Saturday, September 24, 2011

Taking Dix from both ends can leave you with a Whiteface!

Aim ascending Whiteface Ski Slide #1

Following our removal from the Dix Wilderness by the DEC, we had to find alternate plans for the remainder of our vacation. Slide climbing had always been on the agenda for the second half of the trip, so with 3 major slide filled wilderness areas closed, my eyes turned to Whiteface.

Approaching and descending from a ski slope would seem to be easy. As you drive by them on the road you see grassy fields that look like a pleasant way to ascend and descend a mountain. Perhaps Whiteface is different than other slopes, but it was anything but a leisurely walk.

The ascent was fine. We actually took the Stag Brook Trail -lower and upper- which gained about 1500ft or so. This was in the trees, on a trail parallel to the beautiful rushing Stag Brook with it’s numerous waterfalls and cascades. I don’t know if Stag Brook is typically dry in summer, my guess is that it normally doesn’t flow quite this much. But following hurricane Irene, it was quite full and beautiful.

Stag Brook Falls

At the top of Stag Brook trail, we began the ascent via the ski slopes. Immediately the 80+F (26C) heat with high humidity became an issue. Mid summer heat and humidity in September, on a shadeless open slope = fun times.

Understanding why you ski down them!

The slopes are actually quite pretty, many wildflowers and butterflies to be seen during the ascent. We could also see our objective quite clearly. Both the summit of Whiteface and the slide bowl -or as my wife refers to it, the hell hole.

It was about 4pm when we finally got to the base of the slide. Slides 1 and 3 are immediately visible in the bowl. Just bear left and start up #1, #3 is slightly to the right (center). #2 two splits near the upper half of #1, and #4 appears to require some bushwhacking to gain the base, but nothing heinous. My next trip here I will be doing Ski Slide #3 and then traversing over to Ski Slide #4 to summit via the crux pitches of #4. For this trip though we just did the easiest of the four, #1.

The slide was relatively dry as a whole, but there were many wet sections and many streams of water flowing down. Mixed in were a few slimy sections. For this reason we zig-zagged around a lot of the slide seeking the driest terrain versus the easiest terrain. Typically, I look for the harder climbing on class 2, 3 and 4 terrain to make things interesting, but this time we ended up on steeper and drier sections because of necessity. Oddly, I usually feel like the climbing is easy, but on this slide I felt like it was steeper and more dangerous than the trip reports suggested. I might be getting soft, or I might just have been concerned about Colvin.

A concerned Colvin watches the ascent

Colvin climbed the class 3 slide with relative ease, but because of his extreme concern and loyalty for us, he put himself in dangerous positions several times by returning down from difficult sections to “assist” or encourage us. There were 3 sections where I roped Colvin. He was wearing his Ruff Wear Doubleback technical climbing harness, and I used a hip belay and 8mm static cord to give him a little assistance over some fairly steep sections that were above significant runout. In these sections, I felt a fall could become dangerous beyond the initial impact. It’s quite funny, really, but he is very comfortable climbing while roped. Whereas my last dog, Caney, who was a much better climber, almost human good on technical terrain, did not like being roped up.

Final ascent before bushwhack
The mental crux of any of these longer semi-technical climbs is the exposure. There are sections of trail throughout the Adirondacks with slabs this steep, or even steeper, but few involve looking back down at hundreds, or even 2000ft, of unbroken fall beneath you. There were few sections on this slide where there was potential for fall for even a novice climber with a grasp of fundamentals, but if a fall were to happen, it could be fatal. I would say that if you were to fall on the first 200-300 vertical feet of the slide, you could potentially fall all the way to the bottom without stopping depending on your path during the fall, though more than likely you would stop. The higher up you got on the slide, the less steep it became. In many spots any sort of significant fall was near impossible, and it was just like hiking any steep, slabby trail.

Climbing the slabs - Whiteface Ski Slide #1
Falling on a slab climb or slide is actually quite serious. More serious in my opinion than a beyond vertical rock climb with good protection. When you fall it’s not a matter of if you will hit something, but how far you will slide before you stop. Skin and rock don’t mix well. Even a minor fall can lead to weeks of healing. That said, I’m a confident, and I hope, a good friction climber, slabs have never bothered me, and I enjoy climbing them. Generally speaking, people either love or hate slab climbing. There is no middle ground.

The left side of slide #1, though not extreme left, is more ledgy with verticalish steps of 3-10ft. Staying towards the center is more a mix of ledges and slab, while far right is mostly smooth slab. In dry conditions, the right side seems like it’s the best route for friction climbing. In wetter conditions, the center left gives a nice mix of rest ledges with secure stances, dry friction, and good positive holds.

The extreme left, which would be on the treeline, is very wet, muddy and also slimy. I would not consider this an option unless it was already raining and you were using the trees for assistance. Even then, you might be better off towards the center or right sides.

While the easiest of these slides are really glorified hikes, and the hardest are technical rock climbs, I’d recommend people have some climbing experience before undertaking them. Also, I see a lot of hikers bring ropes with them while hiking, but few actually know how to use them. Figuring out a rope 750ft off the deck of a slide really isn’t the ideal place. Though I brought a rope, I did not bring human harnesses. I could have made a diaper harness from the webbing I had, but I think it’s a good idea to have harnesses for novice climbers and 100ft of rope, along with some webbing. Coincidentally, I did notice an old sling with a rappel ring on tree that had long since washed away. Apparently someone either descended the slide or got sketched and bailed on it.

Clouding In

When Aim, Colvin and I reached the top of the slide we were on the right side of the slide. We were greeted by a wet 15ft slab of about 45*, which was above a 5ft shelf. We scanned for a herd path before committing to the upper section but did not see one. I climbed the crack to avoid the slab itself, then I belayed Colvin up the slab. The left-center looked easier, like it went further into the trees, but it was also wet and I preferred the safety of the crack system in the slab above us.

The best part of slide climbing, the bushwhack!

Once at the scrub line, we did a quick check for a herd path of any sort. One could not be found. Knowing Aimee’s desire to be done with the slide and get to the summit, I let her forge a path through the cripple brush. About 10 long minutes later, we climbed the last 150 vertical feet to the power cable path, and ascended to the summit station. Having escaped any sort of injurious behavior on the ascent to this point, I promptly fell into a crevice while entering the tourist section of the mountain.

Thanks for the reminder!

The summit of Whiteface had been in the clouds for some time while we were on the slide. When we reached the summit things hadn’t improved. Views were 20 feet tops and the sun was just about to set. A few quick summit photos and then we pulled out the map. I took a compass bearing for the ORDA trail we planned to use for descent. In hindsight, this wasn’t necessary, the summit station viewing area is marked with direction markers for tourist to use when viewing the distant mountains. However, the only other time I’d been to the summit of Whiteface was skiing to the top in the winter and I had no idea where the trails were, as the ski route simply goes up the summer tourist road. Better to be prepared while in shelter than dealing with a map in 30 mph winds and fog. We headed south for the ORDA trail, pretty quickly we spotted yellow blazes, and were on the ORDA descent trail.

Aim and Colvin on the cloud covered summit

All I can say about the ORDA descent trail is HOLY $h!%!!! Wow! I was expecting some sort of paved tourist descent to the ski lifts, but this trail was in fact steep and interesting. It even had ropes set up to lower yourself down at least 3 sections. Though only one was really necessary.

Whiteface Slide #1

Unfortunately, this was the end of the interesting part of the day. Descending down the ski slopes in complete darkness, strong winds and occasional fog was interesting only in that we were not able to just plunge down the steepest slopes for a rapid descent. Having my mini headlamp, clearly anticipating a shorter day, I couldn’t see more than 30ft, so we took the longer moderate ski trails towards Little Whiteface, and then began a direct descent from Little Whiteface. (Coming back a few weeks later, I could see just how steep Niagara was, and was glad we didn't plunge down it's slabby decent).

Along the way, we crossed paths (literally) with a porcupine. While that was exciting in a horrific train wreck sort of way -we hate porcupines- the highlight of the knee busting, ankle twisting, back aching, filling loosening, brain jarring descent was seeing what I believe was a Fisher pop up in the grass about 50ft from us. His tightly spaced eyes and head movements led me to believe he was a predator, most likely a cat or weasel. He was directly downwind from the porcupine, and my guess he was hot on that bully of an animals tail...or rather head. 25 head bites later, that porcupine was going to be Fisher dinner.

The descent went on forever, and finally at almost 9 hours into the day we arrived back at the car. I’m not sure of the total mileage, but I’d guess it was only about 6 miles. The total ascent/descent was 7500ft, which equates to well over 1000ft per mile. What really took so long was the ankle breaker scree on the ski slope descent. It was like walking on baseballs placed neatly on top of golf balls. That night and the next day, we felt like we’d done three times that distance. Even Colvin slept most of the next day. I’ve done 20 mile, 12,000ft gain and loss hikes this year and barely been sore the next day, so I was truly surprised how punishing the ski slopes were!

Whiteface Slide #1

All in all, it was a good day and a great adventure. Add this to your options for life outside the High Peaks Wilderness, but do yourself a favor, trust me on the ski slope brutality and figure out another way down the mountain! Even if you have to carry a sledge hammer to the summit to break your own femur with and call for rescue, it will be better than descending the ski slopes!

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