Monday, August 20, 2007

Cathedral Ledge - North Conway

Ever since we met up in the Adirondacks over Memorial Day weekend, "Jello" and I have been discussing a potential trip that would allow us to tackle some trad, multi-pitch routes over the course of several days. We discussed two different weekends in July, one weekend in August and the possibility of meeting up either in the 'Gunks or 'Dacks, but we couldn't piece a trip together. First it was my inability to get time off from work. Then it was him getting laid off from work. He had a wedding to attend. I was going home for a week to visit family. His girlfriend was to fly out of Philadelphia on a day we wanted to climb. I was concerned about being out of the office at the same time as my boss (well, not really), and he was to start a new job sooner than expected. It didn't matter what our plans were in the end; time wouldn't let us meet up and we were both getting frustrated.

And then the stars came together.

Finally, we were able to piece together two days at the end of last week where we could camp right across the street from the crag at our super-secret camp site, get up early, and get on the choicest meat before anyone else was even thinking beyond their morning coffee. While we didn't get to do as much as hoped, we still had a great time trying. Thursday provided more opportunities than Friday did, but the route we did on Friday was enough to leave a taste in our mouths to do more. To go bigger. Longer. Badder and radder (OK, so maybe I'm exaggerating here, but only just a little). Below is what we did, how we did it and what the routes are like.

Thursday - North End and Lower Left Wall

Child's Play (5.6) - 1 Pitch of Trad with slings at the top - North End - This was our first route of the trip because we wanted to start on something easy as a warm up. That and we had heard Cathedral was stiff in the grading, so we also wanted to get a feel for what the routes were going to be like: stiff or honest? This route was a little sandbagged, but only just a little. The start was probably a 5.7+ layback with no feet on the first two moves, but once we got past that section, it was pretty easy to string the route together
the rest of the way. This route has excellent pro in the vertical crack just about anywhere on the climb. The finish has a bit too much lichen for my liken', but there was never a tense moment until "Jello" came down after TR'ing the route. It was a normal belay. He got to the top, removed our anchor, set himself up on the rap anchor already in place, and I lowered him. About half-way down, "Jello" saw a horizontal dihedral that he wanted to avoid and pushed his feet outward so that he'd land right on the top edge and step down from there. Unfortunately, his foot missed the edge and his shin caught it instead. It was a helluva scratch that I honestly thought for a few moments would end our climbing before it had hardly started. But he shook it off and we TR'd the next route over from Child's Play.

The Mantleshelf Problem (5.7) - 1 Pitch of TR with slings at the top - North End - This route is not really leadable. One could certainly free-solo it, but it is a face climb with no sign of a crack until about 30 feet off the ground. The start is nice. It has two palm-sized ledges for mantling, and these first two moves lead to a series of jugs just to the right of the Child's Play crack. The top runs up a face of flakey lichen that is way more slippery when wet
than one would think.

Kiddy Crack(5.7) - 1 Pitch of Trad with slings at the top - North End - Another solid route that is more consistent than Child's Play is. It is just to the right of The Mantleshelf Problem and follows a vertical crack upward to the same anchors as the first two climbs did. "Jello" led this route, and I was happy that he was going to be strong enough to continue. Still, these first few routes were too easy. We wanted more.

Bird's Nest (5.9-) - 1 Pitch of Trad with slings at the top - North End - And we got it. This was a stiff route that was very thin and slick at the bottom, especially since it had rained the night before and the jug of water I had bought for the weekend sprung a leak in my trunk and soaked my shoes.
When people tell you that Cathedral can be sandbagged, this is proof that is true. I think this was a 5.10, not a 5.9-. But I hate vertical cracks, so maybe that's just me (I also hate creepy looking spiders that look more poisonous than I'd care to learn the truth about). In any case, it has great pro all the way up that doesn't get in the way of where you want to put your hands. I tried jamming the first 20 feet or so, but I fell twice (the gear held, thank God) and found that a layback worked much better until I could hand jam through the middle (To be honest, I fell more because I was trying to avoid the damn spider than due to the difficulty of the climb. I swear, the fucker was sitting right on a jug that I needed and never moved despite my trying to nudge him along. "Jello" kept yelling 'Kill it! Kill it!', but I didn't want to get that crap all over my gear. I have standards you know).

I finally made it past the spider and into what I thought was the best part of the climb, a series of good hand and fist jams leading to a nice rest on a shelf below a small roof. The upper-middle section had an awkward high-step, sloper, mantle move that made me pause for a couple of minutes to figure out. The move is much easier than it looks, but that doesn't make it less scary. The top was pretty smooth. I'd even call it a 5.6 runout. This route is highly recommended.

After we finished on the North End Wall, we went back down to the car (less than 45 seconds of walking - damn, that's a tough approach), had lunch and decided to try out two routes on the Lower Left Wall that sounded intriguing. Both shared the same first pitch and split into different directions. Both were fantastically different from each other, almost so that it made us feel like we were on different walls.

Bombardment (5.8 - 5.6R) - 2 pitches of trad with no gear at the top - Lower Left Wall - "Jello" led the first pitch of this route: a one-piece 5.6 runout that goes up about 35 feet, with 25 of those feet above the only piece of gear the entire pitch. Still, it's a 5.6 that starts below the obvious rap anchors
at the bottom of pitch two, and winds right up a dike and touch-and-go smear section before an easy hike brings one back to the anchors. Pitch two juts out to the right with a high-step onto a flaring vertical crack that winds left as one goes up. Pro is scant early on this pitch, but it gets better as the crack fades. I'd definitely brings cams for this section. Nuts won't go until you're too high. At that point, decking out isn't just a reality for the start of the second pitch, but maybe the bottom of the first pitch, too. There weren't any anchors at the top, so bring some small nuts to make an anchor in the horizontal crack. There's also a good tree to rap off. And if you venture higher and find what seems to be a soft spot in the ground, don't step there. That's "Jello"'s "I'moffbelaygottarunI'vegottatakeacrapholySHIT!" hole. He was missing for several minutes when we finally rapped down to the bottom of the second pitch, which was also the start of the second pitch of Pleasant Street.

Pleasant Street (5.7 - 5.6R) - 2 pitches of trad with no gear at the top - Lower Left Wall - This route, instead of having a crack that sunk into the wall, featured an under cling flake that arched left to an easy but thick roof near the top. "Jello" led this pitch, and had a lot of fun with it. I don't know about
this guy, to tell the truth. He seems to really like sticking his hands in places
where you don't know what's hiding inside. He just sticks them in there and smiles, albeit not without bitching about all the cobwebs that had formed on the way up. If you don't appreciate cobwebs, make your partner lead this one. It'll be nice and clean for you on the way up. The pro is excellent and the footing is solid as well. One could probably climb the face, but all the pro is in the flake. Use long slings at the bottom to avoid rope drag. One thing to note, however, is that the top of this route is very, very rough. "Jello" stopped short of the top because he couldn't see that the route went any further. From where he set the anchor, everything above was a slopey, lichenfest with no easy, 5.7 moves. He built an anchor in the horizontal crack where he stopped and recommended we traverse over to the top of Bombardment to rap down. However, when I got to the top I discovered three bolts in the rock that led to a very precarious, slippery and slopey section up to a large tree (I aided this part - the lichen was just too touch-and-go). I anchored off the stout branch that hung out over the cliff, sat on the top of it, let him rap down and then I rapped down after him (just to be sure, swinging from a seated position on top of a tree branch onto rappel below a tree branch, and hoping one's weight doesn't snap the branch one is rappelling off of is no treat. I admit, I was afraid. Very, very afraid). Still, the rap was easy and went directly down to a rap anchor that is not in the same spot as the start of the second pitch. If you rap off, rap straight down from the top. You may need two ropes to rap back to the second-pitch belay station. The rap anchors half-way down are good enough to use, but as always, check first.

Friday - Thin Air Face

Standard Route (5.6) - 4 Pitches of Trad with slings for anchors on pitches two and three, and bolts for pitch four - Toe Crack Variation (5.7) on first two pitches - Thin Air Face - Our plan on Friday was to do Thin Air (5.6 - 4 pitches) and then do some of the climbs on the Upper Left Wall such as Upper Refuse (5.6) and various 5.9s and / or 5.8s. Unfortunately, we got up way, way too late in the morning to beat the crowds, and by the time we got to the bottom of Thin Air, there was already a disappointed father and his young daughter holding up the climb (he asked the party behind them to get a tri-cam out for him because his daughter, who couldn't have been more than ten years old, "had a meltdown trying to get the cam out". The whole crowd below heard him say that. You'd think he'd show a bit more support), a group of four waiting to get on the climb and "Jello" forgot his climbing shoes in the car. By the time he got back, Thin Air was as crowded as it usually is. And why not? It's one of New England's most classic climbs. Everyone has to do this route once. It's absolutely fantastic.

Because of the long queue and our desire to get as much climbing in as we possibly could before his girlfriend called for a ride back from shopping in North Conway all day, we decided to do the Toe Crack variation of the Standard route, a long, four-pitch route that requires two ropes if one is going to rap down from the top. "Jello" led the first three pitches mainly because I was now battling two damaged thumbs. The first one you've heard about in my other posts (canoeing accident). The second was a much more traumatic injury: I cut a massive gash in my thumb whilst trying to open a can of freaking blueberries for the pancakes that didn't cook well earlier that morning. Not only did we not get pancakes, but I was stuck fiddling with gear with a two-inch thick wrap of tape and gauze around my thumb all day. The damn thumb just wouldn't stop bleeding. When I finally took the wrapping off later that day, the gauze was stuck to my thumb thanks to all the blood. I thought I was going to die. Seriously.

OK, so maybe I am exaggerating again, but having two bum thumbs and an intense displeasure for vertical cracks (love, love, love horizontal cracks and face climbs. Despise vertical cracks), I let "Jello" have all the fun on the first three pitches.

Pitch One - "Jello" followed the dike at the bottom of the cliff (I mean, who wouldn't? She was HOT! - OK, bad joke, sorry, sorry) to the small chimney that is the Standard Route. However, what he needed to do was not climb all the way up to the chimney because Toe Crack starts to the left of a very slick traverse from the chimney. What he should have done was approach via a tricky slab below the crack. Don't go too high here. The slab is easier than the traverse is, and if you get your feet up high, the move across the slab is pretty basic. From there, follow the vertical crack up, place as much gear as you want (because it's more bomber than a B-52 is, and that's a real bomber) and finish to the
right, at the top of the chimney if one had climbed that instead. There are slings at the top, but these looked worn. I mostly climbed the face here, mainly because that is what I prefer, but you'll need to get your feet twisted in the crack a few times to get up. This was a beautiful pitch. I can't wait to get back on it again, except next time I want to lead it...sans blood.

Pitch Two - We stepped back out onto the face and finished the crack before again fading right to another tree above the Standard Route. Be careful on this belay ledge. There is a lot of loose dirt, sticks, debris, etc that can be easily knocked down to a heavily-used path below. It is the specific belay station that I use as an example of why one should not rap off this route.

You can probably string the first two pitches together in one go, but I'd use only 60m meter or longer ropes for that. If you fall short, there are plenty of places to fix an anchor in the crack below the belay station. That is what a cute blond named Brooke did below us so that she and her guide could traverse to the top of the second pitch of Thin Air and rap down. Hehe. A cute girl talked to us. We felt like men. Grrr...

Pitch Three - "Jello" was disappointed that Toe Crack was now finished and was slightly unnerved by the massive runout face / chimney the rest of the way. We were already swearing like cowboys (we were pretending to be motherfucking, cocksucking actors from the cocksucking, motherfucking cockcucker of a show on HBO called 'Deadwood'), and this pitch didn't help matters. It was a stiff climb that would have been disastrous had he fallen - at least thirty feet of unprotected climbing above a steep, rocky gully that would have shot him straight past me and down toward the lower pitches. I even felt the strain while on second, and gave him big kudos for being both "bold and old" at the top of the pitch.

The belay ledge here is huge. In fact, I may do a night climb of this route someday just so I can sleep on the ledge and wake up to shout "I'M THE FIRST FUCKING CLIMBER ON THIS CRAG TODAY!!! ... ... because I never left."

There are hangers for belaying. Don't use the tree.

Pitch Four - Because "Jello" practically crapped his pants on the previous pitch and partially because the crack was finished and I didn't need my thumb as much, he deferred the lead of the fourth pitch to me. Yippee. He likes cracks and I like stemming chimneys. It was a match made in heaven. Or not. This was the crappiest pitch by far. It was probably 5.6 all the way up, but it clearly was not a popular option. The cave / chimney at the start was easy enough (hint: go fairly deep in, stem across, and then come back out to the edge and below the roof). It was the rest of the climb that sucked. Firstly, there were some route finding difficulties. Once one comes over the roof, one finds a gully with high enough walls on either side to keep one from seeing the best line to the top. I chose carefully. I chose wisely. I chose luckily: to the left up a thin, lichen-covered crack that eventually leads to a slopey slab just below the last belay station of Thin Air. I chose this route because it offered far better protection that the right side did, and because I knew there was a 5.11 lurking somewhere around where I was. I figured it wasn't where Thin Air was anyway. Be forewarned, however. A fifty-meter rope won't make it to the top and there aren't many good anchors spots along the way. I had about ten feet of rope left when I finally got to the top. Thankfully the top ledge has plenty of good belay options (large tree, plenty of room, horizontal cracks, etc) to choose from. That made using what little rope I had left that much easier.

Once at the top, we though about rappelling down either Thin Air or Miss Saigon, but we were told that we needed two ropes to make it the belay stations on both routes. We decided to take the short, one-minute-hike path to our right and walk down the road that goes to the top of the cliff. We talked about night climbing Thin Air, but that was the end of our day and we knew it. We were tired, happy to have climbed what we did and began to talk feverishly of doing big climbs on Cannon and other routes in the 'Dacks. It was a good couple of days, and while "Jello" and his girlfriend had a nine-hour drive to Philadelphia ahead of them, I had a trip to Rumney the next day that would finish off my climbing weekend.


Anonymous said...

Hey what guidebook would you recommend for Cathedral?

apeman e

g said...

"Rock Climbs in the White Mountains" by Ed Webster is solid, but you won't go wrong with "Cathedral and Whitehorse Ledges" by Jerry Handren either.