Friday, March 16, 2012


When I began climbing in the Catskills, during the winter of 2004(?), the first "hard" line I sought to climb was Purgatory(WI5-, M5) in the Devil's Kitchen. It's a beautiful thin ice line following corners and cracks for 90 feet at the right end of the cliff.

At that time Purgatory had bolts running bottom to top. The fifth bolt was awkward to reach and dangerous to clip; this was the crux of the climb. I have lead this route many times since then, remarking every time that Purgatory is "one of the best pitches in the Northeast". The Northeast has some of the best ice climbing in North America so you know I think Purgatory would make a North America's best list too. I'm partial to the Catskills though, so that's neither here nor there.

After I climbed Purgatory for the first time I learned that Joe Szot had boldly claimed the first ascent of the route, using traditional gear, many years before I began climbing in the Catskills. At the time of the first ascent, Purgatory was one of the northeast's hardest lines, and to this day it remains an impressive lead and a testament to Joe's skill and determination.

I had seen Joe's name all over the Adirondack ice guide but I didn't realize he'd kept an eye on the Catskills too. It turns out the ever prolific Joe Szot had scoured the Hudson Valley for ephemeral ice lines, and continued to visit long after his first ascent of Purgatory. Just a few years ago he came down to climb a rarely formed free-standing pillar with Rich Gottlieb in an undisclosed Shawangunk location.

Joe was a prolific and well-traveled climber. During my 15 years as a climber in New York state I never met him, probably because I'm pretty shy and intimidated by such accomplished climbers. Each spring and fall though, I would see him at the deli below the Gunks, or out climbing in the Trapps. His wiry frame and wild brown hair was easy to recognize from a long way off.

By now this is old news, but Joe died of a heart attack on March 14th, during one of his annual spring pilgrimages to the Gunks. He was climbing in the Gunks with his partner when he began feeling ill. Sadly, despite CPR and attempts to keep him alive, he could not be revived. This is a sad week for climbers in the Northeast.

The rest of us have so much to learn from this man and his life. Joe did not live his life as if it was a Purgatory. He was young - 51 years old, and he retired early so that he could live his dream. Joe climbed all over, welcomed friends to stay with him at the Bivy and made new friends all the time. There was always time for more climbing, another late night beer and more stories. We should all be so wise. The northeast has lost a true climbing legend and a friend to all. He will be greatly missed, even by those who didn't know him. RIP Joe.

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