“No place invokes intrigue like Panther Gorge. The name conjures up images of desolation, tangled blowdown, impenetrable forest and boulders strewn in tumbled confusion. Tucked between Marcy and Haystack, this wild place has long been the stuff from which stories are made and legends grown….“-Don Mellor, Climbing in the Adirondacks
With that kind of introduction how could we possibly go wrong?
So far this summer has been kinda crappy. First Willow fell off the mountain (click here) and then on her 1st weekend of being in top form we smashed the car on the way to the mountains. Grateful to be alive we nursed our respective whiplashes and grumbled about our shitty summer, tails between our legs.
Then came the 4th of july. We were determined to do something big, get back out there.
It’s not too often that the Adirondacks are greeted with three days of perfect weather forecast. So what to do? Gotta take full advantage.
So off we went to one of the most remote regions in the High Peaks, Panther Gorge, hoping to find some backcountry multipitch climbing.
Our original plan of parking at the Garden Trailhead and hiking up John’s Brook looked perfect on paper. We would hike around eight miles to camp with a gradual elevation gain. What we didn’t plan for was everybody and their grandmother showing up at the Trailhead before 8:00am on Saturday morning. No parking for us there, so we headed off to the Rooster Comb Trailhead where we began the hike over Lower Wolf jaw (we were ignorant at that time about the shuttle from Marcy Field to the Garden Trail head, a mistake we will not make again!)
The path proved to be gruesome ordeal when carrying everything plus the kitchen sink on your back. Adirondack trails are not really trails. I think the trails here were made before some brilliant person came up with the idea of switchbacks. They go straight up steep rock, and roots are integral aspects of the path which hold the entire thing together. Most trails have more in common with stream beds than hiking trails.
Willow excited to carry 50lb of gear up to a mountain top
Our pace slowed to maybe one mile/hr as we summited and descended Lower Wolf Jaw. That’s pretty slow walking for being on a trail. We headed down into the John Brooks Valley for some easier walking.
Willow downclimbing the “trail” as 50lb of gear tried to hasten her descent
After a grueling day of pretending to be mules we arrived at a camp near the Bushnell Falls. Luckily for us the lean-to was empty and there were no tents around! Such a surprise for the 4th of july!
Willow in the lean-to. Feeeling a little crazed after hiking all day.
Willow taking advantage of the cold water.
So we pack and organized for the next day. Willow tried to go to bed early but I just bugged her incessantly. Eventually she obliged me with a photo.
Willow agreeing to a photo before going to bed.
So I stayed up a bit and played with my camera.
Pretty tiny tree. Little did I know how much I would learn to hate trees the following day….
The next morning we loaded up packs full of climbing gear and trekked the three miles to the Marcy-Haystack Col, where we began the descent into Panther Gorge. The “path” was easy to find. Just look for the area with the most vegetation and start walking.
If trees or branches are in your way, don’t stop.
Can you see the trail? If you can you’re lying
Off into the bush we dove. The new Adirondack Rock guide book by Lawyer and Haas describes a faint path somewhere and something about moss covered boulders. I think all the trees have obscured this “faint path” but there were plenty of moss covered boulders so we figured we were on track!
Willow doning armor for the bushwack. My exposed skin would have appreciated this…
The guide was pretty right on in terms of timing and direction. As soon as you see rock to your right GO THERE! ~30min of some of the densest wacking I’ve ever done and we arrived at the cliff base.
Enjoying the Bushwhack
Eventually we reached the cliffs. Slightly bloodied but with spirits high. The area around the 1st cliff you encounter clears up considerably with easy walking. If this area had easier access there would be documented climbs all over it. Obvious crack lines start at the base and shoot into the sky. Plenty of FA potential around here.
Me near the first cliffs
Willow Near the first cliffs
Soon, however, the trees closed in again. Blocking the sunlight and our hopes and dreams of freedom and unobstructed movement. We persevered. Occasionally the ground would collapse beneath our feet leaving us dangling from tree branches. We occasionally had to shout to find each other, like walking in fog with 4 foot visibility. Except now the fog grabbed and scratched at our skin.
Without too much time we arrived at the base of our intended climb.
Relaxing in a gully/cave at the route’s start
starting up pitch one
Our intended route, “The Cat’s Meow” was described as heading up a clean slab and heading left across a slab to a belay below stepped roofs by a vertical crack. Well I didn’t do that. I never saw a place I wanted to head left, I was never sure where the stepped roofs or the vertical crack was so I went up the right side of the slab buttress, following fun finger cracks with an exposed tricky slab section 10ft or so above solid gear. I spotted a decent crack and aimed for it to make the belay. This was a long pitch. Guessing 180ft or so.
Willow following pitch one. I think the Cat’s Meow route heads across the slab to the corner on the right side of the photo
We found no documentation of this route, but it looks like one gear placement may have been cleaned out at the belay. FA? who knows…
Willow finishing pitch one
Our belay was perched beneath a steep wall with two crack running up it. A traverse left to find the original route did not seem to appealing to me.
Cracks above pitch one.
The photo above is pretty crappy and doesn’t really show the wall. It leans out slightly and very steep for 12ft or so. I headed up the left crack (it takes great gear) and spotted a crack running up towards the summit. Surmounting this small wall felt pretty damn hard for both of us.
Above I found moderate cracks in the 5.6/5.7 range running to the trees at the top. Very well protected and fun climbing. It was surprising clean for the something so obscure in the Adirondacks. Almost all of the rock we saw here looked exceptionally clean. (Just remember this is the Adirondacks and not Yosemite so “clean” is an extremely relative term.) We topped out on the far right edge of the cliff. New route? Who knows… People have been wandering around the Dacks for a long time….
The cliff’s edge can only be described as hellish. The topout involved spelunking through the bush in a desperate search for some kind of anchor. I eventually managed to find a solid tree that I could not shake with my hands and slung it with a cordelette. Tying in with a clove I retreated to the open air of the cliff face, did a hanging belay and brought Willow up.
The views were pretty good.
Panther Gorge from the top of the last pitch. Anyone have any beta on those slabs on Marcy’s east face?
Willow following pitch two
I told Willow to climb through the brush past the tree to a safe spot. Luckily she found a small clearing(3ft/3ft) just past the belay tree.
Willow finishing the top out. Arboreal spelunking
Me completing the top out of the climb
We regrouped in our little clearing for about 30min or so. Our original plan was to descend an alleged rappel line on the left side of the cliff, but the thought of bushwhacking over there, finding suitable anchors, bushwhacking over to another climb, climbing and then a final bushwhack to the Phelps trail on Marcy was just toooo much WACKING!
We WACKED up to a smaller cliff band just a few hundred feet above us and scrambled up a relatively clean gully.
Me scrambling up the final cliff band
Willow near the top of the final cliff band
The views were pretty good up here as well.
Panorama of Panther Gorge
After a final bushwhack I spotted the trail.
“Really?!” Willow said disbelievingly.
Soon enough we collapsed and relished the ability to move about unencumbered.
Grateful to be out of the bushwhacking!
After resting a bit we hiked the easy three miles back to camp.
Willow is sacrificing herself to the bushwhacking gods. Grateful to be out.
We enjoyed another night in the lean-to. Finished off our vodka while lounging on rocks in the river. Nothing like soothing the feet in a river while soothing the soul with some vodka!
Of course Willow needed to take a swim at Bushnell Falls the next morning. She declared it “The Ultimate Swimming Hole!!”
Willow enjoying the swimming hole at Bushnell falls
We made it back to the car early that afternoon….
Panther Gorge in an amazing place, especially for the east coast. It is by far the most beautiful valley I’ve seen on this side of the country. Definitely felt like one of the most remote areas I’ve been in the lower 48.
However, it was by far the most work I’ve ever put into climbing a 2 pitch/350ft route…
It definately is not a place to get hurt. Rescue would be far away and an extremely tedious undertaking.
But it you crave adventure, clean (mostly…) rock away from the crowds I can’t recommend it enough.
We’ll be heading back. Certainly not this year. I told Willow not to let me talk her into it next summer, but maybe the summer after. The scars should have dimmed by then…