CANNON MOUNTAIN, WHITNEY-GILMAN RIDGE
February 28, 1981
Left a warm house in the dark for the cold, lonely drive north. Met Gary Lee at 8:30 a.m. in Franconia Notch, under a weak February sun. We were surprised to see the entire Cannon face plastered with new snow. Even the Black Dike had melted during warm weather the previous week, but now the face again looked wintry. Powder avalanches swished peacefully off overhangs as we watched.
Grinding up the approach, we took advantage of the trail broken by a party just ahead, also bound for the Whitney-Gilman Ridge. We arrived at the base just after they did, to find that it was Bev and another woman, gearing up for the snowy first pitch. Bev had trouble getting off the ground, and things looked worse above that, so after fifteen minutes of watching Gary and I dropped down left to try our luck with the direct start. The direct was in the feeble sun, and though it was on steeper, more technical rock, it also looked drier and better protected. I started off, struggling up a jam crack in boots and a pack, clearing ice from the holds with my hands. The climbing was good, but it didn't yield quickly. I was breathless and grateful when I finally scrambled onto the first belay. Bev, coming up from the other side, was visible fifteen feet below me, still working up the first pitch. She arrived at my stance shortly before Gary did.
After a glance at the snow-filled chimney of the regular route, Gary and I decided to continue on the direct. This meant a clean and lively layback into the sky to quit the ledge; higher, I hesitated before pulling through some tricky face moves. I complained: "It's fifth class up here." Ice on the key handhold made it more so, but the protection was good enough. Above that was a large snowy ledge. The wind blew sharply there, and I was glad when Gary arrived so I could take off and get moving again. We were both having problems with cold hands; the sun had gone and the route was getting icier as we gained elevation.
The third pitch began easily, but soon confronted me with a tricky groove move onto icy holds just out of reach. Above the groove, I jammed and laybacked onto a detached and ice-feathered block. Looked just like Cerro Torre. Things were definitely feeling alpine as I stood at the next belay, watching the clouds race over Franconia Ridge. Winter was in the air; it had grown dark, and snowflakes drifted by. Gentle spindrift slides floated down the big wall to our right; far out and below, a party was retreating from the Ghost. Directly below, I could see Bev going up and down at the hard face moves on the second pitch, and realized that she was not going to make it. That meant we would soon be alone on the wall. With our single rope, we would have no choice but to push up and over the top if we continued one more pitch. Time for doubts, decisions.
When Gary came up it was only 11:45 -- no excuses there, we were moving fast enough despite the conditions. In planning for this climb, I had imagined dry rock and a sunny winter day; the scale of our present undertaking was entirely unforeseen, though it shouldn't have been. Below, Bev had disappeared. We decided to press on. I set off into the crux, and was soon gripped and complaining on the awkwardly overhanging, exposed and icy rock. At least the protection was good. Finally I took off my pack and left it for Gary, then committed to a thin series of moves. I stepped up off-balance with rounded holds, fingers going numb in the cold. After several long seconds on the verge of falling, the crux was below me. I rested, warmed my hands, and then tackled a second wall; this one ended on a sloping, ice-covered ledge that was just too much to contemplate. Throwing away our free ascent I grabbed a fixed pin and stemmed wildly to pass the ice, then stumbled up to the next belay. The snowflakes were coming more often now, and I wanted to get off. Safety was up.
On the fifth pitch I decided, wrongly, that the regular way was too icy, and tried a steeper and rotten traverse below it instead. The climbing was spooky, though protection gradually improved as I moved higher. Finally I reached a clean dihedral and climbed gladly up it to a tiny, exposed belay on a flake at the very edge of the ridge, legs dangling over the Black Dike. (You're in the wrong place, my friend.) Gary came up slowly, carrying both packs, and when he got to the belay the rope became tangled and one of my anchors fell out. We danced around in confusion. I replaced the nut in a better crack and undertook some aggressive moves straight up the knife edge ridge. Twenty feet higher I stopped at fixed pins, while Gary sorted out the rope salad I'd left him with on the belay flake. Then I worked slowly, carefully, on icy rock up and left. I was wearing fingerless gloves continuously now, cleaning snow from holds and cracks with my fingertips and fists, breaking off ice with a carabiner when I could. The pitch was long, with numerous short problems; it seemed to be taking forever. Towards the top the angle eased and the snow and ice thickened. I put runners on everything I could see, and tiptoed up the final few feet to the welcome trees. As Gary came up, the blizzard fell in earnest, reducing visibility to a matter of yards. I was grateful we'd not climbed any slower, or been caught lower down by the storm.
The descent was miserable. We could not find the trail, and spent two hours post-holing deep snow, breakable crust, tree caves and creeks, floundering up down and sideways to reach the highway thoroughly exhausted and soaked to the skin at 4:30p.m. We congratulated each other happily on our adventure. I drove home that night with the radio loud, euphoric and wrapped in the memories of other big climbs.
Larry Hamilton, 2008