A clear summer day, a vertical face of rock
Phil Brown stands at the base of a curtain of rock that stretches up and up, like it’s rigged somehow to the blue sky. “We’re going to go up this slab here,” he says. “See that big off-width crack up there way up high? We’re going to go up that.”
Phil is 64. After decades living and working in the Adirondacks, his big passion is rock climbing. He brought me here this morning because this route is sort of a museum piece.
“We’re going to do the Empress, which was first climbed by Fritz Wiesner in 1933. So it’s one of the oldest routes in the Adirondacks and one of the best,” he says.
For modern climbers, he says, with all the latest safety gear and equipment, Empress is fairly easy. But in the culture of the sport, routes like this have a kind of beauty, an aesthetic line. Wiesner was a pioneer and a kind of artist.
“He was an amazing guy,” Phil says. “He was probably the foremost alpinist and rock climber of his day.”
Here’s how this works. Phil climbs first. I play out the safety rope, belaying him while he sets gear, little wedges and expanding anchors designed to hold him if he should fall. Once he’s found a secure perch up above, he manages the safety rope while I move over the rock.
This route is fairly easy, but I’m not a rock climber. Trusting tiny handholds, tiny nubbles of rock for toeholds, it’s hard. I put my weight on the edges of my toes. It feels like there’s a lot of air underneath me.
A lot climbers these days don’t tackle Empress for one reason. There’s a stretch of the slab where the lead climber, that’s Phil, has to scale a tilted section of rock with no anchors. “As you can see right above us,” he says, “we’re going straight up this slab and there’s nowhere to put in protection for about ninety feet. If the leader were to fall, he would fall all the way to here.”
I ask why he’s willing to take that risk and Phil shrugs: “I feel confident at this level, so I don’t feel like it’s a huge risk. But there is a bit more spice than hiking.”
I watch as Phil sets out, moving cautiously but also confidently. It looks sort of like he’s perched on the rim of a dinner plate. That’s what holds him in place. But he makes it across safely. Once Phil reaches the next perch and puts in safety anchors, I follow and we regroup at a place where we can take a break.
We’re looking across the slab and it’s pretty spectacular,” Phil says. “A beautiful summer day.”
The last challenge of the day is that big nose of rock Phil mentioned with a big wide crack in it. He thinks that’s one of the reasons Wiesner laid this route decades ago. He says it’s cool to follow literally in Wiesner’s footsteps. “When he climbed it was probably much harder. He was probably wearing mountain boots or sneakers” rather than the rubber-soled climbing shoes we wear. “That required a lot more talent I think,” Phil adds.
Before we climb again, testing toes and fingertips against gravity, we just look for a while at the deep valley below, framed by cliffs, capped by that awesome cobalt sky.