Johnson Pond Cliff

New Crag with Great Potential

by Jay Harrison

3rd September, 2008

While climbing hasn't taken a back seat in my activities, other obligations have been encroaching on the target frequency I had hoped for coming into the summer season. Pesky things like home maintenance and work get in the way of the important things in life sometimes, I suppose. Regardless, I had a day open up unexpectedly this week, and called fellow climber Todd Paris hoping he too would be free. This was the case. Todd had mentioned a new crag that piqued my curiosity, so we decided to head in the direction of Johnson Pond Road.

Our venue for the day lies a short distance from Northway exit 29. Johnson Pond Road is just past the Town Hall, on the right. A short drive up this, passing the last private property drives and following a stream bank on the left, a small turnout on the creek side of the road provides space for two cars to park; other similar spots dot the road as it reaches the height-of-land before the road ends.

A tiny, steep descent to cross the stream puts one right among the Johnson Pond Road boulders, the first attraction that drew climbers to this area. We glanced at these as we passed, but did not pause. Our goal lay farther in the woods. Slanting up the bank across from the road, we wound among the rocks to a ledge and turned left along its base until we reached the ridge top. There, we swung right through the woods, just above a swampy area on our right. Crossing a dry drainage, we could see cliffs to our left, but the first ones are short and broken. A minute farther along, at a small cairn, the crag sweeps up to sizable height. Here, we turned left and headed straight up the short talus slope to the cliff.

Johnson Pond Cliff lies, like its near neighbor, Sharp's Bridge, mostly below a canopy of pine, cedar, and maple trees. The partial sun the face gets, coupled with detritus from the trees, makes the cliff prone to moss and lichen growth, just as it does at Sharp's Bridge. This cliff is a bit drier, but also less developed, so the clutter may be easier to clean, but hasn't been pursued yet.

And the climbing is harder. One look at the possibilities on this cliff makes it clear that this is not primarily an intermediate climbing destination, and anything but a beginner's crag. Much of the wall is quite steep; two of the three routes we climbed were overhanging. Of the routes and variations we climbed, nothing was less than 5.8.

Jay Harrison attempting Not Quite Geiko, Johnson Pond Cliff, Adirondacks, New York. Photo by Todd Paris

The Author attempting Not Quite Geiko. Photo by Todd Paris.

Speaking of which, we started on a climb Todd calls Not Quite Geiko, a line he has been wanting to pull off since first exploring the cliff. This route lies near the left end of the main wall, just left of a ground-level overhang; in fact, a tempting direct variation would climb out the overhang using a left-leaning crack that leads to the main line.

Jay Harrison near the top of Not Quite Geiko I wanted to try an on-sight lead, so we roped up at the base and up I went. The climbing became difficult quickly. An easy-ish step up the corner leads to a subtle hand-traverse on vertical rock to the main crack line. I managed a good cam in the corner before heading right, and once I made the traverse found a fairly decent cam placement and a good spot for a nut before heading upward on what seemed like 5.8+ laybacking and reaches to an even trickier series of moves, all on slightly overhanging rock. Bits of stone kept coming off in my hands, so I had to carefully find holds solid enough to rely on, reach for the next candidate and carefully test it - usually with some modifications forthcoming - before starting the process over. Once or twice, a fairly large chunk hurtled earthward, missing all the vitals below (ropes, packs, water bottles, belayer, etc.). The summation of all this was I got far too pumped to finish the route. With less than ten feet to go, I clung to holds with a couple poorly-situated pieces of pro nearby, looking at final moves that were close or in the 5.10 range. Without trustworthy protection or rock, I chose to back off, downclimbing a ways until I could step left into and descend an easier corner.

Defeated on the sharp end, we nevertheless worked our way upward via a minor fifth class gully to the left and set up for a top-rope assault. Climbing through the last section, above my earlier high point, I estimated was 5.10a, without good pro. My upper pieces pulled out without any difficulty, and some of the holds are likely not long for this world, at least, not as holds forty feet up the cliff. A couple hours of serious cleaning and I might consider giving it a go again, depending on what a good scouring might turn up for protection.

Not Quite Geiko needs a thorough cleaning; it might yet prove to be in the high end of 5.9 but I suspect will be firmly in the 5.10 range once it gets its manicure. And for the true hard guys, the direct line is just waiting for a capable climber to tackle it. That particular path will probably push into the lower 5.11 range.

The Impressive Face, Johnson Pond Cliff, Adirondacks, New York

The Impressive Face, near the right end of the cliff.

After our struggle with the first climb, we moved the top-rope to the most tempting of all the possibilities on the cliff. At its right end, a wall leers overhead, crusted with an armorlike coating of polished stone and scarred with vertical gashes. This wall is about 60 feet high, unrelentingly steep, and speckled with sharp crimps and sharp-edged cracks.
We both spent quite awhile flailing away at this line, managing only about twelve feet before our arms were too thrashed to go on. At our highpoint, a wide stem with the feet in vertical cracks and the hands bumping desperately upward from crimper to sidepull to pinch seems to be the mode to success; but then, we never managed to succeed. In the end, we had to retreat to the corner on the left for twenty feet of easier (5.8) climbing before heading back out onto the main face for more 5.10ish climbing to reach the anchors.
This unnamed and as-yet unclimbed testpiece does require a lot of cams for setting up the top-rope, and a bit of fortitude for getting to the anchor area: there's a minor fifth class slab getting down to the cracks where a top-rope can be secured. One then works placing pro in cracks with that sixty foot air-drop inches away.
Like the previous route, an even harder option begins to the right. I played on this briefly - very briefly - and estimate the moves getting through the head-height overhang are 5.11; this to get to ground that is in turn 5.11, with no rest between nor likely above for quite some time. I think this "direct" line would end up in the deep end of 5.11. This doesn't even touch on the outermost edge of the arete of this wall...

Todd Paris prepares to tackle the Impressive Face, Johnson Pond Cliff, Adirondacks, New York

To the left of this awesome face is a low-angle face that appealed to our by-now quivering egos. The top-rope anchor took quite some time to procure and ended up running through a couple ledges and over some minor edges on its way down, but after the work we finally got to play on something manageable. The slab is about 8 meters tall, ending at a steep face/arete that adds another 8 meters to the mix before ledging into vegetated ugliness. The lower climbing is perhaps 5.7, the upper wall offers a couple options from 5.8 through 5.10. While the slab is almost immaculately clean, the short face above could use some cleaning.

A fun boulder near Johnson Pond Cliff, Adirondacks, New York

We had obligations to meet before the evening's end, so this was our last climb at the cliff for that day. We packed up and headed back to the car, stopping briefly to run up one of the nicest looking boulders in the collection near the road. The crack on high side is good clean fun, as is the overhang to its right. The nearby "Alphabet Boulder" offers good climbing for kids, and at least one possible sit-start V-hard line. Then, it really was time to haul ourselves, our gear, and the dog back into the car and head homeward.

If You Go

Johnson Pond Road is not far off the Northway exit 29; however, finding the crag at this time is best managed by contacting Todd Paris and setting up a date to tour the place. If you want to try it on your own, here's the gist of it:

Directions...Sort Of!

What To Bring

I used an entire set of HB cams, Red through Purple, attempting to lead Not Quite Geiko, and used just as many setting up an anchor for the Impressive Face. Throw in a wire brush, pry bar, and chock pick for cleaning. For top-rope anchors, we used gear and/or trees and a twenty-foot static line. A 50meter rope would manage just about anything we climbed, though the slab route would require a lower anchor than we used.
The mosquitos were bad. Bring DEET.
Water...while it isn't a long run back to the creek, it isn't a convenient one. Carry water in to the cliffs.

Impression

Johnson Pond Cliff has a lot to offer advanced intermediate to advanced climbers, but it needs a lot of TLC to bring it up to snuff. Before the best routes can get a decent lead, they will need to have loose rock and debris removed, and to a lesser extent, some scrubbing. They are cleaner than the Sharp's Bridge Cliff probably was when first discovered, but the more difficult climbing necessitates better prep work.

There are no grand views from the top, though the terrain is fairly open and pleasant once past the cliff edge. Except for having no water source, it would in fact make a nice camping spot.
I don't know how far away Johnson Pond is, nor even honestly what it looks like - or even if it exists! This might be a nice alternative destination for swimming or fishing, or it might be a swampy pughole. Explore, find out, and let me know!

Special Thanks to Todd Paris for taking me to the cliff. It was fun! I'm thinking about heading back in there with some cleaning implements and taking another stab at Not Quite Geiko. When can we...?