Well, I asked for extreme physical exertion; I wanted a day out that would roundly 'kick my butt'. As the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for..."
The planned trip to Pharaoh Mountain's Ice Fall was disintegrating. I had only Saturday at my disposal, while my partners in climb were coming up so late Friday night they couldn't get the required Alpine start; they were pushing for Sunday or Monday. I didn't have either day off, so it looked like my butt-kickin' would get put off toward the end of February at the earliest. Out of the blue, Todd Paris, C4C member, emailed to see if I could get away on Thursday, maybe head out to Hayes and look things over. That idea looked good on paper, so we made plans to meet early that morning.
Both of us ran late, so the early start turned into a casual nine o'clock rendezvous. I met Todd in Olmstedville, transferred my voluminous baggage into his van, and away we sped, down wintry back roads ripe with snow drifts and frost heaves, toward one of the Adirondacks' hinterlands of hinterlands: the Hoffman Notch Trailhead.
We parked and began sorting gear. I brought some cams, just in case we met up with mixed terrain, and a seventy meter rope; Todd brought screws, screamers, and quickdraws. We both brought our crampons, helmets, and ice tools, but one of us forgot his harness - that was my mistake last time, so it was Todd's turn this time - which meant one belay tool between us, and an uncomfortable ride on any climbs for Todd. At least we had plenty of carabiners...
On with the snowshoes, on with the packs, and away we went. As always, the snowfall in this vicinity was significantly more than my neck of the woods. Minerva seems to be in its own little snowbelt. We walked through foot-deep, dense powder on top of suspect crust. Occasionally, one of us would break through and sink up to the knees in the underlying snow. Conditions appeared a bit suspect for avalanche hazards on steep terrain, though not terribly so. We didn't experience any wide-area settling - that spooky hollow 'whoomph' when the snow all around your footfall drops an inch or so - on our walk-in, which would have made the risk more likely.
It wasn't easy, though. Walking through this much snow is tiring, even along the easy trail to Bailey Pond. Once we left the buried path of previous hikers on their way to Hoffman Notch, we broke completely fresh tracks, adding to the work. We were both fresh with the sunshine, brisk wintry air, and expectations of adventure, however; so we clomped along enthusiastically despite the effort.
A mile or so from our parking spot, we turned left at the Bailey Pond Outlet and headed out onto the pond itself. I'm always nervous about doing this. I've known several people who have fallen through thin spots in the ice of various Adirondack waters, and one who died that way. It's a sobering thought as one ventures out onto these open plains that the ease of travel can turn out so badly. We both unbuckled our packs, and tested the ice with our trekking poles as we went along. Under 8 inches of snow lay another 8 inches of sodden slush, buried just far enough to spare our snowshoes a serious icing. Probing through this, I hit unyielding ice at every test. We nevertheless walked cautiously and kept a safe distance between ourselves while over the water. We only stopped for photos once along the way.
While we had the open view, we inspected Hayes Mountain. The main cliff is barely noticeable from Bailey Pond; only its rightmost edge appears on the horizon to the south. A band of cliffs runs along the mountain's flank however, and on it we could see what looked like a long, steep ice face. To its right, a gentler, longer thread seemed to wind up through the trees toward the mountaintop. We both decided to head toward these promising lines. I'm quite certain this had nothing to do with the fact that they were much closer to us than the large cliffs on the southern end of Hayes!
We cut toward those shining ice lines, hoping to use our tracks on the pond for guidance as we climbed up toward our destination. We made it to shore safely and began walking uphill, on an obvious knob bracketed on the south end by the inflows draining the valley between Hayes and Cheney Cobble; and on the right by a drainage coming directly off Hayes. We climbed moderately steep to the top of this small ridge, struggled through the marshy flat between it and the mountain proper; then began ascending in earnest. Ice tendrils snaked down the steepening slope above us in each direction, and for a moment it looked like we might need to switch to crampons just to advance uphill. A few striped maples and viburnums lent a branch for our efforts however, so we used them instead to avoid the changeover. We huffed and shuffled for perhaps ten minutes, gaining about 40 meters before reaching substantial ice.
A few ten to fifteen meter lines were apparent, but each appeared either too serious to attempt or too trivial to bother with. We walked along southward, hoping to find the big lines we had spied earlier. When we could glimpse the pond, we searched for our tracks to guess our whereabouts in relation to those cliffs, and it seemed we were too far north. I thought perhaps our advance up the slope had turned us rightward as we headed straight at the mountain to ascend. In actuality, we were seeing our tracks before we adjusted course toward our objective. Before this, our pond tracks led toward the divide between Hayes and Cheney Cobble toward the main col. After walking for an hour across the steep side slope of Hayes, exploring each gully we crossed in expectations that one would harbor the ice we had seen; we finally decided to descend and head for our original destination.
Going down was delightful after the arduous creep upward and plowing through avalanche debris across the slopes. In a few minutes, we arrived at the familiar overhanging, fifteen meter wall both of us had seen on earlier explorations. Several ice drools crept downward from its upper lip, but only the rightmost tendril ran unbroken from top to bottom. The main face sported several fangs that would require extensive dry tooling to reach.
This wall deserves some attention by rock climbers, as a few crack lines run all the way to the top and would yield incredibly hard sport or mixed sport/trad lines. I believe ten routes, from perhaps 5.10 upward, but mostly 5.12 or harder, could be unearthed on this wall.
In any case, nothing here looked anywhere near our abilities, so we continued southward, along the side of the mountain toward the giant bowl of cliffs that lie hidden on Hayes' south end. They appear abruptly, as one works around an obscuring buttress. Suddenly, a steep rampart looms overhead, festooned with dozens of icy teeth dripping down overhangs, cracks, and corners. The entire bowl is about 300 meters from end to end and 110 meters tall at its highest. Much of it is vertical or steeper, with several overhanging sections blocking any direct line. The main right wall is shallowly concave, with a few major mixed lines to tempt extreme climbers. This leads to the buttress, the longest stretch of rock on the face, which is so steep that very little ice lies on it. Beyond this, another concavity lies, with more discontinuous and frighteningly steep possible ice lines hanging tenuously to the stone.
Once more, nothing here was within our grasp. To the left, the wall diminishes as a vertical cliff band descending southeastward toward the valley below. We ate lunch and discussed our options. Those cliffs on the left were festooned with full-length ice lines. Todd thought they would go at 3+; I thought nothing was shy of 4. Neither of us had ever gone over to have a closer look, so we decided to eat lunch and then fill in those blanks for future reference. It looked like we would have to climb up a band of 2-/3ish ice just to get to the base of the main features, so we figured that bit at least would provide some excuse for carrying 25 lbs. of gear each out here.
A wide band of ice cloaked the union of wall and ramp. Its left side hung as a slender, emaciated column on slightly overhanging rock. On the far right, a thinly-iced chimney capped by an overhang was uninviting, as were the series of dead-vertical, verglassed faces interspersed with snow slopes to its immediate left. Between these extremes, lay one possibly realistic line, a steep, shallow notch running between the leftmost column and another, slightly less vertical column. Compared to its neighbors, it would go easier, but it didn't look easy by any stretch of imagination. Nevertheless, we were here and had equipment to justify, so we decided to give it a go.
Without a harness, Todd was out of the running for sharp end. I suspected excellent forethought on his part as I strapped on crampons, tied in, and picked up my tools. A short, steep face leading to a snow ledge guards the main ice. Here, I found out that anywhere snow covered the ice, a deep layer of unconsolidated crud hid under a brittle crust. I would have to dig through this choss in order to manage solid pick placements whenever the angle eased.
At the main flow, I placed the first screw, putting it as high as I comfortably could before launching upward. The difficulties began as a two meter vertical pull up congealed icicles to gain the steep, but lower-angle corner above. I hauled up once and descended. It was pretty clear this was a one-way affair; once I committed through this move, I wouldn't be backing down. Either I would fall and flail or make it to the top. I looked my pro over, took a deep breath, and flung the tools skyward.
The ice in front of me was too thin to hold crampons securely, so I stemmed out on both columns to either side. My legs, already fatigued from the hike in, began to spasm. It occurred to me that advancing was not wise given my state of exhaustion, but I didn't want to give up so quickly. I hastened a few more swings upward and was suddenly looking down at my first screw, apparently quite distant to my present position. There was no doubt a fall would land me on the snow slope below it with a fair amount of tumbling afterward. My position now was unfavorable for placing pro, but it looked like one more step might yield a stance. I struggled upward that step and flung a shoulder against the column to my right. It was a tenuous stance at best. I pounded my left foot through crust and crud to the best ice I could find on a small slope and poked my right foot into one of my lower pick holes.
Struggling with my rack in this cramped position, I finally detached one screw and began stabbing the ice above me. I didn't have enough strength to jab deeply enough to get it started, so finally I had to settle for a spot by my chest. As its threads bit in and drew inward, the screw began cracking the ice around it. I could see a dinner-plate sized crackling circle around my new pro as it sank home. Not comforting. Perhaps it would hold body weight, perhaps not. I wasn't enthusiastic about testing it.
So retreat wasn't inviting; it looked like I might get better stuff above, and by now, my awkward position was, if not comfortable, at least familiar. I could probably continue upward in the hopes of managing a better placement above. Of course, that would mean definitely not falling.
Upward some more, just a bit, and I succeeded in getting a better screw home. This one lay on a slope where I had chopped off as much of the snow and crud as I could before setting it. It would probably hold my weight. I could end this cramping spasm of a climb and go down, losing only one screw to the attempt if I wished. By now though, the way ahead looked easier. Just one little move upward and I could step onto easier terrain. Perhaps I should give it a go...
Foolishness or Bravery - well, the answer is obvious where ice climbing is concerned - but I chose to keep going. Another two meters and my hands were cramping in time with my calves. Ugh. Good thing I've been pulling plastic at Rocksport lately! It was steep here, just below a good rest, but I began to doubt my ability to hang on much longer. I stopped to put in one more good screw. Managing the task was horribly near the edge, of endurance and balance. I could not place a screw without fully removing myself from both tools. With my right hand, I stabbed at the ice while my left clung to a flute of ice, allowing me to lean back far enough to get a good swing. Finally, the pro's teeth took hold and wearily, I turned it into the ice. I had to grab my right tool and chop ice and hammer clumsily with the adze end in order to fix it firmly, but finally it sunk home; the second really good piece on the route.
Of course, that gave me the confidence to go on. I was nearing the end of the difficulties, I could see that. Just one more step up might do it. I went for it; although the resulting stance wasn't comfy it was adequate, and better than any I had used since the snow ledge below. I shuffled my diminishing gear supply around to find only two stubbies left. Grabbing one, I drove it into the wall to my right and clipped in. To the right, the way looked appealing but steep; to my left I could step around the bulge of ice in my face onto a steep snow slope. I opted for the latter, and delicately traversed around, up to one more smaller bulge where I placed my last screw. The end was obvious and close now. I pumped over the last steep ice onto a ramp of hollow crust, working my way up toward a small oak tree on the cliff's brim. Chunks of ice plate, four centimeters thick and basketball sized, broke off and careened downward as I screamed a warning to Todd. He was well out of harm's way, fortunately. I took a runner and reached it round the oak to safeguard my last step, before pulling onto the top.
By this time, Todd was well-chilled. Belaying an ice climb is one of the least pleasant leisure activities ever devised by its own proponents. The task had thoroughly had its way with him, so he ascended with woody fingers and numb toes. His harness, rigged up from a long hank of static line, looked and probably felt like some sort of masochistic torture girdle. It's difficult to say how much he enjoyed the ascent, but he didn't linger long at the top. He handed me the belay tool, camera, and gear, and I began lowering him downward. I couldn't hear him well after he passed below the first bulge, and thought he was calling for more speed due to his uncomfortable harness, so I began letting out line briskly. His increasing shouts clarified that this was undesirable. I stopped lowering, which engendered more vocalization. He didn't seem easy to please! I settled on a moderately brisk pace and soon felt the rope slacken. After a bit more hollering, it was clear that he was down and safe.
I snapped some pictures of the scenery looking northward. It was tremendous from this perch. A sharp rock buttress framed the peaks of Texas Ridge and other more distant mountains to the northeast. Far below in the same direction, one could just make out a corner of Bailey Pond. Cheney Cobble bracketed the right side of the picture as it ran down toward the pond. We had managed the climb just a bit too late, as the sun no longer shone on the cliffs nearby; but it still cut a bright swathe through the notch and on the mountains in the background. After a few clicks, I threw gear willy-nilly around my body, arranged the rappel, and headed downward myself.
Todd was nearly warmed up as I rejoined him. He recounted his adventure going down. The harness was uncomfortable, but the increased speed was more than he could keep in step with; consequently he had almost gone head over heels. When I had stopped lowering him, he was still dangling just a few feet off the ground, fully appreciating the raptures of his 'girdle'. We chuckled a bit about that as we stowed gear. Todd pulled and stacked rope as I struggled to remove my crampons in the moments between muscle spasms. I realized the trip out was going to be rough. There wasn't much for it, however; we couldn't stay here. We sorted gear, pulled on our heavy packs, and began stumbling down the ramp toward home.
The walk out was as rough as I'd thought it would be, but we managed it. Every time I've ever come out here and done any real climbing, it has thoroughly worked me over. Who am I to complain though? That is exactly what I was looking for!
Todd estimates our route to be 3+. It is the hardest ice I've led so far, and since it is clearly more difficult than Chouinard's Gully, I agree with that rating. The entire route is not quite 35 meters high. I don't know if a 60 meter rope would manage the rappel; to be safe I would recommend using a 70 meter rope. We've tentatively named it Sans Défaillance.
As mentioned before, there are several much harder options on the same wall farther down. They are all probably at least this tall, so a single rappel might not be possible. To my knowledge, no one has yet come out to challenge the main face in winter.
A few rock climbs exist, but none that go the full height of the main wall.
Thanks to Todd Paris for the shots of me clinging to the ice! All other pictures by Jay Harrison.