Rock People: Climbing the Adirondacks

By Bianca Alexander

Named by the Iroquois Indians who first called these remote woodlands home, the Adirondacks are situated in Eastern upstate New York. Spanning over 5,000 feet high and 6 million acres wide, they comprise one of the largest national historic parks in the U.S.–bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and the Grand Canyons combined. Base camp for our trip was Lake Placid. In addition to being home to some of the best adventure sports in the country, including skiing, bobsledding, ice climbing, and mountain biking, Lake Placid is the two-time home of the Winter Olympics. With its quaint shops, art galleries and friendly locals, it’s vaguely reminiscent of a small town in Switzerland, the perfect backdrop for my first rock climbing adventure.

The rock face

A recent outing to the Adirondack Mountains with Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School brought me head to head with one of my biggest fears: rock climbing.

We stayed at the Golden Arrow Resort, a family owned boutique eco-hotel, and one of only six resorts in America with a Platinum certification from the Audubon Society. The week we arrived in town it had been raining all week, and EMS threatened to cancel our outing if storms didn’t clear by morning. Anticipating the climb, I began to panic. I pictured myself getting soaked while suspended upside down from a slippery, ice cold rock. An Olympic effort, no doubt, and I'm not sure I was up for it. Why did I agree to do this? What if I slipped and fell? How could I get out of it? Surely, I felt a headache coming on. That night, soaking lavishly in the Golden Arrow’s large in-room Jacuzzi, I prayed for rain.

The next morning, as if to spite me, the sun rose clear and bright. Not a cloud in the sky. I decided to muster up some courage with a hearty vegan breakfast at Generations, the hotel’s farm to table restaurant. After a delicious repast, Michael and I took a short walk to EMS and met our cheery guide, Will Roth. Together, we hopped in our car and cruised the winding road to the cliffs, passing landmarks like the historic John Brown farm and the Olympic Jumping Complex. Gazing slowly up the 394 foot summit of the ski jumps, I began to feel nauseous. Maybe it was carsickness. Maybe it was fear of heights. And maybe I would just take pictures of Michael from below while he climbed for both of us.

The Ausable River.

Arriving at our site, we parked along the bubbling Ausable River and hiked uphill with gear for ten minutes until reaching the base of our climb, Will’s favorite rock for budding amateurs, a level 5.3. Dropping our packs in awe, in front of us stood a towering wall of jagged, caramel colored rock that seemed to grow vertically straight out of the ground for about 200 feet—the size of a small apartment building.

“Does he seriously think I’m going to climb that?” I thought warily, figuring there was still plenty of time to change my mind and turn back. After securing our safety ropes above, Will told me to step into my harness, climbing shoes, and helmet. He looped me into a long rope secured tightly to a big tree at the top of the cliff. “You’re on belay”, he said, and motioned for me to start climbing. He didn’t tell me where to start, how to place my hands, or even the best path to the top. He just sat back and let me do my thing.

I took a deep breath, slid my hand over what felt like a good ledge, and pulled up until I could reach the nearest foot hold. Inch by inch, crevice by crevice, I began feeling my way up the rock. Each time I moved towards the summit, Will took in the slack and clamped down the rope. This drew my harness closer to the rock, giving me better leverage to lean back slightly and rest between moves. 

On belay.

As a yogi and avid runner, I consider myself in pretty good shape. But after just twenty minutes (read: the equivalent of about 30 feet), I was out of breath and my arms exhausted. At this rate, how would I ever get to the top? Though I felt awkward, when I heard Will cheering from below, I figured I must’ve been doing something right. Staring straight ahead, eye to eye with the rock, I inched upwards, surprising myself with flexibility, strength, and courage I didn’t know I had.

Looking for a finger hold.

And then, for some strange reason, I looked up. Crooning my neck, I stared into what felt like an abyss of igneous stone leering above and below me. The river below appeared hauntingly small. I noticed my feet. They were resting precariously, sideways, on a two inch ledge. And the next solid finger hold was more than an arms’ length away. I felt paralyzed: too scared to move forward, too scared to move back.


With nowhere to go, I stood motionless. Still nauseous, I pressed my face into the cool, smooth rock, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. Channeling the Iroquois, I prayed to the rock people for strength. I saw a vision of myself on all fours moving in tandem with the rock, bolstered by its stability and grace. I’m not sure how long I stayed there, but I didn’t move again until the spirit moved me. When it did, I took my time, timidly enjoying each nook and cranny until reaching the summit. There, I embraced the brass ring that held both ropes in place, and slowly rappelled down, surveying the ground I just covered in disbelief.  

After landing, I took off my gear and ran to the bushes to vomit. Afterwards, I felt much better. Good enough, in fact, to climb again.


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