After the Fall

by Don Mellor | Recreation

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 1988, veteran climber Don Mellor wrote about two scary incidents he had on the ice. More than 20 years later, Mellor is still climbing and guiding, and is the author of guidebooks on Adirondack rock- and ice-climbing.

“It’s almost beer time, Mel­lor!”
I stopped for a moment and looked back down the rope at Charley Berry. He was about 20 feet below me and slightly to the left, tied into three ice screws and standing on a small ledge we had hacked out of the ice 600 feet above Chapel Pond, near Keene Valley. I turned and looked up at the remaining 30 or so feet of blue ice between me and the snowfield which topped the route. At the line where ice met snow, footprints led onto the flats above; footprints I had made only a few days before when I raced up the route, un­roped, to try out a new pair of cram­pons. This time, when I swung my axe into the ice, something funny hap­pened. Things slowed down. With a dull groan, a crack in the ice snaked up and to the right away from my pick; another took off in a squiggling line toward my feet. What had been a flaw­less blue-green sheet of ice was trans­formed into a proliferating web of cracks, with a bulge growing in the middle. In the next half-second I was standing upright in a deluge of falling water and ice blocks, some the size of suitcases, others closer to mattresses, and actually thinking for the moment that I would be able to fight it all off and remain attached to the mountain. The wave grew to about the level of my head, and I was off, riding down the chaos toward Chapel Pond.

Most climbers agree that in a long fall they become spectators: they watch inwardly, anticipating the rope jerking taut and arresting the fall. But most falling climbers have a belaying partner who is in a steady position to control the rope. As I swooshed past Charley about 10 feet to his right, a glimpse through the torrent was enough to tell me that his troubles might be worse than mine: while I was plunging with the mass, he was bound tightly to our belay screws, as if handcuffed, with no place to turn. And he was taking a beating. A non-climber might suppose that the moment would be panic ridden, yet on such an occasion one actually becomes strangely calm and calculat­ing. There was no way, I thought, that Charley would be able to hold my fall, and I was left wondering which I would feel first, the end of the 150 foot rope, or the eight-foot ledge waiting far be­low. Yet somehow he held. Instead of instinctively protecting himself from the pounding ice, Charley actually kept both hands on the rope and checked my fall at about 40 feet. The deluge rushed around and past me. I was battered. l grabbed the rope and hand-over-handed up shouting, “Great job, Charley! Great job!”

This was supposed to have been a relaxing, single-tool trip up a benign ice slab. Having climbed it countless times, roped and unroped, on sunny days and full-moon nights, I was in the lead. Charley was training for Alaska’s Mount McKinley and this outing wasn’t supposed to present much dif­ficulty. Charley Berry tells me he is in his early fifties, and his longish silver hair says perhaps this is true. But he has the face and enthusiasm of a boy. When I reached his perch at the ice screws he was face down on the ice, still holding tight to the rope. He had indeed taken a beating and blood poured down his face from a gash in his now-pink hair.

We finished the climb wading knee­-deep through the crater in our rapidly ­freezing clothes. Charley was still a bit dazed, so we remained roped together down the descent gully. As we drove to Placid Memorial Hospital, he re­minded me, “It’s beer time, Mellor, and I’m buying.” He emerged from the tiny grocery store, six-pack in hand, with stiff pink hair, and a laugh on his red-crusted face. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “The guy behind the counter looked up at me bleeding all over the place, looked down and said, ‘That’ll be $4.25.'”

At the time we laughed, relieved that our experience hadn’t been worse. Over the next few days, however, I began to feel more uneasy about it. Things like that just shouldn’t happen, I thought. As a guide, I had always told my students that experience meant safety. I admonished them to be extra careful as they learned, because it was beginners who made mistakes. I assured them, on the other hand, that for someone like me, who had been at it for so long, the dangers could be controlled. If we have a lapse of con­centration and make an error, we pay. That’s only fair. But certainly nothing would happen if we only did things right. This argument appealed to me because, in my arrogance, I felt that I always did things right.

Eventually, I made peace with our fall by dismissing it as a fluke. The next season we were busily back at it, not only climbing the familiar routes like Chapel Pond Slab and Roaring Brook Falls, but scoping out the more remote and unclimbed ice lines as well. An old climb is fun, but nothing matches a first ascent. As if I wasn’t overcon­fident enough already, every time I fin­ished a new and difficult route I would feel even more cocky, convinced that I was in charge and that whenever I looked at an unclimbed strip of ice on a rock wall, all I needed to do was apply my experience, persevere, and all would be well. I would soon be re­minded that this just wasn’t so.

A few years ago, I heard mention of one such potential ice route near Indian Lake. Supposedly, there was a 150 foot waterfall way off the beaten track that could end up ranking with Poke-­o-Moonshine’s “Positive Thinking” and Keene Valley’s “Power Play” as one of the premier Adirondack ice climbs. The drive from Lake Placid was long, and the ski approach even longer.

Last winter, Jeff Edwards and I finally threw ice gear into our packs, loaded our skis aboard the car and headed out, determined to see if, in fact, there was a good new route out there. After skiing through open woods for about four miles with only a vague notion of where we were head­ing, we came to the streambed near the top of the falls. Normally, we ap­proach climbs from the bottom, and are able to assess conditions from the base. This time, however, we were ap­proaching from above and the route’s potential was difficult to determine.

If there is one thing about me that annoys my partners, and there are un­doubtedly many, it’s impatience. As we arrive at the base of a climb and my rope-mate lays things out in the snow as he readies for the climb, typ­ically he will see me already roped and cramponed, beginning the first pitch without a safety belay. Shaking his head, he’ll reach down, grab a sling loaded with screws and carabiners and shout up, “Want these?” I’ll descend sheepishly and pick up the gear, all of which would have been necessary for the route. Covering myself, I’ll say “Speed is safety in the mountains.” But we both know that my haste is neither deliberate nor safe: it is merely impa­tience and impulse.

And so it was with this climb. I’d spent the morning looking at the tips of my skis wondering if this would be one of the big ones. Would our climb be one of historical significance? Four miles of trudging can amplify one’s ex­pectations enormously. As usual, I ar­rived at the top a few minutes before Jeff. I strained to see over the edge, but it was too steep. I scrambled to my right and found a gully in the woods which offered a quick fanny-slide to the base of the ice. Jeff had the rope in his pack. The route looked good, though too easy to classify as one of the biggies that we had anticipated. I put on my crampons, slid my wrists into the webbing loops on my ice tools, and tested the lower few feet of the climb. Jeff would arrive soon, I thought, slide down the gully and ready the rope. Yet what Poe called “the imp of the perverse” was gradually taking me over.

Thirty feet up it was smooth going and I was still climbing. I looked down. No Jeff. At 50 feet the climb still seemed easy. The sun had softened the ice and my ice axes were sinking securely. Twenty feet from the top I looked up and saw Jeff peering over the edge. He had missed the gully to the right, and was uncoiling the rope at the top of the falls, preparing to rappel down. By that time, I had attained the realm into which it is wiser to proceed than retreat.

I was only 10 feet from the top when the rope slithered to my right with Jeff following immediately. We actually exchanged a few words, like passengers on both sides of an escalator, and as he passed me, I could almost read his mind: “Why is Mellor always in such a hurry?” At the same moment the entire falls dropped abruptly with a loud crack, as an inch-wide fissure ripped across it from left to right. The jolt was shocking. I had one tool placed above the fissure and another two feet below. “Jeff! I’m in trouble,” I called. “I don’t know what to do, but the falls is about to blow up.” With another loud report, the gap opened an inch wider. If you are going to be a fool, at least have dependable partners to bail you out. Much as Charley Berry had done before, Jeff saved me this time by shooting the rappel at top speed, sprinting around the base of the falls, and flipping the rope to where I could grab it and wrap four or five loops quickly around my wrist. Wisely, Jeff ran from the base to avoid the possible ice fall, as I climbed the rope to the top and hugged the cedar it depended from.

At home I was again forced to do some thinking. I was looking hard for patterns; I wanted order. I wanted a system that made sense and whose rules were spelled out clearly. Okay, I had been soloing, breaking the most sacred climbing rule by eschewing the rope. Yet, precisely because I was alone without the rope, Jeff was free to rescue me. Had we been “doing things right,” he would have been tied fast to screws at the bottom of the huge column of ice that could very well have collapsed on him. It is becoming clearer to me that we climb because of the lack of order and predictability it entails, not in spite of it. We seek new routes, not because we will succeed, but because we may not.

The Adirondack Park was set aside to preserve the uncertainty in­herent in wildness. We go to the wild places to find a world as quixotic as it really is. Harried by the cargo of re­sponsibilities in our everyday lives, we are relieved to have them lifted from our weary shoulders on the vertical tur­quoise surface of a slab of ice.

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