A Climbing History to the Greater North Conway, NH Area



The first part of this  historical essay was adapted from an article written by Al Rubin that first appeared in Paul Ross and Chris Elms' 1978 guidebook.


There are many who question the value of climbing histories. Such histories always emphasize the competitive, egoistic aspects of the sport, and tend to repeat themselves from area to area. These criticisms are undoubtably justified, but the study of history is a valid exercise in itself, no less in climbing than in other areas of human activity. while the climbing history of all areas are relatively similar, each area is also unique with its own characters and events. For some, climbing is merely a type of physical activity, but for many the human aspect - the companionship and the competition, the legends and the laughs are equally important. It is to preserve this aspect that the following is written. 

General mountain exploration got an early start in New England; Mt. Washington was climbed by Darby Field as early as 1642, and the Appalachian Mountain Club was formed in 1878, the first such club in the country. Despite this early interest in New Englands mountains, as well as activity in mountain areas further afield, technical climbing in New England has a short, but eventful history.

In the decades before Word War 1, a group of AMC Climbers was very active in the exploration of the Canadian Rockies. Several of these climbers discovered several small bouldering areas around Boston and scrambled on the rocks of Mt. Desert Island in Maine, on Joe English Hill and in Huntington's Ravine in New Hampshire. However, techniques and equipment were very rudimentary, and no attempts were made on any of the region's major cliffs. Though the First World War didn't cause as major a disruption in the United States as it did in Europe, it took several years after the end of the war for technical climbing to get a real start in New England.

It had been traditional for many years that the sons and daughters of well-to-do families from Eastern cities would have the opportunity to take a grand tour of Europe. Many of them would be introduced to climbing, usually through guided ascents of easy mountains in Chamonix and Zermatt. Several would take up the sport seriously and return to the Alps season after season. This tradition continued in the early 1920's. New Englanders such as Robert Underhill, Lincoln and Miriam O' Brien, and Kenneth Henderson, members of either the AMC or the newly formed Harvard Mountaineering Club were fortunate enough to climb with guides of the caliber of Armand Charlet and the Daimai brothers, as well as with members of the French Group de Haute Montagne. Through them, those New Englanders were caught up in the new adventurous spirit that was growing in European alpinism, as well as learning the new techniques which made advances in difficulty possible. Miriam O'Brien was on the first ascent of a difficult route on the Torre Grande in the Dolomites, as well as making the third ascent of the northeast face of the Finsteraarhorn, one of the most serious and difficult routes of the period. In 1928, guided by Armand Charlet and Alfred Couttet, she and Robert Underhill, soon to be her husband, made the first traverse of Aiguilles du Diable, then the most difficult rock route in Chamonix.

Back home they and their friends were interested in continuing their climbing during the off-season. In 1925, Robert Underhill and a small group of friends were shown several of the pre-war practice areas by Frank Mason, one of the earlier activists. In 1926 this group made the first official excursion to the White Mountains when they climbed in Huntington's Ravine over Memorial Day. By 1927 they had a regular schedule of climbing trips to places such as Crow hill in Massachusetts, Pawtuckaway and Joe English hill in southern New Hampshire and Huntington's Ravine.

Through these outings and their Alpine climbs, the group acquired enough experience and ability to attempt the major cliffs of New England.

Underhill on Old Cannon

Underhill climbing Old Cannon.

Beginning in 1928, a period of five years of intensive activity saw one or more routes established on each of the main crags, and exploration of climbing possibilities on many lesser ones.

The first climb to be attempted was on Cannon, the largest of the cliffs. In May 1928, a six-person party, led by Underhill, attempted a route over towards the right-hand side of the cliff. They made good progress until stopped by slabs above the "second terrace". Several of the party returned later and descended from above to check on the difficulties of the upper section. On September 18, Underhill and Lincoln O'Brien returned and completed the route. On the upper slabs they were halted by a blank section between two cracks. After trying to cross the slab by conventional climbing, O' Brien resorted to a secret weapon "… a stake brought along for some such purpose , was fixed higher up in the crack of departure, and the rope looped over this to afford a handhold movable out over the wall…this passage cannot be taken in simple climbing." The stake lasted until 1935. The route has become known as "Old Cannon."

In the same season the first ascent was made of The Pinnacle rock climb in Huntington's Ravine. Here again the route was first attempted in the spring and then completed in the fall; once again Underhill led the party. The climb was considered quite difficult but the first ascenders recognized that the difficulties could be avoided by traverses to easier ground. Both these routes offered mountaineering problems similar to those found in the Alps.

The next route attempted in 1928 was very different from the problems encountered in the alps. The smooth slabs of Whitehorse Ledge defeated the efforts of Robert Underhill and Kenneth Henderson who were climbing in sneakers. The were able to climb the great dihedral system in the center of the slabs but were foiled by the smooth, complex slabs above the tree ledge at its top (called lunch ledge  by modern climbers) The climbers then went to the top of the cliff and rappelled down to the difficult section, where they placed a fixed rope which they later used to complete the climb. Underhill and Henderson realized that this was not a legitimate ascent and noted that "…a few fixed pitons,judiciously placed where they could be lassoed from below would make possible this 30 or 40 feet." The lower section of Mt. Willard in Crawford Notch offered similar, though easier, slab climbing, and it was also climbed in that year.

The following year saw a summer ascent of Central gully in Huntington's Ravine, the first ascent of the Eaglet Pinnacle in Franconia Notch, and a complete ascent of Mt. Willard. This last was an epic ascent that nearly ended in disaster. Underhill and O'Brien had climbed the relatively easy lower slabs to a terrace. At this point the previous ascents had traversed off the cliff, but above was a headwall that led to the lookout at the top of the mountain. Underhill led up a into a rotten chimney. When close to the top of the chimney Underhill was stopped by a move which required a pull on a very shaky hold in order to reach what appeared from below to be easier slabs. Unwilling to risk the dodgy hold, Underhill untied and dropped the rope to O' Brien with the idea that O'Brien would circle around to the top and drop a toprope to Underhill. Long after O' Brien had left, Underhill realized that this was not going to be a minor operation and so rather than wait, he pulled on the loose hold with bated breath and emerged at the top of the chimney. To his dismay he found himself at the base of a long stretch of steep, rotten and difficult slabs that were far too tall for the top rope to reach him. Now utterly committed he had no choice but to continue up through a series of terrifying moves until he could reach easier ground and eventually the safety of O' Briens top rope. Later in the year an inexperienced solo climber was killed attempting to climb the cliff, the first such fatality in New England. Later, the route on Willard was "improved""…one or two others wielded might hammers, driving in pitons where these were needed, while behind came a self sacrificing soul with a paint-pot and brush to leave a mark that others might follow where we had been." Fortunately, this approach did not catch on.

The major route of 1929 was on Cannon. The previous years party claimed that their route "…appears from examination to date to be the only possible route on the cliff, and none of the difficulties can be outflanked by alternative easy passages." But, after finding the original route streaming with water after recent rains, Bradley Gilman and Hassler Whitney turned their attention to the prominent sharp arete towards the southern end of the cliff. They were very fit after a successful season in the alps, and proceeded to climb the route (in 17 pitches!) without using any pitons for protection. Their account in Appalachia was very matter of fact, but another observer noted "later comers upon this route must assuredly always admire the fine courage and skill with which its two original conquerors forced their way up a long series of passages of great technical difficulty, high exposure and dubious outlet." In fact this route was at the time one of the most difficult in the country. The next year Underhill and Henderson repeated the climb in 1930, and on a subsequent ascent, Henderson installed an iron pipe for protection at the base of a particularly exposed and difficult passage 200' up, the now famous "Pipe Pitch."

Another route was established on Cannon in 1930 up the huge dike/gully to the right of The Whitney Gilman. But the route had no redeeming features and sank into an obscurity that was to last until the late 1960's when the route became famous as one of the great winter climbs of the area.

In 1931 routes were established on Humphrey's Ledge and in Huntington's Ravine. But the big project of that year was Cathedral Ledge, the steepest and most impressive of the White Mountain Cliffs. The cliff was thoroughly reconnoitered and several possible lines were explored from above and below before the first ascent team (Leland Pollack, Payson Newton and Robert Underhill) settled on a prominent chimney line that was to become Standard Route. "The initial chimney was outflanked by a combination of rope maneuvers". They threw a weighted rope over a now extinct tree at the base of a huge left-facing flake to the left of the main chimney line(Later named Turners Flake), then climbed the rope hand over hand before swinging right using tension from the rope  to reach the chimney. Higher up a dingy cave stopped progress. Hard free moves led up the wall to the right of the cave until a chockstone in the crack could be threaded for a welcome rest after which it also provided some tension for the exit from the cave. Underhill summed up the climb for Appalachia. " While not so hard as the new Cannon Route (W-G, this climb is at least as difficult as the Pinnacle and forms a most valuable addition to the White Mountain repertory. It is notable for the varied character of the situations which it offers".

By this time Underhill has become a leading figure in United States Mountaineering and used his position as editor of Appalachia to write numerous articles on climbing techniques and equipment.

In 1932 Leland Pollack "worked out a legitimate central portion for the now Standard route up Whitehorse Ledge" - free climbing the brown spot and boilerplate sections using only pitons for protection. During this period New England climbers also made annual excursions to such places as Mt. Katahdin and Mt. Desert Island in Maine as well as undertaking a thorough reconnaissance of climbing possibilities in the White Mountains. Many of the cliffs visited during this period were have yet to be rediscovered by contemporary climbers. The amount and wide scope of this activity is particularly noteworthy when one considers the relatively primitive equipment and the difficulty of transportation in the early 1930's. Often the trip to and from the city occupied half of the possible climbing time; therefore, mush of the activity occurred on the three-day weekends or during the summer vacations. A good example were the 1928 trips into the heart of the Pemigawasset wilderness, when some routes were climbed on Mt Hedgehog and Greens cliff, and possibly Owls Cliff were explored.

A note in Appalachia summed up the general attitude; "There is, indeed, no hope that our New England hills will ever become a rock climber's paradise like the Lake District of England or some lesser mountain groups in Germany or Austria but undoubtedly they have that to offer which should occasion chronicles of interesting new rock routes for some years to come."


This very intensive period of exploration reached its climax in 1933 with the visit of Fritz Weissner. Weissner had began climbing just before world War 1 on the sandstone rocks of Dresden, Germany, where he was born. During this period the sandstone towers of Dresden and the mountain limestone crags of southern Germany, Austria and Italy ( or more correctly The Dolomites and the Northern Limestone Ranges) were the world's crucible of hard rock climbing. As early as 1903 there were 500 active rock climbers in Dresden, and by the early 1930's there were routes of hard 5.10 standard on the small cliffs and numerous thousand foot plus 5.9's on the bigger limestone walls. Interestingly, an expatriate New Englander, Oliver Perry-Smith was one of the leading lights in Dresden Climbing from 1905 to 1914 establishing many routes of mindboggling difficulty for the time, but after his return to New England at the outset of World War 1 he seldom climbed. Weissner was well steeped in this rich tradition of climbing. He had been one of the local experts in Dresden, and after the war, when he moved to Munich, he became one of the leaders of that eras great development of big wall climbing in the Eastern Alps, establishing numerous world-class routes in the Wilder Kaiser and the Dolomites. Weissner emigrated to the United States in 1929 and settled in New York. Over the next decade he established himself as the leading climber in the country putting up many hard routes in numerous areas (A bit like having Michael Jordan turn up at your local pick up hoops game). 

Weissners 1933 visit to the White Mountains was characteristic of his ability and energy. He made a 'routine" second ascent of the intimidating direct start to Standard Route on Cathedral, which had been climbed by W. P. Allis earlier that summer. When his partner declined to follow the first pitch, Weissner promptly untied from the rope and soloed the rest of the route. Then Weissner and Underhill climbed the upper part of a prominent chimney on the dark, rotten-looking cliff a mile or two north of Cathedral, later called Humphrey's Ledge. Weissner was a little unhappy with this partial ascent, so he returned in 1935 with Roger Whitney (Hassler Whitneys brother)and climbed the chimney direct, a bold and hard (5.8) route for the day. Even more impressive, Weissner returned on several occasions and soloed the route. 

Also in 1933 Weissner added a route beside a slanting dike below the Old Man of Cannon cliff, finishing up a beautiful flake and corner system up the left side of the buttress that formed the landmark profile. The route was initially rather loose, " like all routes upon this cliff. it suffers greatly from the badness of the rock. Enormous amounts of loose material were cleared out by the party, but all too much remains." By the 1970's Weissners route had cleaned up considerably and was considered one of the classic moderates of New England. Unfortunately Weissners route was destroyed when the Old Man collapsed in may of 2003. He also added a route on Whitehorse Ledge (possibly Dike route but the description is very vague) and was involved in an attempt on whites Ledge that ended when the promising young climber Leland Pollack took a bad fall and was seriously injured. Underhill, the other member of the party later commented, " I can't remember why Fritz wasn't leading that section, I think he thought it was going to be even more difficult above, and was saving himself. We finally got Leland down to safety and Fritz did a wonderful job throughout. I thought to myself, "now here is a man would go anywhere with", I was very impressed with how Fritz had managed Leland , who was badly hurt."

By 1934 there was a slowdown in exploratory activity in the White Mountains. The depression had really settled in, crippling the White Mountain tourist industry for many years and making weekend visits less frequent. In addition, Underhill had retired from hard climbing, though not mountain exploration, and no one had come forward to supply the leadership and drive which he had provided.

A fine group of climbers had developed at Dartmouth College. Led by Jack Durrance, they made many important contributions in the Tetons and elsewhere in the west, but climbed little in New England. they tended to concentrate on small cliffs near Hanover and in the Connecticut River Valley. however in 1937 a party led by Bert Jensen climbed a route up the center of Owls Head Cliff in Oliverian Notch. This slabby 600-foot cliff is on private property, and climbing was discouraged by the landowner. Over the years this cliff has become a DMC preserve, offering several excellent routes more or less unknown to most other climbers in the area.

A group from another University climbing Club, Yale, climbed a route up the left-hand portion of Cathedral in 1935, for one reason or another the ascent was never noted and the route was named Refuse by John turner and Richard Wilmott after a second "first ascent" in 1960. It seems likely that the slowdown during these years was more apparent than real and possibly more the result of a slowdown of the  Underhill/Appalachia publicity machine rather than actual climbing activity.

At any rate, the main cliffs were not totally ignored during this period. Climbers would make annual ascents of the now standard routes and would occasionally make longer trips to Mt. Desert Island and Katahdin and to cliffs in New York. In 1937, a guide in the form of mimeo copies of Appalachia route descriptions and a few additional notes was distributed amongst the AMC climbers. It contained details of 13 routes and notes on several others.

Kenneth Henderson was the leading figure after Underhill's retirement: training beginners, leading large parties up established routes, and exploring climbing potential at places such as Bond Cliff. In 1940 he led a party of very experienced climbers up a fifth route on Cannon. Henderson's takes a buttress on the previously unexplored section of cliff to the left of the Whitney-Gilman. This area is characterized by rotten rock and none of the routes there have ever been popular.

Following this climb,there was a period of 15 years in which new route development in the White Mountains came to a virtual standstill. During this period only one new route was established on any of the three main cliffs, and little was done elsewhere. World War 2 saw the establishment of the Tenth Mountain Division and important developments in equipment and technique. Braided Nylon ropes in particular were a huge improvement on the old hemp ropes,  which really could not be trusted to hold leader falls. In many areas of the country, the end of the war saw a great increase in the popularity of the sport and a parallel advance in standards.

The active climbers in New England at this time were largely oriented towards mountain exploration in the distant ranges. New Englanders were involved in important climbs in British Columbia, Alaska and Peru. At home they were particularly interested in winter climbing- Damnation Gully, the last major gully in Huntington's Ravine, was climbed by an AMC party in 1943, and Dave Bernays and Andrew Griscom made a first winter ascent of Whitehorse in 1954.

On rock they were content to repeat the established routes, or to explore in remote areas such as Katahdin and Tumbledown Mountain in Maine or the Lake Willoughby region in Vermont, where the routes they established rarely equalled the pre-war standards in difficulty or in quality. The one exception to this trend was a difficult new route established on Cannon by Washington D.C., climbers Herb and Jan Conn. Herb had been active in training mountain troops at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia, and both were experts at Carderock, Washington's main practice area. They had seen Cannon during childhood vacations and returned there shortly after VJ day, knowing nothing of the established routes on the cliff. They chose a route near a prominent dike in the center of the crag"…we wanted no grounds for that self-deflating accusation which we might feel later that we had avoided the face." Jan led the crux slab, Herb later commenting, "Not until later, when I tried the climb myself, did I realize the impossibility of that scant 10-foot pitch to the crack. It was a smooth face, well above the angle of repose, entirely lacking in any breaks or roughness."

The Conns climbed in Tennis sneakers and used pitons only for protection. The route has received a modern rating of 5.8, and was undoubtedly the most difficult and sustained climb in the region for over a decade. soon afterwards the Conns moved to the Black hills of South Dakota, where they established residency in a modified cave." They did some phenomenal climbing in the Needles before becoming involved in the exploration of Jewel Cave. 

A decade after the Conns' climb, Ray D'Arcy, then a student at MIT, began to actively search for new routes on the main New Hampshire cliffs. He was particularly attracted to the imposing looking face to the left of standard Route on Cathedral, a closer inspection had revealed that this section of cliff was more friendly that it appeared from the road, less steep and with a lot of good holds. During 1955 and 1956 D'Arcy remembers climbing climbed three distinct routes on the face, all three were spectacular open wall climbs with reasonable climbing but sparse protection. One of the routes involved a long traverse on which D'Arcy placed two expansion bolts due to the lack of protection. Another student at MIt, expatiate Englishman John Turner thought that he was repeating one of D' Arcy's routes but was confused since he saw no sign of the expansion bolts. In fact, Turner was not on D'Arcy's route at all, but had actually done the first ascent of what modern climbers now call Thin Air, ironically climbing what was to become one of New Englands most popular routes by mistake. D'Arcy's original Thin Air is now called D'Arcy's Route. 

The following year D'Arcy turned his attention to Cannon, where he established Quartet, a loose and rarely climbed route to the right of The Black Dike. Harry King, one of the members of his party, also climbed an important variation to the start of Concourse. King's Variation (now called Psych Dike) was described as requiring "every trick in the book". King was also on the first ascent of a variation on Dike Route on Whitehorse. In 1958 D'Arcy and Willie Crowther established a companion route to Quartet, which shares the lack of popularity of the earlier route.

While none of D'Arcy's routes were any more difficult than the harder pre-war routes, they were important in that they got others thinking in terms of new routes. Soon after these climbs, D'Arcy moved West, where he was involved in some major new routes in Yosemite.

While New England climbing remained in the doldrums, standards had been advancing elsewhere. In 1958 these new standards reached New England. In fact, in that year a route was established on Cathedral that may have contained one of the most difficult pitch in the country. Repentance bordered on 5.10, before routes of this standard were established in California or Colorado. The climber responsible for this phenomenal route was John Turner, and expatriate Englishman who had emigrated to the states to go to school at MIT and eventually settled in Montreal. Turner was a zoologist who had who had climbed in Wales while attending Oxford University. During this period British climbing was dominated by the working class climbers, symbolized by the Rock and Ice Club, whose members included climbers like Joe Brown and Don Whillans who where operating at the pinnacle of world standards at the time. It was a common belief that the university climbers could not climb at a comparable level of difficulty. Yet Turner had made a very early ascent of the seminal Welsh route Cenotaph Corner, eliminating the two points of aid used on previous ascents, a fact still little appreciated in Britain.

In Canada, Turner and a group of skilled associates developed numerous difficult routes on the cliffs near Montreal. They were also very active in the Adirondacks and the Gunks in New York. New Hampshire was harder to reach, but Turner was so impressed by the possibilities on Cathedral that he returned several times. On the first visit he teamed up with New Yorker Art Gran and attempted the prominent chimney/crack of Repentance. Turner placed a pin behind a dubious flake below the crux chimney on the second pitch. Turner stood on the pin, but it was of no use on the awkward off-width crux above. Turner found the rest of the route straightforward, using only a couple of points of protection, another characteristic of Turner's ascents.

The following year Turner and Richard Willmott climbed Recompense, which they described as "both difficult and spectacular with the difficulties being slightly less than those of Repentance", this route which is now an essential classic for up and coming New Hampshire climbers. They also climbed the huge left-arching flake leading up to the end of the traverse of Thin Air, Turners summed the route up as "easy fifth Class but the complete absence of protection is a little disconcerting". In 1960 Turner finished his explorations of Cathedral with ascents of Remission  (which he described as "moderate", an assessment which is questioned by many modern climbers!) and Refuse so named because of the piles of tourist trash on all the ledges. It later transpired that Refuse had actually been climbed nearly thirty years prior by a group of climbers from Yale University, and Turner does in fact remember finding mystery pitons on the first pitch. In the early 1960's Turner returned to England and largely disappeared from the climbing scene. However, he left behind a legacy of superb climbs done in impeccable style. A decade was to pass before Repentance was repeated and climbers were able to equal and surpass the standards of difficulty which he established in New Hampshire.

While Turner was climbing on Cathedral, other climbers explored elsewhere. Earle Whipple put up Echo on Whitehorse and Lakeview on Cannon in 1960. Two years later a pitch was destroyed by rockfall (a common occurrence on Cannon.) Whipple returned with Leigh Andrews and climbed the "new slab" a difficult friction pitch climbed in mountain boots. A fatal accident had occurred on Cannon in 1959 when two inexperienced young climbers died of exposure just as rescuers reached them.

During the post war period, climbing clubs were established in many colleges and universities. In the early 1960's many of these groups joined in a confederation known as the Intercollegiate Outing Club Association (IOCA) to establish a joint leadership pool. The group was responsible for most of the new route activity during those years. In 1963 Yale climbers established several routes up the numerous crack lines on the left hand side of Cathedral, including a direct finish to Recompense (From above the crux layback, Turner had traversed right into what is now the final corner of Gypsy). Sam Streibert was involved in many of these routes and remained an innovative force in New England climbing for many years. 1964 was a vintage year on Cannon, with the university climbers establishing five new routes: Sams Swan Song and Duet being of particular note.

MIT climber Willie Crowther developed two important new routes on Whitehorse. One of them, Sliding Board was originally climbed without bolts - Crowther had pre-placed pins in the corner of Standard Route and had attached very long slings which reached around the corner onto the Sliding Board Slab. This period saw continued exploration of remote cliffs. Whipple and New Hampshire climbers Bob Krusnyn and Hugo Stadtmuller were particularly active, visiting such places as Mt Huntington on the newly-opened Kancamagus Highway and Devils Slide in the North Country. Many old fixed pins on little known crags being re-explored by more recent generation of climbers date from this period.

By the mid-1960's many Eastern climbers, like those in other regions of the country, were entranced by the spell of Yosemite and the "Big Walls". Climbers sought out routes that would require large amounts of aid to prepare them for their pilgrimages to "The Valley". Dartmouth climbers established a major aid route on Owl's Head, but the big challenge was the central area of Cannon between Sam's Swan Song and Concourse. This section was described by the Conns in 1945 as "… a vast wall where only a fly could stick". After many attempt by numerous climbers, a route up this section was climbed in 1965 by New Yorkers Art Gran and Dick Williams with visiting Yosemite climber Yvon Chouinard. The climb was named after the Vulgarian Mountain Club with which the first ascenders were associated. In true Vulgarian fashion the route was climbed after a late night party, allowing a bivouac to be included for extra adventure.

Two years later Yale climbers added a second big wall route up a prominent dike right of the VMC route. The YMC Dike has questionable rock and generally iffy protection to make for a very serious and challenging route which has never been popular. In the same year the first "big wall" route was established on Cathedral by Steve Arsenault and Paul Doyle. The Pendulum was an intricate and varied climb, calling for several highly technical maneuvers not previously used on New England rock. The following year Arsenault established a series of aid routes on Cathedral. He later put the experience gained on these routes to good effect when he became one of the first easterners to do big wall routes in Yosemite and elsewhere.

Despite all this activity New Hampshire remained a secondary destination for most Eastern climbers. The Gunks was the main climbing center - Cannon, Cathedral and Whitehorse were only visited once or twice a season. In 1968 Joe Cote, a climber from the University of New Hampshire, began to visit Cathedral. Unlike other climbers, Cote returned to Cathedral every weekend. He became the first Cathedral regular, setting up camp below the cliff. Cote had considered becoming a professional golfer, but took up climbing instead and rapidly became very competent. In the late fall of 1968, with a variety of partners, Cote began putting up new routes. In the spirit of the times, Cote's early routes usually involved considerable aid, but many have become popular classics, taking impressive lines up some of the steepest sections of the cliff. 1969 and 1970 represented a turning point in New Hampshire climbing, especially in the Mount Washington Valley. Early in 1969, Cote published a guide to Cathedral and Whitehorse, the first one to be commercially available. Of equal importance was the opening of an Eastern Mountain Sports store in North Conway. The store was managed and staffed largely by climbers, and operated a climbing school. Now, not only were there weekend regulars, but also a sizable group of climbers were living full-time in the area. Climbing Instructors and guides have played a big part in the development of the area ever since.

In 1970 this influx of climbers resulted in a spate of new routes, particularly on the lefthand section of Cathedral. Most of these routes took obvious crack lines and involved various amounts of aid.

By 1970, "big walls" had become commonplace and climbers across the country were increasingly interested in pushing free climbing standards. For over 10 ten years Cathedral climbers had failed to repeat Turner's Repentance. Cote's guidebook stated that the climb "has now gained the reputation of being unclimbable". In the climbing world of 1970, such a challenge could not stand for long before being refuted. In that year Mike Stultz and Sam Streibert made the second ascent. Stultz had done most of his climbing in Colorado, where he had done such difficult routes as the Crack of Fear on Lumpy Ridge in Estes Park. He had been in medical school in Boston for several years, but had not had the chance to do much climbing. However, in a few weekends of activity during that summer, he injected new energy into free climbing at Cathedral. As had Turner, he stepped on the pin below the crux, an aid move eliminated by Kevin Bein later that summer. After Repentance, Stultz turned his attention to two of the most obvious unclimbed lines on the cliff. With Streibert he climbed the obvious dike which diagonals right from the start of Standard Route. This exposed and poorly protected route had defeated Turner and Gran, and had been the scene of a spectacular fall by Bruce Kumpf. Stultz's final new route was a grim off-size crack looming over the bottom of the ramp of Upper Refuse. For protection, he placed several large bongs, one of which he stepped on when it got in his way. This minor imperfection does not detract from an impressive ascent of the route now called Black Crack, the hardest climb on the cliff at the time.

The next route to be explored by free climbers was Cote's fine aid route Diedre. In 1970, each of the individual pitches of the route was done free. The following year Cote and Ben Read made the first continuous free ascent of one of the finest routes on the cliff. Cote put up several other excellent free routes in 1971, including the first ascent of The Book of Solemnity and the first free ascent of Retaliation. The most important climb of the year, however, was the first free ascent of Intimidation by Dennis Merritt and Streibert. This route was the first to offer sustained 5.10 climbing over several pitches, as well as having limited protection on the crux. It was only climbed after numerous attempts.

While all this activity was occurring on Cathedral, Cannon was not being ignored. Being somewhat further from the amenities of civilization than Cathedral, and suffering from worse weather, Cannon has never attracted large numbers of devotees. In 1970 several free routes were established on the righthand section of the cliff; of these, Consolation Prize on the Lakeview Slabs has become the most popular. In addition, Streibert and Arsenault established a direct start to VMC route which quickly became the most popular aid route on the cliff. During the following year, the cliff's reputation of offering the best "big wall" climbing in the East was further enhanced by three routes established by expatriate Englishman Paul Ross and companions. 

Ross had been climbing actively in Britain and the Alps since the early 1950's. He had established some of the hardest free climbing on his home turf in the Lake District with routes such as Post Mortem (10d) and quite a few other routes in the 5.9/10 range. Ross was also somewhat controversial for establishing a few aid climbs which challenged some of the established traditions of British climbing. In the late 1960's he moved to the States, where he worked at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine. Ross was an ambitious big time climber…later described by John Bouchard as "the first adult" for his competitive hard nosed approach. He was attracted to the "gaps", the seemingly blank areas between the established routes. Accompanied by fellow instructors, John Bragg and Mike Peloquin, he climbed The Ghost, Labyrinth Wall and Vertigo - all difficult mixed aid and free routes.

In 1972 Ross moved to North conway to run the climbing school at EMS. With his determination and drive to explore, Ross became a catalyst for a great deal of the climbing activity in the area over the next decade. Importing a common practice from British climbing centers, Ross began a new route book at the store. The "Ego Book " soon became filled as climbers continued to find new routes and free old aid routes. Early on much of this activity resulted from a friendly rivalry between Ross and Cote. At one point they and their teams both arrived at the base of Cathedral between Remission and Diedre with an eye to reaching an attractive corner high on the cliff. While Cote raced up Don't Fire till you see the Whites of their Eyes, Ross climbed The British are Coming, legend has it that they traversed over to share beers at the belay, but Ross won the race to the corner.

As well as their activities at Cathedral both were very active exploring throughout the area. Cote in particular climbed early routes on many of the small outcrops in the area, such as Sundown, Woodchuck, Lost & Found Ledges and Band M Ledge. Ross was amazed when he walked beyond the slabs of Whitehorse and saw the huge untapped potential of the South Buttress. In short order he got the ball rolling with an ascent of The Eliminate, one of the best lines in the entire area. 

One of the big changes that occurred in the early 1970's was the widespread adoption of the EB rock climbing shoe. Up to that point the footwear worn by climbers (Royal Robins Boots, PA's, Mountain Boots) made hard free climbing on granite really difficult. EB's worked very well on granite and the free climbing advances that occurred in the early seventies would not have been possible without them.

Henry Barber on the FFA of Recluse.

Henry Barber on the FFA of Recluse.

During the summer of 1972, Cote published an updated guide to the Mount Washington Valley. On Cathedral alone, the book listed twice as many routes as had appeared in his earlier volume. Yet a year later so many changes had occurred - both new routes and aid eliminations - that a supplement was issued to document the new climbs. The editor of the supplement was a young Massachusetts climber who had been mostly responsible for these developments. Henry Barber had begun climbing with the Boston AMC in the mid-1960's while in his early teens. His first new route on Cathedral was in 1970 when he nailed the roof of Goofers Delight. By 1971 Barber was climbing almost daily and had begun to develop a very high level of free climbing skill. That year he freed the short but hard crack of Recluse and also repeated The Black Crack without Stultz's incidental aid. Early in 1972 Barber free climbed The Last Temptation, the only route in Cote's guidebook to receive a 5.10 rating, though several others have since been upgraded to that level. By then it was clear that many of the old aid routes were within Barber's free climbing range and that year he teamed up with Tufts Economics professor Bob Anderson to go on a free ascent binge.  One weekend they freed five cracks on the steep wall in the upper left corner of the cliff, which thereafter has been known as The Barber Wall.  On another of those fall weekends they attempted a new line to the right of Nomad Crack, a long system of rounded cracks up a steep wall. Since this was a true first ascent and not a free ascent of an old aid route, they rappelled down and cleaned the route before an attempt. Barber started up the cracks and initially made good progress but as he got higher the cracks became more rounded and hard, and protection became more and more scare. Henry pressed on until finally the attempt ground to a halt. At this point he was utterly committed, with wooden arms and fearing a ground fall from 100' up. The route was slightly diagonal so the cleaning rope was off to the side for most of the climb, but now close to the top it was within reach, he lunged for the rappel rope and luckily was able to hang on and pull himself over the top. Grim Reaper seemed an appropriate name. On the same section of cliff Barber was able to make a breakthrough a few weeks later with the free ascent of Lichen Delight, the first 5.11 on the cliff. Barber climbed lots of other cracks during this period including several at the north end and a grim off-with to the left of the last pitch of Diedre  which he named Piss Easy despite the fact that it had been previously tried by several other hopefuls. This was only the start for Barber, over the next few years "Hot Henry" became one of the worlds best known climbers. He travelled extensively throughout the world making breakthrough ascents wherever he went.

Anderson also explored the South Buttress of Whitehorse climbing the now classic Inferno with Wayne Christian. He also found a route up the huge shield of steep, crackless rock at the top of the cliff, although this route, Airy Aerie, has never been popular it was notable as the first route up what became known as The Wonderwall. In Britain it is popular to climb horizontal routes - girdle traverses - across the local crags. Ross imported this practice to New Hampshire girdling Whitehorse and Cathedral that year and Cannon the next.

Almost unnoticed from 1972 was the first ascent of Ventilator by Joe Cote and AJ Lafluer. Almost all the previously mentioned climbs are crack systems or low-angled slabs and faces. One of the attractive features of the great granite cliffs of New Hampshire are the sweeping, high angled slabs and Ventilator was one of the first routes to explore this type of feature. In some ways it was quite a visionary route since it opened up a whole new arena for exploration, but also because it featured a series of closely spaced bolts placed on rappel. Surprisingly (given the raging ethics arguments in subsequent years) it really wasn't a controversial action at the time, it was really just an example of a creative individual trying something new, and no one seemed too worried at the time. 

A guidebook to Cannon was published in 1972 by Howard Peterson. Peterson was the most active of a small group of regulars on that cliff, establishing numerous new routes during 1972-74. In 1969 a rockfall had destroyed the crux pitch of Conncourse. Several parties climbed past this section with aid, and in 1971 Cote and Read were able to do it free, but the route had lost most of its attraction. A superior route up the same section of rock was opened by Cote and Roger Martin in 1972. Moby Grape is a combination of variations on Conncourse, which offers sustained and highly enjoyable climbing and has become one of the classic routes of its grade. During the same year Barber and Anderson made a typically difficult contribution when the climbed Whaleback crack, another route which later succumbed to rockfall.

The years 1973 and 1974 saw a continuation of the trends of the previous two years. Two well-travelled and very accomplished climbers, John Bragg and Steve Wunsch, joined Barber and Anderson in pushing the free climbing standards ever higher. The pumpy finger crack, Airation became the second 5.11 in New Hampshire, while routes such as Asylum, Chockline and Grim Reaper (which Bragg and Wunsch has repeated free) acquired reputations as serious leads. Over on Whitehorse Mike Hartrich led Ninth Wave a very serious face route which is nearly as hard as Ventilator but with zero protection, and Henry Barber led a team up the first free ascent of Beelzebub, a mixed aid and free route that Ross, Hugh Thompson and Rick Wilcox had climbed in 1972. Cannon was not ignored; Ross with Ben and Marion Winteringham put up Union Jack that year, and several of the older routes such as Vertigo saw free or nearly free ascents and soon achieved classic status.

In 1974 all this activity culminated in the free ascent of the original VMC route by Streibert and Anderson. The route was climbed on the first attempt, an impressive achievement on what was at the time the hardest, longest and best route in the region.

If anything, the pace of activity accelerated over the next few years. This was partly driven by the arrival of a group of younger climbers who came to the area to work as guides for  EMS and also International Mountain Equipment, a business that Ross had recently started. Ross climbed regularly with the new arrivals and continued to be the instigator for numerous classic routes, such as Wonderwall and Lights in the Forest. Doug Madara was the perfect rope gun for Ross, all Paul had to do was point Doug in the right direction and he would keep going until either success was achieved or a huge fall was taken…and many huge falls were taken. One of their routes that gained a big reputation was Armageddon, a bald slabby face between Standard Route and Diagonal on Cathedral. The crux was a blank bulge where Madara had to work out a couple of very tenuous hook moves in order to reach what looked like a decent hold. After taking a series of crunching falls, Madara was able to stretch up to the hold and made a teetering mantle well into the no fall zone. The legend was that as Ross was following the pitch he hammered off the hook placements to make the route unrepeatable, the truth is that the scrape marks on the bulge where from Madara's hooks scraping down the rock as he pitched off for the umpteenth time. 

Another of the new arrivals was Ed Webster. Webster was from the Boston suburbs and began climbing in the local areas, concentrating on the very steep outcrop of Crow Hill. From early in his career Webster began an ambitious search for new routes, and was always looking for new possibilities. He went to school in Colorado but returned to New England in the summers to guide. During 1975 and 76 he was very active, scouring Cathedral and the South buttress of Whitehorse and climbing many excellent routes such as Tranquility, Atlantis and Lights in the Forest. Towards the end of the summer in 1976 Webster and Ajax Greene were able to free climb Pendulum, a long intricate route with a spectacular 11d roof, the first route to free climb the big wall section of Cathedral.

Jim Dunn

Jim Dunn.

Jim Dunn on Screaming Yellow Zonkers.

Jim Dunn on Screaming Yellow Zonkers.

Jim Dunn was born in Manchester, but began climbing in Colorado where his family had moved while he was in high school. He was very active in Colorado and the southwest. In 1972 he became the first person to solo a new route on el Capitan (Cosmos). In 1974 he returned to New Hampshire to work as a climbing instructor. The following year he made a brief visit which resulted in two important routes, Screaming Yellow Zonkers at Woodchuck and The Possessed on Cathedral. Both were steep, strenuous crack climbs, with the later being the hardest route in the area at the time. In typical Dunn fashion the Possessed was a long siege that required numerous attempts before success. A route of similar grade was the huge arch at the top of The Mines of Moria which had been dubbed The Bridge of Khazaz-Dum. This was free climbed by Brian Delaney after rapping in from the top, a very impressive multi-day effort for the time, especially since this was in the era before camping devices. Later in the summer Dunn approached this route from the ground using some pitches that Ross had figured out during ascents of Lights in the Forest and The Big Plum. As well as these showpiece routes Dunn was very active looking for good and hard cracks on the many smaller cliffs in the area, routes such as Finnaly Dunn on Band M, Crack in the Woods and Short but Sweet at Found Ledge. 

Another route from 1976 was the long smooth slab well to the right of Ventilator. This was bolted by Cote on rappel, but he had to recruit Mike Hartrich for the lead. At 11c Starfire this was the longest, thinnest face route in the area at the time.

In 1977 Dunn became obsessed with the free ascent of Ross's classic aid route, The Prow. John Bragg had attempted to free the route earlier and had climbed the hard bulge on pitch 2 the previous year. Dunn gave the routes numerous attempts that year gradually working out the crux sequences on a series of 11d pitches. Finally, late in the afternoon on a very hot day, Dunn and Jay Wilson raced up the route in two hours producing what was probably the most difficult sustained free route in the east, and is still the classic hard route of the cliff. Even today it rarely sees a true on sight ascent.

By the late 1970's 5.11 had become well established. At the time there were still a lot of old aid routes that were providing the fodder for free ascents by strong climbers such as Webster and Dunn. Climbers had developed the tactics and strength that made the breakthrough into 5.12 seem imminent. This happened in 1978 when Dunn was able to climb the companion crack to the left of Screaming Yellow Zonkers at Woodchuck. Zonked Out featured a powerful layback which Dunn found easier with a shoeless left foot. On Cathedral, Dunn had been trying a bouldery arch to the right of the cave in the middle of the cliff. To Dunn the solution had seemed to be standing on a tiny edge, but unfortunately he just couldn't hold the edge with his normal climbing shoes, so he wore a stiff mountaineering boot on one foot over his EB. On a couple of attempts he made it past the move, but as he hung on to the holds above the crux, frantically trying to shake the big clunky boot off his foot, he got pumped and fell off.

Unfortunately for Dunn, two talented Californian climbers were in the area for a visit and they were able to make the crux moves using a different sequence. The two Californians, Max Jones and Mark Hudon were to write a very influential article in Mountain magazine called "States of the Art"(PART 1, PART 2) which detailed the new generation of extremes that were appearing around the country, as well as the tactics and effort that it took to succeed on them. While in the area they made early repeats of many of the hard routes of the previous couple of years, which subsequently appeared in the article, thus ensuring that routes such as The Prow achieved national status for many years.

Barber and Webster on the FFA of Wild Women.

Barber & Webster on the FFA
of Wild Women.

With the Californians in the area nothing was safe, and so Webster recruited Henry Barber for a free ascent of Women in Love to salvage local pride. Brian Delany had led the 11c first pitch with Webster in 1975. They had then climbed half of the next pitch before moving right onto the Beast Flake, but the final pitch and a half was an obvious prize for a free ascent. Amusingly Webster had rapped down to check out the final pitch a few days beforehand and in order to keep him off the scent had assured Hudon that "There's no way that last pitch will ever go free. Its just completely blank up there". 

While Barber and Webster were working on the last pitch Hudon and Jones came up behind, smoking up the lower pitches. In a moment of high drama, after finally succeeding on the crux, Barber's shoulder popped out of joint on the final layback. Luckily Barber was able to pop it back in and complete the final moves for the historic first ascent. The next year Webster, climbing with Jeff Achey, was able to incorporate a two pitch direct start to make one of the most sustained and strenuous routes in the area. This direct start was well known as the scene of one of Doug Madara's enormous whippers, the two clean streaks where his feet had scrapped a path through the lichen were visible for years afterwards.


While plenty of aid routes were still available for potential free ascents the only thing that seemed to matter as far as ethics were concerned was free versus aid, and up until the late 70's ethics hadn't been much of an issue. But in the late 70's local climbers started to look at the style of first ascents more carefully. Amongst most climbers a… start at the bottom and finish at the top mentality… seemed to make sense. But this idea was quite limiting in some respects because New Hampshire rock in its natural state was usually a bit too dirty for free climbing as the routes got harder. It was standard practice to rappel down a new line and clean lichen off the faces and dirt out of the cracks prior to a first ascent. Over the years a few climbers had taken the extra step of installing pin and bolt protection during the cleaning. Notable examples were Ventilator and Starfire, but in general these were isolated circumstances that didn't cause much of a stir. But in 1978 and 1979 the practice had become more common. Paul Ross had realized that lichen often hides decent holds on the rock underneath, so although it was an unlikely looking line he thought that the huge, vertical arete to the left of Upper Refuse might be a possibility, since it was covered in a thick layer of blubbery lichen. After a day's hard work the route was scrubbed to perfection and sporting several bolts and fixed pins. Ross then recruited Webster and after further top-roping, the route was led to create an instant classic that quickly saw many repeat ascents. Other routes such as Question of Ethics and Sticky fingers on Cannon followed, and pretty soon Dunn was involved in a full scale scrubbing and bolting operation on the Airation buttress creating Camber and The Creation.

In 1979 a meeting of local climbers was called to discuss the issue. Subsequent accounts have stated that the local climbers unanimously declared that placing bolts on Rappel represented a step backward in style and would not be accepted in the White Mountains. In fact Dunn had stormed out of the meeting threatening anyone who touched his bolts! After the meeting Camber and The Creation remained intact, but Ross stripped the bolts from The Arete. Although the route was subsequently re-led from the ground up by Rick Fleming, the new version was quite a bit bolder and the route never regained its popularity.

The next couple of years were a period of consolidation when numerous classic routes were added on many of the cliffs, but no real breakthroughs occurred. Webster ranged far and wide adding many classic routes both on Cathedral and Whitehorse but also on the peripheral cliffs such as Sundown, Band M, Rainbow Slabs and many others. On Cathedral, Rick Fleming climbed the beautiful thin crack system to the right of Airation to create Heather, one of the best hard routes in the area at the time, and Kurt Winkler teetered up Little Stalking, one of the bolder slab routes. Over on Cannon Mark Richey and Bob Rotert climbed a brilliant free version of Labyrinth Wall which they called Walk on the Wild Side…one of the best routes on the east coast.

In some ways the early eighties was most notable as a period of exploration when climbers like George Hurley, Mike Hartrich, Kurt Winkler, Albert Dow, and Alain Comeau began to scour the White Mountains for new cliffs and new routes. Slab climbing was very much in vogue during these years, and climbers such as John Strand, Tom Callaghan and John Bouchard perfected the art of drilling bolts while standing on nothing. Many of the classic slab routes of the area were climbed at this time.

83 was something of a transition year. Webster and Dunn, the leading lights of the previous generation of north Conway climbers had already made their most important first ascents and visited the area much less frequently in the following years. But other climbers were starting to push into the upper grades. At Band M ledge Steve Larson climbed the burly flake system of Heavy Weather Sailing, and at Sundown a group of climbers from Connecticut free climbed the beautiful corner system of Toothless Grin.

Neil Cannon on the FFA of Reconcilation. Photo, S. Peter Lewis

Neil Cannon on the FFA of Reconcilation.
Photo S. Peter Lewis

Neil Cannon, a student at Dartmouth College , had had a tough couple of years sieging his way up the established hard routes of the day, before his technique and strength started to come together. By the fall of 83 Cannon was hitting his stride and pulled the stops out to make the first free ascent of Reconciliation on The Barber Wall. This  represented a significant step forward from the routes of The Dunn/Webster era.  Whereas the older 5.12s were usually routes with short, technical well-protected cruxes Reconciliation had strenuous and sustained climbing together with a couple of very bold and committing sections;  it was very much a harbinger of things to come over the next few years. 

In early 1984, after starting the previous year, a local high school kid began to turn up at the cliff every afternoon. Jim Surette spent the spring and summer working his way through the classic 5.11s before teaming up with Cannon and dusting off most of the 5.12s that fall. In the modern era of bouldering, climbing walls and sport climbs this sort of progression through the grades is quite common, but back then it was unheard of. Especially since the hard routes of the day were usually traditionally protected routes which required large measures of finesse, technique and cool-headedness, attributes that usually took a while to develop. 

Also that summer Hugh Herr moved up to North Conway. Herr was based in the Gunks and had been one of the most promising young climbers in the country, until he had lost both of his legs below the knees following a harrowing accident on Mt Washington. Determined and resourceful, Herr had worked his way back into the world of climbing, designing his own prosthetics when he found that those already available were inadequate. In October of 1983, barely 18 months after having lost his legs, Herr led the first ascent of Vandals at Skytop in the Gunks. The first 5.13 on the east coast.

During 1984 Herr and Cannon climbed a series of routes that seemed to consolidate the trend that Cannon had initiated with Reconciliation. Routes such as The Wez, Fortitude, Liquid Sky (pitch 3) and Lady Lara were just miles harder and/or more serious than what had been done before. Its worth modern climbers remembering that these routes were done in a very different style than would be done today. Routes were normally cleaned on rappel prior to the ascent, but never top-roped. The climbs would be attempted from the ground up with the leader placing protection as they went. If the climber fell off, or weighted the gear they wouldn't hang there and fiddle in more gear, or rest a little and try and work out the moves before keeping going. Instead they would lower back to the ground and rest before another ground up attempt. The result of this style was that the outcome was always in doubt. It was hard enough to do well-protected routes like Heather and Zonked Out, but on serious routes such as those mentioned above, success required complete and utter  commitment…something that only a few of the best climbers could muster.

Hugh Herr trying out his short leg onTourist Treat.

Hugh Herr trying out his short leg
on Tourist Treat.

During the summer another notable event was Lynn Hills free ascent of Tourist Treat. This had been a distinct "Last Great Problem" of the North Conway area. The route had been the scene of some "creative" peg work, and all the local climbers had been throwing themselves at it for years with no success. Herr had even designed a special short leg which he thought might help him on the crux move. Hill's casual ascent (after only a few tries) was such a serious dent to local pride, that the ever garrulous Paul Ross suggested that local hero Cannon should be re-named BB Gun after the ascent.

Right at the end of the year, Surette, with nothing left to climb, made the first free ascent of Wombat at Sundown, his first new route. This was another route that had been tried by other climbers, it was a hard, bouldery piece of climbing with tricky protection. This route marked the start of a two year period where Surette made an amazing string of ascents that completely changed the face of North Conway climbing.

Early in 1985 Surette climbed  The Creation. The Breeze, Steak Sauce and Mordor (pitch1) in quick succession. all of which contained solid 5.12 climbing. Armageddon was a different kettle of fish all together. The route had had a huge reputation as an A4 aid climb. Doug Madara had famously taken a series of progressively bigger falls as he worked out a series of hook placements on the crux bulge. After taking a series of scary falls Surette was able to complete this very bold climb which has really stood the test of time, with only a couple of repeats over the years.

Later in the summer Herr finally succeed on Stage Fright, after over 20 days of effort spread over a two year period. This was another huge achievement which in many ways represented a high point for this style of very hard and bold climbing. Although the route has seen a few ascents over the years, Herr is still the only climber to have led the route without prior top-roping. A ground up onsight lead remains a big prize for some hero.


Sam Bendroth on an early ascent of Cerberus in 2012

Sam Bendroth on an early ascent
of Cerberus in 2012.

As the climbing season wound down Surette started working on the bulge climbed on the original aid ascent of The Beast 666. After a short siege (5 short after school sessions and no hanging) Surette was able to unlock the crux sequence and succeed on a route that appeared to be far harder than anything else in the area. Surette originally graded the route 12c, but recent attempts have put the grade at solid 13a, nearly 3 grades harder than anything else at that time.


In 1986 Surette set his sights on an even bigger prize, the thin crack system snaking up the big yellow wall to the right of The Prow. The lower pitches had been pieced together by Bouchard , Herr and others. After a protracted siege, Surette finally linked the pitch in September. At a hefty 5.13b this route represented another huge breakthrough in North-Eastern climbing, and remains a coveted route even today. In the mid 1980s the wider world of climbing was going through a big change.  The old styles of first ascent that had been the norm in established climbing areas in the UK and America and the Alpine regions of Europe were not being adopted in the newer cragging areas that were springing up all over France, Spain and Germany. A new style of climbing, sport climbing, was being adopted instead. The tightly bolted routes allowed climbers to push the physical limits. And the style of working a route, hanging to work out difficult sections, followed by a clean ascent, was a very efficient way to improve technique, power and stamina. In a matter of a few short years top standards in these European countries shot far beyond those in America. In the mid 80's American pride took a bit of a dent as top European climbers were routinely flashing some of the hardest routes in the country. One of the first places to adopt this style of climbing was in the Gunks, where a very strong group of young climbers such as Scott Franklin, Al Diamond and Jordan mills had pushed standards far into the 5.13 grade. Franklin had even established a variation to Clairvoyance at lost City which had been rated 5.14a, the first in the country.

Surette had seen these developments taking place on regular trips to the Gunks and a summer holiday in Europe and, although not a sport route, Liquid Sky was the first route that he systematically dogged out before the ascent. While he was working on Liquid Sky Surette noticed that the amazing arete to its left was more climbable than it first appeared. After he finished Liquid Sky, Surette bolted the arete and began to work it. Unfortunately a bad shoulder injury prevented him from completing the route. The following year while he was visiting his sponsors at Wild Things, Scott Franklin was able to send the route after only a couple of days of effort to create Edge of the World, still one of the best and most sought after hard routes in the state.


Chris Gill on The Inquisition. Photo, Rich Baker.

Chris Gill on The Inquisition.
Photo, Rich Baker.

As well as the local superstars, a very active group of climbers had began to assemble in North Conway in the mid-1980s. People such as myself, Chris Gill, Andy Ross, Nick Yardley, Bob Parrott, Jim Ewing, Steve Damboise started working through the established routes and were soon sniffing around for new stuff. It turned out that while the pickings were a little slim on Cathedral and Whitehorse, the other cliffs in the area were stacked with excellent unclimbed lines. The confluence of circumstances resulted in a tidal wave of hard trad climbing and route development. Cliffs such as Band M, Frankenstein, Sundown, Woodchuck,Found Ledge, Crag Y and Rumney and many others all had a thorough working over during this period. These developments were hilariously secretive at the time as first ascentionists played the game of tantalizing their rivals with just enough detail to let them know that they'd found something really good, but not enough detail to let them know where their prize pumpkin actually was. 

Although most of this group were cleaning routes on rappel and placing bolts where no gear was available, most of these routes were not sport climbs. they were generally still climbed without dogging or prior top-roping and in general continued the trend of routes getting harder and ever more horrifying. Routes such as The Inquisition, Seventh Sojourn, Free Finale, Flesh for Lulu, Technosurfing (two rumney sport routes that were originally climbed with two bolts each), The Rocky horrorshow, Repo Man and  Salamnder Days were all real tests of nerve. Modern climbers often ask me why do those sorts of route. The answer is that back in those days danger was much more recognized as an important component of difficulty. Being a good climber meant a lot more than having the ability to pull hard, and so climbers would try and cultivate and practice this aspect of their skill set.

Stevie Damboise on Tourist Treat. Photo, Rich Baker.

Stevie Damboise on Tourist Treat. Photo, Rich Baker.

By 1988 the sport climbing revolution was beginning to pick up momentum, and, relieved that they might have the opportunity to continue climbing without risking death on a daily basis, New Hampshire climbers started to look at their cliffs with a new eye, this time envisaging sport and mixed routes up the open walls, instead of looking for the cracks and corners and slabs that provided the lines for most of the traditional routes up to that point. Rumney, Sundown as well as Cathedral and Whitehorse and many of the outlying cliffs all saw the addition of many sport and mostly sport routes during the next few  years. Damboise in particular was well suited to these new sport climbs, and by the late 1980's was regularly flashing 12+ and 13- routes, and sending mid-13's in a couple of tries, something that would have seemed impossible just a few years prior.

It wouldn't be North Conway if there wasn't some sort of controversy brewing, and a tumultuous event like the advent of sport climbing did not fail to produce a hefty dose.

Jerry Handren climbing The Big Bananna.

Jerry Handren climbing The Big Bananna.

Aside from the grumbling caused by the wholesale rap bolting, cleaning, dogging, projects with fixed ropes, etc. a huge storm blew up when Damboise drilled a pocket on the much eyed roof above Police and Thieves at Sundown. The event would probably have gone unnoticed had he not advertised the fact in the IME new route book, but once the word was out a huge storm blew up. Other climbers such as Bob Parrot, who had bolted a rock hold onto a route at Band M, and Handren who had bolted a big jug onto the yellow wall at Sundown as well as Handrens friend Duncan McCallum, a regular visitor from Scotland, (who maintained that his routes were merely "well groomed"), were inducted to the hall of shame and received a brutal tongue lashing at a specially convened meeting of local climbers. After a few hours of contrition, Damboise went out the next day and created The Mercy, a largely chipped route up a seam of gravelly choss in the back of the Cathedral Cave. Perhaps Karma got him back though, because a badly torn back muscle prevented Damboise from completing the route before he moved to Colorado the following spring. 20 years later in his mid-40's Damboise was still redpointing up to 14b at his local crag Rifle. The Mercy was finally redpointed by Andy Hannon in 1996, but by then it was clear that for sport climbing the momentum was shifting away from North Conway In the mid-1990's Ward & Chris Smith and a group of friends from Massachusetts had descended on Rumney and began the process of turning those crags into a world class sport climbing area, Ward in particular had established several upper 5.13's such as Barracuda and Concrete Jungle which were probably the hardest routes in the area at the time. And to the east, with Bob Parrottt in the lead, climbers had began to explore the tremendous potential of the crags of western Maine. Cliffs such as Wild River and Shagg Crag had a style of rock that was well suited to sport climbing and some of the routes established during those years remain amongst the classic routes of their grade in New England. 

Jerry Handren on The Mercy. Photo, Rich Baker.

Jerry Handren on The Mercy. Photo, Rich Baker.

In the mid to late 1990s a very strong group of young climbers appeared on the scene. Most of these kids had been introduced to climbing at the various climbing walls in the region and initially shared a focus on bouldering. When they took their skills to the bigger crags they ushered in an new era. David Graham, Luke Parady, Joe Kinder and Tim Kemple mostly bouldered and climbed in Rumney, although Graham in particular quickly became know as one of the best climbers in the USA and shortly thereafter The world. In the early years of the 2000's his tick list of hard routes was literally unmatched. At Rumney Graham pushed standards into the upper 5.14 range with routes such as Jaws, Livin' Astro and The Fly. 

Graham's activities in the areas covered in this book were limited, but still impressive and included several upper 13 and lower 5.14 routes. Like Graham, Tim Kemple climbed at Rumney and bouldered, but he was still interested in trad climbing. He introduced the practice of headpointing, where serious routes were systematically practiced on a top-rope before a clean lead. This new technique, together with the bouldering power and sport climbers endurance allowed Kemple, and his friend Peter Vintoniv to add a stunning series of routes to Cathedral in the late 1990s. Some routes such as The Hobbit and Bamboozled, were deadly serious climbs with long runouts, while others were hard climbs with lots of dodgy old gear providing unpredictable protection. Pride of place amongst his routes goes to the stunning Highway 51 on The Mordor Wall, one of the best routes added to the cliff in many years.

A north Conway local, John Clothier, was also very active during this period. At Sundown he free climbed an old project to the right of Dikenstein. When this route was originally bolted it contained a useful but loose flake which would have kept the grade at mid-5.12. Faced with the choice of re-enforcing the flake or prying it of, Andy Ross, not wanting to invoke the wrath of the ethics committee pulled it off hoping that something useable would remain. Unfortunately all that was left behind were a couple of tiny, sloping crimps, and this short sequence of moves stymied numerous attempts from many climbers until Clothier was able to finish the project off to create what was probably the first 5.14 in the North Conway  area.  

During the early 2000's a new group of climbers moved to the North Conway area again creating a very active local scene. Dave Sharratt in particular climbed some a whole slew of very impressive routes on a wide variety of Crags, including Sewer Rat at Sundown, the stunning Freemason and the serious 0.6 on Cathedral, and Synesthesia at Wild River which was probably the first 5.14 in Maine. 

Ray Rice on Sarlack at Shell Pond.

Ray Rice on Sarlack at Shell Pond.

With pickings a little slim on the traditional crags the rest of the local crew began exploring the undeveloped cliffs of Evans Notch. Laughing Lion, the huge cliff glowering over the crest of the notch had seen a few routes over the years, including (inevitably) Bob Parrotts free ascent of Mainline. But there was still plenty of room for more development, and over the last years of the decade a network of great routes appeared all over this huge face, one of the only cliffs in New England with multi pitch sport climbs. Bayard Russell and Ray Rice in particular made a big contribution climbing routes such as Acid Wall, Hard Cider and several others which will probably achieve classic status in the future. Another great find was the upper tier at Shell Pond. These cliffs had been explored by Randy Baker throughout the 1990's resulting in quite a few nice moderate routes, particularly on Family Crag, but the main challenge of the steep buttresses on the Upper Tier was largely ignored. Various North Conway locals were aware of the cliffs and had gone out to size up the potential over the years, but no-one had really done much. Bob Parrot had climbed one route on the upper tier which was quite disappointing, with quite flakey and loose rock and maybe this had put off potential developers. But with a new generation comes a different vision, and when Sam Bendroth, Ray Rice and Bayard Russell came for a visit they immediately saw the potential and over the last few years of the decade created a great collection of wildly steep sport routes, which make this one of the best sport cliffs in the area.

Owl Arete.

Andy Ross checking out the unclimbed
arete at Owls Cliff.

Another aspect of recent climbing history is the development of the remote upper Kancamagus Cliffs. Ray Rice was largely responsible for a series of routes at Square Ledge which includes two area classics, The Zag and Rayce Crack. The two buttresses of Owls Cliff are easily seen from the highway, but the length of the approach had kept any serious development at bay. During the early nineties Chris Gill and the author were lured out to the cliff by a very striking arete (still unclimbed by the way) which they had spied with Gills powerful binoculars. They initially visited the cliff using an approach from the top of Bear Notch and climbed a few routes. A few days later Andy Ross and a large group had top-roped a superb wall climb on the right-hand cliff (probably Mr Owl), but never bolted it because they figured no-one else would ever go out there. 

A few years later, unaware of the previous activity, Ward & Chris Smith were looking around for a cliff to develop. The playground of Rumney which they were partly responsible for putting on the map was now a complete zoo, and the lads wanted a quiet place to get away from the mayhem from time to time. When they came across Owls cliff they, along with Mark Sprague and Dave Quinn, began a long campaign of development. Much to their glee, they were able to keep their activities secret from the North Conway locals for nearly fifteen years, scooping up many classics from right under their noses.

The most recent development has been at Green's Cliff, another very visible but remote cliff, across Sawyer  pond from Owls Cliff. after visiting the cliff and being greatly impressed by its potential Mark Sprague began to clean off, and with various partners, climb a series of first free ascents and new routes which include one of New Hampshire's classic crack climbs, Greenpeace and several other excellent face and crack climbs. Development is ongoing, and it appears that there is potential for many more routes.

Back at Cathedral Ledge, the late 2000's were notable for the ascent of a couple of stunning last great problems by Jay Conway Northern Exposure http://www.mountainproject.com/v/106039342 is a sport route up a beautiful shallow groove on the left side of the Airation buttress. Cecile is a free ascent of the old aid route Topless Tellers. With its varied difficulties and long runouts http://www.mountainproject.com/v/106243398 this is probably one of the hardest (despite the lowly 13d grade) and certainly one of the best routes in the area.

The future? Although its hard to imagine any more major new cliffs being found in the immediate North Conway area, many of the cliffs still have lots of room for new routes at ever higher standards. Out in Western Maine, most of the cliffs that have so far been developed are relatively visible and close to the road, it seems likely that there is still plenty of exploration and discovery to be done in this area. Even on the most popular cliffs there is still a big backlog of undone projects. In short its hard to imagine that this amazingly diverse climbing area won't have enough new stuff to keep the leading climbers entertained for generations to come. And for the rest of us this book provides an enormous catalogue of cliffs to explore and routes to enjoy… a lifetimes worth of climbing.

North Conway rock climbing.