Monday, February 24, 2014

Narrows Video

On my recent trip to The Narrows I wore a GoPro helmet camera.  Not the entire time, because I didn't want to look like a total dork.  But I had it on for a few pitches, including Pitch #3 of the Main Flow (WI3, 185').  Total climbing time was 28 minutes but I managed to chop the video down to less than 5 and include some music as well.  Enjoy!

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Narrows

Soaring up to 400 feet above the Delaware River (about an hour’s drive south of the Delaware Water Gap) stand the Nockamixon Cliffs, better known as The Narrows.  Composed of absolute garbage rock (I believe it’s Brunswick Shale) this area is NOT climbable unless it’s frozen solid and covered with ice.  When it’s in, however, oh boy is it in!  Ironically enough, I used to live about 5 minutes away from The Narrows in the small village of Riegelsville and would drive past them on my way to Bucks County Community College back in 2003-2004.  But I was years from becoming a rock and ice climber, and besides a quick glance I never paid the cliffs any mind.  Fast forward to the present, and I’ve known of and been interested in this area for years.  But finding partners with knowledge of the area and skill to ascend the routes (it’s not a walk-up around and build a top-rope area) has been difficult so I’ve been unable to climb there.  In addition to that problem, The Narrows are about as far south as one can really expect ice to realiably form.  So some seasons are a bust.  However, this winter has been wonderfully wintery.  The Narrows have been getting plenty of action this season from locals as well as out-of-state climbers who are known to come as far as New England when conditions are good.  I saw a Facebook post by New Paltz (Gunks), New Yorker Doug Ferguson showing him climbing thick and huge lines of ice and asked if he’d like to partner up next time he’s around.  Doug, ever the hyper caffeine-infused climbing enthusiast was totally game, and brought along bearded rope gun Dustin Portzline to have a go at the ice.  I sharpened my Nomics and broke out the brand new Petzl Lynx crampons and prepared myself for what promised to be an amazing day.   A post on the night before said, in all caps that The Narrows were “HUGE”, and indeed they were.

Little me standing at the base of Main Flow. You can see a climber up top but you really can't see the top out of this route, it just goes and goes and goes!

The first route we climbed was the Dead Dear Gully, which begins with a long WI2 pitch and ends at a headwall.  The headwall contained a handful of routes but we opted for quick ascent on a WI3 line, about 60 feet tall, just to get ourselves warmed up for the Main Flow.

Looking up Dead Deer Gully

Dustin, approaching the headwall.


The Main Flow IS the prized line of The Narrows.  It’s comprised of 3 pitches and stands over 300 feet tall.  Pitch 1 is straightforward WI3.  Pitch 2 is the crux pitch and is somewhere in the 4-/4+ range.  Dustin lead up the far right corner and clipped a screw about halfway up to get a rest and warned me I’d be climbing through a drip.  I followed for about 20 feet before I entered the wet section and got completely hosed and very frustrated (and truthfully a little scared by the height) while trying to remove draws and screws.  I had to be lowered off twice to get my bearings and swap out my soaking wet gloves and "batten down the hatches" before making a clean ascent.  Past the drip, the route was steep but I powered through without falling or resting once I got into the groove of climbing.  Pitch 3 was a monster!  The climbing was WI3 and I didn’t have any difficulties but I climbed for nearly 30 minutes!!!  I had thought I could see the top, but I kept climbing and it just seemed to keep going and going.  I was exhausted at the top out from the sustained climbing and the fear/excitement of the height.  I didn’t look left, right, up or down the entire time.  I focused on the immediate task of getting a solid tool placement, being on solid feet, and moving to the next position.  It wasn’t until I rappelled I took the opportunity to look around to enjoy and appreciate where I was.

Pitch 1 of Main Flow.

Pitch 2 of Main Flow (we climbed on the right side).

Pitch 3 of Main Flow (top nowhere in sight).

Dustin and I moved on to The Main Gully.  Similar to Dead Deer Gulley, the route is a long WI2 climb until reaching a curving headwall with more route options.  Feeling confident in my abilities and sound in skill and technique, I opted to lead up the gully.  Main Gully is two pitches, each ending with a bolt station.  I wasn’t nervous on the sharp end, but I moved with a sense of purpose knowing that each stick and kick must be secure before going for the next one.  There was some walk-up, but there were definitely vertical sections, the highest probably around 10 feet.  I wasn’t too worried about taking a fall, because I KNEW that I wasn’t going to fall and that is the key to leading ice, being 100% sure and confident.  Before heading up, Dustin discussed belaying with me and asked how I would do it.  I said I would belay off the harness and redirect through the anchor.  He suggested I belay off the anchor with the ATC in guide mode.  I’m familiar with how to, but this is something I’ve ever done before.  But a quick tutorial and demonstration refreshed my memory and before Dustin followed we communicated to each other ensuring everything was correct.  I belayed the same for Pitch 2 as well.

Dustin looking up Main Gully Pitch 1.

Dustin following and cleaning screws on Pitch 1 of Main Gully.

Dustin suggested I belay off of this tree instead of bolts for the top of Pitch 1 of Main Gully. Belaying off the anchor, ATC in guide mode.

Looking up Pitch 2 of Main Gully, bolt and chain station of Pitch 1 on the huge rock.

Belay on Pitch 2 of Main Gully.  ATC in guide mode.

Dustin following up Pitch 2 of Main Gully.

At the Main Gully’s Headwall, Dustin lead a WI3 route on the right side.  From the top, the view of the amphitheater was spectacular, highlighted by an ominous rock wall with cascading ice falls that dared any climber with the guts to attempt an ascent.  As I mentioned before, the rock quality is extremely poor and mixed route options are very unlikely.  So unlike the Catskills were almost every inch of rock and ice is climbed, The Narrows have many virgin sections that may never see a successful ascent.    

Right Side of Main Gully Headwall.

Me, topping out on the Right Side of Main Gully Headwall.

Amazing view from Main Gully Headwall!
From the top of the headwall, Dustin and I traversed across the top of the bowl to set up a top-rope above an ice route on the far left side.  Here, Dustin showed me how to lower a climber with the ATC in guide mode, something most people have trouble with due to its auto-locking nature which is great for belaying but difficult for lowering. Turns out, again, it was much easier and straightforward than I expected.  As I lowered off, loose snow and ice rained down and I was a bit sketched out to climb this route due to all the powder covering the ice.  I climbed until I reached what looked like a ski slope and lowered off from there instead of postholing through it.

Using a carabiner to open the ATC in guide mode in order to lower a climber.

Left Side Route on Main Gully.
That was Monday, President’s Day.  It’s Friday now and temperatures are nearly 50 degrees and rain is steadily falling outside.  This weekend it will continue to be warm and although there’s talk of cold late into next week, I’m wondering if the ice season is finally coming to a close.  If my trip to The Narrows was the last of the season, I can rest a happy man.  It was a fantastic day spent with good people, climbing on great routes, learning new skills, and truly testing myself.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Respect The Small Stuff

This past Sunday, August and I got together for a quick early morning ice climbing session at the local crag.  Because of its close proximity for the both of us, a short approach (careful crossing of a running stream), and quick set-up, we can get away with 2-3 hour visits and still be home in time for lunch.  The two of us met at 730am and we’re back in the car by 1030am.  It really doesn’t get any easier than that.

Aside from the logistics, however, the climbing on Sunday was not as easy.  The Plush line was as steep and as featureless as I’ve ever seen it.  The Lower Wall is slightly canted to face North West, and the day time sun angles just enough to not shine on the ice directly.  It does shine directly on the ground above the ice, right where the drainage that forms the ice flows sits.  The daytime warm sun on the snow above combined with the nighttime chill over the past few days created a shell of clear ice, smooth as glass.  The right side variation was now nearly vertical and with several rounded bulges.  There were no ledges to allow you to rest your weight on your feet.  And the in-your-face bulges, which may not be obvious in the pics, forced us to weigh our upper bodies on our tools.  So despite its height, these attributes made the route incredibly strenuous and a challenge to climb continuously.  Right side variation, easily 4+.   
Steep and Smooth.
 The left side, which is a thin pillar flanked by a rock face, was not much easier.  If you stem (one leg on ice, other leg outstretched on the rock), it’s not too difficult.  If you stay on the ice the entire time, it’s a narrow climb and dead vertical for about ten feet.  Past the vertical section, and only a few feet from the top, there are more options for feet and stances become wider.  We finished up the day on this route, August ended by running three straight laps up and down without unclipping from the rope in order to get the most burn for his buck.

Easier variation a few feet to the left (Not Shown - we had placed a directional extending the rope left).  Obvious missing chunk of ice in the middle (this was taken just after I rappelled down). 
Even though our day was just a lot of laps on two short routes, something interesting and worth mentioning happened just before starting.  To build the anchor, the two of us walk around and then up the cliff.  It’s steep and icy, but not really treacherous or anything sketchy.  But, it’s definitely easier and quicker going up then it is down.  So, normally we rappel from the top instead of walking back down.  While rappelling, a huge chunk of ice broke off and landed on my shin. It was pretty painful, but I was able to walk it off and climb without it bothering me.  However, that ice could have fell on my head or neck and even with a helmet I might have been seriously hurt.  For one, I ALWAYS wear a helmet while climbing and near a cliff.  Rock or ice.  Two, while rappelling (no matter how short of a rappel) I always have a Prusik below my belay/rappel device which functions as a dead-man’s hand in case I were to lose control of my rappel or become unconscious.  And it’s worth noting, while rappelling I was moving at a slow and controlled pace and checking for weak ice that would be over our heads and could break while we’d be climbing.  The piece of ice that broke off came unexpectedly just moments after I had touched it.  It’s important to remember that ice is dangerous and unpredictable and should always be respected.   
August, who stands over 6ft tall, holding just a part of the huge chunk of ice that fell on me.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Daks

Adirondack Park is nearly 6 million blessed acres of wilderness.  I went there for the first time in my life and it was beautiful.  My wife and I spent two nights at The Stagecoach Inn in Lake Placid, and would wake every morning to the smell and warmth of baking bread.  The Inn's Keeper, Mary Pat, also made homemade yogurt and granola and it was like nothing I've ever had.  But that was just the appetizer.  Following a bowl of fresh fruit she brought out an "Irish Breakfast" that consisted of homemade sausage patties, ham, bacon, grilled tomato, diced potatoes, and seasoned eggs.  At around 5pm, just before guests would head out for dinner, she offered wine, cheese, and conversation by the fireplace. Two of the other guests we met there were older women, late 50's or early 60's, but both in fantastic shape.  They spent their days cross-country skiing the areas World Class cross country ski trails.  I should mention Lake Placid is home to the United State's Winter Olympic training grounds and truly has it all.  But that relates to the Inn as well.  The owner's husband, Tony, is part of the local Olympic Committee and was preparing to leave for Sochi for this year's Winter Olympic games to judge.  If you're not already getting the picture of this being a winter wonderland destination take a look at this photo below.  I should mention I took it in the middle of a snow storm that dropped 12 inches...this is the snow storm we drove in, for nearly 4 hours!  But it gets better.  We had started driving the night before right after leaving work, for two and a half hours, stopping at a hotel in the Catskills (which is about halfway) in order to get a head start on the blizzard.  Turns out that was a wise decision because we might not have made it if we didn't.

But besides the Inn, Lake Placid also has ice climbing.  Lots of ice climbing!  We're up north in the mountains, after all.  And here were the temps the morning of...
I had Alan join me for this trip.  We had originally planned on Chapel Pond but decided to head over to an ice crag just across the North Face of Pitchoff Mountain (which has ice routes too).  We found a thick large flow about 70 feet tall and 50 feet wide that offered numerous lines and variations.  On this face, we did 4 route and they were all in the 4 to 4+ range of difficulty.  And because this crag faces south we were in the sun all day which was wonderful since the temps that morning were the coldest I've ever been out ice climbing in.
Fantastic Daks Ice!

Thick, and steep!

Snow Crust made for interesting climbing.
Starting up another one of the various lines.
Getting a brief rest on a slope before heading back into the vertical.
But that wasn't all.  To our immediate left was an interesting looking pillar of ice that Alan and I kept glancing at.  Both of us were wondering just how solid the unbonded middle section was.  I wondered if it was strong enough to climb on top-rope while Alan was having thoughts of leading it.  We decided that I would try it first on top-rope, just to see how well it would hold.  The route was steep but it did offer good footing and hooks for tool placements (instead of pounding them into the fragile ice).  I was able to climb it and told Alan he should definitely go for it, as the climbing was incredible.  The ice felt strong.  I didn't hear it groan when I weighted it and was able to carefully tap my tools and crampons into the middle section a few times.  Alan took his time on lead, putting two screws into the cone below the pillar, and then one just off to the right outside of the pillar on ice that had bonded to the rock.  Although it was a short route, Alan said it was definitely a WI5 lead due to its dangerous nature (probably 4+ for top-rope).  I got to give the man credit, as it was an incredible route to lead onsight!
Looking up the route. The main flow is about 30 feet, but there's at least another 30 feet of 4th Class climbing on a snow crusted ice slope.
Just below the snow cone, where the ice becomes vertical.

Searching for hooks and footing on delicate ice. The next ten feet is fragile!

Monday, January 27, 2014


While the majority of people I know are complaining about how cold, snowy, and icy this winter has been I’m over here praising the Polar Vortex and welcoming the Arctic Air to come and freeze my little corner of the world.  My local crag, which produced some rather thin ice-mixed conditions a few weeks back, was thick with ice this past weekend.  Plush had filled out and the two mixed lines I had climbed on New Year’s Day were now middle-heavy with ice bulges and all the turf and rock in between their splitter cracks was frozen hard.

Andrew pulled into my driveway at 7am, the light of the morning sun just barely an inch over the horizon.  August met us closer to our destination and we took one car in order to remain inconspicuous.  To our surprise, a guided party showed up a few hours later and roped up on Plush.  I’m a little concerned about commercial guiding at such a small, local, and even more important, access-sensitive crag.  While I’m not worrying about over-crowding issues, since even with the rare conditions like we had this weekend this will NEVER be a destination crag, I am worried about climbers losing access due to the wrong people noticing our activities.  In any event, we chatted with the group for a few minutes showing them how to access the top of the cliff and discussing route difficulties.  This group did not look like they would be climbing any of the harder mixed lines we had moved on to after top-roping on Plush. 


Me, climbing Plush.
August, taking a swing into Plush

The first of the two mixed routes, the route to the Left, was much different than a few weeks ago. The bottom of the route had no ice (previously, the start was icy) and so it became a series of delicate steps, as intricate as a well-choreographed dance, in order to reach good tool sticks in the ice and turf at the bulge.
Left Route
Inching up
In the thick
 The second mixed route, the route on the Right, had a ten-foot dagger hanging right smack in the middle.  Only the top three or four feet of the hanger would be strong enough for tool swings or crampon kicks, and even they would have to be delicate.  Last time, this route felt super hard, but this time it was a little easier, but certainly not easy, since the crack behind the dagger in the rock did have some thin but solid ice as well as frozen turf.  Climbing through here was extremely technical as my tools had to edge on small rock features and I needed to avoid crashing into the dagger.  Andrew called it a “physical-mental climb”, which is certainly a good way to describe it.  Last time, neither Andrew nor I were able to climb up to the horizontal crack about 6 feet below the top out.  This time, I was at least able to make it that far but the last few feet is on unbelievably steep terrain.  I was able to inch up, hang, and inch up for a few feet before becoming completely exhausted.  Only August, who’s turning out to be an incredibly good climbing partner, was able to top out but not without a serious physical effort.         

Right Route - Super Overhang!
Shot of "The Dagger"

Cautious and deliberate moves not to break the ice.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


Ice Climbing is dangerous.  I understand and accept that.  My partners and I have often said to each other that as dangerous as ice or rock climbing is you’re more likely to have an accident happen while driving to get there or on the drive back.  I climbed twice within the past few days and both times had driving “epics”. The first was after a brief but heavy snow storm.  I was driving up a very steep park road on Mount Minsi when all of the sudden my front-wheel drive Honda Accord could no longer go up and began sliding back.  Thankfully, I was able to break-slide-break-slide inch by inch in order to turn my car around safely while my partner waited at the bottom of the road in case I were to slide all the way down into traffic.  The second epic was just a few days later driving back from the Catskills in a full-on blizzard.  I spent four hours white-knuckling the steering wheel of my wife’s 4-wheel drive Subaru Outback praying I’d make it home in one piece.  Obviously, the Outback handled much better but 4WD doesn’t translate into on-a-dime stopping or the ability to avoid spin-outs while on an unplowed highway in a blizzard.  That was easily one of the most dangerous situations I ever found myself in.  I had a lot of time to think during that drive.  The majority of the time all I thought about getting home to my family.  I also thought about some of the risks I take, not that I’m a “risky” guy with my climbing, but I really should have paid more attention to the snow reports instead of being so single-minded on the temperatures being cold enough for ice.  And I also thought that without a doubt my next car will be a 4x4.   

And now for the ice climbing…

I had plans to climb on Saturday with Andrew and one other new partner.  Temps had been pretty mild and rainy during the week.  But my buddy out in PA said that the roadside rock was still all iced up and temps going into Saturday would be below freezing and it would snow.  Friday night, Andrew sends me a text saying conditions were “too marginal” and he was going to pass.  My other partner, August, and I were both of the same mind to take a chance and at the very least, check out this area that was new to the both of us.  On Mt Minsi, there’s a creek which forms a waterfall and is in something like a canyon which receives very little sun and since it’s below ground, is likely to be a little cooler.  There’s already established ice climbing there, and a ton of interesting looking rock but I haven’t heard of people going there to climb.


Wet Rock but Good Ice!
Incredible Mixed Possibilities!

Opposite Side of Canyon

Icy Starts and Awesome Rock, Opposite Side of Canyon.

Turns out our gamble would pay off.  We found a long curtain of ice in surprisingly good condition despite the upper section having melted or fallen off.  August and I set up two top-ropes and beat out every inch of ice we were able to get a line on and scraped our tools and crampons on the slippery wet rock overhead.  Had temps been a lot colder, the upper exposed band of rock would have been excellent.  We climbed for a few hours until we were both soaked from melting snow overhead.  This canyon is DEFINITELY worth coming back to in colder conditions.  Several other ice lines, and mixed ice lines, were showing their potential as they formed/deteriorated as well as an incredible amount of dry-tool lines.  There’s just a ton of potential.      

The next day out was a trip to the Catskills to climb at The Dark Side.  Ryan Stefiuk discovered this gem of an area a few years ago and I had the chance to climb there with then man himself back in January 2012.  The ice was thick but at the same time it was a little on the brittle side due to it being so cold.  Not too-too bad…but not all that great either.  I still had myself a marathon day of hard climbing.  The only easy route I climbed was Subtraction Gulley, WI3, but that was only to access a harder variation where a gorgeous smear of ice about 20 feet tall formed on the route’s left wall. 
Looking up Subtraction Gulley (route hard to see but goes left up the gulley/chimney).  Ice Smear is on left wall, up top.
Looking straigh up Ice Smear variation of Subtraction Gulley.
Me (and a gloved finger?) on the Subtration Gulley variation.
I repeated the classic Green Pillar, WI4+, which was a bit scary after the pillar up top fractured all the way across when my partner took a swing into it while on lead.  The pillar managed to remain intact, but the thin line running across it was very obvious and ominous. 

Green Pillar.  "Pillar" all the way up top".

Climbing the last few feet of Green Pillar.
Frozen Beard after.

I climbed another beautiful route called Golden Shower, WI4+, which was a bit “tinselly” but still an amazing and challenging route. 
Looking at Golden Shower from the left.

Frontal view of Golden Shower. Notice the "tinsel" ice.
After topping out on Golden Shower, my partner and I set up a top-rope over two long routes (not sure of their names).  The “Right” route followed a short section of 3+/4- ice until coming to a very fragile pillar.  The pillar could be climbed, but it was not strong enough to take big swings or kicks.  I had to climb hooking my tools and very gently placing the front points of my crampons.  I was close to sending the route but I reached a point where I couldn’t find any hooks or crampon placements without swinging or kicking.  Not wanting to destroy the pillar (or have it come crashing down on me) I decided to lower off.  Had I been a more experienced climber, one able to finesse metal a bit more delicately, I would have gone for it.  The “Left” route did have a hanging sheet of ice section similar to the right one.  But it was much shorter and I was able to maintain a cautious approach climbing through it and topped out.  Again, I’m not sure of the route names but they were both hard 4’s, probably 4+.  And at the end of the day, I chalked up 6 climbs, all but one hard WI4 climbing which feels pretty darn good to me at this point.         

"Right" Route, thin pillar after wide thick section of ice.
Getting into the business on the "Right" route.

Flow to the far left, "Left" route. On the right, you can really see how the ice was hanging.