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Cannon Cliff

Perched atop an immense talus slope in scenic Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, Cannon has long been a favorite of area climbers. Soaring to 1,000 feet at its high point, with often-unpredictable weather and considerable loose rock in some places, Cannon has traditionally — and justifiably — been treated with respect as a serious cliff (several Dartmouth students have died here). With good planning and sober judgment, many exhilarating adventures can be had on Cannon, but be ready. Competence is a must, especially if you’re going for the top.

Taking two ropes is added insurance, if rappelling should be required. As with any cliff, always be sure to check rappel anchors carefully (including the blocks, flakes, etc. to which slings and pins are affixed), and back them up if there’s any doubt! It can be surprisingly cold up high, even in summer, so be prepared. Watch out for deteriorating weather, which can approach unseen from the West, behind the cliff. Bringing a headlamp is a good idea; after-dark descents can be long and unpleasant, especially if you get off-route. Use of helmets at Cannon is very common (be alert if you’re climbing behind other parties). Cannon also has a number of short climb-and-rappel routes, if you want to avoid the commitment of climbing to the top.

An unobstructed panoramic view of Cannon can be had from the Boise Rock parking lot. There is a diagram of the main routes etched on an official plaque here. Scope the cliff with binoculars and marvel at its size and complexity.

How To Get There: 
The standard route: Take Route 10 North to Orford (Notice the obvious cliffs across the river in Fairlee, which have long been reputed to be too loose for climbing; however, it is almost unheard-of to meet anyone who has actually walked up to them to confirm this!). Proceed east on Routes 25A, 25, and 118 over the shoulder of Mount Moosilauke to Lincoln. Turn left (north) at Lincoln onto I-93. (Alternate route: I-91 North to Woodsville, East on 302 and 117 via Sugar Hill to Franconia, and then South on I-93.) Use the parking lot just south of Profile Lake (on the west side of the road). If you are approaching Franconia Notch from the south, it’s necessary to go past this parking lot, then turn around at the second former “Old Man” exit and drive back south a bit. Driving time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

The Approach: 
To northern end of Cannon: Start south down the paved bike path, but then almost immediately after the bridge cut back right on a trail and take the first side trail left and uphill (unmarked). Follow this trail through the woods to the talus slope. Negotiating the huge blocks of this extraordinary boulder field is a fun, stimulating experience in itself. Two other trails depart the bike path: one at mid-cliff, the other below the Whitney-Gilman Ridge. The occasional cairn perched amid the talus helps mark the way. Beware the occasional tippy rock.

Recommended Full-Length Routes

Whitney Gilman Ridge (5.7, first climbed in 1929!): For many years, climbers from all over the Northeast have made the pilgrimage to New Hampshire to do this spectacular ridge — and with good reason. It’s steep and exciting, with great views of the rest of the cliff, and involves an interesting variety of rock features. The crux sections are fairly brief, and in some cases terrifically exposed. Yet the belay ledges are roomy, and most of the climbing friendly and on generally sound rock (beware of the loose rock section just below and left of the pipe-pitch). There are a several variations. To descend: walk uphill after you unrope (about 150 feet), until the path trends leftwards and descends around the south end of the cliff.

VMC Direct Direct (5.10+) and Walk on the Wild Side (5.11): Stunningly beautiful routes! No grunge, no grass, no bushes — just superb free climbing amidst a veritable universe of clean, gorgeous granite. Despite the intimidating appearance of Cannon’s huge Big Wall section, these two sister-routes are, paradoxically, less committing than most of the easier routes on the cliff, since one can readily rappel off via well-equipped, in-line rap stations, using two sixty meter ropes (rappelling is the standard means of descent). Of the two climbs, the crux sections on VMC-DD tend to be physically more demanding, while those on WWS are very brief and are well-protected by fixed pro. On DD, the first five pitches are all excellent: pitches number six and seven are also worthwhile, but rap from inside the “Cows Mouth” at some point on the descent, so that your ropes will reach the next rap station. For WWS, do eight pitches maximum and rap — it’s better to stay off the pitch nine rotten-rock VMC Dike and spare those below from rockfall.

Moby Grape (5.8) is as popular as Whitney-Gilman. This sensational climb follows excellent granite with fun moves from the moment you step off the ground to the very top of the cliff. You get to negotiate a number of wild features, the most famous of which is the “Finger of Fate” — a sort of giant, detached shark’s fin of granite perched halfway up the face. At the start, Reppy’s Crack (see below) provides a better-protected alternative to the regular first pitch. At the belay before the Finger of Fate, lean out and peer down and left at the extraordinary Fruit Cup Wall bivy ledge … vow to spend the night there someday! Descent: follow tiny paths northward to where the “Old Man” used to be, tending nearer to the cliff’s edge when in doubt, and then follow drainage channels downhill.

Just before this book went to press, an unthinkable, but inevitable, sad event occurred: The Old Man of the Mountains fell down. The “Old Man” was New Hampshire’s state symbol: a world-famous, beloved profile of rock perched high on the cliff’s north end, and visible from the valley below. The cliff area below the rock-fall is now altered, so use skeptical discretion about following any of the current printed guidebook descriptions of the “slab” area. Let us hope the low-angle Cannon slab-climbs, finally cleaned of debris, will eventually prove to be as aesthetic and enjoyable as they once were.

Recommended Routes Partway up the Cliff

described left-to-right — descent via rappel

Duet (5.7) provides a moderate, well-protected two-pitch excursion (rappel rope should diagonal a tad right as you face the cliff in order to reach the garden and final rap station above the Slow and Easy Wall). Variations beginning at the top of pitch one of Duet: Duet Direct (5.10+) is a clean, continuous, soaring, demanding, full-pitch dihedral reminiscent of Devil’s Tower routes, with very good protection — outstanding and memorable. Out on a Limbo (5.11+) is a beautiful, exposed pitch on the outer arete: begin pitch two of Duet, but after a few feet follow cracks and grooves straight up, finally stepping left to spectacular, hard moves on the nose.

On the smooth face below the Duet Buttress try these two climbs. Sticky Fingers (5.10) has two very short, but excellent, pitches. Grunt up the well-protected diagonal crack and belay, then finesse up some thin, balancy, committing face moves. And on Slow and Easy (5.8), layback up the obvious crack left of Sticky Fingers.

Reppy’s Crack (5.8-) is perfect place to practice hand-crack technique; this classic ascends the front of the Conn Buttress in the middle of the cliff. Save a couple of large pieces to protect the final fifteen feet above the pod. Friction intensely up Pepe’s Face (5.12), to the left of Reppy’s.

Uphill and right of Reppy’s Crack, Union Jack (5.9) offers an uncomplicated excursion featuring a very aesthetic, steep layback crux section on pitch two. This layback looks intimidating, but presents just enough features in the right places for feet and hands.

Vertigo (5.9R A-O) is renowned for fun and varied climbing on gorgeous, steep granite. The unprotected Half-Moon Crack on pitch four can be avoided entirely by traversing left to a left-facing dihedral and ascending that at 5.9+. The A-O bit is on pitch two and involves a modest run-and-lunge pendulum to the right. Most people rap from anchors at the top of pitch five.

Other Franconia Notch Crags

On the opposite side of the Notch from Cannon Cliff is a plethora of other cliffs, large and small, which have been long overshadowed by the monster scale of Cannon. In very recent years, however, these east-side crags have received considerable attention and development by committed locals. Echo Crag, in particular, has begun to see considerable Dartmouth traffic, especially its “Square-Inch Wall” (so-named beacuse of the density of routes there). It’s a short, user-friendly cliff, hidden in the dense woods. Excellent trad cracks abound here, as well as challenging thin-face routes between the cracks.

Nearby crags — Profile Cliff, Hounds Hump Ridge, and Eagle Cliff, among others — also offer both one-pitch and longer, more airy ascents.

Of particular note is the High Tension Area, a newly-developed sport-climbing wall not yet in the guidebooks, just a hundred yards to the right of the famous Eaglet pinnacle. This clean, soaring, vertical-to-gently-overhanging wall contains a collection of absolutely stunning lines from 5.10+ to 5.13 — at present, left to right: 13a (requires a seventy meter rope), 12a/b, 13a, 10+/11-, 12d — with more routes to come.

Parking in this area is now restricteed to the Echo Lake and Cannon parking areas. Be adventurous, go exploring and return to tell us about some of these less-visited cliffs. But be especially wary about loose rock, which is so often found on newly-developed mountain crags.

Reference for Cannon, Cathedral, Whitehorse, Sundown, Rumney: Rock Climbs in the White Mountains by Ed Webster, 2nd ed. Chockstone Press, 1988. Secrets of the Notch: A Guide to Rock and Ice Climbing in Franconia Notch State Park and Surrounding Areas by John Sykes, Huntington Graphics, 2001.

Last Updated: 10/21/12