Classic Adirondack climb up cleft, slide

Nov 23 2009 - 9:51pm

KEENE, N.Y. -- The deep cleft in Mount Colden rises quickly into a twisting stone staircase creased by a narrow stream.

As though carved by giants, several boulders and blocks are chest-high. Even on a warm, dry afternoon in late August, climbers have to be careful of wet or mossy steps and reach for secure handholds on the route where guidebooks say Adirondack mountaineering began more than 150 years ago.

"Although it is not a true rock climbing route, it is a very unique, aesthetic, and challenging mountaineering route," Josh Wilson said.

The 28-year-old guide and technical climber from Saranac Lake led the way up the chasm, called the Trap Dike. He had done it once a couple years before, and after the second time said that he considered it one of the top five classic climbs in the High Peaks region of Adirondack Park.

It took less than an hour to ascend more than 1,000 feet, though cliffs still loomed high on both sides. There were several exhilarating moments on the way up where the route wasn't clear or easy, carrying a backpack made balance difficult and rubber-soled rock climbing shoes would have been more appropriate than hiking boots.

It's rated fourth-class, just below technical climbing, and exits right onto the bare rock slab of Colden's western slide, then up to its 4,714-foot summit. The guidebook "Adirondack Rock" calls it "spectacular," rating it five stars.

In an earlier guidebook, Don Mellor wrote there had been at least one avalanche accident and three major rescue operations on the route.

The gray, pocked stone of Colden's western slide, where storms and runoff have cleared vegetation from a wide stretch of the mountainside, mainly meant a hike up an incline of about 30 degrees surrounded by a vast vista, with the summit and sky above and Avalanche Lake far below, rimmed on three sides by the range of neighboring mountains. It was little more than a mile from the lake to the top of the mountain, but a gain of about 2,000 feet in elevation.

A boulder stands at the top of the slide, inviting a scramble up it. The word summit is scratched in a rock ridge about 100 yards beyond that, among scrubby trees and vegetation.

Instead of descending the hiking trail, Wilson led a bushwhack through dense, scratchy trees down to Colden's southeast slide. Wilson, wearing trail shoes with sticky soles, picked his way carefully and walked down the slide angled somewhere between 30 and 40 degrees. His two companions descended the steepest stretches on all-fours, facing uphill.

You can see a dozen slides on neighboring Adirondack high peaks from Colden's summit, including the distinctive Eagle Slide on Giant Mountain, which loosely resembles a huge bird of prey and is considered a rival to the Trap Dike as a classic fourth-class mountaineering route.

The cleft in Colden was climbed partially in 1837 by a geologist, but the first documented ascent to the top was made in 1850 by Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph, nephews of the owner of the McIntyre mine farther south, according to the climbing history "Yankee Rock & Ice."

From the Adirondack Loj parking area south of Lake Placid, it's a 4.5-mile trail hike to Avalanche Lake. You can see the cleft from the lakeside wooden walkways along Avalanche Mountain, but have to circle the lake and follow a herd path to the Trap Dike.

From the bottom of the southeast slide, after a brief bushwhack, it's a six-mile hike on trails that pass Lake Arnold and Marcy Dam before returning to the Loj.

The slides also draw backcountry skiers and snowboarders in winter. In the "Adirondack Slide Guide," Drew Haas describes dozens in the 6 million-acre park.

Wilson said skiers use the Trap Dike, which also draws ice climbers, to reach Colden's summit and ski the slides on both sides. The Adirondack native said there are probably more than 50 slides in the region at least 500 feet long.


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