Cragging at Cathedral Ledge, NH

October 2008 / several multi- and single-pitch trad routes

Cathedral Ledge, NHCathedral Ledge is located near the little tourist town of North Conway, NH. It offers the best trad climbing in the Washington Valley.

We arrive in New Hampshire late in the afternoon on October 3, 2008. It's been raining for the last several days and everything is damp. We spend the next day exploring the area and looking for camping options (preferably free of course). We first go to the National Forest office… where the rangers basically claim that dispersed camping is not allowed (which - as we later found out in their own Management Plan - is not true). Official NF campgrounds range from $18 to $20/day! That's $600 a month for a dirt patch! Forget that. We drive some distance West on the Kancagamus Highway, to near Covered Bridge campground (a cheaper campground frequented by climbers). We cannot get to it because of a low clearance (7ft) covered bridge on the access road. We then explore the other side of the river and the West Side road for options but cannot find anything. Lots of private property. We reluctantly resolve ourselves to a harsh reality: Wal Mart's parking lot may well have to be our home for most of our stay in North Conway...

The next day, we go climbing at the "Practice Slab", a good cragging area with an array of good single pitch crack climbs with a wide range of difficulty (5.6 to 5.11b). Oh, and it's not at all a slab!

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We arrive in New Hampshire on October 4.
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Wal Mart will be our only camping option in North Conway
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Gearing up at the base of the "Practice Slabs" on a cold october day. The steep line to my right is "The Recluse" (11b).
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Lucie on "Kiddy Crack" (5.7).
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Eric leading "The Recluse", a bouldery Barber 5.11b on overhanging pin scars that had been tempting us all day.

For the rest of our time in North Conway, we try to get on most of the multi-pitch classics of the crag.

Funhouse to Aqualung and Upper Refuse (5.8, 4-5p):

The first multi-pitch route we climb at Cathedral is the super popular "Funhouse" to "Black Lung" and "Upper Refuse" combo. It's the easiest route that scales the entire left wall. Good pro and moderate climbing contribute to its popularity. The climbing is OK but not spectacular.

We find several cars already at the parking area when we arrive. It's a very cold, partly sunny morning. We make the quick hike to the base and find two parties at the base of "Bombardment", but miraculously no one on "Funhouse". The route doesn't look like much from the ground. It's humid and cold, and neither Eric or I are feeling that enthusiastic about climbing. Eventually, we decide to go for it and scramble up the slippery slabs to the start of the route. Still not that crazy about it, but then a party of three arrives behind us… we're motivated now!

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Detail view of the upper left side of Cathedral. Routes are shown in red.
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Lucie leading the first steep pitch of "Funhouse" (5.7).
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Eric following the pitch.
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The second pitch follows a good crack...
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...but is a bit vegetated at the end.

Steep climbing on the first pitch, which follows a good crack in a left-facing corner. We are confused by the guidebook description/topo of the second pitch ("Pooh"). The topo shows this pitch several meters to the right of the first, along a ledge… we don't find anything appealing there… so I go straight up instead (we later understood that the topo is incorrect and that we did indeed finish on "Pooh"). This pitch follows a nice crack to trees and the large ledge at mid-height.

We scramble a bit to the right along the ledge to the base of "Upper Refuse". The 5.5 ramp is not appealing and almost totally unprotected. There are two parties on the "Book of Solemnity". Eric ends up leading "Black Lung". Nice pitch, but slightly tricky gear at the crux, fortunately placed from pretty bomber hand jams.

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Eric leading "Black Lung" (5.8), a nice alternative to the 5.5 ramp that starts "Upper Refuse".
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Lucie on "Upper Refuse".
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Eric following "Upper Refuse". The climber below him is finishing "Black Lung".
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Another good, short 5.6 pitch brings you to the large ledge below the top.
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Posing at the tourist overlook.

I finish the climbing for the day, following "Upper Refuse" to another large ledge just below the top: two short pitches of ~5.6 (nice) to the ledge. I then take the direct exit - "Overlook Crack" - a slippery 5.9- (sandbag) finger crack. Note that it is possible to avoid this direct finish by scrambling left and up to the summit.

The route ends right into the tourist overlook at the top. From there, it's an easy walk down the steep road back to the car. It starts raining lightly on and off after we reach the car. Fun day despite the very cold temperatures.

Recom-Beast (5.9, 4p):

"Recom-Beast" is one of the best lines at Cathedral. It follows a striking corner on the upper left wall. The route is a variation on "Recompense", using the excellent "Beast Flake" variation.

When we arrive at the parking lot, we can see that no one is on the route yet! Quite a pleasant surprise. The first pitch is very long (185' or so). The book said 150', which confuses us again. Eric is almost out of rope and hasn't found any bolts (the book mentions a bolted belay)… Not sure about finding any anchors higher up (the cracks are very discontinuous), he stops and belays at a slopy stance with three pitons and other gear. He brings me up, then continues up, only to find the bolted belay at a comfy ledge 20 feet higher. He stops there, in plain view of the Beast flake.

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Party on the upper pitch of "Recom-Beast".
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Eric starting the long first pitch (5.7+).
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This pitch trends left and follows discontinuous cracks.
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Lucie following pitch 1.
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Views of the "Thin Air" Buttress from atop pitch 1.

Except for the upper dihedral, the next pitch is the best pitch on the route. The "Beast Flake" pitch follows a short finger crack to a recess near the base of the flake. Eric places gear high, then goes for the traverse. It's quite a long reach to the flake from a sharp side-pull on the right. One balancy move to get into the flake, then a couple of stiff moves up the flake on finger jams, before better footholds appear on the edge of the flake, and the crack widens to hands. The rest of the pitch is easier. The crack widens gradually from hands to OW, but the sharp edge of the flake offers plentiful holds. The hanging belay at the top of the flake is very uncomfortable (rotten sling anchor can be backed up with #3 Camalot and medium nut).

Next comes a really awkward traverse right and down into the top of the "Recompense" chimney. Thin face moves to the edge of the face, then a long reach into the chimney for a hidden crack, and a wide stem to the other side… reminiscent of "Indecent Exposure " at Hueco Tanks, only harder. Up the squeeze, then a short lieback to a slopy ledge at the base of the dihedral pitch. There is good pro in the "chimney", from various small cracks between flakes.

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Lucie making it to the bolted belay below the "Beast" flake.
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Eric leading the "Beast Flake", one of the best pitches on the route (5.9).
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Lucie climbing the flake.
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The last moves before reaching the very uncomfortable hanging belay.
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Eric in the squeeze chimney leading to the base of the final dihedral (p3, 5.9-).

The dihedral pitch felt pretty tough. We are both quite tired from climbing three days in a row for the first time in a long while. The pitch is very continuous, with multiple 5.9 cruxes, and somewhat tricky/insecure protection. Good rests also, fortunately.

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Lucie finishing the awkward traverse.
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Starting up the clean dihedral (p4, 5.9).
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Taking a break halfway up.
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Lucie following the pitch.
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Taking a break on the large ledge below the overlook before tackling the direct exit, "Overlook Crack".

We finish again with the 5.9- finger crack to the tourist overlook. Pretty adventurous, tough route. A couple from Maine offers us a ride down the road, which we gladly accept. We re-organise the gear at the car in case we feel like climbing tomorrow… unlikely.

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Eric leading the direct exit, a slippery 5.8+ finger crack. We both led this short crack a couple of times each but it never seemed to get any easier.
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Packing up the gear at the tourist overlook.
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Hiking down the road.
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Back in Disneyland (oops, I mean North Conway). A very touristy town with lots of very unpleasant malls.
 

We end up resting the next day. We spend most of the day trying to find a more pleasant parking spot for the bus. In the process, we meet the ex-owner of Wild Things, a french compatriot. She has a large property with a magnificient view of the valley and offers us to park on her property. Unfortunately, it's been raining a lot lately and the ground does not seem stable enough to support the bus. In view of what happened later in the Gunks (we got stucked in the mud and had to call a tow truck... $$$!), it's a good thing we did not try... We end up moving the bus to the parking lot of a ski area close to North Conway. It's cloudy and raining the next day and we don't do much, except take care of a few choires.

 

Bombardment to Book of Solemnity (5.10a, 4p):

Surprise! Our new overnight spot does not last long! On the morning of our second night there, a guy knocks on the door... We ask for mercy and a chance to stay for a few more days. He says he needs to ask his boss... When he comes back with the expected answer ("No"), we leave. It's a beautiful sunny day and we feel like going climbing. We quickly move the bus back to Wal-Mart and go climb "Bombardment" (5.8) to "The Book of Solemnity" (10a), another good route at Cathedral Ledge.

"Bombardment" follows a left-leaning handcrack. Getting to the crack involves some runout slab climbing (5.6R). The crack itself is cruiser, at least until the crux face move to reach the tree covered ledge at the end of the pitch. From there, it's a long scramble to the huge terrace below "Upper Refuse" and "The Book of Solemnity".

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Eric reaching the "Bombardment" crack.
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It's October 10 and Fall has arrived.
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Eric on pitch 1 (5.10a) of "The Book of Solemnity". Just below the crux.
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Higher up on the clean dihedral.
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Lucie following the pitch.

The first pitch of "The Book" is really pleasant with one tough thin move (a bit slippery too) to turn the roof. A bolted belay is a short distance above at a slopy ledge on the arete. The next pitch features a mentally hard crux at a higher roof. Traversing left under the small roof turns out to be the crux of the route for both of us. Slabby, runout, and very insecure moves.

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Unknown climber on "The Beast Flake".
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Eric starting pitch 2 (5.9+).
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This pitch starts with a mellow dihedral (5.7 climbing)...
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...before traversing under a small roof on mediocre gear.
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Views from the top, with the leaves almost at their peak.

We take our favorite slippery exit crack again to the tourist overlook. Beautiful views of the valley. The leaves are almost at their peak.

The high pressure system is here to stay. We head to Cannon Mountain the next morning to climb the classic "Whitney-Gilman" Ridge.

Barber Wall (single pitch 5.9 to 10a):

After a rest day, we go climb at the upper left wall, a.k.a the Barber Wall. The wall is easily accessible from the top (or from below by climbing "Bombardment" or "Fun House") and provides a good day of hard, single-pitch crack climbing. There are 4 or 5 good lines side by side here. Most were freed by Hot Henry, back in the days. We feel pretty weak all day (perhaps accumulated fatigue from too much climbing the last few days?) and just climb the easiest lines.

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Gearing up at the base of Barber Wall.
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Fall colors .
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Eric leading some of the steep cracks of Barber Wall: "Chicken Delight" (5.9).
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"The Nutcracker" (10a).
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"Double Vee" (5.9+).
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Views from the top, with the ski area where we tried to park the bus in the background.
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A week later, we spend one night at Cathedral after being kicked out of Wal-Mart and before leaving for the Gunks.
     

The day we spend at Barber Wall turns out to be the last our last at Cathedral. After that, we head to Cannon Mountain one more time to attempt "Vertigo" (we end up bailing from halfway up pitch 3 due to lack of pro), and go climb at Whitehorse Ledge a couple of times.

The weather is slowly deteriorating. Winter seems to be on its way. We leave North Conway on October 21st, after being kicked out of the Wal Mart parking lot by the cops in the middle of the night. Wal-Mart had called them, instead of talking to us directly... The cop wanted us to move immediately. Out of options and not willing to start the drive that late in the night (midnight), we go park at Cathedral Ledge. We leave for the Gunks the next day.

Guidebook: "Selected Climbs in The Northeast" by Peter Lewis and 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.

Camping: Several national forest campgrounds around North Conway... if you're willing to pay $20/night for a patch of dirt. If you have a small camper or truck, you might be able to find a quiet spot somewhere on National Forest land. Some people camp (discretely) at the cliff. There are houses very close, so keeping a low profile is highly advisable.