Ice climbing is a strange thing. It looks like this mechanical vertical progression with sharpened steel tools, relying on power and strength to claw up a giant icicle. Yet at the same time it possesses elegance and beauty. The movement of climbing is beautiful, in its own way. There is the smooth arc of a swing of the arm when you go to strike with your axe, and the constant necessity to maintain balance in every inch of your body. The formations of ice are incredible; against dark, black rock shimmers these smears and pillars that have the appearance of a waterfall frozen in time. They even possess a presence, as though they radiate an energy, a soft white light. One looks at it like at any moment it could succumb to gravity, hang in the air for just for an instant and fall to the ground in an enormous crash. This is part of what fascinates me. Climbable ice may come in reliably for a number of weeks every season, and some climbs might only come in once every few years, waiting for the right conditions to fall into place. Yet, inevitably, all of the ice falls down when temperatures start to rise as spring approaches. I witnessed such an event at Summit Rock in Indian Pass where huge sheets of ice fell from Wallface, and echoed like a jet airplane slamming into the forest, and sustained bombardments of ice chunks rained down the mountain face seemingly out of nowhere. The season, full of beauty and challenges, comes to pass in brief moments of collapse as winter’s gray skies start to part and the snow melts away.
Ice climbing is what brought me to Panther Gorge this past winter season. The name itself, given to the region wedged between Mount Haystack and Mount Marcy, sounds as though it is derived from a Jack London novel, evoking a sense of some remote, wild place. Panther Gorge, deservedly, is lightly traveled. The difficulties of navigation and the intensity of the approach make it a destination of high commitment, beyond that any High Peak. Set so far away from the trailhead, in one of the most remote regions in the Adirondacks, small mistakes such as not drinking enough water, a lazy step forward or sweating too much can quickly lead to catastrophe as often happens in the backcountry. On similar terrain, a lone hiker died from hypothermia after overexerting herself while bushwhacking MacNaughton the same day we set out into Panther Gorge, a solemn reminder of the danger of backcountry travel. The bushwhacking is incredibly arduous, requiring a full-body approach to navigate snowdrifts and spruce traps. It demands a certain balance of patience and stubbornness. Given the approach and difficult terrain, it is a region known more widely by reputation than by personal experience. But now I am among some of the few who have had the opportunity to experience it first-hand.
My initial impressions of it matched all the lore that surrounds it. Panther Gorge is a truly beautiful, rugged place. Walking through the heights of the Gorge, I was confronted with a great cirque that opened before me. The cliffs on the flanks of Haystack and Marcy rose like giants; amongst dark slabs and walls of granite hung pillars and cascades of ice, perched like silver gargoyles on black gothic cathedrals above the spruce forested floor. The cirque widened progressively, and views of Mount Skylight capped in snow and the ranges and ridgelines to the south served as a backdrop to our objectives of the day. My partner, Kevin “Mudrat” Mackenzie, is beyond a doubt the most familiar person there is with the region, and guided the way through it expertly, having bushwhacked through the region over twenty times while making first ascents on every aspect of Panther Gorge. He had lured me into the Gorge to attempt to climb a selection of single-pitch ice routes on Mount Haystack before the ice climbing season closed. This was to be the first ice climbing documented on Mount Haystack.
As we passed through the Gorge and ascended smears and cascades of ice, I felt as though I was in another time, and throughout the day there were feelings of such nature quietly playing in the back of my head. A set of three forty-foot free-standing pillars of rock we encountered proved to be particularly provocative. Kevin told me that these were described by the Adirondack guide Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps while passing through the region back in the 1800’s. I distantly wondered how many people have stood at the base of these towers between the time of the guide and that of ourselves. It is surely well-guarded, for here there are no trails, no evidence of the passage of man in the thick forests under the looming cliffs and hanging ice. The experience brought feelings unusual in daily life, for it is rare that I can have the feeling that if I were to reach out and place my hand on some section of rock, that no one had ever placed their hand there, or ever will again.
Perhaps the climbs themselves will be destined never to see a second ascent. Climbers will be more willing to travel to Panther Gorge for routes that are more aesthetic or longer or more difficult, and our two single-pitch routes may quietly be passed over in turn for the more lofty goals offered here. It’s like things here are not meant to be defined for more than a short time. Soon the climbs we did that day will be remembered as only a few words and a date written in a guidebook among hundreds of words and dates, all evidence of our experience having faded just as the ice falls down every season. Panther Gorge has a way of asserting the uniqueness of each moment spent behind its walls, for travels through there are brief moments never to be shared in the same way again. It’s a strange mix of both isolation and harmony. This place feels isolated, set apart from the world, both in time and distance. Yet despite however small of a role you play in it, there is an underlying feeling of harmony, that you are a part of it in a way that will never be repeated. Here, perhaps this is true wilderness.
Within two days I had I returned to campus to resume my studies at Clarkson University. Soon, the ice started to fall down throughout the Adirondacks, and with it the ice climbing season ended. After my spring break spent sport climbing in Kentucky, I resumed my usual hiking and in the Adirondacks, and started rock climbing again when weather permitted, but Panther Gorge still occupies a good deal of space in my head. Kevin is making plans for the rock season which is now upon us. Despite all his ascents in Panther Gorge, there are still more unclimbed lines left he wishes to attempt. He'll certainly be back for more days of dry humor with a touch of experiencing the untouched vertical. Someday, I will too.
For climbers wishing to visit Panther Gorge, the best resource is Kevin’s website, adirondackmountaineering.com, at least until the next editions of Adirondack Rock and Blue Lines come out. Climbers are recommended to bring whatever it takes to be prepared for more than they expected.
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