A winter trip early this year brought me for my first climbing experience on Cannon Mtn. Boris, Spencer, Chris, and me were planning to climb the Black Dike. Conditions weren’t in so the other option was the Whitney-Gilman Ridge (5.7). Climbing in mountaineering boots and gloves for the first time was a dismal experience. Chris and me made it up about 25 ft into a roughly 600 ft climb before having to lower off. This failure prompted me to return and climb it properly.
Friday night Chris and I headed up to NH in the 42 mpg Golf TDI. While there isn’t quite the same response with the throttle as my WRX, the low fuel consumption makes up for it. We only needed to get fuel in Worcester–on our way home Sunday evening about 500 miles later. Driving through late afternoon the weather continually deteriorated. What started off as a sunny drive in New Haven turned into rain in Franconia Notch. Luckily the worst of the rain moved out of the region by 10pm. Even though there was rain the weekend’s forecast was for good weather, as such all the campgrounds were full. After trying without success to get in the few first-come-first-served spot in Layfayette Campground we resigned to just parking at a trailhead and crashing in the car. After all we would be getting up at 5am to make our way to the Whitney-G.
Despite sleeping in the reclined front seats we good a few decent hours of sleep, probably better than if we had hiked and set up a tent in the wet forest. The alpine-esque start was to avoid crowds on route. All the information in books and on the net describes the route being clogged with climbers on the weekends. I saw this first hand while climbing Vertigo a month and a half ago–lines of climbers at each belay on the route. Shortly after 5:15am we ate breakfast, racked, and were the first ones to sign into the climber register at 6am.
While the rain had stopped the front causing the rain was still swirling through Franconia Notch. Normally quite visible from the parking area clouds and fog shrowed the Ridge, From the winter trip we knew there was a fairly difficult approach. After about a quarter mile on a paved bike path a small trail splits right up into the woods. The climber’s path winds through the deciduous forest thick with under brush. As the path gains altitude leaves are less common and a pine forest dominates. Farther still along the path the trees disappear all together and a boulder/talus field fill the last third of theapproach. Thankfully the humid conditions in the forest gave way to a breeze once out of the trees.
Periodically the sharp buttress of the WG Ridge came into view. In the fog it is an imposing structure. Most of Cannon Mtn. is a granite dome which is sloughing off like an onion. Geologly has created a weakness near its southern end. The weakness forms a huge cleft into the cliff, which is the Black Dike in the winter. In summer the southern end of this cleft is sharply framed by a buttress of rock which breaks off in a razor thin arête. The WG route travels more or less up this arête. Much of the climbing is 5.6 with some 5.7 sections, but there are two sections of variations which go closer to 5.8. The plan was to do these variations.
Since the decent off the route is a walk off the south side of the mountain we had to bring all our packs with us. With a little forethought though this wasn’t a big deal as we brought only small packs carrying only some water, snacks and jackets.
Finally after about 45 minutes we reached the base of the climb. Standing at the foot of the buttress it is difficult to get a sense of how high it is. The broken and ledgy nature of the rock in the first few pitches obscured the full height. Although even if it were straight up the clouds wouldn’t have let us see the top either. Heading up the first pitch we stopped at the standard belay about 70 ft up. The first pitch was fun and the belay ledge was enormous. The climb is such that there are 10 ft of moves at the pitches grade, then it eases to a few grades below that. Not much more than scrambling in a couple of spots. After the first couple pitches I could see why people recommended only a light rack. I had brought a double. Normally climbing on unfamiliar territory I would prefer more gear than less, but this would have been very comfortable with a single rack.
Pitch three started to get a little more interesting. Rather than taking the standard route to the left on the south side of the ridge we opted to take the 5.8 variation up a great splitter crack. Unfortunately the crack was only about 15 feet high but still fun. At the top of that we set a belay on a nice ledge in preparation for P4.
The fourth pitch of the WG is referred to the “pipe pitch” since the first ascentionists hammered a pipe in a crack for protection. The pipe is still there after over 80 years. Well almost–on Sunday I heard that someone stole it for a time but after complaints it was placed back. From our ledge at the top of the splitter I moved up over shattered rock which got ever steeper. While there were many opportunities for protection some of them were suspect because of the broken rock. Everything seemed solid but you never really knew, which made some of the hand holds interesting. The most exciting part of this pitch isn’t that it is 350 ft off the ground, it is that you are climbing up an arête with nothing but air at your back and to your right. The chasm of the Black Dike seemed like it would swallow you up.
On P6 we took another variation to the right also going up a amazingly sharp arête. The rock was easily sharp enough to have sliced a rope were it weighted across it. Thankfully the holds keep the rope well away from this feature. The belay at the top was on a beautiful ledge which dropped straight into the Black Dike.
The walk off was long, slightly longer than the approach and more tiring since it was so steep. Nevertheless the climb was great. Not the most consistent rock, but the exposure and scenery–be it a white cloudy fog–was great.
Sunday we headed to Cathedral Ledge for my first climbing over there. We did Funhouse (5.7) and a few others. Unfortunately the pictures from that day weren’t all that exciting so I didn’t post any. I’m looking forward to my next NH climbing trip!