Highs and Lowes

Souzz and I generally prefer to be guide-less on our outdoor adventures. And by that I mean that we like to try to do things on our own, at the mercy of our own skills and decision-making (and sometimes at the mercy of our own mistakes). That approach has worked very well in whitewater, pretty well in the backcountry, and mostly well on technical rock climbs. It hasn’t worked as well around the breakfast table, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

As for our guide-less adventure limits, putting our skill on ice has long been a mismatch. So we rope up with a professional guide when we climb water ice. And for the past 25+ years, our outfitter of choice has been Adirondack Rock and River in Keene, New York. They opened for business in 1988, and climbing with those folks has always felt like visiting old friends (assuming, of course, that your old friends are skilled enough to lead you up frozen waterfalls).

The guides at Rock and River—experts like Ed, Matt, Don, Chad, Bill, and Mark–are highly skilled in their craft. And they are also interesting people, as quick with a story or a quip as they are with a taut rope. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen one of them shivering on a stance chirping out encouragement while waiting for an out-of-shape client to finish a pitch. Sometimes I’ve seen that dynamic up close, like real close.

Our most recent trip north featured a lot of what the Adirondacks are known for—varied climbing, easy approaches (ten minutes walk gets you to the base of a lot of area classics), cold weather (17 below one morning), the skill and charm of Rock and River guides, lots of fat ice, and at least one fat climber.

We spent our time on the cliffs around Chapel Pond, an area with classic routes like Chouinard’s Gully, Power Play, and Big Brother (the latter route’s first ascent was on New Year’s Day 1984). Area guidebooks, including one written by Don Mellor, list more than 1500 routes in the Adirondacks, so there’s a lot to choose from.

Back in the day, the ‘dacks was a somewhat overlooked climbing destination. But then some high profile visitors and a 1995 Climbing Magazine feature kind of blew the cover off of the place. That article, combined with a winter festival called Mountainfest, established the area as a regular stop for both weekenders and visiting stars. Generational talents like Jeff Lowe, Alex Lowe, Will Gadd, and Mark Synnott all have spent time around Keene, and you never know whom you might see on the cliffs.

The visiting stars have put up some visionary routes, but the R&R crew has put up its share of routes, too. An Underwood Canyon Matt Horner classic called “CFD” comes to mind. There’s also an aptly named (but otherwise unremarkable) Don Mellor route at Chapel Pond called “Full Court Press.”

The ‘dacks has been memorable for me, both on and off the cliffs.  One morning back in the mid-1990s, I sat at the Rock and River breakfast table next to a 40-something guy and confidently waded into a debate about avalanche safety. While I was making what I thought was a key point, I noticed that my new friend’s knuckles were red and swollen–a telltale sign of a serious climber (back before tools with curved shafts). At some point I realized that I was arguing with Jeff Lowe, perhaps the best alpinist of his generation.

If one of the guides had climbed a new route that day, I’m guessing they’d have called it “A Fool’s Breakfast.”

2 thoughts on “Highs and Lowes

  1. Wow, that brings back some great memories. Like standing at a sunny belay with Don Mellor on a 35-degree day with still-fat ice in front of us.

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