Big Kat

Long overlooked by ice climbers, New York's Catskills are finally coming into their own. - "A good place to die." Rich Gottlieb's words echo in my head. Gottlieb is the owner of the Rock and Snow climbing shop in New Paltz, gateway to the Gunks. The shop is a local institution—and so is Gottlieb. He was talking about Kaaterskill Falls. At 260 feet, it’s one of the tallest waterfalls in the state, and when frozen, one of its iconic ice climbs.

 

I’m about one third of the way up the pillar when the entire thing settles with a deep, thunderous boom that echoes off the walls of the canyon. I feel the whole thing shift… with me on it. I start to climb faster. Much faster.

 

Climbing this route had become an obsession, born of a fascination with Kaaterskill Falls that dates to my childhood. As a native of Long Island, my passion for peaks was born in the Catskills, with its 35 mountains over 3,500 feet. Every summer, my family took a weeklong camping vacation to North-South Lake, where two hikes were always on the itinerary: one to the summit of panoramic North Point, the other to Kaaterskill. I’d often lie on my belly and peer over the lip of the falls.I first set my climbing sights on the falls in late 2008. I was living in Colorado, but had latched on to the idea of climbing this route in my home state. As a youth, it never occurred to me that one could actually climb ice in the Catskills, let alone the falls. Later, like many from New York, I learned to climb ice in New Hampshire, the Adirondacks, and Quebec. Eventually, I went west to Colorado. Now it was time to revisit my old Catskill stomping grounds from a new perspective.

I recruited Marty Molitoris as an accomplice. The founder of Alpine Endeavors, a respected local guide service, and writer of the definitive area guidebook, An Ice Climber’s Guide to the Catskill Mountains, he knew these mountains— and this climb—better than most anybody. I booked a flight for mid-February, the sweet spot of the Catskill ice season, which typically lasts from early December well into March. Leading up to the trip, though, it had been warm—and worse, raining—in the Catskills all week.

By the time I arrived, cold weather had returned, but the damage had been done to the Big Kat. Kaaterskill is a temperamental beast, requiring an especially long, deep cold snap to fully form. Longtime ice climbers in the area told me it’s climbable only one out of every three years. It looked like this wasn’t one of them.

The Big Kat was out, but despite a week of rain, the Catskills held no shortage of fat, blue ice. We drove north through the bucolic Hudson Valley, and at Palenville we turned west and headed up into the mountains on Route 23A, which accesses a number of stellar iceclimbing areas, including Palenville Corner, Moore’s Bridge, Asbestos Wall, and the Ravines.

We forged ahead to Tannersville, then turned south and then southeast, until we reached the winter road closure at the end of the Platte Clove Road. Our destination was the Devil’s Kitchen, the Ouray Ice Park of the Catskills: a short, easy approach, with tons of routes, including plenty of steep ice and mixed routes, in a compact area.

 



Down in the Kitchen, we spent an entire day on one climb after the next, never having to move our packs from where we’d dropped them on a frozen creek bed. We were surrounded by routes: all single-pitch, many steep and pumpy, some with sketchy topouts that blended ice with a tangle of hemlock roots and frozen mud.

The next day we set our sights on the Ravines—Hillyer, Viola, Wildcat, and Buttermilk—for what Molitoris calls “the Catskill multi-pitch gully-climb alpine experience.” Each ravine offers four to seven pitches of climbing, separated by short snow slogs up a creek bed to the next stretch of waterfall ice. Wildcat and Buttermilk—with upper crux pitches of solid WI4 climbing—vie for ultimate bragging rights.

With the recent rain, crossing swollen Kaaterskill Creek to access the base of Buttermilk and Wildcat proved too sketchy, so we chose the less popular Hillyer. After ditching Molitoris’ car along Route 23A, we switchbacked up through the forest, and then traversed an overgrown logging road until we hit our chosen creek bed. We turned uphill, and soon the ice came into view. We were the only ones in the ravine, with five pitches of fat, blue, plastic ice all to ourselves. We topped out into a forest of paper birch and evergreens, after more than 1,000 vertical feet.

 

 

These climbs are located in the 700,000- acre Catskill Park, about two hours north of New York City. Almost half of that acreage is the state-owned Catskill Forest Preserve, set aside as “forever wild” in 1885. The move protected wildlife, habitat, and recreational opportunities— and also guarded New York City’s drinking water. Water flows out of the Catskills into rivers, then reservoirs, and then aqueducts that carry it across the Hudson River to Westchester County, and finally south through a centuryold tunnel to Manhattan. The same ice routes you climb during winter trickle down the watershed in the spring, eventually coming out of faucets in New York City.

This makes it all the more ironic that New York climbers have long driven past the Catskills for points farther north. “People blow by and head up to the ’Dacks and Vermont and the Whites,” Molitoris explained. “New Yorkers come here and are like, ‘I never knew this was here!’”

Clearly, the Catskills haven’t always gotten the respect they deserve. “They’re not really known as a mountain range,” Gottlieb explained back at Rock and Snow. “In New Hampshire, they call them the White Mountains, and they mean it. Here, they don’t call them the Catskill Mountains. They call them the Catskills.” The names of routes also reflect that sense of sitting in the shadow of better-known climbs. The Catskills’ Little Black Dike and Little Fafnir routes are a nod to the “real” Black Dike and Fafnir in New Hampshire; the Catskills’ Bridal Veil Falls and Ice Hose pay homage to routes in Colorado.

Yet, the Catskills are slowly shedding their “little brother” stigma, as city dwellers finally realize they don’t have to drive five or more hours to climb ice. With the exception of the Ravines, the routes tend to be shorter—from topropes to one- or two-pitch leads—but their ease of access and compact quantity make it easy to log plenty of vertical without running laps on the same flow. Catskills routes tend to be steep, convoluted, and uniquely challenging. “Up north, as long as you have the guns, you can pound it out, and put in screws wherever you want,” says Gottlieb. “In the Catskills, you have to choose spots that will take a sound screw.”

 



There’s no local climber’s shop (Rock and Snow plays that role, an hour’s drive from the nearest Catskill ice), but the area does have its own ice festival, now in its 14th year. Plus, the Catskills sit two USDA climate zones south of ice-climbing areas in the Adirondacks, Vermont, and New Hampshire. That means warmer, more comfortable climbing temperatures, and more plastic ice. The Catskills can thus be temperamental, with the risk of midwinter thaws, but as long as the weather stays cold—and it often does—this place gets good. Really good.

 

At the end of October 2010, I moved to New York’s Hudson Valley, and the Catskills were suddenly my home ice turf. My first season started off spectacularly, with several major snowstorms and sustained cold, including an Arctic blast that dropped overnight lows to –15°F.While waiting for Kaaterskill to form, I occupied my time at other spots throughout the Catskills, including justifiably popular Stoney Clove. The routes here are located on both sides of a narrow mountain pass just north of Notch Lake. They tend to come in early and stay good deep into the season, when other areas have already started to melt out. A steep approach up snow- and talus-covered slopes deposits you at the base of some true Catskills classics, such as Little Black Dike (WI4).

Kaaterskill, meanwhile, was looking big and ominous. But just when it seemed the climb would come into condition, a February thaw arrived. It was a mild thaw, but enough for Kaaterskill to open up, gushing water near the base. Every climber I knew had backed off. One wrote: “We turned and ran. It’s open again and making loud noises.” Another sent a photo showing the climber standing in front of the Big Kat, giving a thumbs-down sign.

Turned away again, I did a tour of the stunning Platte Clove waterfalls, below the Devil’s Kitchen. Here, the Platte Kill drops between tight rock walls in a series of cascades. You approach from the top, at Platte Kill Falls, and rappel downstream—over Bridal Veil Falls, Lower Bridal Veil, and Japanese Falls—and then climb out. Rumor had it there were more waterfalls farther down the canyon.

At Bridal Veil, my partner and I paused to climb several lines on the wide falls. I placed a screw and continued up, topping out just as my forearms were running out of gas. Another group of climbers stood there smiling, waiting to toss their ropes. It was their turn to take the tour.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking about Kaaterskill. With March just around the corner, warmer springtime temperatures were on the way. Then the report came in: A climber had gingerly made his way up the thing, bypassing an extremely dicey lower section by traversing a catwalk ledge onto the upper section of the pillar. He described a disconcerting creaking and groaning from the ice, but he’d made it. The Big Kat was in. Sort of.

With a week of consistently cold temps in the forecast, Molitoris and I set a date. With a little bit of luck, we’d climb the whole thing from bottom to top.

 



Climbers have only been ascending Catskills ice routes for a little more than 30 years. Gunks climbers including Jim McCarthy pioneered many routes, and Rick Cronk was part of that crew. “There were only about five guys leading ice,” Cronk recalled. “It was all exploring. We’d pore over maps, look at contour lines, see where streambeds would go over steep areas.” Cronk later wrote the first guidebook for the area, Hudson Valley Ice Climbs, a small, self-published pocket guide. For the most part, however, early ice climbers did their thing and pretty much told no one about it.

Remarkably, considering how many people—and climbers—live within a two- to three-hour drive, new routes remain to be climbed in the Catskills. Most of the action these days is with new, hard mixed routes going up adjacent to the obvious flows and waterfalls. Young, talented climbers are sending new projects on a nearweekly basis. Climber-photographer Chris Beauchamp is one of them. So is Ryan Stefiuk—nicknamed Bigfoot, owing to his size-15 ice boots. The route 9th Circle of Hell (WI5 M8-), in the Devil’s Kitchen, is a good example of their work.

 

As my date with the Big Kat drew near, the forecast indicated a change. After just a few days of single-digit cold, temps would shoot back up into the 50s. Kaaterskill’s brief window of climb-ability was about to slam shut. Molitoris and I were supposed to meet New Hampshire-based climber and photographer Anne Skidmore the next day at the Black Chasm, but we blew her off in favor of Kaaterskill. She’s an ice climber, we reasoned. She’ll understand. In the few days since that lone climber had ascended the upper portion of the pillar, a handful of groups had managed bottom-to-top ascents of the Big Kat. One party backed off three times before racing up. Another climbed a central prow of fat ice as large blocks of ice fell to their left and right.

I remembered what Gottlieb had told me earlier in the season about the Big Kat: “It’s always a dangerous proposition. It often explodes, blows up during the day. Big chunks come flying down.” The fully formed climb was more massive and intimidating than I had imagined. We dispatched the falls’ lower tier, and at the base of the main upper pillar, walked around the ice to inspect its integrity. Some very large chunks lay scattered on the ground.

“What do you think?” Molitoris asked me.

We were both hesitant, reluctant to commit. As we tied in, Kaaterskill let out a deep crack. I felt it in my chest, the way you do during the finale of a large fireworks show.

We both watched to see if the falls would come crashing down. It didn’t. Two more times, the climb let out ominous booming sounds.

“Well?” I asked Molitoris.

Finally, he led the pitch, stretching the rope a full 60 meters. In 200 feet he managed to place four screws, all in funky ice. Then it was my turn. At the first screw, Kaaterskill boomed again, this time with me on it. “A good place to die.” I finished removing the screw and climbed faster, past a thin window of clear ice, with water rushing just behind.

In the final meters the angle relented, but the ice turned to weird mushrooms and aerated cauliflowers. And then, with a few final swings of the tools, I was on top. Molitoris grinned widely. For a moment, I flashed back to camping at North-South Lake, and to summer hikes to this very spot at the brink of the falls.

 

 

James Shuford on Little Black Dike (WI4-).
In the trailhead parking lot, Skidmore was waiting. She knew where to find us when we didn’t show at the Black Chasm.“Did you climb it?” she asked, not needing to specify which climb. We smiled and nodded.

Peter Bronski is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in more than 80 magazines. He has climbed on three continents, but retains a strong fondness for the Catskills, a landscape he’s been exploring for more than two-thirds of his life.

 

Recommended RoutesThere is a lot of ice to climb in the Catskills. This list includes many popular classics, as well as lesser-known areas that will help you beat the weekend crowds.

Hobo Wall
A beginner’s paradise. Fairly reliable ice, and the easiest approach in the Catskills (5 min. from the road). Easy walk-up toprope access, and can accommodate larger groups. Caution on the railroad tracks.

The Ravines
Wildcat (WI4): Four-plus pitches, including some of the longest, steepest ice of the Ravines.

Buttermilk (WI4): Similar to Wildcat.

Moore’s Bridge
Best for WI3 to WI4 and mixed climbs. Roadside. Most climbs are usually led. Two ropes to rappel.

Asbestos Wall
Easy approach to short, steep routes WI3 and up. Easily toproped. Southfacing; a great option on cold days. Expect company, but there’s lots of ice.

Kaaterskill Clove
Lower Kaaterskill Falls (WI3+): Reliable, popular pitch, used to access a number of stellar climbs on the tier above, including Gottlieb’s Roof.

Gottlieb’s Roof (WI4+ M4): Two pitches: the first climbs a fat curtain to a catwalk ledge above; the second climbs a pillar to a roof and exits out a hand crack.

Devil’s Kitchen
Very popular. The Snotsicle (WI4): A steep, two-tiered pitch.

Dream a Little Dream (WI4+ M6): Classic mixed route. Five bolts on overhanging rock to a free-hanging dagger.

Black Chasm
Instant Karma (WI5): Very steep. Sometimes thin. One long pitch to the top.

Mephisto Waltz (WI5): Like almost everything else in the Chasm, it’s steep and sustained, with few rests.

Black Chasm Falls (WI3): The only moderate ice in the Chasm, it’s a classic waterfall, and almost 200 feet to the top.

Platte Clove
Platte Kill Falls (WI3+): The first waterfall encountered on the approach. One pitch.

Bridal Veil Falls (WI2+ to 4): Multiple lines, ranging in difficulty. The left is steepest; the right side ascends cascades and ledges at a lower angle.

Japanese Falls (WI3): Similar to Platte Kill Falls.

Stoney Clove West
Little Black Dike (WI4-): Ice in the back of prominent right-facing corner.

Climax (WI2+): Like other climbs to its left and right, this one’s beginner friendly. Up a slab to a short curtain, and then a corner to the top. Bring two ropes to rappel.

Stoney Clove East
Twin Columns (WI4): Two obvious large columns, right at the top of the approach trail. Easily toproped.

The Playground (WI2 to WI3): Next to Twin Columns. Very beginner-friendly, with many possible lines. Often hosts multiple large groups.

 

LogisticsGetting There: From exit 20 or 21 on Interstate 87 (the New York State Thruway), make your way to Route 23A west. After Palenville and the intersection with Route 32A, the ice climbing areas begin: Within several miles, you’ll reach Palenville Corner/Jeff’s Wet Dream, Moore’s Bridge, the Ravines, Asbestos Wall, and Kaaterskill Clove. Farther west, at Tannersville, turn south and follow the Platte Clove Road (CR 16). A trailhead at the winter road closure gives access to Devil’s Kitchen, the Platte Clove waterfalls, and Black Chasm. Or, continue on 23A west past Tannersville. Before the town of Hunter, turn south onto Route 214 to reach Stoney Clove.

Resources: Rock and Snow in New Paltz (rockandsnow.com; 845- 255-1311) is the closest gear shop. The print guidebook is An Ice Climber’s Guide to the Catskill Mountains, by Marty Molitoris. At least two regional websites serve Catskills ice climbers: climbcatskillice.com and neice.com. Two guide-service websites give condition reports: alpineendeavors.com/reference/catskill ice_conditions.html and mountainskills.biz/iceconditions.htm.

Food and Drink: Try the Last Chance Restaurant & Tavern in Tannersville (lastchanceonline.com) or Gilded Otter Brewing Company in New Paltz (gildedotter.com).

 

 


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