A Power Point Presentation

There are a lot of power points in my life…and by power points, I don’t mean boring work slide shows (although I have a lot of those, too). I mean special places that have significance to me. The significance might be there for any number of reasons: natural beauty, the journey to get there, an experience associated with the place, or maybe because of different phases of my life that I’ve spent there. And the more that I experience, the bigger the list becomes–sort of the opposite of a bucket list.

One of my power points is Avalanche Lake, near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks of New York. The lake is in a narrow (~250 foot) slot between 4,714 foot Mount Colden and 3,816 foot Avalanche Mountain, and steep cliffs on both sides knife right into the water. The whole area is tight enough to feel intimate, and yet the lake feels much bigger than the nine acres that it is. There’s also a persistent wind that reminds you that you are alive…especially in the winter when the wind is filled with fine powdery snow blown off of the lake.

My first trip to Avalanche Lake was supposed to happen in 1987, but that trip was cut short when the temperatures hit 30 below (which, as it turns out, also reminds you that you are alive).

1987 12 Adirondacks 1
My friend Dean on the left, after a chilly night. When Souzz saw this photo, she said “you look miserable.”

In 1992, I was finally able to visit Avalanche Lake in more typical winter weather, and I’ve been back probably four times since. Each time the lake was a little different and a little the same, with ice formations, lots of weather, and that persistent cold wind.

This year’s trip to Avalanche Lake was my first in warm weather…and my first visit with Souzz. Once again, it was a little different and a little the same. For starters, Marcy Pond (on the five mile hike in) is now Marcy Brook, as the dam blew out during a big storm in 2011. There have also been a few more landslides in the pass–so I guess this place is both a power point and a slide show. But the trail is pretty much the same, although in the summer there’s of course no snow to even out the rough spots–and it’s slower on foot than on skis. But this is a cool hike to a cool place in any season.

An added bonus to our trip was a visit afterwards with our friend Matt Horner, an artist in nearby Keene. Matt is an amazing stone sculptor–as well as a fly fishing guide and one of the best ice climbing guides anywhere. Matt shares my love for the lake, and he has had the benefit of looking down on it in ways that most of us mortals can’t.

We met up with Matt at the Farmer’s Market in Keene, just south of Lake Placid, and Matt’s art speaks for itself. We added to our art collection on our trip, and it’s always nice to bring back a little slice (or carve) of the Adirondacks.

As for Avalanche Lake, I’ve said before that I rarely go to the same place twice, but that’s only selectively true (read: a lie). The Adirondacks are one of my favorite places, and Avalanche Lake is a favorite within a favorite. I love the dramatic features, the stark relief, the hike in, and the memories. And when I get to share a favorite place with my favorite person, it feels like a new adventure all over again. That’s a powerful point.

 

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 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 guys has always felt like visiting old friends (assuming, of course, that your old friends can safely 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 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.”

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 basically arguing with Jeff Lowe, perhaps the best alpinist of his generation.

If I’d climbed a new route that day, I’d have wanted to call it “Unguided Breakfast.”