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California Flake (III 5.9), Adirondacks, New York

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With more than 30 rock routes and unrivaled scenery, Avalanche Lake is one of the most spectacular backcountry climbing destinations in the Adirondack Park. A two-hour approach through lush forest and along cold, clear streams will deposit you at the northern end of the lake, where sheer walls of anorthosite plunge to the water’s edge. This sublime pass is popular among hikers, and climbing has a long history at the lake. Fritz Wiessner climbed here in the 1940s, lending his name to one of many Wiessner routes in the Adirondacks. Nearly 100 years before that, Mt. Colden (4,714 feet) was first climbed from the lake via the Trap Dike (4th class, 2,000 feet), still a popular mountaineering objective.


But it is the distinctive California Flake, rising from the left-hand shoreline, that will catch your eye when you first arrive. This area of the cliff, first climbed by Robert Lauder and Jeff Vaughn in 1975, was originally named TV Dinner. (Lauder was taking part in a TV dinner diet study.) In the 1980s, part of the route dropped into the lake, leaving behind the prominent California-shaped feature—and a wonderful, flat slab at the base, where you can sunbathe and belay. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd brought a deluge of rain that caused landslides to scour the slabs above, exposing clean, white rock and an additional 700 feet of climbing.

It wasn’t until 2004 that Ed Palen and Bob Starinsky made an industrious effort to explore and clean the now 870-foot route. Many weeks later, ready for the complete ascent, Palen and Starinsky discovered they were missing a crucial piton to protect difficult moves on the first pitch. Without hesitation, Starinsky took off running down the 4.5-mile trail to make it back to the nearest gear shop before closing. Arriving minutes too late, he resorted to buying the next best thing: beer. Starinsky returned to Avalanche Lake at midnight and was informed that the missing piton had been at the bottom of Palen’s pack all along. The route was completed the next day and renamed California Flake.

The Beta

Find it: Park at the Adirondack Loj Visitor Center and take the well-marked hiking trail to Avalanche Pass/Avalanche Lake for 4.5 miles.

Guidebook: Adirondack Rock, by Jim Lawyer and Jeremy Haas (, 2008)

Route notes: The moves off the ground are tricky and difficult to protect; confidence at the grade will make this more leisurely. After the initial ramp on P1, climb the clean face to the right of the corner or place your #5 cam and layback the dirty offwidth. While most parties climb only the first two pitches of the route (fixed anchors for rappel), the climbing above will reward you with breathtaking views, adventurous climbing, and six additional pitches.

Descent from the top: Head to the right edge of the slab and rappel tree islands back to the fixed anchor on top of P2.

Gear: Standard rack up to 5 inches. Single 60m rope if you’re only climbing the first two pitches. Double ropes if you plan to climb higher.

Season: Mid-July to mid-October. When the valleys swelter with heat and humidity, Avalanche Lake can be a cool, breezy climbing destination. Avoid it during stretches of wet weather.

Camping: The closest sites are at Avalanche Camp on the southern end of the lake, about 20 minutes from the climb. Camping is strictly prohibited within 150 feet of the lake.

Nearby classics: After climbing California Flake, go for a swim or walk around the lake for a few more pitches: Something Wicked (5.9), 3D (5.10b), and Sheer Failure (5.10d).

Shops: The Mountaineer in Keene Valley (518- 576-2281); Eastern Mountain Sports (518-523- 2505); and High Peaks Cyclery (518-523-3764) in Lake Placid

Film: How Matt Cornell Free Soloed One of America’s Classic Hard Mixed Routes

"The Nutcracker" explores the mental challenges of solo climbing and the tactics Cornell used to help him send the route.