dryer than my climb up the Trap Dike earlier in the year. The rest of the climb was straightforward—Bury the tool as deeply as possible in the soft ice, bounce test and get up before it got warmer. The ice grew more tiered at the top before ending in the krummholz. Three screws and about 75 feet later I was swimming through waist deep snow.

    To Matt’s amusement I clipped a small tree to redirect the rope before angling off to a 10” diameter spruce. It’s likely one that I’d used twice before. Pitch 4 of “Galaxy of Tears” was just above on the cliff beyond the tree band. I set up an anchor from the tree, tugged a few times and they began climbing. I was getting a shower in the meantime. As we’d find during the rappel, the runoff over the ice was gaining volume and the wind was a steady 20-35 m.p.h. It blew the water upward. I love Gortex and waterproof gloves! Jace noted that the swim through mash potato snow might have been the crux of the route...

    Readying for the rappel involved the usual rope tangles in unsupportive snow amongst grabby tree branches. Matt went first and disappeared over the edge. I went second and got a bath below ice bulge at the top. We rapped to a gully along the south side; another short rappel placed us at the base. There was no rush to leave so we took time and enjoyed the warm weather. Matt refilled his water from one of the rills flowing down a crack.

    I looked around the gorge. Fat routes I’d hoped to visit in a few weeks had lost their bottoms or become thinner. The sun had, by now, changed its hot stare to Haystack. It doesn’t get the same attention as Marcy’s south-southeast facing slabs, but all the cliffs were glistening with water. Even the protected routes of the Panther Den (northeastern corners) were melting. On the positive side, the trail out of the gorge had consolidated so it was easy to exit at around 3 p.m.

    I couldn’t be more thrilled with the day. It’s always a pleasure to introduce new friends to the Gorge and it was wonderful to finally put up a route with Matt on Marcy, especially one that we had both hoped to climb last year. The day was a blessing in every way including a relatively early return to the trailhead at 8 p.m.

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