Pharaoh Mountain Ice

December 31st, 2004 – January 3rd, 2005

“What is the story with that remote one that nobody climbs?” Apryle asked, reading over the Rock and River ice report. I had never even heard of Pharaoh Mountain, so I dutifully plied the pages of Don Mellor’s guidebook. What I found lit my fire for sure….a remote route, rarely climbed, relatively obscure, moderate but challenging….the perfect adventure for a New Year’s outing.

We packed at my parent’s house on Thursday night. Cold weather sleeping bags, pads, extra layers, down parkas, ropes, helmets and harnesses, half a dozen screws and slings, some nuts and tricams, stove, pot, food, fuel, and sundry essentials added up quickly. Our packs would weigh ~40lbs and ~60lbs respectively by the time we hit the trail…but such is the price one must pay for technical routes in the backcountry.

We were on the road Friday morning long before the orange glow of sunrise warmed the horizon. We took a short detour, touring a bit of the southern Daks, before getting totally turned around and lost trying to find the trailhead. Slightly frustrated, we headed north to Keene Valley to scope out the trade routes and perhaps pick up some beta. I was all but ready to scrap the Pharaoh plan, worried that Apryle might get hosed on her first Daks trip and not even get to climb, but she was totally committed to the backcountry climb and all its attendant risks.

The Chapel Pond ice scene didn’t quite do it for us, and we found excellent beta on the approach from folks at the Mountaineer….so that evening we drove back southward and found the Spectacle Pond trailhead. New Year’s Eve passed quietly by while we slept in the back of the Subaru.

The hike in was enjoyable….two miles on trail left us at Spectacle Pond, looking eagerly across at the sheer face of Pharaoh and grinning broadly at the broad white streak of ice cascading down right of center. We crossed the pond, gingerly, unsure of the solidity of the ice. With the wicked cold they experienced the week before, we probably had nothing to worry about, but the warm temps and rain convinced us to unbuckle our packs and unleash our hiking poles anyhow. BSTS….better safe than sorry. With the crossing safely behind us, we plunged into the backcountry…Apryle springing lightly along, leading the way through three miles of pine woods and beaver swamps.

By and by we reached a picturesque beaver pond, complete with multiple dams and a mansion of a lodge poking out of the ice mid-pond. We crossed beneath the dams, hopping across the outflows rather than risking a long crossing on scarily black looking ice. A bit of scouting found us a cozy flat spot for the Coleman and before long we had a snug home deep in the ‘Daks backcountry.

We had plenty of daylight left, so we headed towards Pharaoh. Half an hour of hilly hiking later we were thrashing our way through an overgrown talus field much reminiscent of Wallface, with a beautiful steep ice gulley drawing us forward. The gulley we arrived at had few of the features we expected to find…and the overhanging ice daggers high on what would be the second or third pitch encouraged us to continue scouting. Indeed, our route lay around the corner….so we passed the rest of the afternoon practicing screw placements and swinging tools.

After a grand dinner of cheesy bean and rice chili, we turned in. The night lasted forever. We didn’t sleep much, expecting much colder temps we both lay overdressed in our bags, anticipating the climb to come. After some hours of tossing and turning, daylight arrived and we were off, fueled by a bit of chili flavored oatmeal.

I was pretty scared by the first pitch. It was steep, far steeper than the single other ice pitch I have led….and the ice didn’t seem to be of fantastic quality. A few bulges at critical heights lent confidence, however, and after racking up and strapping on all the implements I set off, secured by Apryle’s belay. That first pitch was beautiful, sixty or seventy feet of pure pleasure.

Swing and stick, dodge the dinner plate….test it, commit. Swing and STICK! Please stick! Oh the calves are burning….drop the heels. Whew, remember to breathe. Damn it, this screw won’t go in; this ice is too soft. I’m gunning for the bulge. There’s the ledge….thank you! One nice screw…clip and breathe easy for a second. May as well place another, while I’m here. Ok…..onwards and upwards…swing and stick, swing and stick….crash and tinkle…..I wonder if that tool is going to hold?? Another screw….yes it feels nice to sink a 22cm….but wait…..oh man it is in an air pocket. Oh well….here’s the last bulge. Damn drooped picks! Cock the wrist and STICK in there baby! Okay now, easy your feet up….aw hell toss your knee up there and flop onto it. Yeehaw! It is sent! WHEW! Oh what a beautiful belay that is.

Apryle cruised up, cursing some of the screws and her cold fingers and toes along the way. She arrived at the belay trembling, unsure if she was willing to continue. We talked for a minute as warm blood screamed its way back into her hands. Yeah, this was going to happen today. The second pitch was a cruise…200ft of easy 2-3 ice to a sketchy belay. Apryle followed without trouble, sticking her tools like a pro and shuddering slightly at the belay as her toes came back to life with a vengeance. Pitch four was sweet…placed a screw right off the belay just in case, then picked my way up nearly a full ropelength of sustained but moderate ice. Ice truly is nice. A couple of bomber screws and a really nice tri-cam made the belay and I started to bring Apryle up.

The summit was right there, less than a ropelength away….and I started to shiver as I watched storm clouds roll in across the distant ridges. By the time she arrived at the belay, I was downright cold and nervous, with freezing rain plating nicely on my nylon windbreaker. She took charge at the belay, flaking the ropes and sending me on my merry way. I warmed up climbing the pitch, and bellowed at the top in pure joy. I was stoked…we had made it! But the wind blasted me, and the freezing rain and sleet stung, and by the time Apryle topped out I was losing mental acuity pretty rapidly. She pulled out the food and water and we replenished ourselves for the first time on the route….our biggest mistake. After crouching behind a boulder and chowing down, we set about taking care of the mandatory section of the climb: the descent.

One rappel took me out of the blast zone, and from the relative warm and windless rap station one ropelength below I untangled a horrendous mess of frozen 8.4 ‘dry’ ropes. We made short work of the descent, working as an efficient team, backing up anchors, threading the ropes, checking each other, then dropping another 200ft with crampons sparking on the rock underfoot. By the time I hit the ground it was dark and raining….but very little could dampen my spirits. We ploughed the hike to the tent, ate some leftovers from the night before, and collapsed.

The hike out to the car was a challenge the next morning. It was a beautiful day, but the rain had frozen everything, turning the Daks into one grand ice-rink. I slipped and biffed it hard a few times, before we even reached the trail. Apryle took one grand spill on the trail, crossing a fifteen foot section of polished ice. Had we ice skates, we could have done the 5 mile hike in, oh, half an hour. Just tuck and go.

All in all, the trip was a fantastic success. Apryle performed like an absolute champion, easily pulling her weight and playing at least an equal role as climbing partner. The route was spectacular….quite an experience, and we didn’t see another soul for the entire three days we spent in the backcountry. I’m pleased with my leading, and impressed by her climbing. We received a quite proper Daks hosing and weathered it with style. We looked for the limit and didn’t quite find it. I can’t wait to see what the next adventure has in store!

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