Cannon Cliff, NH

October 2008 / Whitney-Gilman Ridge (5.7, 6p, trad.) & Vertigo (attempt, 5.9 A0)

A mere 30 minutes approach from the highway, Cannon Mountain is the most accessible big cliff in the Northeast. It is home to several multi-pitch trad routes. The most popular lines are "The Whitney-Gilman Ridge" (WG) and "Moby Grape". The WG follows a striking line, has clean rock, and interesting climbing with short-lived cruxes. It is also a relatively safe line on a cliff otherwise notorious for rockfall.

Whitney-Gilman Ridge (5.7, 6p):

The forecast calls for a beautiful Saturday morning. The route we have in mind, the Whitney-Gilman Ridge, is one of the most popular lines at the cliff and we are expecting crowds. That and the long drive from North Conway, push us to get up very early (4AM). We leave the bus an hour and a half later and take the Kancamagus Highway to Lincoln. We stop on the parking lot of a gas station in Lincoln to gear up. We just don't feel like doing it at the trailhead, likely along with other parties rushing to leave their car. We continue to the parking area and sure enough… two groups are gearing up at their cars! We rush out, but one group is ahead of us (and they are running!). We register quickly and check the sign-in sheets for any more parties ahead of us. We're lucky. According to the registration forms, the runners are the only group already on the approach, and they are headed for "Moby Grape".

There is no time to waste since we don't know about the third party's plans. We quickly hike the main path for a while, before finding a trail up into the woods. The instructions in the guidebook don't seem to make much sense, but it doesn't matter much. We can see where we're going. A few minutes through the woods before we emerge on the talus. Up this, in a straight shot for the base of the ridge and the comfy ledge at the base of the route. It's quite cold, but we enjoy good views of the valley below with the leaves at their peak in the early morning light... We also get a good look at the infamous Black Dike - the section of the cliff in a deep recess just to the right of the WG ridge. In winter, it's a famous ice climb. Right now, it's just an oppressive seeping slot. Good timing: the sun has not hit the cliff yet. After a bit of rest and a bite to eat, we are warming ourselves in the first rays. The rocks still feels cold to the touch, but it should warm up quickly.

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Cannon Cliff. The Whitney Gilman is the obvious buttress that separates the left third of the wall.
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Hiking up the steep boulderfield to the base of the route.
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Great views of the valley below.
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The dark groove that - in winter - is home to the famous Black Dike.
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Gearing up at the base.

We want to get going before another party gets to the base, so I start up the first pitch (5.7). Easy but a bit wide for my taste that early in the morning. Fortunately, the initial moves up the steep offwidth can be well protected with gear in an horizontal. Higher up, the offwidth turns into a good hand crack. Good climbing actually, with nice stemming stances for rest. This pitch ends on a stairstepped ledge (one can avoid the direct start and the 5.7 offwidth by climbing a 5.4 corner/chimney 50 feet right of the toe of the buttress).

Pitch 2 is short (80 feet) and much more civilized. It start with a nice crack followed by a couple of easy face moves and ends up on a spacious ledge. As I start the pitch, a party of 2 is gearing up at the base. We should have enough of a head start to not have to worry about them.

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The route follows the striking arete.
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Lucie in the offwidth section of pitch 1 (5.7).
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Higher up, the offwidth turns into a nice handcrack.
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Eric at the belay atop pitch 1.
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Pitch 2 starts with a nice handcrack (5.5).

Pitch 3 requires a bit more route finding as it wanders a bit. It starts with the easy shallow groove above the spacious ledge, then traverses left to a V-shaped dihedral with lots of vintage pitons to choose from for pro. Above this, it's straight up, then back right along a ramp of sorts to a good ledge (close to the crest) at the base of obvious twin cracks.

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The spacious ledge atop pitch 2.
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Starting pitch 3 (5.6). It follows a shallow corner, then traverses left...
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...to a V-shaped dihedral with lots of vintage pitons to clip along the way.
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Above the dihedral, it goes straight up then back right.
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Looking down at the party following us. The leader is on the ledge atop pitch 2.

The 4th pitch is the famous pipe pitch. It starts up the twin cracks, then veers around the arete to avoid the overhanging headwall above. A few committing moves out of sight with huge exposure and you're back on the arete and easier terrain. Once I disappear around the corner, I keep my eyes focused on the rock and just take a quick glance at the Black Dike. I can feel the cold air emanating from the dark recess. Brr... The thought of leading this pitch in big mountain boots with a hemp rope and no pitons (this pitch was first led in 1929!!!) just sends chills down my spine...

Pitch 5 (5.5) starts with an easy 5th-class ramp. I step left when the angle steepens and climb a corner of sorts to below the final roof. I think I have enough rope to pull the roof, but I hear Eric calling 20 feet left. I climb back down a bit and set up a belay on the sloping ledge just below the roof. I probably should have belayed higher at the end of the Pipe pitch.

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Disappearing around the arete on the famous Pipe Pitch (p4, 5.7).
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Eric arriving at the belay atop pitch 4.
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Views.
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Pitch 5 (~5.5) follows the striking arete.
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Setting up a belay just below the crux roof.

The last pitch is tricky. I think we probably did what is described in the most recent guidebook as the 5.9 exit. They say that this exit used to be 5.7 but that a block fell out, making for a very hard move just below the overhang. The pro is OK but at your feet while pulling the move. Fortunately, positive holds above the roof make it a short-lived crux. Once you turn the roof, you're back on easier terrain to the shelf at the top of the route.

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Following pitch 5.
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Almost there.
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Starting the last pitch (p6, 5.7).
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Turning the roof is tricky.
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Views from the top of the climb, looking North toward Franconia Notch.

Once at the top of the climb, we leave immediately. We have both been getting pretty cold in the last two pitches in a stiff cold wind, so we don't feel like hanging out.

The obvious descent trail goes through the woods up and left, then steeply down for what seems like forever, before finally rejoining the paved path. A short hike on the paved trail and we're back at the car. I sign us out. We then take out the binoculars and watch the continuous line of people making their way up "Moby Grape", the other Cannon classic moderate. We take our time driving the "Kanc" back to North Conway, enjoying gorgeous views of the fall leaves.

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Back on the paved trail after the steep, knee-busting descent.
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Signing out at the climber's register.
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We take our time driving back, enjoying the pretty leaves.
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Indian's Head looks very colorful this time of the year.
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Back in Washington Valley.

Four more parties showed up behind us on the WG… popular route. Justifiably so, I guess: the line is obvious, the rock very clean and only occasionally a bit loose, and the climbing interesting.

Vertigo (5.9 A0, 5p):

About a week later, we're back at Cannon, hoping to climb "Vertigo", a 5-pitch line up clean cracks and corners more or less in the center of the face. The leaves are now mostly gone. It is a sunny but very cold day.

The short, steep hike warms us up. We arrive at the base of Vertigo as people are starting to line up at the base of "Moby Grape". We have "Vertigo" for ourselves. Eric fires the first pitch. This pitch is a good warm-up and follows a nice crack, a bit wide in places.

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Back at Cannon a week later. It's sunny but cold... and the leaves are gone.
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Hiking to the base.
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Vertigo follows discontinuous cracks and corners.
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Eric leading the easy warm-up pitch (p1, 5.5).
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Following pitch 1. Note the crowd at the base of "Moby Grape" in the background.

Pitch 2 (5.8 A0) follows cracks to the right of an overhang. Good 5.8 climbing with nice stemming, until you reach a bolt. From there, one has to pendulum across to another corner/crack system. Eric makes it across on his first try (the corner you're aiming for is pretty far so you'll have to crank hard).

We bail off the third pitch. This pitch starts with a beautiful curving crack. Eric goes up easily, clipping a brand new bail anchor (bad vibe) for pro. Once he reaches the overlap, he sets some pro and starts to transition onto the arete. Problem is: it is a blind move around the corner, with pro at your feet. An ankle breaker if you blow it. Eric tries once, does not find the move all that obvious and downclimbs back. He tries again but backs off once more. At this point, we discuss whether we should bail. We're absolutely freezing and we're concerned about the lack of pro. We put that brand new bail anchor to good use...

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Starting up the second pitch (5.8).
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About to start the pendulum.
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Starting pitch 3 (5.9).
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Clipping a brand new bail anchor on the way...bad vibes.
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The unprotected and difficult move onto the arete... where we bailed off the route.

Back at the base, we scope out a few other lines: the "VMC Direct Direct" (protection looks very thin), and "Duet Direct" (looks good but hard). We're both shivering and are simply too cold to climb anymore.

Note that we climbed at Cannon a bit late in the year (second half of October). We were hoping to get back to climb "Moby Grape" after our failed attempt on "Vertigo", but the weather got too cold to climb there. Retrospectively, we should probably have started our roadtrip in the Northeast with Cannon, rather than with the Adirondacks (it was almost too hot to climb early September in the Dacks, but it probably would have been perfect at Cannon!).

Guidebook: "Selected Climbs in The Northeast" by Peter Lewis ans Dave Horowitz has a good selection of the best routes in the area."Rock Climbing New England" by Stewart Green has info on all the routes. A good topo of the Whitney-Gilman Ridge can be downloaded for free from the Gary Clark's NAC website.