By Kevin MacKenzie
Winter mountaineering in the Adirondacks is rugged and thrilling. Step off the maintained trails and you have a plethora of options, whether you’re bushwhacking, technical ice climbing or climbing the mega-slides of the High Peaks. Most people consider the Gothics’ North Face to be the classic Adirondack face climb, but several others are worth the effort, especially if you want solitude. Temperatures and precipitation dictate whether they are snow/neve, ice or mixed climbs, so prepare accordingly.
These “adventure climbs” are deep in the backcountry, so approaches are lengthy and usually involve some bushwhacking. Each has unique challenges and offers vistas that are rarely seen except by those who share this passion. While the Adirondack Mountains aren’t known for frequent avalanches, they do occur on most faces. It is critical to carefully assess the weather conditions ahead of time. Also, it’s important to stay off any exposed alpine vegetation, since it is most vulnerable to damage during winter.
Basin Mountain East Face
This is one of the most remote face climbs in the Adirondack Park and involves a 17.5-mile round trip with 5,300 feet of elevation gain. Day-hiking this gem is extremely difficult; allow 16 hours minimum. Widened by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the face is roughly 1,500 feet wide with over 700 feet of elevation gain. There is no obvious primary line, but the center offers the most exposed and challenging position. The stone is not a smooth expanse from top to bottom, so expect pockets of deep snow and ice bulges. Take the time to look behind you at the stunning views to the east!
Approach from the Garden Trailhead in Keene Valley. Trek 3.5 miles to Johns Brook Lodge and follow the Woodsfall Trail 0.3 miles to a five-way intersection. Continue 3.1 miles up the Orebed Brook Trail to the Gothics/Saddleback col. Turn right and follow the State Range Trail about 1.2 miles over the summit of Saddleback Mountain, down the cliffs (there’s a winter herd path along their southern side) and over the northeast shoulder of Basin. Begin the bushwhack at the col before the summit. Descend southeast down the drainage to the bottom of the face. Exit by bushwhacking west from the top climber’s right-hand side to the State Range Trail. Follow the trail north to the summit. Descend to the col then back along the approach. Yes, that means you reclimb Saddleback!
Giant Mountain East Face
Giant’s East Face involves a roundtrip of 6.5 miles with 4,600 feet of elevation gain. It is roughly 1,500 feet wide and gains 1,200 feet of elevation from its lowest point to the top of the middle slide tributary. Unique to this face is a defined ledge system that bisects much of it. To the north, the East Face meets the Southeast Face at a defined gully or crease. Those looking to climb neve with some WI2 ice should stay left of this, but if you’re seeking technical ice then the top of the crease has routes up to WI4. This tends to set up early in the season.
Park .2 miles south of Chapel Pond in Keene Valley. Follow the Ridge (Zander Scott) Trail 3 miles to the intersection with the East Trail to Rocky Peak Ridge. Make a right and descend to about 4,350 feet in elevation where the trail nears the southern edge of the face. Bushwhack about 100 feet to the north (left) until you reach the slide. Descend northeast to the bottom-most area and begin the climb.
Exit in one of two ways after climbing. Either traverse across the top of the face back to the East Trail or ascend 400 feet due west from the central slide tributary to intersect the Ridge Trail near the summit. From the summit, follow the Ridge Trail back to the trailhead.
Pyramid Mountain South Face
Pyramid Mountain’s South Face is a roundtrip of roughly 12 miles with 4,150 feet of elevation gain, assuming you bushwhack to the summit after the climb. It features a breathtaking view of Basin’s East Face as well as a huge buttress at the top right-hand side. The area is delineated into two areas that measure 1,100 feet across as a whole. The northeastern side is mostly cliff, but the smooth slab to the southwest, our target, offers 650 feet of elevation gain. In between lies a tree covered strip that leads to a defined gully. The aspect of the face makes it prone to melt-off so it too is rarely covered completely, but there’s usually enough neve and ice for a spectacular exposed climb.
The approach is the same as Gothics East Face, but follows the Alfred W. Weld Trail to the Sawteeth/Pyramid col. From the col, continue about 1,000 feet up Pyramid then bushwhack west (left) until you reach the South Face. You may have to descend to its lowest point depending on where you emerge along its base. Study it from below to find the best line for the ice/snow conditions.
After climbing, exit up the gully to Pyramid’s southeastern ridge. Bushwhack 800 feet up the ridge to the summit and expect small intermittent ledges and brutally thick krummholz. Follow the trail south to the Sawteeth/Pyramid col and exit along the same route.
Gothics East Face
Most people think of the North Face when considering a technical climb of Gothics, but all three primary faces contain excellent lines. The North and South faces offer the most technical full length options, but the East Face is also an excellent choice with a roundtrip of 13.3 miles involving 4,600 feet of elevation gain. Rather than being a single exposure, this area hosts a discontinuous set of slides. The largest slide, the Rainbow, is seldom fully covered, but other lines offer spectacular choices. There’s even a multi-pitch ice climbing route called The Four Rings of Saturn (WI4) if that strikes your fancy.
Approach from the public parking area along Route 73 in St. Huberts (across from Giant Mountain’s Roaring Brook Trailhead). Follow Ausable Road .5 miles to the Lake Road Trail and turn left to the trail register. Continue for 3.5 miles to the Alfred W. Weld Trail. Follow the trail right about 1.2 miles to 3,200 feet in elevation (after the last stream crossing before the trail begins steeply ascending Pyramid’s eastern ridge). Set a heading of about 345 degrees magnetic and stay well above Cascade Brook to avoid blowdown. This leads to the lowest slide after about .5 mile of moderate bushwhacking.
Ascend the slide and follow a gully at the top right-hand side to find the Rainbow Slide. Conditions will dictate where you climb from here, but the options include a technical climb up the Rainbow if it is covered or left along its base. If traversing left, one can ascend Gothic Revival (WI2) which follows several steep slides beginning about 4,100 feet in elevation. This line leads left of the central roof and is steepest after 700 feet of climbing. An alternate option after the traverse leads straight up to the obvious roof and trends right to the highest slab on the face (crux). Either option requires a short bushwhack to the Range Trail. Thereafter, one can exit south over Pyramid to the Alfred W. Weld Trail or north and down the Beaver Meadow Trail.