Catskill Ice: Climbing at Stony Clove

Just a stone’s throw from the big city, the Catskill Mountains have long been a favorite wilderness retreat for the respite-seeking New Yorker. Its densely forested summits, deep, dark cloves, and dramatic overlooks have stoked the imagination of local and visitor alike for centuries.

It’s with a blanket of snow and a healthy cold snap that the Catskills extend their allure to area ice climbers. When the conditions are right, the region is dotted with hero ice—from long multi-pitch moderates like Buttermilk Falls, to playgrounds like the Devil’s Kitchen, to the terrifying and ephemeral jewel that is Kaaterskill Falls, there is a little bit of something for everyone.

If you’re new to ice climbing in the area, Stony Clove, in the very heart of the Catskills, is probably the best place to start. It’s very popular, and it’s no surprise why: there are dozens of routes, all of varying length, style, and difficulty—and they’re all easily accessible via a short approach. For both the total novice and the hardened old-timer, there’s more than enough in Stony Clove to spend a weekend picking away lap after lap.

The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak
The height of land at Stony Clove as viewed from Notch Lake. The approach for the West Side, and the northern areas of the East Side, traces the road back to a historic marker commemorating a forest fire, just out of view. | Credit: John Lepak

How to Get There

The climbing at Stony Clove is centered around Notch Lake, on NY-214, at the unofficial halfway point of the Devil’s Path. From the Thruway (I-87), take Exit 20 for Saugerties. At the end of the exit, turn onto NY-32 North and continue for 6.0 miles before bearing left onto NY-32A. Keep going for another 1.9 miles into the town of Palenville. At the traffic light, turn left onto NY-23A. Continue on NY-23A, up through Kaaterskill Clove, for another 9.2 miles, before taking a left onto NY-214. Notch Lake and its parking area are just 2.8 more miles down the road, just past the height of land.

Parking is extremely limited and the lot can be a zoo on a weekend when the conditions are good. Do everyone a favor and carpool. There are commuter park-and-ride lots with more-than-enough room just off the Thruway at New Paltz (exit 18), Kingston (19), Saugerties, and Catskill (21).

The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak
The Dungeon (WI4) and Escape Hatch (WI3+), two of the fun routes at Castle Grayskull, hiding in the shade from the late afternoon sun. | Credit: John Lepak

Lay of the Land

The word clove, adapted from the region’s early Dutch settlers, can be roughly translated to notch, ravine, valley, or gorge. In Stony Clove, the soaring flanks of Plateau Mountain to the east and Hunter Mountain to the west certainly fit the bill—in places, the cleft is barely wide enough for the road. All this lends itself to a feeling of isolation and remoteness prevalent despite the area’s popularity.

As such, the climbing in Stony Clove is neatly divided into east and west, between Plateau and Hunter, by NY-214. Because of the aspect and the prominence of the mountains, climbing on either side is a very different experience in the afternoon than it is in the morning. The east side stays out of the sun most of the day and thus stays colder and dryer—until the afternoon when the sun hits and things can get wet. The west side gets the sun early, and can generally be a bit wetter when afternoon rolls around.

One thing you can count on when climbing either side is a strenuous—but short—approach. Getting to and from the climbing requires a very steep ascent over unfriendly terrain. Moreover, in low snow conditions, the exposed rocks and roots can make it a bit spicy—using one tool in cane position isn’t the worst idea. Once at the base of the climb, it’s advisable to fix a line to a tree to clip in any wayward packs—It’s a long way down should anything get dropped.

Generally speaking, all of the routes in Stony Clove are leadable, but it’s not a requirement. Many of the east side areas are accessible for a top rope set-up via a short scramble.

Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak
Looking up at the long, right-facing corner of Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area’s classic route. | Credit; John Lepak

The Tick List

Both sides of Stony Clove have a few prime beginners’ routes, but the east side has a greater concentration of easy areas with ample room for multiple top rope set-ups. The Playground, is a wide, heavily trafficked flow that offers a handful of lines ranging from WI2 to WI4—for the true first timer, this is your best bet. It’s popular with the guides though, so it’s likely to be crowded. Castle Grayskull, also on the east side, is a good alternative with four short (but fun) routes in the more moderate WI3 to WI4 range. Across the way, on the west side, Climax (WI2+) is a great, beginner-friendly option for those seeking something a little longer.

The west side also hosts a couple of great, longer, more moderate climbs. The Curtain (WI4) is fun, straightforward, two-pitch route that can oftentimes be a bit thin towards the end. A little ways to the north, tucked away from the sun in a tight, right-facing corner, is Little Black Dike (WI4-), the area classic. Fun moves and reliable ice—it tends to be one of the earliest Stony Clove climbs to come in—make it a must do. Back on the east side, to the right of The Playground, the steep Twin Columns (WI4) offer some fun, vertical lines.

The Mixed-up Amphitheater area, on the east side (just left of The Playground), offers a half-dozen or so mixed routes of varying difficulty. Head Over Heels (M4) climbs an obvious and inviting crack to the far right of the area. If mixed is your game or the ice conditions elsewhere in the clove aren’t cooperating, this is a good place to be.