From afar, the Black Arches Wall appears to have awesome ice climbing potential.

Hike Along Crane Mountain's SE Flank

26th December, 2008

by Jay Harrison

With the annual New Year's thaw fast approaching, I decided to take a walk past the Black Arches Wall to scout potential ice routes. Having seen at least one incredible possibility from afar every winter since moving here, I wanted to get close enough to confirm at least that one's viability, and suspected there might be quite a bit more, as well.

Special Thanks to Dave & Marge for helping break trail!

The Monday before Christmas, my neighbors & I had broken trail to the Waterfall Wall, an arduous chore wallowing through the light, thigh-deep snow, but with three of us, the task was much easier. After the infamous Valentine's Day Snowstorm of '06, I had broken it alone: that one mile took five hours to break a good path through 49" of fresh snow then. With Marge & Dave's help, we cleared an excellent thoroughfare in about an hour. This would begin the day's efforts easily, as I would start out on this trail.

I reached the Waterfall Wall quickly, pausing only for a picture or two, before plowing on to new territory. I did notice that the ice at the falls yet to form well. It looks like there is a lot of water now coming down the right side of the Tempest block. Whether this is because we have more water than usual or the course of the stream has changed is uncertain, but the latter seems likely. This could make ice climbing here a bit less reliable, unless one counts climbing up the right side of the block. That side is much easier, almost trivial. The only "interesting" option would be straight up the Tempest line itself, which does appear to get more water than it used to get.

A few days' and warmer temps consolidated the snow well, and my old MSRs stayed near the surface most of the time. "Sidehill Whampusing" was easy enough with these conditions, as my tracks cut a level shelf heading southwest along the flank above the brook. I had a clear view of the huge boulders lying in that drainage as I cut farther along and up the side of Crane. As the going got steeper, I alternated between short spurts uphill and gently rising traverses.

Soon I was below the Slanting Cracks Wall. This year, there is a lot of ice flowing down the Straits of Fear area as well as the thin white gash of Providence. While the former looks tempting, I know most of that ice lies on relatively unfeatured, steep rock. As such, it is probably a thin coating, poorly connected to the cliff. I suspect it would not make feasible ice climbing.

Continuing south, I dropped down briefly and walked along the base of the cliff. The Slanting Cracks Wall is over 300' tall toward its north end, but is broken by ledges and ramps to the south. There, its upper reaches are blocked by an overhanging, 50' high wall that runs up the side of the mountain, diminishing in height as it rises. Eventually, I climbed to the end of the barrier, where a steep wooded slope provides a "hiker's" route through the cliffs of Crane's southeast wall. I climbed that slope and headed north toward the conical col below the Black Arches Wall.

The Black Arches Wall is divided into three parts: an isolated buttress, separated from the rest by a precipitous tree gully, the "arch" area, where huge corners rise to a giant roof, creating the eponymous black arch, the Black Arch Buttress, an megalith of stone jutting out from the rest of the face, and farthest north, a steep face harboring several straight-up cracks, seams, and crevices. The first two divisions lie level with the bench one reaches after breaking through the dwindling rampart below, but to reach the other two, it is necessary to descend 50' or so into the col.

Before losing that altitude, I decided to find a good photo-spot for the arches section of the wall. A forked maple tree looked climbable, so I stomped out a platform underneath it, took off my snowshoes, and worked my way upward, bridging the gap between the two trunks until I could reach a branch and continue up the cliff side of the tree. I was not the first arboreal visitor: a porcupine or two has spent time gnawing bark off every branch, wreaking far more havoc on this poor plant than weather or wandering bushwhackers ever has.

Ensconced in the tree, I could see that none of the tempting ice lines are fully continuous up the cliff. Two are about 60' high, spouting from improbable sections of cliff and flowing down to the ground, while a third cascades from the top, terminating in long fangs of ice at the roof. I believe this last flow does occasionally make it to the rock below, connecting to one of the other flows and thus making a through-ascent possible. It would never be easy: the ice is dead-vertical, and passing over that roof, probably never highly-trustworthy. Although it follows a promising corner above, that corner is small, vertical, and surrounded by massive rock that doesn't offer good adhesion for the ice. It will take a good season and bold climbers to attempt that line.

Having managed a close-up inspection of the most tantalizing line I had looked at from afar for years, I was eager to see if there was anything promising on the other side of the Black Arch Buttress. Sliding down into the col, I finally caught sight of some lines I had spied bits of in the past but never seen closely. The righthand corner of the buttress has a discontinuous flow that might be possible in good years, and would probably be the most reliable line, since it doesn't get much sunlight. It might even be possible to ice climb up the corner to a ledge that runs out to the crux overhang of Black Arch ArÍte, though that would then involve 5.10 rock climbing followed by a questionable steep friction slab and big fall potential.

To the right, the as-yet unclimbed project Parallel Passage is a neatly-tucked, 10-inch band of hard ice running down the cliff. It is not very thick, probably not thick enough to climb, certainly not enough to take screws, though perhaps as the season progresses this will change. I know there are a couple placements for small cams on either side of the groove, and a really big Big-Bro might be placed crosswise in it, but it would be a desperate lead on tenuous ice.

Despite this, it is an appealing line. Such thin streaks of ice demand careful pick-work to avoid smashing out all the ice and either plummeting with the shards or dangling mid-cliff with no place to stick a pick. I would love to try it on a top-rope.

Another chasm farther right offers a more plausible ice route up the cliff. While it isn't fully continuous, its gaps are short enough for a standing climber to bridge, and it follows a deeper cleft, so the ice is probably attached better here than on the Parallel Passage line.

I hoped there would be a solid line toward the far right end of the cliff, at a large, left-facing corner, but this does not seem to be the case. The corner appears mostly devoid of moisture, so what I had thought might be an "easy" grade 4 option doesn't exist on the Black Arches Wall. The ice climbing potential here resides at the high end of high-ball, experts-only terrain. Whether that sort of traffic will ever bother visiting Crane Mountain remains to be seen.

One goal met, I worked back upslope south to my high point and then proceeded upward to the base of the South Corner cliffs. This involves a short thrash through talus and blowdown before reaching the bench at the bottom of the cliffs. To the right, the Diagonal Ramp leads up to the top of the Black Arches Wall and is the only hiker's option for reaching the summit. Not far to the left (south), a climber's herd path leads around the corner, down to the Measles Wall and thence to the Boulderwoods and the trailhead. I wanted to connect these two points so I could get an idea of how much farther it was from the the end of the path to the Black Arches Wall and whether there was any viable ice along the south corner cliffs.

My inspection of the South Corner cliffs didn't determine anything substantial. Visibility was limited, as the rising temperature created a veil of fog. I did see a few potential lines, but each appears to mix trivial alpine with heinous steep scratching as well as fat stretches of tasty flow. While the herd path lies along the base of this cliff, it doesn't provide the best view of the wall. It is a bit too close to get a good idea of where the ice is and how to get to it.

From the Black Arches Wall, I bushwhacked for about fifteen minutes to reach the herd path's current terminus. In rock season, the entire path takes about 25 minutes to walk, so probably in a bit more than a half hour, climbers can be at routes like Black Arch ArÍte. Cleaning up Eatin' Tripe and Lichen It, completing Parallel Passage, and adding a couple more routes to that crag will make it a viable rock destination. Scouting out a couple nice lines on the South Corner cliff would make the current path perfect for a climbers' approach. Otherwise, a more level traverse of the mountain would shave a few minutes off travel time and make the Black Arches Wall even more feasible - if such a path is plausible.

With snowshoes in moderate snow, it took a little less than an hour to make it from the Black Arches Wall to the trailhead and out to Sky High Road. For experienced bushwhackers, this snowshoe trek provides an excellent look at some of the most rugged, remote sections of Crane Mountain. While my hope of moderate ice climbing opportunities appears thwarted by harsher reality, there is no telling what better weather might create after the thaw is over; and of course, the rock climbing potential in that area remains some of the best on the mountain.