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The day you stop learning is the day you die…

As part of receiving a scholarship this year for an AMGA course of my choosing, I had to write a reflective essay post course. The AMGA recently put it up on their blog and I thought I’d share it here. Below is the opening paragraph and a gallery of photos from the two AMGA courses I took in the past year. The full essay can be found here

In the past year I focused heavily on growth in my skills as a guide. This growth started in March of 2016 with a Level Two AIARE course. It continued last summer with the AMGA Advanced Rock Guide Course in Estes Park, CO. This past February, it culminated with the AMGA Ice Instructor Course in Crawford Notch, NH. I was partially supported on this final course through the AMGA’s Fallen Guides- Strength of Character Scholarship Fund. This scholarship comes with the responsibility of writing a short essay on the experience. This process has given me a much-appreciated opportunity to reflect on guide education as well as my fellow guides unfortunate accidents in the mountains. Combined it made me reflect on trying to live a long and fruitful life while pursuing a career that, at it’s core, consists of trying to manage a plethora of risks both known and unknown. The connecting theme in my reflection is that humility is the key to growth and longevity in the mountains and in the mountain guiding career.

It’s Alive – Follow up.

I found a new tool through caltopo.com for comparing aerial imaging. It turns out you can easily see the extent of the destruction from the Duet Buttress rock fall between the two most recent imagining surveys, so I wanted to share that here to add to the blog post below.

I also thought I’d point out that Jon Sykes used my “It’s Alive” blog post in his newly released guidebook to The Notches. The guidebook covers a lot of previously unpublished routes in areas like Crawford and Kinsman Notches and the Zealand Valley. It also has a lot of fun historical short stories and tidbits. You can find it on amazon or directly through the local publishers here http://eaglecliffpub.com/climb/ordering/  “It’s Alive” can be found in the intro to Cannon Cliff.

 

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Before

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After

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

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

Weathering

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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From the Whitney Gilman looking north along the cliff base

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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!

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

The Bung Hole

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Return to Normalcy

Much Like America in the 1920’s, what I need over the next month is a return to normalcy, however much I hate to use a republican campaign slogan. The past two months have been filled with a significant change from my past winters and lots of time thinking of the idyllic job of running a high school climbing program. This work, while awesome and very meaningful to me, has made me soft.  Half Days in the field, not enough time to get above tree-line or on big terrain, regular sleep ins… What I need now is a concentrated block of activity and adventure to make me feel a little less sedentary. Luckily I got to kick off my March vacation in the perfect way, with three full days of fun adventure back to back.

Lake Willoughby – Friday

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Heading Home. 20 Below Zero Gully on the left, Glass Menagerie on the Right

My friend Andy shot me a message Thursday night to try and talk me into going to the Lake with him. I was hesitant at first because I’ve only had one full day of ice climbing this season, and am feeling out of shape for the hundreds of feet tall pure ice lines of the lake. I had the day off, as my students were taking practice tog et ahead on work for Saturdays adventure. After first saying no, I capitulated and we ended up having an awesome day.

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Andy getting to the belays on Crazy Diamond & 20 Below Zero Gully

We swung leads up Crazy Diamond and then 20 Below Zero Gulley.  Between the pouring rain two days prior, and a long season of sitting in the sun, the ice on these climbs had undergone some serious metamorphoses, leaving it in an odd state and resulting in some funky climbing. I haven’t spent much time in the lake but its awe-inspiring for so many reasons. The size of the pure ice climbs are an order of magnitude bigger than anything else in the region, and situated above a wind swept lake, the sight of which makes the area feel arctic.

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Andy on the final pillar of Crazy Diamond. 

Beyond the ice climbs themselves, the cliff is of a foreign nature. Its limestone, which we have very little of around here, and the resulting affect on the soil means the top of the cliff, and even the sides of it, are covered in huge, gorgeous cedar trees. While I see Cedars when climbing in upstate NY, these ones seem massive, old, weathered, and like they could come alive as if some creature out of Lord of the Rings. Sitting at an ice screw anchor 200′ up puts you in another world at Lake Willoughby, surrounded by an unimaginable amount of ice, foreign looking rock and unique trees, and often times in the sun, while you watch the wind hammer the brave (or stubborn?) ice fishers below.

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Big Ice, Limestone & Cedars. Andy on the second pitch of 20 Below 

Mt. Washington- Saturday

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My Ice Climbing/ mountaineering team has gotten a lot of good practice in over the past two months. The school schedule is ideal for this, as students get out of class around noon and I frequently have 5-6 hours to get them out in the field. That being said they hadn’t yet had a full day in the mountains. Luckily, I was able to get them out of class on Saturday to use a full day for our “culminating experience.”

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While trail conditions were some of the roughest I’ve experienced with this odd winter causing the trail to basically be a 4 mile long luge run, the weather was some of the best. With the weather being so good, and my students moving very efficiently, we were able to come back down a different trail and get a great tour of the mountain and its awesome features. We went up the Ammo and across the Crawford Path to the summit. Came down the Tucks side, and cut back across the Bigelow Lawn. Not only were my students able to see all of the terrain and potential for fun in the presidentials, but we were able to see various mountains they’ve hiked or might hike while at Holderness, and could even pick out Lake Willoughby where I had been the day before!

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View of the Southern presidentials with Mt. Carrigan just left of center. Many Holderness students will hike it during Outback, the schools 11 day winter backpacking trip.

More picture of this adventure on Holderness School’s Smugmug page: https://holdernessschool.smugmug.com/Sports/Winter-Mountaineering-Ascent/

Milton Academy Ice Climbing –  Sunday

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Two of the girls in particular were unstoppable, no matter how steep of lines we set up!

Sunday was my first day back working for Mooney Mountain Guides since before the start of my ice climbing season at Holderness. It was a fun reentry into guiding. I’ve worked with Milton Academies Outdoor Program in the past and am really impressed with what they have going on. Making it even more fun, the trip was lead by friend and co worker, Todd Goodmen, who teaches there. It was a great day of catching up with him, getting 6 young ladies on ice, and hearing of some fun adventures a few of them have planned for the near future.

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Milton faculty Matt Bingham taking a lap

Now I’m sitting back on the couch enjoying my hour long morning coffee time. The best part about it is that after 3 days on, waking up at 4:30 every morning, this time I feel like I’ve earned it!

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Fall

The end of summer and through the fall has been chaotic. Lots of coaching once The Holderness School year started, and free time spent in the garden, and even a bit climbing. With not having the time to dedicate to projecting, most of my recreational climbing has been put into alpine-esque multi pitch routes.

Going all the way back to August, my good friend Geoff and I did a mini road trip to Katahdin, the premier Alpine climbing area in the east. As a freshman in college i hiked the classic knife’s edge traverse. Along the way I snapped this picture of climbers on the most climbed feature in the Cirque, the Armadillo.

Climbers on the Armadillo

Climbers on the Armadillo

Since then I’ve wanted to go back and climb it. Geoff, having gone to college not far from here has done the armadillo and many other adventure climbs in the in glacial cirques on the mountain. On the hike in two other climbers caught up to us and we chatted the rest of the way to Chimney Pond. Luckily they were nice folks and we were easily able to share the route with them. Geoff and I decided to approach the climb from the left hand side, gaining the top of the large flake by a 5.9 crack called Wind in the Willows. We did an opening 5.8-ish Chimney pitch to get to the base. After wards I realized there was a picture of this chimney in Yankee Rock & Ice. It was one of the original routes on the Armadillo formation, dating back to the mid thirties!

The route in its entirety was about 400-500′ of technical climbing followed by another few hundred feet of fourth class ridge scrambling to where it intersected the Knifes edge.

In addition to Katahdin I’ve been spending a fair number of days on Cannon. I’ve been up the Ridge twice with two groups of friends as Batchelor parties. Had a fun outing on the VMC Direct Direct with Alexa, another on Vertigo with Alex, and pre work laps on Moby with James and Weisner’s with Geoff. Its great being able to call this cliff a crag, and walk up to do a half day of dragging on the awesome granite. Or, in some cases, the not so awesome granite.

Needless to say a good amount of time was also spent harvesting from the garden and farm.

Most time of all has been spent coaching at Holderness. The team has had an exceptional year…pictures on the team website: https://www.holderness.org/rock-climbing


Catching up! Wildwood, Quinn, Acadia & the Farm!

Its been a busy past couple of weeks with limited access to internet. So here’s a quick run down!

A couple of weeks ago Todd and I did a two day portion of a camp for Wildwood, which is associated with Mass Audubon. The campers where in the White Mountains for a week, doing some hiking and trail work in addition to their two days with us. We had a good time showing them the ropes on Rumney’s single and easier multi pitch terrain!

Last Monday I was joined by Quinn at Rumney. Quinn’s dad takes his sons on various cool adventurous trips, but climbing was a first. Quinn, or “muscles” as his dad called him, lived up to his nick name. For a first day we were able to climb a good number of pitches at a relatively difficult level.

Immediately after climbing with Quinn, my girlfriend and I took off for Acadia in ME. I use to vacation here frequently as a kid, and now my dad care takes at a campground on the island. We had a great visit with him and his wife, along with sentimental, for me, stops in various towns along the ME coast (Bath, Woolwich, Rockland, Camden, Belfast…) and a good time paddling climbing and hiking around the Island.

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Paddling around Solmes Sound in my dads home made wooden kayak (and a plastic LL Bean one) We had two gorges mornings on the water accompanied by seals, porpoises, fishing Bald Eagle and Osprey, and some salty Lobstermen

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An afternoon and evening of climbing classics. Story of O on the South wall, and some of the fun climbs on the Sea stack at Otter Cliffs!

In between work and vacation I’ve been trying to catch up on work on the farm and more importantly visiting it for nutritional and spiritual sustenance during this hectic time!

Mom sending the Freedom Rangers (Meat Chickens) to freezer camp

Mucked out the Sheep Stall. Been getting lots of good food for the pigs this year thanks to Longview Farm and Squam lake Marketplace. The Turkey’s enjoying a little free range 

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The Three Sisters(Corn, Beans & Squash) working together in a synergistic fashion

IMG_2194Borage volunteers aiding in the 3 sisters garden

4th Of July Climbing Foray

This past Holiday weekend I was joined by Tracey and Mason. Tracey is an incredibly well traveled climbing, having climbed with Mountain Guides all over the American West, as well as abroad. Work brought her to New England for the the week preceding the holiday, and she decided to sample the climbing here, as well as get her God-son, Mason, on rock for the first time.

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Day one for us was at Rumney. The climbing at Rumney is well suited to new climbers. The style on the easier climbs is intuitive even for those with little experience, (grab hold, step on foot hold, pull down and step up, repeat.) while still being engaging and fun for everyone. In addition, the leading and transitions are quick, so a lot of terrain can be covered in a day. We climbed at multiple cliffs, and Tracey even got on the sharp end some to hone her skills.

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Mason rocking some classic intro lines at Main Cliff


On day two we stepped it up a notch to experience some multi pitch climbing. Whitehorse is another ideal venue for introducing beginners to multi pitch, and Tracey was excited to sample some of the local Granite.

In the morning we climbed the first 3 pitches of Sea of Holes. This route ramps up from an easy first pitch to an engaging and interestingly featured third pitch. From here we rappelled back to our bags, some water and a well needed snack.

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Climbing, and Rappelling the 3rd Pitch

After our brief snack Tracey decided she wanted to practice her multi-ptich skills on another similar climb. The biggest crux to multi-pitch climbing, especially with a party of 3, is the rope management. Standard Direct is a prime route to practice this on. All but one of the anchors are bolts, and the climbing goes quick. In a brief couple of hours Tracey got to manage 3 transitions. The rust from not using those skills in some time quickly wore off. Mason and I had a great time following her up another fun route to about 500′, and she did an excellent job leading the way!

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Tracey leading Pitch 4, Standard Direct

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Mason enjoying the exposure 400′ up Standard Direct


What would a three day intro to climbing be with out a bit of crack climbing 101? Our third day was necessarily short due to play departures. Luckily, we have access to a great intro crack climbing area in Franconia Notch State Park. Echo Crag is roughly 40′ tall with solid granite and a variety and crack climbing styles all right next to each other. This technique is a bit hard for beginning climbers to grasp as its more reliant on balance, and refined jamming technique. Tracey did superbly well here, as was to be expected, and Mason took the new style of climbing in stride.

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Mason Climbing at Echo Crag

This was an especially great weekend of climbing for me. There’s a lot I love about guiding, but sharing the local crags with an out of town climber, and introducing new climbers to the sport, and especially the variety with in it, are two of the best.

Thanks for a great weekend!

Erik