Photo courtesy of Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service
An avid climber, Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service owner Ed Palen climbs in the High Peaks. Avalanache Lake, the Trap Dyke and Lake Colden can be seen in the background
 
Photo courtesy of Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service
The back side of the chimney in the Climber’s Lodge can be climbed by those so inclined.
 
Embark photo — Mike Lynch
The Climber’s Lodge was once an old barn and still retains its 19th century charm.
 
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KEENE — The plan was conceived around a campfire in southern California.

After a day of climbing in the Joshua Tree National Park, Adirondack climbers Ed Palen and Pat Purcell decided to start a guide service for rock climbing in their own stomping grounds. The plan was for Palen to own the business and Purcell to be the head guide.

So in 1988, Palen purchased an old farm on 80 acres at the end of a dirt road in Keene, near the Sentinel Mountain Range, and started Adirondack Rock and River Guide Service. The old farmhouse was not only within walking distance of cliffs on Pitchoff Mountain but was surrounded on three sides by state land. It was also an historic site. Adirodack artist Jossy Bilan had lived there since the 1940s, and the first road into the interior of the High Peaks, Old Mountain Road, ran through the nearby forest.

An avid outdoorsman and New Jersey resident, Palen had been coming to the Adirondacks since he was a young child. By the time he was 12, he had hiked the 46 High Peaks. At age 21, he climbed them with good friend Sharpie Swan in four days and 18 hours, an unofficial time record that would stand for more than two decades.

During this period, Palen’s interest in rock climbing started to develop, and by the mid-1980s, it was full blown. An accountant who managed a Lake Placid lodging facility, Palen began to notice the lack of rock-climbing guide services here compared with other climbing areas nationwide.

In coming up with a plan for a guide service, Palen realized that most of his clients would be traveling several hours to the Adirondacks and would need a place to spend their nights.

“I came up with the idea of, ‘Let’s do more than just a rock climbing service, let’s offer then lodging. Let’s get all their money.’”

So shortly thereafter, Palen bought the property at the end of Alstead Hill Road and launched his lodge and guide service, featuring kayaking and rock climbing.

In the first few years, Palen ran the business out of the small farmhouse. Guests slept in four bedrooms upstairs and ate at his dining room table.

“It started out mom and pop,” Palen said. “We used our kitchen and served them in our living room.”

The facility stayed that way until 1990 when the barn was renovated to become the Climber’s Lodge, a facility that includes rooms for lodging, a fireplace and a climbing wall up the back side of the stone chimney. A couple years later, they added the Guide’s House, home to guest rooms, a kitchen, a large dining area and a gear room. The added buildings allow Ed, his wife Teresa and their two children to have privacy in the main house.

The guides

In the early days, guides included Palen, Purcell, Jeff Edwards, Bill Dodd, Bill Simes, guidebook author Don Mellor and Mark Meschinelli.

“It was a bunch of local expert climbers, not really well trained as guides but mature, excellent climbers, knowledgeable people,” Palen said.

Palen himself moved away from guiding after a few years in order to focus more on running the business. Purcell moved on after several years and now has relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah. But many of those same guides — including Mellor, Simes, Dodd and Meschinelli — are still with Palen, though in varying degrees.

Dodd recalled that when he first learned of Palen’s operation he was unsure if it could survive.

“We thought it was going to fold,” Dodd said. “We didn’t see how a full-time guide service was going to make it.”

Aided by the boom in rock climbing during the 1990s and a strong network of local guides willing to work at Rock and River, the business not only made it through the first few years but is still going strong.

“As soon as I saw the quality and scope of it all, I went over and asked him for a job,” Mellor recalled about the opening of Rock and River.

Mellor recalled that in the early days, Palen’s “guides were older, very experienced” climbers. Today, this is still important to Palen.

As for the new guides, they have strong reputations already. Matt Horner is one of the strongest ice climbers around, and Emilie Drinkwater — well, the fact that she’s on the cover of the relatively new guidebook “Adirondack Rock” says enough. Another of Palen’s guides, Jeremy Haas, was co-author of the book. Chad Kennedy and Colin Loher are also strong climbing guides. Another more recent addition, Jenny Mugrace, is a naturalist who caters to hikers.

Settling on rock

For the first decade, Palen ran kayak trips in addition to other types of guided trips. His guides would take clients on flatwater excursions to Chapel Pond and the Saranac chain of lakes. Whitewater kayaking was done on the Sacandaga River. Eventually, though, Palen realized that his business was suited more to mountaineering pursuits than water-based adventures.

“If you are going to really run a proper guide service, you have to settle in the environment that has the terrain that you need,” Palen said. “We chose the mountains, not the lakes, not the rivers. It naturally turned toward what we were best suited for, and we gave up the kayaking. It was too much driving.”

Today, rock climbing accounts for 60 percent of his guided trips, ice climbing makes up about 30 percent, and backcountry skiing and hiking are the focus of the final 10 percent. Every winter, Adirondack Rock and River also hosts the Adirondack International Mountainest, a festival that celebrates ice climbing and winter mountaineering. The event is organized by The Mountaineer in Keene Valley.

A significant portion of the business, up to 50 percent, is lodging run by Nancy Both, who has worked for Palen for 16 years.

Throughout the years, Adirondack Rock and River’s clients have ranged from beginners just looking to learn to seasoned veterans looking for a wilderness experience. In the summer, the clientele is mainly from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Canada and downstate New York. In the winter, the geographic range extends further south to include clients from states such as Maryland, Alabama and Florida.

“In the winter, we do draw from much further away because they don’t have as many options,” Palen said. “In rock climbing, the Washington, D.C. crowd goes to West Virginia. The southern crowd goes to North Carolina. For ice climbing, they have to come here. There is no good ice south of here.”

Many of the clients are beginners. Guides take the clients to nearby cliffs, where they are taught techniques and given the opportunity to succeed on easy climbs.

“They learn it’s footwork and not upper-body strength, all these things that they don’t think about,” Palen said. “They learn you’re not some superman or extraordinary person to do this. Anyone can do it, any age, just about.”

Adirondack Rock and River manages about 1,000 client days a year, Palen said. Some of those are newcomers; others are people who have returned through the years.

“It’s not a big operation, but it’s probably the biggest in the Adirondacks for this type of guiding, but we purposely try to keep it from getting much bigger,” Palen said. “We like the size we’re at, especially the lodging and the dirt road. We just don’t want it to get crazy. It’s a good fit. It’s evolved to the right size.”