‘There’s plenty of time to feel sorry for yourself back at the cabin when we’re done.’ – Me to James. Or James to me. It doesn’t really matter.
In my limited experience with full day alpine-style climbing I think my favourite part of the day has always been the constant push and pull between elation and defeat. I don’t think there’s another activity I’ve taken part in that typifies Type 2 fun as much as alpine climbing. James and I got our second taste in as many trips on our recent foray back to Baxter State Park in Maine.
Last year James and I took two days to travel the 7.5 hours to BSP to climb Pamola IV, a route described as 5.4-5.8 and one of the longest ridge lines in the East. Among other hiccups my ‘trusty’ X-Terra blew a clutch line on the drive in, we got off route, crushed James’ neck with some rogue rockfall, lost some gear, definitely found the 5.8 parts and were absolutely destroyed by a 13 hour day. The drive home was a somber one but it only took a week or three for the emotional and physical bruises to wear off enough that we started sending one another topos for the prize route in the park, The Armadillo Buttress.
We knew that this would be a great way to tune up for our Bugs trip and improve on a lot of the mistakes we identified during our Pamola IV climb. We were also eager to test the impact of our fitness training. With our chalk bags full of optimism and chalk we hit the road once more to try our luck on ‘The Beast of the East.’
Optimism is a generously low key word to describe our expectations for the trip. Early on we were bolstered by cutting 40 mins off of our initial 2:10 approach hike to the Chimney Pond. Unfortunately, our prowess with box steps and walking uphill on a well marked path went to our heads. We chatted a bit with the ranger on duty about the climb, scoffing at other parties having taken as much as TWELVE WHOLE HOURS to complete the route. We were so confident in our abilities that we had to be talked out of a planned return time of 2pm for a more reasonable 5pm.
Our first day started with rain so we spent the day lounging by the alpine lake, discussing whether or not we’d be able to possibly do a link up of two routes in one day, or if we wanted to try and get back to Halifax the night of our climb since we’d be finished so early. We ate a good meal, went to sleep at 9pm and were up before our alarms for a lazy-man’s alpine start at 5:30am.
We hit the trail at 7, already thinking about having a mid-afternoon lunch in our lean-to. We’d done the initial approach before so route finding wasn’t an issue, all we had to do was avoid the piles of moose scat that seemed to be everywhere. We were just about at the base of where the scrambling began, around 90 minutes into our day, when James yelled ‘Moose!’ Sure enough, about twenty feet in front of us was a female moose that was obviously not impressed.
The two of us bravely advanced in the opposite direction discussing the finer points of moose behaviour:
‘Hey, do you think we can scare it away?’
‘It weighs 1,200lbs. Nothing scares 1,200lbs.’
We opted to heroically bushwack 20 minutes back the way we came and picked a path out and around where we thought the moose to be, arriving eventually at the beginning of the real scrambling, moose free and ready to climb.
We looked up at what appeared to be somewhere between 4th class and easy 5th class scrambling and decided to put our harnesses and shoes on but not rope up, thinking we’d be able to make short work of this section.
Around 50 feet up, after completing one unroped 5.6 move and looking at another I called an end to that foolishness and asked for a belay. This was fortuitous, since about half a rope length after tying in a ‘bomber’ foot blew out from under me, ending any plans I may have had for a soloing career before they started. We completed two roped pitches here and topped out on the waterfall. Looking down, we could see our moose munching grass exactly where she so rudely accosted us the first time. We also noticed that we’d been on the move for 4 hours and 20 minutes already into what should have only been a 3 hour approach, with lots of vertical ground still to cover before we got to the technical climbing. We realized our mistake immediately as we noticed a second party had passed us by scrambling to the right of the waterfall, not needing ropes, and were almost at the base of the climbing.
We soldiered on up steep (steeper than we originally thought) slabs dripping with rainwater alternating with damp sections of brush and moss. Our plan to take the path of least resistance led us too far right, causing a frustrating situation where we could see the climb staring us right in the face but couldn’t figure out how to get there without scrambling up 60 degree soaking wet slabs.
A slip at this point may not have been fatal but would could certainly had led to a nasty fall back down the slope. We eventually got back on track by scrambling up some 4th class and easy 5th class moves in a damp sloping gully, reaching the first belay just as I was reaching my mental limit for sketchy scrambling.
We checked our watches. It was now 2pm, 7 hours since we’d left camp. We somehow turned a 3 hour approach into a 7 hour marathon. Luckily the weather stayed on our side and it was the day before the summer equinox so any rush was self-imposed. Our sour moods started to melt away as we tied in to climb what we came for. Now that we were on route things should get easier; just head up and over.
James called dibs on the first pitch. The topo called it a 5.5 ramp/chimney leading into 5.7 face climbing on PG gear. James used the first section of the chimney to discover that climbing with a hiking pole strapped to his pack wasn’t the greatest idea he’d had that day. With each move upwards in the chimney the pole would wedge itself under a feature, halting his progress until he was able to free it and continue. This happened move after move. Throw in some rope drag and it made for a slow lead.
The ‘fun’ part of the climbing here involves swinging out from the side of the pillar onto a flake that for all appearances looks and sounds to be almost completely detached from the pillar. Since I was belaying him from around the blind corner I was entertained for the next 20 minutes with grunts, groans and yelps as James moved through crappy gear and thoughtful 5.7 climbing to reach the top of the belay. Even following the pitch was fear inducing. I didn’t want to be the guy to peel that flake off and ruin the pitch for everyone else so I trod lightly through what were easily the most exposed moves I’ve done so far in my climbing career. The basin falls off from underneath you here so you’re climbing over at least 1,000 feet of open air.
Up next was the crux of the route. The topo in the ranger station grades the pitch at 5.7+. I have a theory that any pitch graded with a plus climbs at least a full number grade harder, because it likely went up in 1874 and they ran out of grades to give it so just stuck a (+) on whatever the max at the time was and called it a day.
I got chosen for the pitch because I spent a week in Indian Creek and am now the team’s defacto crack expert (ha!). The climbing was great but would be much harder if your fists were small. I think I protected the pitch with 2 #4 and 2 #3 BD cams, along with slinging a chock stone, clipping a metal bong stuck in the crack and a .5 in a horizontal. This would be a great pitch anywhere I’ve climbed so to encounter it here, 1,000 feet up in an alpine basin after the heinous day we’d had was phenomenal. It literally felt like the sun turned up 150% when I built the anchor for the pitch and brought James up.
We knew at this point that the real climbing was over and we just needed to pitch it out to the top so the stress finally came off. James confided later that at some point between the approach and finishing pitch 1 he’d seriously considered selling his rack so I knew that I wasn’t the only one feeling the doom of an oncoming retreat at various points. However, these experiences create the dynamics you need for a really memorable day out – to ignore them, internalize them or pretend they didn’t happen would be to deny yourself a key part of the process.
We knew now that barring some kind of major weather event or concentrated vertical moose attack we’d get back to the cabin in one piece. I think we traded back and forth for 4 more pitches of easy 5.5-and-under climbing and descended in the dusk via the Saddle Trail.
All told we took 14.5 hours camp to camp. This is a route that some people do in 7 hours or less. We had some excusable dalliances and some in-excusable ones.
- Our fitness was great – apart from sore knees and feet we felt pretty good at the end of the day
- Climbing went well – no falls, no takes, no real terror moments
- Our route finding couldn’t have been worse had we both been blind
- Got the ropes stuck to some degree at least three times
Overall this made us realize that all of the box steps in the world aren’t going to make up for our total lack of experience in the alpine. The technical climbing is also just a small piece of the puzzle. We’ve realized that there is SO MUCH that goes into the ‘light and fast’ climbing style it will be years before we’re truly proficient.
These were good lessons to learn here in Maine. The weather was forgiving and we knew the area. We’re going to use the lessons here to perhaps scale back our objectives in the Bugs, or at the very least approach them with the respect the routes deserve. And watch out for moose, of course.