One of the finest outings in the Catskills, climbing the entirety of the Buttermilk Falls (BMF) ravine offers one of the longest adventure outings in the range. While not the most technically difficult climbing in the Catskills, BMF is an involved day that includes a challenging off-trail approach with bushwhacking, route finding, rope and risk management rewarded with 7 fun pitches of Catskill backcountry grade WI2-WI5 ice climbing. BMF has enough terrain to support several parties and allows climbers to choose their own challenge. Add in an exciting river crossing that may or may not be easily passable and you have the makings of a deeply memorable and exciting day out.
This is a beta guide to climbing Buttermilks Falls. If you’re the self-sufficient outdoorsy type that likes to figure it out on your own, stop reading. If you feel more comfortable having more information than none, this is for you.
Note: Snow and ice conditions vary from year to year, month to month, even hour to hour. It is possible that much of the information here may be incorrect. I’ve tried to be general about the character of each pitch, but BMF is it’s own beast. It can be forming when you think it should be falling down, deteriorating when you think if should be fat. Be prepared for everything and #seekqualifiedinstruction. Rescue from the BMF ravine would be a costly and arduous affair. Be prepared to spend the night. If you don’t think you can handle any one of these wilderness challenges described below, swallow your ego and hire one of the excellent guides out of New Paltz: Mountain Skills, EMS Climbing School, Alpine Endeavors, more guide services are available at Rock and Snow.
Route Condition Beta: BMF is a reliable north-facing route that sees little direct sunlight. BMF comes in early and lasts till late in the season. It is possible to scope out the top pitches from the road. Binoculars are helpful.
Gear Beta: Most parties will feel comfortable with 5 to 6 13-16cm screws, a 60m rope, and 8 alpine draws. If the plan is to climb harder or mixed terrain, edit your kit appropriately. Of note: Microspikes can be very useful on the approach / descent.
Descent Beta: There are two options of the descent, rappel or walk off. Details here.
Below is a map of the journey. The approach / descent is in red. The ice climbing portion is in blue.
Typically most climbers start from the parking area on Route 23A located here:
This is the same lot used by climbers accessing the ice climbs at Asbestos Wall. On weekends with good conditions this lot can fill up quickly.
Tip: On the drive up the ravine from Palenville, scope out the level of the water in the creek. If the water is high you may choose to do the long approach from the very limited parking area down valley for Moore’s Bridge.
Begin by walking downhill on the shoulder of road about 70 meters. Use extreme caution and stay off the road. The ski traffic is heavy and they drive fast. Peer over the guardrail and select the least treacherous descent down the steep slope to the Kaaterskill Creek. This slope faces due south. Depending on the sun condition this slope can be very loose and muddy, or leaf-covered and frozen. In a good year this will be covered with snow and you can delightfully glissade through the hardwood.
At the creek, find the widest part of the creek. The widest part with have the slowest current and higher potential for solid ice bridges. The creek can be completely frozen over, or a slippery boulder hopping affair. You may choose to don your crampons here to manage the risk of slipping or falling in the creek. Many times it is possible to hop from boulder to boulder in the creek. It is entirely possible that the creek may not be crossable. DO NOT chance it. If you cannot find a safe place to cross, or if there is rain or a very warm temperature swing in forecast in the afternoon, climb something else.
Tip: In recent years, someone has marked a decent crossing with pink surveyor’s tape.
After crossing the creek, scramble up the opposite slope until you come across what feels like an old road. Turn Left and head down valley until you are about 50 meters from crossing the BMF drainage. Staying climbers right of the BMF creek bed, bushwhack and scramble your way up ravine for about 30-40 minutes from the Kaaterskill. This slope can be very steep. Use caution. Again, put on your crampons if you feel the footing is insecure.
Tip: For the full monty, continue into the BMF drainage. Climb up the entire creek bed of ice bulges and short pillars from Kaaterskill creek to the top of the final pitch.
About 40-50 mins after leaving the car, you’ll arrive at the first pitch. This pitch is a great example of how BMF offers something for everyone. Steep vertical ice on the right, lower angle, fat ice on the center and left, and if the pitch is a total disaster, it’s even possible to scramble around it and avoid it. Gear up here. Most climbers will climb with their packs since they may not be descending this way (see Descent).
After P1, continue scrambling up the creek bed till you arrive at the shortest pitch on the route. Pitch(ette) 2 climbs up from a very deep pool. Make sure its frozen before walking over it.
Continue up the creek to the tantalizing Pitch 3. Climb on the left, or right, center, or challenge yourself with one of the emerging mixed lines on the far right.
Wide and aesthetically pleasing, the poetic Pitch 4 offers many options. It would be possible to climb at the pitch 4 amphitheater all day. The left side of the high flowing main falls is usually in good and easy shape. The right side offer steeper climbing. For those seeking a challenge there is usually a very steep grade 5 pillar forms to the left of the main falls. Take care in lean conditions as the ice can be thin at the top.
From the top of P4, scramble up to the rollicking P5. Really 2 short pitches, P5 can very wet. Pick a line but do your best to avoid the wettest section as the best is yet to come.
Tip: It’s possible to diverge from the main creek to the rolling slabs Left of the main flow..
Surmount a short bulge on your way to ‘the wall’ that is P6.
Tip: Those with a keen eye will notice an exciting line dropping down to the right of P6. If you have it in you, do this route. Excellent, steep climbing, and fun. Lower back to the main route from the tree anchor and continue over to P6.
P6 is wide and offer several different types of featured ice. Usually best in the center. Enjoyable climbing on your way to…
…the final pitch of Buttermilk Falls.
What’s better than climbing, MORE climbing! In typical BMF character, the transcendent P7 offers many options, a fat main falls, a fat, steep pillar just right of the main flow, a Stas Beskin style freestanding pillar on the right, and mixed routes far Left and far Right to explore. Woo-Hoo! Note: There is a rescue cache far right on this final tier.
Soak it in, have some tea, eat something, and prepare for the descent.
Option 1 - Leave pack at base.
Rap the route, pick up your pack, and follow your steps out the way you came in.
Option 2 - Take pack with you.
If you choose this option you’ll be walking down The Express.
This is a walk off option that is a bit of a quad burner with some involved route rinding. The advantage is that if there is good snow, this option is much faster and also much safer than rappelling. Remember, the largest percentage of climbing accidents are rappelling accidents.
There is no defined trail. The general trend on this descent is to ride the sharp steep ridge along the edge of the drainage 1500ft down to the bottom of the valley. I’ve documented some significant features for you to find along the way. Ultimately, use your nose, stick close to the ridge, keep going down, and be careful.
From the bottom of P7, look off to the far far left. Head for the large pillars / slabs left of the main BMF flow.
Continue along this tiny terrace into the woods.
Wend your way down the ridge and find this split boulder along the cliff band. There is a large crack in it. Go down through it.
Trend Left and continue down to a break in the next cliff band. Climbers have begun to build cairns at these cliffs band crossings..
Some kids / hunters have built a small fort out of sticks and tow rope. Pass this. Stay Left and find another break in the next cliff band.
Continue to ride the ridge down. Stay left and find a break in the next and last cliff band. Descend.
At this point a slight but steep trail will begin to reveal itself. Follow this and wind back to the left and down the ridge.
Continue down the trail. Stay close to the ridge.
When you’re just about to the Kaaterskill Creek, bust Left (skier’s left), cross the BMF Drainage and pickup your track from the way up.
Cross the creek, then up the final slap-in-face slope to the car.