When New York is mentioned, you might think of the most populated city in the U.S., not wilderness climbing. It may come as a surprise that just a few hours north of Manhattan is the largest protected land area in the U.S. (outside of Alaska.) The NY State owned Adirondack Park (aka the “Dacks”) has 3200+ rock climbing routes scattered on more than 320 cliffs.
The centerpiece of multi-pitch climbing in the Dacks is Poke-O Moonshine Mountain. It’s located adjacent to the Northway, the north-south interstate with easy access and some of the best routes in the park. The Main Face is east-facing and is immense—400′ tall and more than half a mile wide. The granitic gneiss is grippy with irregular cracks that split sheer faces. One of these is the mega-classic Fastest Gun, on the short list as the best 5.10 in the U.S. for its four pitches of 5.10 with every crack size imaginable. Other crack test pieces are The Great Dihedral, a 5.9+ finger- and hand-crack with a fearsome 120′-tall corner, and Bloody Mary, 140′-tall with stout 5.9+ laybacks.
Poke-O is also known for face climbing. These sheer faces are actually textured with crisp edges and use bolts to link naturally protected features. Poke-O is known for perfect tiny slots that appear exactly where you need them. Five-star routes in this style include Maestro, a 5.10c masterpiece of bolt- and RP-protected face climbing; C-Tips, another 5.10c sport pitch up a black waterworn face; and Pentecostal, a 5.12c fingertip journey up micro-crimps protected by bolts.
Easy routes at Poke-O are rare: The Snake, 5.4, wanders up an impressive amphitheater of overhanging rock, Puppies on Edge, a 5.6 juggy arête, and the popular Catharsis (5.5), four pitches of south-facing slab. Jump up a few grades to the sought-after moderates: Gamesmanship, a five-pitch 5.8+ crack line, and The Sting, a single-pitch 5.8 hand crack that provides a great warmup. The cliff truly shines with its 100 or so routes in the 5.10-5.11 range. These are the highest quality routes on the cliff. Freedom Flight, Southern Hospitality, The Snatch, Son of Slime, Cooney-Norton Face, Psalm 32, Casual Observer, and The Gathering—to name a few— should be on everybody’s tick list.
My first visit to Poke-O was in May of 1987 with Tad Welch. I had met him at a slideshow and asked if he wanted to climb. “Sure!” he responded enthusiastically. “Have ya been to Poke-O?” I’d heard of it, but I was intimidated by its reputation for stout climbing. I put my apprehensions aside and made plans with Tad for the weekend. I was young and had recently discovered lay-backing, a technique I’ve since all but removed from my repertoire in favor of less-strenuous jamming, and I told him all I wanted to do was layback. Tad was on fire and, armed with a bunch of nuts, hexes, and a couple cams, he pounded out pitch after pitch: Psychosis, Gamesmanship, The Sting, Bloody Mary, Fastest Gun, Royal Savage, Scallion, Cirrhosis. I lay-backed them all. As if that wasn’t enough, we added the face routes Homecoming, Ukiah, Space Walk and Catharsis. Nearly 30 years have passed and this climbing day remains my most memorable; I’ve never been able to repeat that much climbing in a single day. Poke-O is perfect for big days like this—you can drop your pack in one place and do it Tad-style.
Poke-O imparts a unique climbing style. There’s a lot of off-vertical face climbing that requires a “go for it” attitude with the knowledge that protection will just present itself, so developing a knack for this is helpful. Poke-O cracks are rarely uniform, peppered with hidden incuts and square-cut edges on the face. Hone your jam skills, and maybe even tape up.
Poke-O has had several resurgences since my first visit. A crew of dedicated locals got busy in the early 90s with many bolt-protected lines, then again in the early 2000s on the Pilgrim Wall. Today there is something for everyone, well into the 5.12 range. Most routes are trad mixed with bolts, but there are sport pitches too. Bring a double rack of cams and nuts to 3″, a single 4″ for some routes, and a 70m rope. Double ropes or a tag line come in handy for the long rappels.
These fantastic routes don’t come easy. The setting is close enough to the road that highway noise is noticeable at first, and helmets are recommended due to rock-fall, especially if following another party. Some of the excellent routes tend to grow back with lichen if they are not popular, so replace that useless toothbrush in your chalk bag with a proper wire brush to touch up key holds.
The camping scene in the Dacks is relaxed—camp anywhere on state land 150′ from a road, trail, or water. The campground at the base of Poke-O is regretfully closed, but parking and the approach to the Main Face still begins there. Free car-camping spots can be found in the Chapel Pond region. The state runs a number of excellent pay campgrounds as well, listed here Dept. of Environmental Conservation Campgrounds.
So, are you looking for multi-pitch slabs, one-pitch cragging, long free routes, steep faces and cracks? Poke-O Moonshine has it all.