Centered in a banner ice year, Jason B. invited me out to his secret ice kingdom for a shot at the major line there, a route we had looked at in previous years, but time, training, or warming weather had prevented us from attempting an ascent. This time, no thaw would get in our way - indeed, it was bone-chillingly cold. We were both in excellent condition for the attempt, having spent more than the usual amount of time on ice this year. And this time, we had companions as well: Deke P. & Charlie D. came along to climb some neighboring lines, so we could support each other if any problems arose. The situation seemed to be as good as it could get.
Dressed for – 18°F, Charlie and Jason enroute to the Secret Crag.
Our foursome parked near the end of the long, bumpy road and we quickly packed our gear and donned snowshoes in the piercing cold air. That morning, my thermometer had registered 24 below. Sunrise had boosted the mercury substantially, but it was still well below zero.
The approach to Jason's ice stash takes about an hour and a half, crosses two streams, and involves a fair amount of bushwhacking with commensurate navigation skills. It won't ever make the Top Ten Ice Climbing Venues of the World for these reasons, but over the past five years Jason has chipped away at the options here enough to make it worth visiting. Along with Deke, he had put up an excellent line called Adirondack Stew, with others had led or TR'd several shorter lines nearby, and the two of us had climbed Castle in the Sky in 2008, so there are enough attractions to keep at least two parties busy all day there.
Jason began on the sharp end, climbing quickly through the initial, easy gap up to a tight-notched corner. Here, the ice led up a short way then split into two channels, one remaining in the corner system, the other our target dripline. From my perspective, the dripline appeared straightforward and modest, but Jason began climbing up left upon it, looking not perhaps nervous, but concerned. Standing at belay in the frigid air prodded me to impatience; I in turn prodded Jason to move quickly on the low-angle stuff. He replied that it was steeper than it looked, and continued to climb carefully. Once he committed to the dripline, he progressed steadily, and despite being incredibly cold, I was impressed with his lead. He wasn't sewing up the line, nor did he climb tentatively, even when obstacles forced him to climb along the thin fringe of the ice. He worked methodically upward, reaching a good ledge above and left of the overhang's end. Here, he established a belay, and after a frigid eternity, drew in the rope and called the all-clear for me to start climbing.
I gathered what little I thought necessary, chugged a cup of hot chocolate, and began climbing. Somehow I had resisted the cold enough to retain feeling in fingers and toes, so the expected torture didn't accompany me. Jason had been right about the difficulty of this line. The climb to his first piece was stout enough, I would have placed another screw earlier. Working up the dripline began easily enough - effortless cauliflower hooking - but soon the overhang's flow forced me out onto the thin veneer pasted to the face, definitely steeper than it looked below! Content with my courage tied stoutly to an upper belay, I poked shallow holes in thin ice for the last ten feet and joined Jason in his shadowy cleft.
I did stop and take some pictures going up the 1st pitch, one looking out, the other down.
This was no time, certainly no temperature, for dawdling. We exchanged a few quick photos, gear, and comments, then I launched out on the next pitch. Stepping across the gap we had just ascended, I crawled into the maw of the beast, a horizontal cave guarded by dripping white ice teeth. Inching to the right behind these fangs, I reached an opening, slung a chain of runners 'round a fat curtain, and slithered out to dangle on the lip of the monster, my feet poked into the ice flow far above that curious dripline of the last pitch. It looked nearly vertical for the next fifteen feet. I stepped right once more, reaching a stance on top of a small pedestal of ice. I tried placing a screw, but bottomed it out with over two inches to spare. This was far too tiring to repeat; I slung the obscene protrusion, took a deep breath, and began poking upward.
It was steep. Eyeballing that ludicrous screw as it dwindled in the distance, I plugged away at the ice with fervor. The only real belay was in each hand, and I made the most of them as I climbed. Sure enough, the angle eased a bit, and I could once again stand in balance on my front points. Hoping to avoid a replay of my last screw, I clutched a stubby and began placing it, or rather, began trying to place it. The thing just wouldn't go. I tried the other stubby with the same results. I clawed a longer screw off the rack and placed it at a jaunty angle in the thickest ice I could find nearby. Thankfully, it hilted itself without complaint. I could finally breathe a bit easier.
The angle eased through grade 3 as I worked up and right toward the end of the ice and the beginning of the "dry-tool" stretch. I was running out of viable screws, and as I reached the base of the rocky inside corner, I realized I had forgotten the rock gear. Not far above me, a battle-worn birch tree offered some protection, but the first moves were tricky enough that I wanted something earlier. I pulled the last decent screw off the rack and drove it downward into the bulging ice cap at my feet. That would have to do. Reaching my right tool up, I wedged it firmly into the crack in the corner. Above and left looked to be a good hold for my left tool, but I would have to get my feet above the overhang at the base of the corner and pull hard to reach it. I would have to trust that right pick entirely for that move. Inhaling deeply, I tested that crucial pick, leaned back, raised my feet, scratching points on empty rock, and gave the old heave-ho. Despite having to make one more step upward to reach that promising hold to the left, everything held admirably.
Grateful for the foresight, I took a waiting sling out of my clenched teeth and whipped it up, over, and around the birch tree. Fumbling to pull the 'biner side through the other end with only one hand, the 'biner kept snagging. I finally leaned forward and bit at the runner in order to pull it through, but managed to touch the carabiner with my tongue as I did so. Instant flagpole syndrome: with no time to hesitate, I ripped it out of my mouth and stared disgustedly at a small patch of tongue enamalled to the shiny metal. Oops. That was gonna hurt later.
The rest of the corner was modest enough, but landed my on a dead-end ledge. Nothing offered good pro, to say nothing of a decent belay anchor. To the right, a vertical wall of bare rock and verglas, above an iceless, steep rock slab; neither of these offered much hope. To the left, a horizontal crack ran under an overhang and above a naked rock wall, leading to a better ledge with what looked to be a good belay tree twenty feet away. If there was a way out, that looked to be the one.
A pinch-point along the crack provided another good sling, and this time I kept my tongue out of the business. One scary move across the gap and I was scrambling onto solid ground, over to a pair of plucky trees. None too soon, I was anchored and shouting "Off-belay!" to my frozen partner far below and beneath my feet.
American Neogothic: Jason chillin' out at the mid-cliff belay.
Jason followed, slowly at first, as his numb fingers and toes made the going difficult, but gradually he warmed up and his pace improved. Soon, we were standing together, looking back down at our route. We were amazed, and though we had both suspected this line would be a good one, its quality, having completed it, surpassed our expectations. Though enjoyable, most ice climbs have a certain tedious sameness about them: the challenge lies in one's capacity to hang on, "swing and cling" to the top. While this route demands its pound of flesh in that regard, that price purchases the most thought-provoking, varied climbing I have ever done on ice. Anthem is highly recommended.
Slinging the pillar for the last rappel.
We made it to the ground in two rappels, with the great good luck of having the uppermost belay almost directly above the first pitch belay. There, we snaked one end of the rope behind the ice curtain, then pulled the other end down, carefully making sure it did not all slide through. In that way, we used the curtain as our belay anchor, and just barely managed to reach easy ground.
Charlie and Deke had climbed their three lines in the time it took Jason and I to do our two pitches and rap. Everyone had done enough for the day, and no one wanted to see what the mercury would do after sunset, so we began packing up for the long walk out. The exercise kept us warm and we hardly needed headlamps at all - well, we managed without them, those of us who forgot to bring one along.
Safely back into warm vehicles and thence to civilization, we grabbed wads of unhealthy fast food and talked awhile about the day's events and past adventures before heading our various directions. Charlie and Jason would return to this area to put up a couple more stout lines before the thaw. Deke and I managed a run up another "new" area, we would both climb for several days with a mutual friend visiting from down south, and of course I was barely into the busiest year guiding ice up in the High Peaks ever; but this frigid day to Jason's secret stash remains the highlight of the '08-09 ice climbing season.