Category Archives: Commentary

It’s Alive!!

Cannon Cliff. The Beast of the East. For young aspiring trad climbers in New England this is the test piece cliff. From the beginning of my climbing I was taught to have a special respect for the dangers and challenges of climbing on Cannon Cliff. No doubt, this is for good reason, as any one who stares up at it can tell from the relative size of the talus slope to the size of the cliff. Of any cliff in New England, its safe to say that this is where the largest and most frequent rock fall occurs. While none of the major rock falls have resulted in fatalities, loose rock, caused by the same forces as the rock fall, has been responsible for  all but two of the climbing related deaths on cannon, and significant majority of the accidents. (all of the deaths but two have happened on one notoriously loose route as well, Sams Swan Song. See here, here and here for examples)

A recent walk along the cliffs base after a day of cragging made me mentally catalog the recent major rock falls of the past few years. With more frequent visits to cannon and a resulting increased familiarity with it, I’ve come to realize that this cliff is very much alive. At the hands of geologic forces set in motion hundreds of millions of years ago, combined with weathering events happening each and every day, this cliff is constantly changing, dangerously shedding old skin for new.

How & Why

Exfoliation Domes

While I am certainly no expert on the subject, I’ve gathered some relevant information from a few different sources to present a broad picture of whats going on here, so get ready to get learned. As Imortal Technique says (and appropriately for geology facts) I’m about to drop knowledge so heavy it leaves the earth un-balanced. Cannon Cliff, along with other outcrops of Conway Granite, were formed roughly 180 million years ago as bubbles of magma that penetrated the earths crust thousands of feet under now extinct volcanoes. As a geologic reference this was when all of the continents were joined as the last great super continent, Pangea. Here, under the massive weight of earth and mountains above them, these bubbles cooled and solidified. The weight of the earth above these bubbles, called plutons by folks in the know, is referred to as overburden. This overburden is eventually removed through mountain uplift and erosion, bringing these plutons up to the surface. Once the overburden is removed, the pluton is no longer under compression and starts to expand. As the force from this expansion reaches a certain threshold, the outer more rapidly expanding rock sheers off. This can happen in stages forming a number of layers separated by what are called relaxation joints or stress relief fractures. This causes the recognizable onion peel look of exfoliation domes.

(Some cool resources regarding this):

Beyond Granite: The Geology of Adventure by Sarah Garlick

Exfoliation Domes


Geoff approaching the slabs on Cannon which have the “peeling onion” layered look common among exfoliation domes


Once the rock is exposed two types of weathering affect it in such way as to make it even more loose and unstable. Mechanical weathering happens when water gets into cracks in the rock and freezes, expanding and pushing the rock further apart. The second kind of weathering is called chemical weathering and happens when certain elements in the rock react with elements in water or air causing the rock to dissolve or crumble as bonds are broken.


I’m using this equation to give a false sense of credibility to my words. Actually, its the equation for carbonic erosion, more common on lime stone cliffs.


Recent Rockfalls

Cannon Annotated

Cannon Cliff, Summer of 2016 with rock fall origins and destruction pointed out.

Duet Buttress

Probably the largest rock fall in recent years. I believe this happened in 2013. In the picture below you can see the large white rock scar where the rock fall originated, as well as the treeless area at the base of the Duet rock climb.


Duet Rock Scar (upper left) and DZ (bottom right

This rock fall left pulverized rock dust across the ground and clinging to the cliff a few feet up. It completely obliteraed healthy trees, left pock marks on the lower part of the cliff and even bent over several bolts on a popular rock climb called Sticky Fingers. Check out this awesome gigapan image of cannon (gigapan ) done by Jim Surette. The high definition image allows you to zoom around the cliff. If you zoom in over the base of Duet you can see the pock marked slabs and destruction at the base. If you really explore you can even find some climbers.

Here’s a couple of old pictures showing the tree cover at the base of the cliff here before this rock fall.


From the Whitney Gilman looking north along the cliff base


Directly above where the rock impacted, on Raven Crack. You can see the vegetation that was there before the rock fall.

And another after shot!


Ted Climbing Lightening Cracks with the destruction from the Duet rock fall at the base below. Some revegetation after 3 years.

The Bung Hole


James Otey surveys the scene

If you refer back to the map of rock falls on cannon I posted earlier you’ll see an odd cave like feature called the Bung Hole. This is a section of incredible rotten rock between the classic climbs Moby Grape and Union Jack. Believe it or not there’s even a route that goes right through the bung hole. This rotten rock has eroded away leaving large overhanging roofs of more solid, but now unstable rock above. Some massive blocks have recently fallen out of there, last summer and then again early this spring.


Otey on Reppies Crack with remnants of the first rock fall below

The first rock fall here was relativly small and didn’t really affect the bases of any climbs. The second one was larger and spread to either side as well as further down the hill. The starts of Union Jack and Vertigo, to the north, are now open and covered in fresh debris, and a couple of large blocks even bounced over to the start of Moby Grape, destroying the rescue litter stashed there in the process. This latest round also took out the top section of the approach trail for this part of the cliff. All the photos below show the most recent destruction as of summer of 2016.

A little out of order but here is a shot looking down Vertigo, showing the formerly tree covered base.


Alex rappelling down vertigo with trees covering the base in August of 2015

Lesser Rock Falls

There’s been three lesser, but still noticeable rock falls as well. Around the same time as the Duet rock fall there was fresh debris found just to the south of Moby Grape. This Summer, a fresh scar and debris pile was noticeable on the Cannonade buttress, home to Matt Ritter’s two new mixed alpine routes from this winter. Finally, about a year ago there was a rockfall over on Henderson buttress that was significant enough to take out trees. Relatively few folks climb on that part of the cliff, however, making it not super significant.


Historic Rock Falls

While Cannon’s massive talus field is evidence that there have been many many major rock falls here throughout history, there are two significant ones in the past two decades worth mentioning.

The Old Man

Perhaps the most well known, and well understood of the rock falls was the demise of the Old Man of the Mountain. This iconic rock profile graced our license plates, state road signs and the New Hampshire quarter. I remember the day it came down, the flag at my elementary school was lowered to half mast to mourn the loss of New Hampshire’s official state emblem.


From, “The Geology of New Hampshire’s White Mountains”

I say this is probably the best understood of the rockfalls because the delicate nature of the profile was studied and noted as far back as 1906. In fact, starting in 1916 measures were taken to secure the rock that comprised the profile. Many of these attempts have left remnants that are still visible today including steel cable, metal arms and epoxy drainage systems.  Before I-93 was built the NHDOT went so far as to do a seismic study to determine if blasting and other construction processes would cause enough vibration to knock the profile down.


Jay Conway cruises up “Lake View” Which finishes atop the Old Man. Reinforcing bars that used to hold the Old Man in place hang off the cliff

On his way down the Old Man impacted the slabs at the northern end of Cannon. To this day a lot of loose rock that is unmistakably from the old man litters ledges across the slab. A few years ago I dodged a pinwheeling rock set loose by my partner in this area. It had a steel bar epoxied to it that was clearly part of the old man. A route below the Old Man, Consolation Prize, used to have a finger tips thick crack that was climbed on the second pitch. After the old man fell, it was found that this crack was now as wide as a few inches (thick hand jams). Whether this is from rock impacting the slab and causing it to move, opening the crack, or it happened independent of the Old Mans demise, it certainly illustrates how shockingly mobile massive slabs of rock can be on the cliff side.

Whaleback Crack

Just South of the old man, was an even larger rock fall a few years prior. Here, in 1997, a feature known to climbers as the Whale Back Crack fell off. This massive rock fall hit the talus slope with such force that it was picked up on seismegraphs and created a rock slide 500′ wide by 1/2 a mile long. A large block, believed to be from the crux of the route, made it all the way down to the bike path along the floor of Franconia Notch. To this day the smooth white slab left behind can still be seen. Again, here’s the Gigipan image   of Cannon done by Jim Surette. You can find the location of Whale Back Crack by finding the slabs at the north end and following the cliff to the south where the slabs transition to a more vertical wall. in this area you can see a section at the base of the cliff that looks like recovering vegetation. Straight above here is the smooth rock scar.


Whalback Crack rock fall, taken from “The Geology of New Hampshire’s White Mountains”

Shortly after it fell, a few locals climbed though “the Zone” as it’s now known, and established a new route they called Whale Watchers.


Jon Sykes on the FA of Whale Watchers with the clean rock scar clearly visible.

This picture came from a write up Jon did on the rock fall and ensuing first ascent for Alpinist, check it out here.

In some ways it seems a miracle that Cannon isn’t a more dangerous place. In climbing, “safe” is a four letter word that we dare not speak. While we can mitigate risks we can never fully control them for a “safe” expereince, and every time one climbs they are subjected to risk, just like every time one gets into a car. what we can do is be smart, respectful of the danger and stack the odds in our favor by avoiding cliffs like Cannon when rock fall is more likely (spring, after rain, during the freeze thaw..), climbing on sections known to have cleaner more solid rock, and being mindful of the blocks we pull and push on.

After Thought

Cannons exfoliation is far from the only geologic processes happening in Franconia Notch. Frequent mass Wasting (read, landslides) on the east side of the notch also contribute to an ever-changing landscape. In the time span of the most recent rockfalls , there have been two landslides on the east side. Neither of these have been as serious as those in the past some of which have covered the road on the floor of the notch with over 12′ of debris. Here are two photos, again from “The Geology of New Hampshire’s White Mountains” that show the scope and scale of land slides on the east side of Franconia Notch. (click on either image to see a larger version)


Brain Fodder

If you’re as curious about the geology of the mountains you play in as I am then I highly recommend checking out these books that are both incredible informative and easy reading.

The Geology of New Hampshire’s White Mountains

(Holderness School friends, one of the authors of this book is an Alum)

Flakes, Jugs, and Splitters: A Rock Climber’s Guide to Geology

by Sara Garlick

Sara is a local crusher of climbing and science who, as well as writing a climbing centric geology book, curated a museum show focused on the geology of adventure in the White Mountains. While the exhibit has ended, the work lives on in the Gigapan image I’ve linked multiple times here, this article she wrote for it,Beyond Granite: The Geology of Adventure, and this awesome video that was put together to promote the show.

Beyond Granite


Starting an ice climbing team during the leanest winter in recent memory has forced me to get creative. I have an opportunity 6 days a week to deliver an experience to 4 high school students that will hopefully leave a significant impression on them. When the weather doesn’t allow me to get them on ice, and the practice periods are too short to tag a summit, where do I turn? I’ve been faced with that quandary more than I would’ve liked this year, and I’ve had to get creative. Days spent practicing map and compass skills, sharpening tools, going over technical rope systems, and even learning how to sew their own stuff sacks. All worthy things but really just relevant ways to kill an afternoon. On a handful of days I’ve turned to areas of the map and oddities in the hills that I’ve been curious about.


Even pups have a sense of adventure

It turns out that while we don’t often have the time to get above tree line and tag a summit, we do have time to explore something in the woods that makes for a memorable day. There have been 3 days throughout the season where we ended up doing this, and they’ve reminded me a good bit about the feeling of adventure.

The first such excursion was before the snow had even fallen in November. I wanted my students to practice using a GPS to navigate to a coordinate. I had heard that there was a WWII bomber that had crashed into a mountain side above North Woodstock. I did some sleuthing on line and found the coordinates. Not knowing how it would go, I drove the team up and we headed down an old logging road. A few hours later, after following a intermittent heard path and our GPS, the students stumbled upon the wreckage.

The second day was well into winter, and I wanted to get winter hiking milage under my students boots. The smaller summits around campus that we can drive to and reach during an afternoon have become a little tired with how frequently our teams go there, so I looked north for an idea. Every time I drive through Franconia Notch, there is a prominent mountain pass on the right side, near a 300′ cliff that I’ve always been curious to explore. After referencing the map I noticed that the Greenleaf  trail passes right through it. Not knowing what we’d find I led the team up the hill, wondering if the hike was going to be a dud. It turns out, Eagle Pass as its known, offers incredible views of Cannon Cliff framed by an impressive topography, and a playground of intricate boulder caves.


Cannon Cliff, from Eagle Pass

The third adventure was just this week, and arose from the same situation, looking for something new to do with my students. I had seen on line that there was a 3rd, and much more elusive cliff face profile in Franconia Notch which can only be seen from one small position atop a steep gully after a bushwhack. I didn’t know if we’d have the time to reach it, or the nerve to get up a loose gully, but at the very least we’d stumble around a cool hillside and hopefully walk past the Eaglet, a cool rock feature I frequently point out to my students. After turning off the Greenleaf trail at a cairn marking the climbers path to the Eaglet, we quickly lost the path. Using the prominent spire as seen through the trees as our guide, we bushwhacked through boulders and dense evergreens laughing at the absurdity. Walking on branches covered in snow, avoiding deep caves between boulders and putting are heads down and pushing through thick evergreens likes a running back through a defensive line. We finally found the talus slope sticking down from the alpine cliff and followed it up past the Eaglet and the cliff beyond. We encountered the multiple gullies leading to the ridge line and picked the least steep and exposed one, trying not to knock loose scree down on each other. We made the ridge line and bushwhacked to where we thought the view of the profile was, and then beyond, to what turned out to be an even more incredible view.


The Watcher

For a while now, my outdoor adventure medium of choice has been climbing. Hiking has some what lost its appeal to me unless its a big objective above tree-line. At the same time I feel the spirit of adventure less and less in climbing. More often than not I’m visiting the same cliffs. In that case climbing is more about the process, the movement, and the people I’m with, all of which still make it very much worthwhile. The days I feel adventure are exploring new climbing areas that are unknown, something that generally only happens when I’m traveling now a days.


The bonus

Reflecting on where that sense of adventure went, and why it was so present on these three days with my students lead me to realize that a core aspect of adventure is a sense of unknown, and a strong possibility of “failure.” I put failure in quotation marks here, because, as part of the process its something to expect, but never something to feel bad about. Its motivation for future attempts, and keeps you on the edge as you explore. On any of these three days, we could have not made it in time, we could’ve been disappointed by a less stellar view than expected. The fact that I had students with me, and was anxious for them to have a good time as well, upped the stakes for me as the leader, and made the adventures seem much more real.

I feel that after rediscovering this feeling of adventure again, and realizing I can come across it so readily in what is essentially my backyard will lead me to explore the nooks and crannies of these hills more frequently.

I’ve included pictures of these three destinations to entice, but have withheld more detailed information in an attempt to inspire and help keep alive the sense of adventure for anyone who may read this and decide to check them out for themselves.

Ice Fest – 2016

The Mount Washington Valley Ice fest is an institution in the New England climbing scene. Many others have come along, in New York, and Vermont, but this festival, held for over 20 years in North Conway is the biggest and baddest (or best?) Growing up as an ice climber in New Hampshire I always held this event and those who ran it in high regard, so I was thrilled to be asked to be a guest guide this year.


Jim Shimberg, friend, mentor, and clinic co-instructor amid the chaos of the morning meeting

Following will be a run down of my weekend, but first I wanted to reflect on a memory of of attending an ice fest during college. My good friend Paul and I made the trek up to climb, check out the apres hour and watch some slide shows. After the slide show we drove to the parking lot for Frankenstein. We figured camping there, in the back of my Forester, would give us a jump start on the crowds the next day. Being perpetually prepared and thinking ahead, Paul suggested we make Sausage Gravy and Biscuits the day before to warm up for breakfast before climbing. He woke a few minutes ahead of me and by the time my eyes were finally open he was bringing a pot of warm sausage gravy and biscuits back into the car where we sat in our sleeping bags dipping the biscuits in the gravy. Best start to an ice climbing day I’ve ever had.


Standard Route with Paul as soon as the sun came up

We were on top of the first pitch of Standard Route by 7:30 that morning, well ahead of the crowds. We also climbed Hobbit Couloir to the Pegasus Rock Finish. It’s fun looking back on early climbing memories. The bar of what was “adventure” back then was so much lower that it seemed every day on the ice or on a mountain was exciting and pushing the boundaries.


A favorite Link up; Hobbit Couloir to the Pegasus Rock Finish


I got to start off Ice fest 2016 on Friday the best way possible. I had been paired up with my former climbing instructor and mentor, Jim Shimberg, to teach an Ice Climbing for Rock Climbers clinic. The idea of this clinic is that participants have already learned the basics of belaying, tying in and putting on a harness, and perhaps understand some of the body mechanics of climbing. The benefit to these groups is it often puts together folks who will accelerate a bit quicker through the learning curve. We had a great group with a range of abilities and dreams of where ice climbing will take them.

Perhaps one of the biggest take aways of the weekend wasn’t about climbing though. One of the guests commented “Jim has such a great perspective on life.” I reflected shared with them how I had a rough time freshman or sophomore year of college and was talking with Shim about it. I mentioned how climbing was so helpful for me at the time as it provided a mental escape from “real life.” He sounded surprised and commented that climbing is real life, and encouraged me to approach it as such. That’s advice I took to heart and has substantially contributed to where I am and what I’m doing with my life today. Its hard to express how rewarding it is to share climbing with others, and even more rewarding when you help them realize, or you reinforce, a more positive way of seeing the world and its opportunities. In this instance I was sharing in that revelation with the participants, provided by my co instructor 7 years apart.


Kicking and Swinging. A big part of learning to ice climb is learning to use the tools


Eager students wanted to learn more about ice climbing than just the climbing


The group in “The Blue Room”


A fun little flow



Sunrise from Spruce Lodge

I consider myself lucky to have such good and generous friends in the climbing community.  From Shimberg who taught me so much about climbing and more, to Mikey and Alexa who graciously offered me a couch for ice fest weekend. It was great to begin and end the chaotic ice fest days with familiar faces in a friendly cabin. Several other friends were crashing there as well, and it was a good opportunity to catch up and escape the hustle and bustle of the fest for a few hours each day. Perhaps the nicest part of the whole experience was the sunrise over Double Head mountain each morning, as seen from the couch where I woke up.


Saturday I was scheduled to offer an Alpine Style Climb. There’s two general ways of breaking down a day of guiding. The clinic style day, that is heavy on education and instruction, and the objective day where you’re getting people on a particular climb or mountain and trying to help them fulfill a goal. The Alpine Style climb was the latter. I ended up having two ice festers, Mitch and Tom, who I had just had in Ice Climbing for Rock Climbers the day before. Being relatively new to ice climbing, a link up of features ascending the East Face of Mt Willard provided a significant amount of adventure and challenge for these two. That being said, they moved quickly and efficiently on the ice and appeared to have a good time in the mountain environment. We were slowed waiting in line multiple times but their psyche never wavered, and we were rewarded with the incredible view down Crawford Notch.


Sunday was my final day and I was instructing Ice 101 with Tim Farr of Petra Cliffs in Vermont. Teaching beginning ice climbers always reminds me of the significant difference in rock climbing and ice climbing. Most of the time beginning rock climbers are following intuition and the way their body feels to get up routes. Ice climbing differs in that first you have learn how to use ice tools and crampons. Because of that, teaching it feels much more like teaching some one how to work with tools the right way. Once the use of the tools clicks, folks tend to take of and fly through the learning curve.

This was a fun group of folks, with a friend of mine in the clinic, as well as a young crusher and 6 friends from U.R.I. A diverse group of folks who all seemed to enjoy the experience equally!

Thanks to the friends who organize Ice Fest for asking me to join this year, and all the participants and friends I got to spend the weekend with!


November Wild Card

It’s pretty incredible how much of a wild card November can be for climbing in NH. Today was sunny with a light breeze and I climbed more than comfortably in a long sleeve shirt and a wind breaker. but backtrack to last year around this time (Nov. 14th) and I was doing a wholly different kind of climbing on Cannon…

Starting up the Dike in Mid November

Starting up the Dike in Mid November

And throw it back 2 days shy of 2 years and I was hypothermic doing this in a blizzard!

Matt Ritter on a wintery early November Ascent of Cannonade on Cannon Cliff

Matt Ritter on a wintery early November Ascent of Cannonade on Cannon Cliff

Matt Ritter and Erik Thatcher on a Wintery ascent of the Cannonade Buttress on Cannon. PC: Dustin Portzline

Matt Ritter and Erik Thatcher on a Wintery ascent of the Cannonade Buttress on Cannon. PC: Dustin Portzline

But back to today, having the cliff to ourselves but for the military planes blasting through the notch below us, was exceptional. The Whitney Gilman Ridge is a climb I’ve done more times than I can remember, but it remains an exceptional spot to bring friends, clients, or in the case of today, a former students, for a first real taste of exposure and alpine rock…

I was psyched to be able to share the climb with Jack, one of the first students I’ve had at Holderness who really got psyched for climbing. Getting to link up with those students after their holderness career is a pretty exceptional feeling.

Take Away Lessons and Questions Unanswered from Kate Matrosova’s Passing

Towards the end of Presidents Day Weekend a search was initiated for an overdue hiker. The hiker, Kate Matrosova, had triggered her personal locator beacon which triggered a call to her husband who then called 911. A bare bones search party was organized for that night. This group undoubtedly  had the worse conditions of any of the groups with a 2 hr long bushwhack that took them all of a 1/4 mile. This group and another were called back for the evening, getting back at 3:30 AM, and another few teams were organized for Monday morning. I was in a ten man team that ultimately located Kate, while 2 other teams struggled up Madison and King Ravines to check out other possible locations for her. Over the past week I’ve stewed over many thoughts inspired by this incident and wanted to share them below. Here’s the most researched article I’ve found on the incident yet:

In the past week there have been a lot of discussions regarding this incident. Most of those espousing a certain position or feeling about the incident are filling in a lot of gaps in the story with assumptions. The general consensus from the the coffee shop quarterbacks is that she was reckless and negligent, one such individual I overheard even compared her to Guy Waterman who went out in similar conditions with the goal of committing suicide. When some one dies in an incident like this it is all to easy for the assumptions we make to be ones that explain her death, and why the one passing judgment would not have died in a similar situation. It’s part of our human complex that makes us feel invincible, and we fill in the gaps of the story in such a way that explains to ourselves why this wouldn’t happen to us. I wanted to frame her decision making process in a couple of ways that reflect how we all take risks in the mountains. In doing so I’m making the opposite assumptions of so many, that she was reasonably experienced and knew what she was getting her self into. They are still assumptions, and serve more to illustrate mountain decision making than to truly justify the decisions she made in particular.


AVSAR carrying the litter up the Valley Way trail

The first thing that is important to understand is setting goals for a day in the mountains. So many go into the mountains with a singular goal. This leaves the margin for what one considers a successful day to be rather thin, which often pushes people past their own or the  mountain conditions limits in order to achieve that success. Any basic mountain training should teach the lesson of setting multiple goals for a given day. This way there are many levels of success. Certainly hitting the summit would be more success than hitting tree line, but if you orient your frame of reference so that hitting tree line is still some level of success, than you leave yourself more room to make the decision to turn back if conditions or your personal condition are not optimal for the summit.


Gearing up for harsh conditions in the lee of the wind at Madison hut

On the night that Kate was out struggling to stay alive I was writing about this very lesson on the Mooney Mountain Guides blog. Not long after writing it I got the call from AVSAR to report for the search the next morning if at all possible.

This brought a good lesson back to the front of my mind. A lot of hype for mountain trips is to “summit, or bust!” This despite the fact that summits are often allusive, and when gained, are only done so at the will of the mountain. A saying that frequently comes to mind is “expectations lead to disappointment.” Of course this comes with a caveat about reasonable expectations. If you take off on the trail for Mt Washington expecting to get a great work out and enjoy the natural beauty of nature, then you will never be disappointed and you will often be rewarded with accomplishments that exceed your expectations. If you take off with the expectation of summiting with no other intermediary goals, then you are setting your self up for a very likely disappointment.

A lot of folks can’t understand Kate’s goal of doing an arduous above tree-line hike with the given forecast. A lot of us live here, have found the limit of wind speeds we find acceptable and know that there’s always next weekend to try again. Kate likely planned this day far in advanced, was on a vacation from NYC that could’ve ben a rare thing for her, and may not have had another chance to try this in a while. I think in similar situations many of us would’ve gone for it, even if deep down we knew that we would most likely be turning back. Hopefully, most of us would have had a trip plan in place that included multiple scenarios for success, short of the full traverse, that would have made it easier to bail in harsh conditions. Most of us will not know for sure if Kate took these precautions, or if she truly thought she was going all the way that day. However, her GPS indicates that she was reversing course and returning to tree line when calamity befell her. In my mind we should be giving her the benefit of the doubt, instead of assuming she was being irresponsible because she died, we should put our selves in her shoes and try to be sympathetic and reflect on our near misses.


Mt Adams

The second thing I’ve been reflecting on is her personal level of preparedness. In hiking and mountaineering the layers of protection we have are more ambiguous than in technical roped climbing.   There’s hiking solo versus with a partner, bringing enough bivy gear to be self reliant for a night, and brining the appropriate clothing layers for what ever weather you may experience. All of these add up to the greatest amount of protection, but on any given day we may weigh the risks and go up with out a partner or without bivy gear based on our own risk assessment. Finally there’s bringing communication in case all other measures fail and you need help. Kate’s kit was rather stripped down to the bare essentials. No partner, no bivy gear, and even relatively light on essential layers in my opinion. This in itself is no sin. What it means is that she was operating with no room for error. I think we can all relate to a moment where we’ve put our selves in similar situations, calculating the risks and finding them acceptable. Because she did so and paid for it, it is all to easy to say she was negligent, and not look at our own actions and feel lucky that this wasn’t us. If anything, it may be that she stripped away these layers of protection, with a false impression that her technology (Satellite phone, PLB, GPS) were building those layers of protection back up. In this terrain, that’s simply not the case. If she tried to use her SAT phone, it didn’t work, which to any one who’s used them before shouldn’t be all that surprising. Her PLB reported far more incorrect locations than it did correct, although we ultimately found her very near the first signal location. And it should’ve be realized that in these mountains rescue is hours or days away, while in those conditions death can be much more imminent.

It was relayed to us that Kate had serious mountaineering experience. Rumors included time on Elbrus, Denali and Kilimanjaro. An assumption that I jumped too quickly was that she had been guided up these mountains. In that process she would have built up the necessary technical skills to summit these mountains, without the equally as important decision making skills that goes on behind the scenes. Whether this is true or not, the thought of it has caused me serious reflection on my role as a guide. Our job is to enable our guests the greatest success we can on any given day, most of the time that means an ascent of Mt Washington. But in doing so we take on the whole load of safety precautions and decision making. Unfortunately I feel this shields our guests from the potential danger, and from the true skill that goes into climbing these mountains.


At Kate’s final location, a few hundred feet off the Star Lake trail

On a typical intro to mountaineering weekend we talk about what our guests should bring. The conversation is heavy on their own personal safety and comfort, but short on what we bring for group safety. Last weekend a guest was hesitant to bring a large puffy jacket as she’s never needed it before. I had to explain that it provided her a margin of safety in the case that some one was injured and our pace slowed. That would’ve been a great opportunity to talk about the bivy gear, emergency shelter and extra food and drink that I brought for the overall groups safety. Moving forward I feel the need to work this into our training, while balancing it with not making our guests feel like they aren’t carrying their weight. How do we illustrate the work they need to put in in order to do this on their own (first aid, trip planning, navigation, camping skills…), while at the same time celebrating and congratulating them for what they were able to accomplish under out guidance?

All photos were taken by Mike Cherim of Androscogin Valley Search and Rescue 

The publicity generated from this incident has led many to seek ways to support those who are involved in Search and Rescue. If you feel so inclined, donations can be made to AVSAR directly 

or to the New Hampshire Outdoor Council, which supports SAR teams state wide.

Another avenue altogether is to buy a hike safe card from NH Fish and Game. This is a rescue insurance card of sorts. Even if you don’t intend to ever use this your self, buying it supports the state agency that organizes and runs SAR missions, and is currently struggling with funding.

Climbing = the sum of it’s parts

I had an interesting revelation while uploading all the photos I posted to this blog. your enjoyment on any given day of climbing is the sum of many parts. The act of climbing is the meat of it, or else you wouldn’t be there, right? But I think the most important supporting piece is who you are with. I’ve come to this conclusion before. I only want to spend time climbing with people that I want to generally spend time with, and I have turned down opportunities to climb in the past because they would involve people who’s company I didn’t enjoy.


I realized this when trying to write the captions for many of the pictures. In every case, I could remember who was behind the lens, who I was climbing with that day even if they weren’t in the picture. I couldn’t always remember the name of the route, how the route climbed or what the crux moves where like. So which was more important to me?

Erik Thatcher on Predator. Art Mooney photo

Erik Thatcher on Predator. Art Mooney photo

Last summer one of my main focuses was a well known route at Rumney called Predator. I can still remember the intricacies of every move, but more than that I like to think about the fun evenings I had working it with my friend Alexa after work. The shenanigans of working a route that starts a pitch off the ground, the stress of each day we both brought to the cliff and worked off together on the same route. Working it in the rain, and enjoying the view of the valley from the sit down rest.


I remember the day I sent, going up with Tim Mijal who had an exceptional ability to help me send his first time belaying me on projects last summer. Watching Leesa on flying monkeys from the sit down rest and then the route feeling effortless. But even from that day, I think the fonder memory is of an evening with two climbing friends who weren’t even there, but who were extremely excited for me none the less.

At a BBQ with Geoff and JP

At a BBQ with Geoff and JP

Sometimes I worry that climbing is an exceedingly selfish endeavor. The fact that my climbing memories are well balanced between the emotions of being on a climb, and the emotions of being with friends in their struggles and triumphs on the rock sets me at ease.

A Climbing Bender

Climbing is a Drug. Well, at least there are lots of similarities. Maybe it’s more appropriate to say climbing is an addiction. This analogy isn’t new to climbing. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen T-shirts making the same statements and have read it in other places as well. I’ll be honest, the only thing I have to compare it to is caffeine and coffee, which I find my self addicted to mentally if not physically. Even without personal experience, if you pay attention, you probably know a thing or two about drug addictions and what drives people to use drugs. Drawing from that pool of knowledge, it’s not hard to see the similarities


You hear about people drinking to drown their sorrows, smoking to relax their stress, and the whole concept of psychadelics is to live, if only briefly, in an alternate reality. I’m attracted to climbing for the sheer joy of the activity, but it also fulfills all three of these needs for me. The high school I went to was an academically rigorous one in which your day from 8-10 was filled with school related responsibilities. It was the definition of stressful. The 2-3 hours a day where the climbing team escaped to the cliffs of Rumney was just that, an escape. For those 3 hours we were living in an alternate reality, where all that mattered was climbing. The act its self is so mentally engaging (if you think about something else you fall), that it is a form of meditation. Your mind is focused on one singular activity, and the rest of the days stress, worries, and happenings ceased to exist. I find that its the times when I am stressed, sad, or cynical about the realities of this world that I need climbing the most, and it means the most to me. Conversely, its the times when I can’t climb for an extended period of time (5 days off is a long time for me!) that stress, sorrow and depression creep in. Climbing is simply fun. There’s no real way to describe the joy I get from various climbing activities, but I’ve never questioned that either. Climbing is fun for what it is, but it’s also fun for what it isn’t, and that realization is what I’m pondering here. Climbing as an escape. 


As an addict of an illicit substance might, climbers sometimes go on benders, where you are consumed by your addiction 24-7 for days on end. After a month of illness and bad weather I went on just such a bender this past week when the weather was finally good enough to climb any day you want. These periods are marked by high stoke, both on and off the cliff, and usually accompanied by an abandonment of various responsibilities and relationships in favor of more climbing time (sorry mom!). In the past week I got to climb 5 days out of seven, forcing my self to rest the other two days only because I knew it would help me climb better on my days on. Those days at the cliff where high energy. I was thrilled to be back out on rock, no matter the route, and around other climbers, no matter wether they were regular or occasional partners, friends, new acquaintances or strangers. I guess more significantly is that over this week climbing also occupied almost every hour of my nights and off days. This time was filled with climbing related activities; perusing the inter webs of climbing, scouring youtube and my climbing DVD collection, or writing down climbing thoughts of my own (yes, this whole blog idea is a direct result of the bender!)


That week is over and a new one has begun. Hopefully the bender has served to balance, or at least, to move my life back towards the balance of work and play that was unsettled by the month off. Let’s face it, climbing isn’t reality; it doesn’t help others, it doesn’t feed you, and it doesn’t usually fulfill you’re intellectual needs as a curious human being. Climbing remains special in part for what it isn’t, which means you need to maintain the “isn’ts” of your life too. What that balance is for each of us I think varies from person to person as well as in time for each individual, but I’m adamant that it’s there.