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THE NAME GAME: Naming of backcountry slides and mountains an ongoing topic

May 15, 2012
MIKE LYNCH, Outdoors Writer , Lake Placid News


Outdoors Writer

This month, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names is mulling over whether Burton's Peak would be a good name for a mountain in Keene.

Article Photos

Lake Placid News file photo/Mike Lynch
Tropical Storm Irene drastically changed the Adirondack landscape last August, leaving opportunities for new features to be named by backcountry enthusiasts.

The formal application to rename the 3,631-foot unnamed mountain was made by Pete Nelson, who owns the property. A college math teacher who lives full-time in Madison, Wis., Nelson owns a 40-acre inholding near Slide Brook surrounded by the High Peaks Wilderness.

The name was chosen to honor the late Hal Burton, who once owned the property. Burton, who died in 1992, bought the land in 1948, and his family owned it until Nelson purchased it in December of 2010.

Burton was an author and journalist and a member of the Army's 10th Mountain Division's ski troops during World War II. He also played a key role in having the Wright's Peak Ski Trail cut in the late 1930s and was later a major proponent of establishing the Whiteface ski area. In the 1950s, he served as both a Whiteface Mountain Authority commissioner and as the chairman on the state Advisory Committee on Skiing.

It appears the application to name the mountain will be approved because it has the backing of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Essex County Board of Supervisors and Keene Town Council. The application was submitted to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names in August 2011.

While the process for naming an Adirondack mountain today requires bushwhacking through a sometimes thick bureaucratic process, many backcountry features get named by a much simpler, unofficial process.

Climbers who make first ascents on cliffs name their routes, skiers who make first descents name the slides, and sometimes fishermen even name pools. The West Branch of the AuSable River is a good example of that. The river that runs through Lake Placid and Wilmington has at least 35 named spots, ranging from Quarry Hole to Betters Pool.

New slides in the Adirondacks created Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28, 2011 have provided new opportunities for naming. Interviews with various guidebook authors for this story turned up only one potential name for a slide, the "7 Slide" on Cascade Mountain because the slide in the shape of that number. And that name is debatable at this point, in part because the slide existed previously as a smaller one.

The process of how the names get from backcountry users to general public use is varied. Sometimes the names spread by word of mouth, sometimes those responsible for the name put it on the Internet, and sometimes guidebook authors take the liberty themselves of creating one.

Features are often named after individuals, or because they resemble something or follow themes for already named features in the area.

Lake Placid resident Don Mellor has been responsible for naming many rock climbs because he authored two climbing guidebooks in the 1980s, when many routes were unnamed and being discovered. Mellor would often find out names by word of mouth or through other means, but not always.

"I remember so well sitting with Pat Purcell in my house typing up the guidebook, and we got a six pack out there, and we had so much unnamed stuff," Mellor recalled recently. "And now these things are facts."

Of course, there's often much more to the process than guidebook authors making up names for slides and rock climbs. The names are often passed through the tight-knit backcountry community before making their way to books.

At the Mountaineer gear store in Keene Valley is a journal where climbers can jot down information about their first ascents.

"We have a binder at the shop, a binder at the climbing desk, where people write up stuff and put it into the binder," said Mountaineer employer and "Adirondack Slide Guide" author Drew Haas. "We kind of collect stuff, and that gets passed on to Jim (Lawyer) or Don (Mellor). A lot of climbing shops all over the country did that binder or book. People would add information to that, but that was kind of pre-Internet ... where you just write it up in an email."

Lawyer is one of the authors of "Adirondack Rock," a climbing guidebook. Jeremy Haas, Drew's brother, is the other.

Jeremy Haas admitted it's kind of difficult finding out the names for all the routes contained in his guidebook. He estimated there are now about 3,500 climbs and 300 cliffs in the Adirondacks. But he said names are often an enjoyable part of the process in putting together the guidebook, even if that's not always the case for climbers responsible for them.

"For some climbers, they put a lot of thought into why they name routes the way they do," he said. " Other people just really don't care about the naming process. They are out their not for recognition or there creativity isn't in coming up with a creative name."

Of course, there are also many names that don't ever make their way to the public. Saranac Lake backcountry skier Jim Sausville said he believes he was the first person to ski the Kilburn Mountain slide, near the Sentinel Mountain Range, a little more than a decade ago.

Sausville said he skied it with a friend in early December, when conditions were pretty difficult because it was early season.

"The hollows on the slide up there had snow blown into them, and all the convex areas had no snow in them. Plus, there was the rocks and the debris," Sausville said.

After skiing the slide, they decided to call it "Rose-Colored Glasses." That's because it was really patchy conditions, and to connect the dots you really had to be wearing rose-colored glasses," Sausville said.

That's one name that really hasn't been widely circulated. It's been known only to Sausville and a few friends.

But sometimes the lack of public knowledge of a backcountry feature can result in a bit of controversy. Such was the case last September when Adirondack Explorer Editor Phil Brown climbed a slide on Mount Colden in Avalanche Pass after Tropical Storm Irene.

Brown, thinking he had the right to name the slide, called it Crease Monkey in a blog about climbing it. He gave it that name because it resembled an open book, he said. But it turned out the slide had existed as a smaller version prior to last fall. Skiers had been apparently descending it for years, referring to it as Colden Couloir.

Two commenters on Brown's blog, one called Little Birdie and another named Another little birdie, took issue with the name Crease Monkey.

"Stop trying to make a name for yourself by renaming things that have had names 20 years before the slide guide ever came out," wrote Another little birdie.

Brown backed off and replied the original name was fine by him.

These arguments aren't new. They have been happening for quite some time and likely will continue to be subject of debate into the future. Adirondack hiking guidebook author Tony Goodwin recalled a story about legendary Keene Valley guide Old Mountain Phelps and his reputation for naming mountains.

"The legend is that Old Mountain Phelps sat on the summit of Marcy with an artist named Frederick Perkins and named Skylight, Basin, Saddleback and Gothics that day," Goodwin recalled.

But Goodwin said there is evidence that Gothics had been named previously.

"Whether Saddleback, Basin and Skylight already had names and Old Mountain Phelps was just sort of making this artist feel like he had invented them, I don't know," Goodwin said. "But Gothics seems to be a name in use before Old Mountain Phelps applied it."



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