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Cathedral and Whitehorse Ledges

Just a few minutes drive from the center of North Conway, New Hampshire (two and a quarter hours from Hanover) are two major granite crags, Cathedral and Whitehorse Ledges. Clearly visible from the main street of North Conway, these famous cliffs have been popular with multiple generations of East Coast climbers. The Conway area also boasts a host of smaller outcrops, some along the Kancamagus Highway, others scattered throughout the Mount Washington Valley — even up into Huntington Ravine. These could provide the climber with a lifetime of exploration and adventure.

There are several good climbing shops in North Conway and Intervale. Keep an eye out for excellent seasonal discount sales!

How To Get There: 
Go to North Woodstock, New Hampshire (see directions to Cannon, above). Then, follow the Kancamagus Highway (“the Kanc” — Route 112) to North Conway. The cliffs are blatantly visible to the west of town. Just after the Eastern Slope Inn on Main Street, take a left and follow the “Cathedral Ledge” signs to the easily found parking areas at the base of Cathedral. There is no water available at the cliffs, so fill up beforehand.

A good shortcut from Hanover to avoid the Conway shopping outlet crowds: several miles before you reach Conway, Dugway Road diverges left from the Kanc at the Covered Bridge Campground (which also happens to be where Sundown Ledge is located). Follow this until a left-hand turn onto West Side Road, which eventually leads you directly to the cliffs. Driving time: about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Cathedral Ledge

Four hundred feet high and quite steep, it is noted for both crack and face climbs. The most obvious feature on the cliff is the massive nose, the Prow. There is an auto road which takes you to the top to the spectacular fenced-in tourist lookout above the Prow. There is parking up there, and quick, easy access to the Lower Left Wall and to the Airation Buttress, for those who want to save time or energy — but remember to get your car down before the gate closes in the evening!

Lower Left Wall: For fun face climbing and direct access to the Upper Left Wall, try: Funhouse (5.7), Pooh (5.7), or Bombardment (5.8/5.6R). There are also some very hard friction routes here with titillating runouts — try Ventilator (5.10-), for starters.

Upper Left Wall: A delightful several hours, or a full day, can be spent on this secluded, pretty face. The climbs start from the ledge that horizontally bisects the part of Cathedral which is to the left of the Prow. On the left side, there are a series of superb short (thirty-five foot) crack climbs like Double Vee (5.9+), Chicken Delight (5.9), and Layton’s Ascent (5.9); most of these protect readily on the lead or can be easily top-roped from trees (if you bring long slings). Off the Hook (5.11-) takes the short but elegant thin face with a couple of bolts just to the right of Double Vee (bring small wired nuts for both the start and the finish). Walk rightwards on the ledge to new classics such as the continuously-challenging Big Deal Rock Climb (5.11+), and old classics like the superb two-pitch Book of Solemnity (5.10-), Retaliation (5.9), Upper Refuse (5.5), and Lichen Delight (5.11-). To reach the Upper Left Wall: either climb a route on the Lower Left Wall or park at the top and follow a well-beaten path leading south from the fenced-in tourist lookout.

With or without the Beast Flake variation, Recompense (5.9) is one of the very best climbs around — spectacular, exposed, and on perfect granite.

If it’s raining, locate the short first pitch of The Beast 666 in a larger, sheltered alcove just left of the prow area: impeccable liebacking and finger-jamming on pristine rock.

To the right of the Prow are several popular multi-pitch routes: Thin Air (5.6; usually clogged with guides and their clients) goes straight up on very easy rock for fifty feet, makes a long traverse right, and then ascends to the big ledge below the Airation Buttress (the immense bulging white wall that caps this section of cliff). Rapid Transit (5.9+) shares the same first fifty feet and the first belay with Thin Air (it is considered acceptable to climb this first section side-by-side with Thin Air climbers). Rapid Transit then continues straight up the face to a thin crux and a short, tricky leftwards traverse. After a second belay, go straight up to the Airation Buttress ledge.

The Airation Buttress is almost a crag unto itself, containing several highly recommended routes: Pine Tree Eliminate (5.8) is a short, clean, very well-protected 5.8 crack pitch at the right side of the wall. Thirty feet to its left is the difficult Airation Crack (5.11), a perennial test-piece. By traversing (roped) leftwards from the start of Airation on an exposed ledge/shelf, one gains a semi-hanging belay below a line of bolts that marks the beginning of the phenomenal trio Tourist Treat (5.12), Endless Summer (5.12), and the very popular, Camber (5.11). Before doing Camber, be sure to station camera-equipped companions on the tourist lookout!

Anchor yourself securely at the top of the Airation Buttress and you may lower your excited partner to top-rope a number of variations on the face below. The Airation Buttress Ledge can also be reached by parking at the top and walking north across open slabs and then downwards on an obvious zig-zag trail through the woods — about a two-minute approach.

In training for the Karakoram, Patagonia, or El Cap? Get thyself to the stupendous middle section of Cathedral and grapple with one of the Big Wall aid climbs, such as Grand Finale (5.8 [or 5.12], A3) or a hard free routes like Pendulum Route (5.11).

Further on, Intimidation (5.10) receives accolades, as does superb Deidre (5.9; don’t be put off by Deidre’s ugly-looking start). The Practice Slabs at the right end of the cliff are immensely popular, featuring a row of excellent one-short-pitch crack climbs.

Whitehorse Ledge

A mere ten-minute easy walk from Cathedral, it’s an extraordinary sight — worth the short stroll to see, even if you don’t have time to do a climb. The first things you come to are the magnificent low-angle Friction Slabs rolling upwards some 800 feet in beautiful undulating waves of clean granite. These comprise the northern half of Whitehorse. Continue past the slabs, and you come to the much steeper southern half of the cliff — the South Buttress. Whitehorse climbing is tremendous and offers a whole universe of different climbing styles.

The Approach: 
Walk south (left) from the dirt-road parking spots below the left end of Cathedral. Follow the very wide, flat trail through the pines. The path forks at one point, but then rejoins itself; take either fork. You may also park at the lower lot at the Golf Club (enter through West Side Road).

The Friction Slabs

The most popular slab routes start from the obvious roomy ledge about a hundred feet from the ground and a couple hundred yards from the right-hand edge of the cliff. There are countless variations to the established climbs. Descent from the top is via an obvious trail which goes right (north) as you face the cliff.

The great classics here are Beginner's Route (5.4R), Standard Route (5.5 or 5.7) and Sliding Board (5.7, 5.5R), weaving their ways upwards on gorgeous, (mostly) low-angle rock for eight or nine pitches. They join near the top at the incredible narrow-staircase dike. Every climber should experience one or more of these extraordinary routes!

Although much of the Whitehorse friction climbing looks (and often is) relatively easy, it can still take much longer to reach the top than one might expect — it can take a slow party of three the better part of a day. If one is not used to friction climbing, some of the routes may seem harder than indicated by their rating. A number of pitches have runout sections — i.e. climbing with poor, or no protection. Also watch the weather, as even moves which are trivial when dry can become scary when wet, and in spite of appearances to the contrary, there is no quick and easy traverse off the slabs to the woods, should the rain begin.

The South Buttress of Whitehorse

Walk past the slab section up a rise and then downhill a hundred feet or so to the Ethereal Buttress, a fifty-foot high detached flake containing pleasant popular short (fifty-foot) routes like Seventh Seal (5.10-) and Ethereal Crack (5.10).

Just past the Ethereal Buttress, where the cliff looms larger, are a number of steep and popular face climbs, including Revolt of the Dike Brigade (5.11-, two pitches) and Children’s Crusade (5.9), whose exposed Direct Finish (5.11-) is definitely one of the finest pitches in the Conway area. For a superb “sport route” follow the bolt line branching off left from Children’s Crusade: Total Recall is (5.11b/c).

A little further on, the cliff becomes quite smooth in its upper reaches. This is the Wonder Wall, home of some excellent, airy face climbs. The two most popular routes, Last Unicorn (5.10) and Ladyslipper (5.9+), are both fine, well-protected climbs, and well worth the complex approach.

For Ladyslipper layback up the left side of the first flake on the large, tree-covered ledge (5.6) and belay. The second pitch (5.9+) is brilliant and continuously interesting, following the elegant face and corner above to a secure belay behind a flake. One may rappel from here (two ropes) or climb a short pitch on the left (5.6R) to the top, finally escaping left across an easy 3d- or fourth-class ledge to a rappel tree at the top of the Inferno wall.

Last Unicorn is one of the most well-known Conway-area climbs, with three pitches, each one an interesting and worthwhile 5.10. From the right-hand end of the large, tree-covered ledge, step down and do a long 5.3 traverse horizontally right, until reaching a medium-sized pine tree (not to be confused with a much larger pine just below). The route begins here, with the first lead going up and a bit left.

The first pitch of Hotter than Hell (5.9) combined with the stellar upper pitches of Inferno (5.8) is one of the most popular outings on the South Buttress. It’s a classic, non-problematic excursion, if you’re solid in the grade. Start on the long, tree-covered ledge below the seventy-degree Tranquillity Slab.

Within several-miles drive of Cathedral and Whitehorse there are a myriad of crags too numerous for treatment here. Of these, Humphrey’s Ledge, Band M Ledge, Sundown Far Cliff, and Sundown Main Cliff are the most extensive. Because of easy access and superb climbing, Sundown Main Cliff has been especially popular with Dartmouth-area climbers, and is briefly described below.

Sundown

The Sundown Main Cliff is the most popular of the Kancamagus Highway crags. Now vastly overshadowed by Rumney, it nevertheless has a nice selection of overhanging, bolt-protected desperates. The rock bears a bit of a resemblance to basalt, in terms of its sharp fracture patterns, fine grain, and positive handholds. The cliff is very steep and boasts some of the largest roofs around, guaranteeing an intense workout.

How To Get There: 
Take the Kancamagus Highway to the big Covered Bridge Campground parking lot (on the left of the Kanc), a few miles west of North Conway. Driving time: about two hours.

The Approach: 
Follow the well-worn trail across the road from the parking lot. After several-minutes walk, the path branches, with a sign pointing left indicating the way to the top of the cliff; ignore this and continue straight. After passing a small streambed, begin to look to your left for talus and a cairn. Here, scramble up to the left end of the cliff to view an impressive array of hard routes. Among the most popular are:

Romper Room (5.12a) Make an awkward move up to a small roof (at a tiny sharp arete) and power over this to a bucket up and left, then tackle the face above, moving right, then left.

Vultures (5.10+) is the very obvious finger crack at mid-cliff: short (forty feet) and a bit strenuous and awkward. Better yet, the entire one-pitch face to the right of Vultures is fantastic, with many excellent moves, including a beautiful, very steep 5.11+ headwall at the finish. This face can be led, or else top-roped by zooming up the easy corner above Vultures to the top-rope anchor.

Eyeless in Gaza (5.12a/b) is probably the most popular of the hard routes at Sundown. A great pitch — overhanging the whole way but with mostly bucket-sized flakes. No single move is terribly difficult (except for the notorious one-move long-reach crux at mid-height), but it’s a pumper to put it all together. The holds on the first thirty-five feet of the climb are so large that even intermediate-level climbers can have fun cranking the sequence.

Last Updated: 10/21/12