Friday, July 27, 2012

Trip Report: The Diagonal, Wallface

With the Adirondacks close to my heart and actual geographic location, I have been dreaming for years about doing a big wall climb there in the wilder areas of the park.  As I get older, this becomes increasingly intimidating because of the increased risks involved with remote climbing as well as the uncertainty of my mental and physical endurance.  One must summon a little extra when the adventure is packaged with a long approach carrying a heavy pack (climbing and camping gear, water and food for more than a day). While this alpine style of climbing is mere peanuts for many climbers today, it is not so for me.  I love getting far away from the crowds, deep into the wilderness and in high places.  When I was in my 20s it came without thinking. Now in my 50s everything has to be well thought out and considered. And so the planning began earlier this year to gather a group of four to climb The Diagonal on the Wallface cliff in the High Peaks of the DAKs.

Since I tend to be big on planning and organization, I started with studying the route descriptions, approach and camping options, and potential meeting places for our group.  Two were coming from the north (Burlington area) and 2 were traveling from due east in Vermont.  I used Google Maps to determine possible meeting places, keeping in mind we wanted to minimize extra driving and maximize time efficiency.  The town of Newcomb, NY is the closest populated area to the Upper Works trailhead we would be using, so that seemed a logical choice.  I found a cemetery marked on the map that was quite close to the Tahawus Road which would would take up to the trailhead parking.  So my email to my climbing friends indicated this place to meet, promptly at noon.  Vince and I drove over together and arrived at the meeting place at 11:57.  When we saw that Louise and Lauren were not there yet, we figured we would shoot down the road a mile to see if we could find a place to buy some ice (gotta keep the beer super cold for 24 hours!).  Since this cemetery was so out in the open and clear, we figured it would be a cinch to come back in 5 or 10 and find them sitting there in their car waiting for the rendezvous.  Well, it didn't quite work out that way.

Note the little piece of paper we taped underneath with a note
By 1 o'clock with no sign of them and no way to call or text (no cell service over there), we elected to drive up the Tahawus road and see if by chance they were waiting at the trailhead.  Now, honestly, I saw no reason this would be the case since our plan was very specific about the cemetery.  But it can be pretty nerve-racking sitting and waiting - time does NOT speed along!  We left a note on the cemetery sign, just in case they came while we were out looking for them.

Of course there was no sign of them, so we drove all the way back down and when we got to the cemetery we were disappointed again - no one in sight.  Now 2 hours past the meeting time, we began to assume they had car trouble or worse, got in an accident.  Again, with no cell service we had no way to check for messages.  I figured it would not be easy to drive a short distance to find service either, so we simply made the decision to go on without them.  There was always the chance they might show up at the designated camping area near the cliff.

The parking lot was beyond full, so we joined the roadside parked cars and rearranged our packs.  The route requires 2 60M ropes to rappel, so we switched to double ropes (ugh, more weight).  The hike in was surprisingly flat and mellow, a real blessing when carrying a heavy load.  We reached our destination campsite in 2 hours. A bit less than an hour later, we heard voices, and, there they were - Louise and Lauren hiking in to join us after all!  After I got over my mixture of anger and worry, we hiked up the Indian Pass trail a bit to get a better view of the cliff and the route.

So where were they? Well, they arrived at that same spot either moments before or moments after we did - and I mean literally MOMENTS! Although they saw the cemetery, they did not feel it met the definition of a cemetery due to its uncharacteristic lack of tombstones. This cemetery had a lot of veteran flags and plots and very few discernible stones, and therefore might be interpreted more as a memorial or veterans cemetery.  Since I had labeled the meeting place as the "Newcomb Cemetery", it did not meet the criteria they were looking for. So they drive further through "town" - a few miles down the road, until they spotted another cemetery, truly more ancient with  a full compliment of headstones. They waited for us there for the same 2 hours we waited for them! But I digress.....

Back at camp, deep in the woods near the Indian Pass Brook, we set up camp and fired up the JetBoil for some dinner.  Since the weather was forecasted to be good Saturday, Saturday night and most of Sunday, we did not pack tents but elected to sleep out instead.  Vince generously offered me a bug bivy sack while he slept in the open with a big head net if he needed refuge.  Louise and Lauren did the same.  Of course, as it turned out, the bugs were barely noticeable, a huge surprise to me.  Usually the mosquitoes are fierce, especially at dusk. I am sure this was a huge relief to my 3 companions.

The next morning - note the brown tarp Lauren erected
Unfortunately instead, a small rain shower rolled in about midnight and woke us.  A mad dash for the plastic tarps which we were sleeping on top of allowed us to get some quick cover.  Lauren was extremely impressive with her ingenuity and actually made quick work of a true overhead tarp.  By the time this was erected, the rain stopped and Vince and I settled for using our tarp simply as a waterproof blankie over our bags and bods.

Before bedtime we had agreed to an alpine start of 0530.  With the rain overnight my companions felt they could sleep in, assuming the cliff face would be wet.  I was first up (at about 0500 I think, based on the dawn light) and could see the ground wasn't at all wet.  Before long I roused them and eventually we got ourselves packed and ready to hike up.  It was 0730 by the time we left - a bit too casual to my liking, but it is a team effort and I went with it.

The approach trail was well marked with cairns and we found the base of the route without any difficulty.  What is most exciting when you arrive at the base of Wallface is the size and steepness of the upper part of the cliffs.  And Wallface is broad - the section we were viewing and climbing may only represent about one fifth of the full width of the cliff!

Louise and Lauren at the bottom
of the ramp
The climbing began in good season. I started up the first pitch and found the first half straightforward.  The trick was in finding a belay build.  I had read there were 2 options for a belay, one fixed. I am still unclear where this fixed belay was, unless it was the tat of cord on a cedar tree 15 feet above where I chose to build. This section of the climbing (pitches 1 and 2) challenge your route finding skills.  But once Vince made his way up and right from my belay he felt confident he was on route and when he reached the base of the ramp he knew he was right. Phew!

Yours truly starting up the ramp
The ramp pitches are really something. Super easy climbing up a big, broad diagonal ramp that leads to the upper walls.  It was like climbing the Third Flatiron in Boulder, CO or something!

Once you get to the top of the ramp the view begins to unfold.  We saw hikers on a slab below who saw us and called up to us.  Vince thought this was Summit Rock as described on the Indian Pass trail. They seemed far to low to me, but after studying the topo maps later I think he may have been right!  The 5th pitch is simply a walk across a grassy ledge to the base of the 2 final pitches which both go at 5.8.  This is where the real climbing starts (and ends).  Vince lead the first of these which had a few awkward but really fun semi-chimney moves.  I was handed the sharp end for the final pitch which is really fun and had me pretty scared in one section where the steep wall on the left throws you to the right onto a sloping ledge that is just awkward.  The final steep wall has oodles of options.  It is littered with old rusty pins and pitons that lead up the corner then out left.  You can choose to climb just the corner, part of the corner then left or just stay left. I basically followed the pins to get a little of both features.  The wall is intimidatingly steep for 5.8 but the holds are big.  I found it a mentally challenging pitch simply because I was so aware of the setting and that there was absolutely no option to fall.  A badly sprained ankle or similar injury could spell big trouble because of the remote location.  5.8 IS more serious when you are climbing in the alpine setting. Period.

We enjoyed a top out onto a wide grassy ledge.  We joked that if someone wanted to make some money they could haul beer and hotdogs up there and sell them to the climbers as they top out.  Check out the video for some of the feel for our top out experience.

The descent consists of 4 double rope length rappels. Typical Adirondack tree anchors are to be found along the way and the worst of the descent was the bug attack that ensued as I slid down to the cliff's bottom on the last rap.  Up to this point there were not bug issues to speak of so I was not expecting them to be so bad at the day's end.  But they were swarming and biting like mad and it made for a speedy hike out and over to our packs.

We returned to camp, gathered our cached water, food and sleeping gear and hiked out.  It was later than we had hoped, but sleeping out again was less enticing without a good meal and cold brews to provide incentive.  Since those goodies awaited us at the trailhead parking lot, we trudged out into the evening, finishing the hike with headlamps.  It was a long day that was well worth the effort.

Me and Mr. Dude
There are many things that must be considered when taking on such an adventure.  Proper packing, planning and pacing are key to efficiency and maintaining endurance.  Safe climbing and ideal weather are essential to success.  Without all of the stars aligned, a small error in judgement or an ordinary mistake can quickly become an epic.  We found it curiously ironic that all of these things went off without a hitch. No one was hurt, hungry, hypothermic or dehydrated. Instead, the one thing that went really wrong was our rendezvous! And seeing as that all worked itself out, too, we feel very fortunate and thankful to have had such a successful trip.  The only other oversight was that none of us remembered to take a group shot of all 4 of us at the top out. Once this was realized, we agreed we could get a fun picture of all of us at the trailhead or cliff bottom.  But that never happened either.  There is too much to remember and focus on once you are safely on the ground.  Little details like these can easily be neglected.

Starting Pitch 6, the first 5.8 pitch

1. Don't take it for granted it won't rain. It will.
2. Take photos of the group at the top!
3. Most importantly, consider a meeting place that has cell coverage, even if it means driving a little out of your way.  This way if someone is late or lost you can reach each other via text or phone so as to adjust your planning and timing without having to worry or spend a lot of energy being ticked off.
4. Pack light, but take what you need and remember - for a climb like this, it is worth it!
Louise coming up Pitch 2
Lauren coming up Pitch 1


  1. or lost you can reach each other via text or phone so as to adjust your planning and timing without having to worry or spend a lot of energy being ticked off.

  2. This looks absolutely incredible and is such a surprisingly low price for what you get! Will definitely keep this in mind. Stunning photos as well. pitons tour