Grand Adventure

If  Coös is selling adventure, it can deliver.

Recognize this view? It’s not from Mount Forist or Mount Jasper, but you can see Berlin in the distance. It’s from a 350 foot tall cliff—clean, steep and beautiful—that’s just part of the adventure available in the North Country.

I convinced my friend Bayard to come check it out with me to see what kind of Grand Adventure we could get into. Bayard is a climbing guide who lives in Madison. He is really strong (check out his blog to see what I mean), owns Cathedral Mountain Guides, is sponsored by Outdoor Research and well known within the Northeast climbing community. I had been telling him for months about this beautiful cliff in Coös, and the other day he agreed to go have a look.

The cliff is an hour and a half from the road, so we met early. At 7:30 a.m. we stood in my driveway sorting our gear for the day. I’d figured out how to get to the cliff a week or so before so I knew where we were going, but what we would need to climb once we got there was another matter. We opted to go light, taking the bare minimum of equipment to avoid carrying heavy loads for hours. We hoped we would find solid clean rock that would take protection, but really we had no idea. We packed up the car and headed off, the sun still low against the mountains.

We started walking on a logging road but soon turned onto a hiking trail. It was still early, and we were moving fast, happy to have the light packs. About the time we got our first view of the cliff the trail degraded into a bog, and we began hopping from moss hummock to moss hummock. We could still make out the outline of the trail, but we had to weave around it to keep our feet dry. The trail plunged into underbrush, and we crawled over downed trees and danced from rock to rock to avoid the marshy spots.

The marsh and the trail ended at a stream, and surveyors tape marked the next half mile. We groped from tree to tree looking for the next piece of flagging tape while bushes pulled at our legs. We kept barreling forward, hoping the climbing at the end would be worth it.

The tape ended in another bog, with a clear view of the cliff. I pulled out my compass and took a bearing. Bayard said he’d never gone through such shenanigans to climb at a cliff in New Hampshire before. We hopped across the bog, crossed another stream, and followed the compass for another 20 minutes to a field of boulders below the cliff.

The view from the base was spectacular—the cliff was covered corners, flakes, cracks, roofs. Climbers use features like these to get up steep walls, and this one was almost vertical. Luckily it looked like there would be just enough to move upward; it was going to be a good day.

We walked up to the center of the cliff, picked out a crack system in a corner and roped up. I got the first lead, so I pulled on my rock shoes, chalk bag, rack of gear and started up. The rock was sharp, with big crystals that bit into the back of my hands as I jammed. The crack was wider than I wanted but not wide enough to quit, so I grabbed hold of one side and walked my feet up the other, climbing toward the sky.

“Looks awesome,” Bayard yelled as I inched upward. One of my pieces of gear was behind a hollow-sounding flake, but it was the best thing I had. I leaned back and punched it to the next roof, where I found a good crack that took two pieces of rock protection.

The last 40 feet of the pitch eased up, with small holds on the right wall to grab hold of and a flake on the left for gear. I got to a ledge the size of a dinner table and built an anchor. “Off belay,” I yelled to Bayard below. He could barely hear me through the wind.

Bayard raced up to my anchor, removing the gear as he climbed. We exchanged brief smiles on the belay ledge, and then he kept going to the top of the cliff. He made short work of the second pitch, and soon I was climbing up to meet him.

Up top we found some old bolts and pitons, evidence someone else had come this way before. They were old, worn and covered with rust; it’d probably been a decade since they went in.

We could just see Mount Washington between Adams and Jefferson, the trio rising above the surrounding mountains. But we didn’t pause long to admire them; we still had work to do. We rappelled to the ground and traversed the base to see if there was another obvious line.

Bayard had his eye on one of the low roofs on the south end of the cliff. It looked like it had a perfect handcrack above it, and he wanted to take it all the way to the top. The roof itself looked hard, but things would probably ease up once you made it over it.

I led first, up a slab past two old bolts from the 1970s. I stopped just below the roof and set up a belay to bring Bayard up to me. He grabbed the gear and headed left, towards the handcrack at the lip of the roof.

He placed a piece in the corner and then felt for the edge. It was six feet to the lip. He rearranged his feet, trying to reach the crack, and pushed his palm into the roof for stability. He was placing gear blind so he couldn’t evaluate it; if it wasn’t good and he fell it could rip and send him into the slab below, hard. He backed his first piece up with a second and looked over at me. “One of them has to hold,” he said with a shrug, and launched out for the crack.

His feet cut and his hands groped holds. He curled in, rolling up like a hedgehog, with his feet inches from his elbows. A hand popped, and then another, and he shot downwards toward the slab. The rope came tight at my waist, pulling at my harness and yanking me into the air. Bayard hung inches above from the slab, suspended from his gear at the lip. “They held,” he said with a smile.

He stood up and shook his hands out like he was shaking water off them, and then he started climbing again. He grabbed the hold at the lip, this time with determination. He curled in again, like he cannon-balling into a pool, and stuck his feet to the roof. A hand shot out and grabbed the next hold up, then his other hand bounced up the edge of the crack. His left toe hooked up over the lip, and he pulled himself up into the crack.

(I would love to have a picture of this sequence, but I was engrossed in belaying. I’m sure he preferred me paying attention to his life rather than my camera.)

He climbed another 40 feet and built an anchor. He shouted down, “Off belay!”

I went through a similar sequence, falling once and then climbing over the lip second try. I met Bayard at the belay, and then continued on to the summit, leading the clean, beautiful handcrack above. We topped out at the same anchor as the first route and quickly rappelled to the ground.

It was getting late, and following the tape, much less the compass, would be a challenge in the dark. We loaded our packs, pulled on our boots, and turned our backs to the cliff. With the south needle sitting where the north had been we made our way back through the woods. At the hiking trail, after the tape and the bog, we sat down to drink some water and eat. The orange sunlight splashed over the cliff, the last view we got of the day.

We made it back to the car an hour later, exhausted. I pulled off my boots and put on my flipflops, while Bayard went barefoot in the passenger seat.

“Not a bad adventure,” Bayard said as I fired up the car. I hurt all over, from my hands to my feet to my back to my shoulders. I looked over at him and laughed. Yes, I had to concur, it was not a bad adventure at all.

Note: This is a taste of a side project I’m working on launching. I see Coös as the frontier of outdoor adventure; it simply hasn’t been tapped. I had a great day out there, and I think other people with similar interests will be doing the same thing someday soon. Hopefully it will be part of the new economic mix the region is looking for.

Also, in the second photo I took some errant twigs and branches out of the sky with Photoshop to give a clearer view of the cliff. It’s not something I would normally do on LPJ, and never in the paper, but here the goal is to make people understand the asset they have in their back yard. Hopefully it helped. In journalism such things are unacceptable, but this doesn’t fall into my journalism category. Regardless, I felt the need for full disclosure. Thus enduth my disclaimer.

Update: I found the history of the two bolts I passed on the first pitch of The Pikey. I spoke with Tad Pfeffer, who said he and Dwight Bradley climbed something matching the description of the first pitch of the route back in 1971. He said they climbed partway up but didn’t continue to the top of the cliff. We didn’t see any evidence anyone had climbed higher than the second bolt (which had webbing threaded through it in the style of a rappel anchor and was a little below our first belay), so I’m pretty confident we were the first climbers to do the route. I’ve changed the text in the photo from FRA (First Recorded Ascent) to FA (First Ascent) to reflect my research. I’m hoping to do many more FAs out there.

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