Fear and Friction in North Conway N.H.

By AlpineZone News |
Sep 22 2000 - 12:08 PM

Date: Monday, 22 Sep 2000

Driving. All I can remember of this day is driving. We cut loose from work after 4 in the afternoon and finally got organized enough to get on the road around 5. We had to get into Conway NH before 10pm or we would be locked out of the hostel. It’s a bloody long way (290 miles). So I drive like a demon up the I-91 all the way through rush hour snarls either side of Hartford and the carefree weavers of Massachusetts until finally stopping for drive-through burgers in Brattleborough VT. Instantly back on the interstate, Leon reaching across and steering for me while I wolf down a whopper and fries with coke. Talking about tomorrow. Will it rain? Weather reports were conflicting. What will we climb? Whitehorse ledge seems definite, most likely “The Standard” route as recommended by Alain. We’ve got the guidebook and Leon pours over it in the dying light of day. Passing cars like all the others are just out cruising, trying to keep it around 80 mph to make the cut, it’s a miracle the subaru hasn’t broken down in a cloud of oily black smoke. Leila works on something on her laptop in the back seat, but after a couple of hours the battery dies. At exit 17 above St Jonesbury VT we turn right and roll across the state line into New Hampshire. Little roads and little traffic, darkness falls quickly and my eyes are blinking shut. Stop, gas up, bathroom break . back in the car, Leon driving now the last 50 mile stretch up the Kancamagus Highway to Conway. We make it in to the hostel at 9.30pm.

The hostel is nice, clean, friendly. But some bastard snores like a chainsaw and I get maybe four hours of sleep total before waking sometime before 6am the next morning.

Tuesday, 23 Sep 2000

Woke too early, breakfast isn’t until 7.30 so I crawl out of bed just after six anyway to stretch my legs. Leon is sort of awake, he tells me what time it isn’t, rolls over and tries to recapture his snoozus interruptus. I wander downstairs and an elder crew of matrons are already up and chatting and laughing pretty loudly. I read the guide. Read the driving directions. The parking directions. The walking directions. The history of the area. Pretty much everything but the route itself, don’t know why but I couldn’t really concentrate on trying to commit it to memory. At about 6.50 I go back and wake up Leon again, he abuses me but gets up and jockeys for a shower with the other zombies stirring from the great beyond. I go to Leila’s dorm and find her partially awake anyway.

Breakfast is one or two lukewarm muffins drenched in peanut butter. The hostess’ prediction for the weather is gloomy. A storm is coming, and it will hit by 9.30 she proclaims. My spirits drop quite a bit and I feel a little surly with the world. We finally drag ourselves away just before 9. It’s totally overcast and a light rain is falling. We head for the cliffs anyway.

We follow the directions and we get to the base of the cliffs not long after 9. The rain seemed to have held off. Whitehorse Ledge is awesome. Smooth looking expanse of steep slab stretching up hundreds of feet above us. We had heard that there would be no protection between the first few belay points. Scary stuff for gumbies like us. Leon went and marked his territory, as is tradition. I applied for the first pitch, whining that I had never had a first pitch before, and I got first pitch. There was another reason. I needed to be sure about the character of the climb, I wanted to get up there and play scout . check out the lie of the land sort of thing . find out what we were in for. I also wanted to squash my nerves that had been building a bit too. We decide that, with the building traffic at the base and the need to stake our claim on the route soon, I would drag up both ropes and Leon and Leila will simul-climb together. We’ve done this with Alain before, but we’ve never belayed it before.

Thus I go, frictioning up the slab trying to guess where the first pair of bolts (at which we would set belay anchors), the place they’re in is called the “toilet bowl” but I’m not concerned why. Guessing wrong, running out of rope and conscious of the zero protection (I could fall, and it would be a rough ride down but unlikely to kill me outright), Leon trying to get me to move further right against my desires to go left. Leon is usually pretty accurate, and this is no exception. There they are, like he said, to the right in a depression that keeps them out of view until you get real close. Jeez, what is he psychic? He’s never been here before, I’m completely certain of it. Maybe he just read the route directions. Plug into the anchors, set a self equalizer that doesn’t look too smooth later when it starts filling up with locking crabs. Belay Leila a little first and then Leon starts up soon after her on his own rope. Hard work, a bit confusing, arms feeling the first of a day long burn. They’re up with me, ropes getting organized, everyone trying to be careful, keeping safety at number one. Leila gets next pitch. We want to head up and left to the bottom of an archwall thing that rolls slowly back right high above us. But it’s a long way to go there. We decide to continue straight up a bit further to a station we saw and earlier group using. Leila climbs up the slab, placing no protection on the way, and find the bolts quickly. She locks in and belays Leon up. Far to our left a young couple is racing straight up a more difficult route and is out of sight in minutes. Closer to our left two guys are moving up “Interloper” and look set to overtake us as well. To our far right and at the base a group is setting up to do “Beginner’s”. It’s a busy place. I quickly join Leila and Leon at the top of our second pitch.

We found out the following day that we had made a mistake on our first two pitches. We were actually a long way right of the start of “Standard” and we actually did the first two pitches of “Slabs Direct” before Leon’s traverse to what was actually the “toilet bowl”.

Leon leads the third, traversing left and up towards the beginning of the archwall. He finds a set of bolts about halfway, short pitch, so as he fixes up the belay we warn him that he’s gotta do the next one as well. Leila follows and then me. While we are organizing ourselves at the belay, one of the two guys on “Interloper” loses his grip and slides down all the way back to his partner, probably losing a deal of skin on his hands.

I don’t know how the others felt, but it gave me chills. I had never seen anyone lose their grip on a lead climb before, and maybe that absence of the realities of this pursuit had been a big part of my own “lead head” psychology. So it’s possible a part of my climbing psyche took a knock right then.

If it bothered Leon he didn’t show it. He made his way up to the forth belay station just at the beginning of that arching wall, quickly setting up and belaying Leila and I in good speed. The pair on “Interloper” weren’t going too fast at this stage. I had the next pitch. Up to now none of us had placed even one item of protection between belay bolts. It had been low risk friction climbing (5.3 and 5.2) and there weren’t the opportunities for protection anyway, although any falls had the potential to be big in a bouncy/slidey sort of fashion. But this next bit was a little steeper, rated at 5.4, and there was this friendly crack all along the base of the arch wall, and there I did follow the line.

Nuts, hexes, even a tricam, it all went in as I went up. Got to a jagged pocket, maybe 130 feet above the belay, and listened with some disbelief as Leila and Leon insisted that I should go over the wall to my left to reach some bolts. Did I say before that Leon was pretty accurate, well usually he is and this propelled me into actually looking for a way to these damn bolts. They were on a steep and fairly featureless face, and the climb over the wall looked…uh…bloody hard. I climbed further up past the pocket, looking for cracks in the wall I could use to go over and start some sort of traverse to the bolts.

It turns out that these bolts are on “Interloper”, again we didn’t work it out for sure until the following day.

Nah. No way. So I argued that I didn’t think the route went over the arch at any point, just followed under it and with the advantage of actually being in the lead . I went back to the pocket and set up a semi-hanging belay. If someone wants to go for those bolts . this time I think I’ll go second. Here I did a dumb thing anyway, I dropped my ATC (belay device) while taking the cordalette from the same crab it was hanging on. I was so focused on maintaining my grip and getting the anchors right that I didn’t even notice. Leila and Leon said that they saw it bounce by and disappear far below into the forest at the base. Leila followed up, looking smooth and strong. I asked her to check my anchors and set a safety for herself while I belayed Leon. As Leon cleaned up the line we admired the view and talked about how lucky we had been with the rain (none) and that it was nice to climb in the cool anyway. We could hear our friends on “Interloper” working up above us and to the left, they got back into the swing of it quickly enough it seems. The early group that had gone up a route to our right was rappelling back down, looked like a guide and some clients having a good time too.

Leila got my rack and the next pitch, no hesitation. She took in Leon’s and my route following suggestions (possibly with a grain of salt, but we were reading from the book) and snaked up the curving crack under the wall. Eschewing an old looking piton and aging rope, she set up her own four-point station at the top end of the arch. The guide next door yelled over a bit of friendly advice as he worked his crew down, I missed what it was. Leon went second, more friction, looking relaxed and unhurried. I followed, enjoying the feeling of a long climb. Really nice to be up here, finally doing our own big leads for the first time and feeling pretty comfortable with it too after weeks of desperate scrabbling up the crumbling cliffs at Sleeping Giant back in Connecticut.

I reached them and locked into the anchor. Rope management had been a bit tricky all the way, but our communications seemed clear and there was little confusion at each belay. Step over here, creep under that, no worries mate! We rapidly learned to loop them across our feet to keep them flaked, unsnarled and tidy as we belayed each other. That’s nice too, to be keeping all things tight and right between us and knowing that we were able to better enjoy ourselves for it. Watching out for each other. Good stuff, all of it.

Leon got pitch six (5.4), this one involved the first real wall climbing, and would take us up to the “Lunch Ledge”. That sounded comfortable and we were all suffering sore feet from not having anywhere flat to stand since we started. Leon followed a second crack under a series of bulges that forced us further right as we ascended towards the cracks beneath the end of the pitch. On his way the first four-cam he placed shot out only seconds after he turned his back on it. He got to this crack and started up with the day’s first truly vertical moves, drifting a little right of the route but ending up on top of “Lunch Ledge” anyway. I went second and popped one piece on the last stretch to straighten out the line and encourage Leila to follow my alternative finish to the pitch, which I thought was closer to the “Standard” route. This was a confident bit of leading by Leon, with a couple of exposed moves at 100 meters or so above the forest floor.

When we got up there we took a few minutes to consider our options. Lifted out the guidebook and discussed the merits of this way or that. The view was fantastic from here and we were able to rest our sore toes a little too. The seventh pitch was mine and I wanted to do “Direct Finish” which was rated at 5.7 in the book. Cocky, over-confident, bloody minded and tired of traversing (“Standard” from here would follow two sharp traverses and I was jack of doing that by now) were all factors in my choice. And then, out of a leaden sky, the rain started to come down very lightly. Just enough to leave a patina of wetness on every surface.

There goes the friction coefficient and suddenly it’s a different ball game. I got up above the “Ledge” ok and placed a couple of pieces, steep but not vertical. Still determined to follow “Direct Finish” I followed the crack under a left facing dihedral and then ran out of steam. My feet wouldn’t stick, the features were small and few and my handholds were restricted to this steadily closing crack. The rain seemed to slow down and stop, but it had already done its dirty work. I was staring at a bolt just out of reach above me and must have been pretty tunnel-visioned about it too. Because after that bolt things looked even harder. The crack ended before reaching the bolt, the right wall of the dihedral curved away from my desire to try and use it for stem, it looked bad. So I placed my feet as carefully as I could, feeling like I was on the very margins of grip I stood up on them as slowly and smoothly as possible. At the bolt I jammed a crab through the ring and reefed my rope (which for some reason had bloody awful drag) into it. Grabbed the rope on both sides of the crab and stood up to rest, hanging my weight on the bolt. I looked around the dead-end into which I had struggled and cursed myself for an idiot. This was hard enough in the dry but I had to wander up here in the wet. The rock looked like it had broken out into the same cold sweat I could feel just under my skin. Idiot. Idiot. Now what? Left? No protection in sight. Way to the right there was the “Standard” route ramp. But what a traverse! Over seven meters of open slippery face protected by a single bolt right in the middle, it looked like my only choice. I didn’t want to downclimb yet, not without giving it a shot. Somehow I found enough purchase to get up onto the face and make a try for the bolt. My feet were slipping, I could feel them go by millimeters at a time, my hands had nothing, the bloody rope was trying to drag me away. I reached up and at full stretch grabbed at the bolt itself.

Shocking bloody behavior I know, and in real climbing this is just not done . but I was feeling like control was being lost and that guy’s sliding fall back on “Interloper” was playing havoc with my confidence. So there I was hanging with my right middle finger threaded through the bolt. Unforgivable. I regained my feet, found some stability and slowly let go. I placed a quick-draw in place . thanking Leon’s foresight in the process (making some of these was his idea) and wrenched my rope up to clip it in. And just after it snapped home, I slipped and fell.

My feet zipped down. My hands walked and kept my upper body off the stone. I kept my legs tensioned and managed to keep my knees off the rock face, but I still pendulumned down under the bolt. I couldn’t have gone more than four feet and even if my belayer was asleep the rope drag was so severe that my fall would have been a very slow affair. But Leon was wide awake and snapped his break hand taut the moment he heard my squeak of fright. I shakily yelled down my thanks (“Good catch mate!”) and tried to get my breath and bravado back in line. I still had to finish this bloody traverse.

I managed it, reaching the “Standard” ramp and placing a nut in the crack under the right face, I was struggling against the worst rope-drag I had ever experienced. I yelled back that I was in no good position to set up a belay but the rope drag was too strong. I saw it moments after they did, the bloody rope had snaked into a crack below the dihedral and was severely constricted by it. So I locked myself off with another quickdraw into the nut I had placed and told Leon that I was safe enough while we considered our options.

Quickly they decided that if I was out of danger Leila could climb up along my line on her own rope and unsnag my rope, with Leon belaying her. Leon tied off my rope at his end and set up to belay Leila. Up she went, clipping into the single piece between her and the constriction, and worked on the rope, freeing it quickly. The rope-drag was greatly reduced but it was still pretty bad. I looked up and saw a place I might reach even with this drag. We were sure that it had to be taken out of the fixture in the dead-end dihedral. So I strained up the ramp and fixed in a couple of nuts and crabs and hauled on the rope to clip it in. The nut at the base of the ramp I just climb popped out under the strain of my yanking and the drag. Shit. I checked the two nuts I put in were I was, one was ok and bomber as long as all the force was down, the second was very small (#2 wildcountry) and not so obviously secure. I prepared to lower to that damn bolt below me anyway. I got down, time seemed to be ticking away, freed the line and then top-roped back to those two nut placements. Getting back across that slippery face was easier this time (top-roping confidence must be ok then). Back up to the nuts, feeling a little like a nut myself, I tested the drag . much better. So I climbed directly up over the block and to the next ramp. Then up the ramp and finally up a crack in the wall that led to a damn big tree. That . was . my . aim. Sling sling, clack clack, I was anchored in and ready to set up the belay. Goddamn tired, shoulders burning, legs aching, feet sore. This is good, right? Leila followed . cant remember much of this . just trying to keep up with the belaying, keeping slack to a minimum, keeping a rhythm matched with the girl. This was hypnotizing in itself, but the view was an attention getter too. Just as Leila reached me and went up past the tree to sit herself down and try to sort the untidy mess I had left with her rope while I was belayin
g it started to rain. Not particularly hard, just the sort of steady business-like fall which is determined to make our lives as miserable as possible.

Oh god all bloody mighty, is this going to happen to us every time we come up to New Hampshire to climb? Leon had a tough time negotiating the face climb, very slippery face, no footholds, nothing for the hands and it’s raining cold. To top it off those two nut placements I put in to lower myself popped out too, one after the other. He gets up and my back is aching from my bad posture, forced by the stance and belay chores. Rain doesn’t stop. Bail bail, we gotta turn tail. Below us all the other groups were abseiling back down.

Quick discussion suggests a possible walkout route to the right, up onto the saddle that stretched between the top of Whitehorse and Cathedral Ledges. We were skipping out of another 200 feet or so of slab climbing, but in this rain it looked like a poor option, we had done about 500 feet of climbing as it was. Three of my placements on the last pitch had proved no good and I was mentally tired out by now anyway and embraced the walkout without hesitation. So as the rain slowly tapered away we walked north and west and up some easy slabs and into the forest. Finding the trail was easy enough and we hiked back down, stopping to enjoy views when they became available (of course the rain had tapered away again) and enjoying the warm-down afforded by the walk. Back at the base we briefly looked for the lost ATC, but weren’t too concerned. Even if I found it I wouldn’t be able to use it again, couldn’t trust it not to be damaged by the fall. Ah well.

We were told the next day that our decision to bail out of the remaining slab climbing and walk off was absolutely correct and saved us a lot of misery and possibly from having a real epic.

We got to the car at 5pm, eight hours after we locked it. Seven of them up on the wall.

Submitted by Keith Hoek
New Haven, Connecticut
Tue, 26 Sep 2000