Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Climbing Moby Grape (5.8), Cannon Cliff, NH

(Photo: A portion of Cannon Cliff, with some wetness clearly visible.)

A few weeks ago I got to bring to life a little dream of mine.

 I've been wanting for a couple of years to do a long route on what passes for a big wall here in the Northeast, either the Diagonal route (5.8) on Wallface Mountain in the Adirondacks, or the Whitney-Gilman Ridge (5.7) or Moby Grape (5.8) on Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire. Until recently this dream has remained unrealized because I didn't want to take a whole weekend away from my family in order to do the climbs, and I didn't have a partner for whom it seemed to be a priority.

But then this summer I met Adrian, who recently moved to NYC from Vancouver. He's been climbing at Squamish for two decades. Big walls are his bread and butter. It wasn't long into our first climbing conversation that I confessed to him my burning desire to go up North to hit one of these big faces.

Later, when Adrian and I started talking about heading up to the Gunks for a weekend day, Adrian asked me if I wanted to head up to Cannon Cliff instead. It was like I'd rubbed a lamp and a genie had suddenly emerged. There was no way I was saying no. The only problem was that I couldn't take both Saturday and Sunday to climb. I quickly hatched a viable, if kind of brutal, alternative plan: we would head out Friday night and drive 5 or 6 hours to the vicinity, crash in a hotel, get up early, hit Moby Grape (and maybe the Whitney-Gilman too if we were really moving fast!), and then drive the 5 to 6 hours back home Saturday night. This way we'd be done in a day. A marathon day, but just a day nonetheless.

For some reason Adrian agreed.

We drove out on Friday night, heading up Route 91 through Vermont until we reached the junction with Route 93, which goes down through New Hampshire to Franconia Notch State Park, the home of Cannon Cliff. I had printed from Google a list of nearby hotels but I didn't think we would need it. I assumed there'd be room at the local Comfort Inn since it wasn't yet leaf season.

I was mistaken.

We pulled into the Comfort Inn parking lot at about 12:45 a.m. When we went inside, a very smug young woman seemed thrilled to tell us that they didn't have a single room available. I asked her if she knew of any other hotels in the area and she replied, with certainty, that no one else could take us. I never found out why the local hotels were so packed. I couldn't wait to get away from this unpleasant person, so I neglected to ask her.

Back in the parking lot we were debating whether to drive around to look for another hotel, or to simply try to sleep in my Subaru, when I remembered my printed-out list of hotels. Several surreal phone calls then ensued, in which I called numerous different hotels only to reach the same late-night hotel desk man over and over again. It turned out that in the St. Johnsbury, VT area (where Route 91 meets Route 93), most of the hotels have no one at the desk at night, and a few different hotels have their late-night incoming calls routed to this one person who mans the phone for the Fairbanks Inn. I had a few conversations in a row with this same gentleman, and in each case he was equally incapable of determining whether any rooms were available at whatever hotel was in question. (He actually left me a message later offering me a room after we'd made other arrangements.) Finally we lucked out when I awoke the proprietress of an amazing little slice of history called Injun Joe Court. I'm not kidding. This place really exists. The lady told us to come on over, and she waited up for us, so I decided against asking her about the name of her establishment. We finally got to sleep about 1:30, vowing to get up at 6:00 so we could find breakfast and still get to Cannon pretty early.

(Photo: the sign for Injun Joe's. Crazy, right?)

We got up pretty much on time and had an indifferent breakfast at the nearby Joe's Pond Country Store, making it to the Cannon Cliff parking lot by 8:00 a.m. Upon our arrival, we learned some potentially upsetting news from some other climbers who were sporting a pair of binoculars. They'd been scanning the cliff, and they'd found that there were multiple parties already on both the Whitney-Gilman Ridge and Moby Grape. Also, the cliff was looking pretty wet. I wasn't really surprised to find other climbers at Cannon on the weekend, but I didn't think it would be so crowded so early. It was supposed to be a nice day, in the sixties, but the whole park was still shrouded in fog. And as for the wetness, that really did catch me by surprise. It had rained pretty heavily two days before down in the NYC area (this was the time of the Brooklyn "tornado"), but after a full dry day I didn't expect it to be so wet on the rock.

What could we do but make the best of it? We'd come all this way. We weren't turning around. We geared up and hiked through the big talus field to the base of Moby Grape, and it immediately became apparent that we would not be doing more than one route on the cliff. We were already the fourth party of the day on Moby Grape. And the second party was not yet finished with the first pitch.

When we finally got started, the route turned out to be excellent, even though it got wetter and wetter as we progressed towards the top. Many climbers know of the famous features on the route, such as the Triangle Roof on the third pitch, and the Finger of Fate on the fifth. But the route has so much more than that to offer. Nearly every pitch has at least one unique feature offering a specific challenge to the climber. And despite what you may have read, nearly the whole route features good climbing on solid granite.

Generally good rock notwithstanding, as an alpine route on an exfoliating cliff Moby Grape certainly requires more commitment than your average Gunks 5.8. And with numerous sections featuring vertical jam cracks and granite slabs, the climbing was largely alien to a Gunks climber like me. Once the wetness variable was added to the equation I was thrilled to have an experienced granite climber like Adrian along. I knew he'd be happy to lead all the crux pitches and in the end he led some of the ones designated for me as well.

We had with us the Jon Sykes guidebook to the area, Secrets of the Notch. Since there was a conga line of climbers ahead of us on the route, we barely used the book. Looking at the description in retrospect, it seems adequate to me, but no more than that. The description on is really quite poor, leaving out a lot of crucial directions and inaccurately dismissing the climbing that follows the "finger of fate" to the top of the cliff. Probably the best route description can be found on the website for Chauvin Guides.

Pitch 1 (5.8)

(Photo: Climbing Reppy's Crack, close on the heels of another party.)

We started, as I imagine most people do these days, with the Reppy's Crack variation. This pitch features a perfect jam crack for about 120 feet, which is then followed by fun moves around a corner and up to a bolted anchor. I actually considered leading this pitch, despite my complete lack of experience with jamming. I figured I knew intellectually what to do, and that by the end of the pitch I'd get used to it and have it down. But jam cracks are Adrian's specialty, so I deferred to his desire to lead the pitch, and I am so happy I did. After Adrian flew up the thing, obviously enjoying himself and declaring the crack to be the equal of anything in Squamish, I slowly suffered to the top. I found the hand jams awkward, the foot jams painful. My progress was too slow, increasing the pain. And it never let up. No particular move was too hard, but the whole experience was just exhausting for me. Before the crux pod I felt one of my hands start to slip and I just let the fall happen. I needed a rest. Then I did the crux step up out of the pod without any trouble, and just willed my way to the end of the pitch, constantly wishing it could be over. I arrived at the belay a little demoralized. I vowed to get some practice jamming, but without a multi-day trip to Yosemite or Squamish I'm not sure how I'm going to get enough practice to improve! The rest of the climb went much more smoothly for me, without a moment's fear that I would actually fall, and the ratings on the whole seemed fair.

Pitch 2 (4th Class)

This is the route's lone throwaway pitch. It is about 90 feet of easy scrambling, starting left up some blocks and then up a corner to a good ledge at the base of steeper rock.

Pitch 3 (5.8)

(Photo: Adrian climbing up to the triangle roof, again not far behind another group.)

This is the physical crux pitch, featuring the triangular roof. The roof is a fun 5.8 challenge, one that any Gunks climber should have no trouble with. Something the guidebooks don't tell you is that the moves to get to the stance below the roof, up a right-leaning seam with slabby feet, are also tricky, contributing to the sustained fun of the pitch. After pulling the roof it is another friction step up to a good ledge, which can be followed to the right for a belay at some suspect blocks.

Pitch 4 (5.7 or 5.8)

(Photo: Working up the pitch 4 corner.)

This was one of my leads, and perhaps because Adrian told me it was a 5.6 I thought it was easy. I later learned that Sykes calls it a 5.7 in his book and the Chauvin Guides' site describes it as 5.8. I thought this pitch was different from all the others and lots of fun, with somewhat committing moves up a layback crack for about 15-20 feet up to the right and around a corner, then up easier rock slightly to the left to a ledge, pretty much directly below the shark's fin-shaped feature known as the Finger of Fate. While Adrian thought the layback was insecure, it didn't worry me much because there are good (if small) edges for feet wherever you need them.

Pitch 5 (5.8)

(Photo: Adrian getting into the Finger of Fate.)

The challenges of this pitch are more mental than physical. The Finger of Fate is actually the second challenge of the pitch. The first is a feature known as the Sickle. This curved, crescent-shaped rock starts almost horizontal and then curves up sharply to the right. There is a fun slabby step with crimpy fingers over to the Sickle, then a hand traverse to the right until your hands are high enough for you to pull your feet up so that you are standing on top of it. In my opinion this is the best part of the pitch. While the Finger of Fate looks intimidating from below, it is actually very easy to climb. People tunnel behind it from either side; when Adrian got to it he chose the right. I made things more difficult for myself while following by stubbornly trying to climb it with my pack on. I had seen an earlier party climb it with packs, but theirs were much smaller than mine. I couldn't fit through with mine on, and I found myself basically stuck while straddling the Finger, unable to fit my body through so I could sit on top of it. I ended up slowly taking a sling from around my shoulder, attaching the pack to my harness with the sling, and then struggling free of the pack, all the while balancing my torso atop the Finger and staring straight down about 400 feet to the bottom of the cliff. I'm sure it made quite a sight; I wish I had pictures! Once you are atop the finger, this great pitch isn't quite over. There's still a low-angled slab move or two to some good holds and then a big grass ledge. These slab moves are not hard, but they are impossible to protect well and a fall here on lead would send you tumbling past the Finger. When we did it, the slab was wet, and I didn't envy Adrian having to lead the pitch. It was a sign of what was to come for the rest of the climb.

Pitch 6 (5.7 or 5.8)

This pitch begins with a couple of bouldery moves up a little polished channel. When we got there, we found out why it is polished: it was running with water, soaking wet. Adrian kept telling me that my toes would still stick on wet granite, and it turned out he was right. The pitch isn't bad, even soaking wet. Past the start the climbing eases past some more slab moves on lower-angled granite to a belay below a chimney.

Pitch 7 (5.7)

When you look up at the awkward move out of the chimney and around onto the face of the cliff, it is hard to believe it is rated 5.7. It turns out to be just as awkward as it appears, and the committing move out from the chimney, if blown, might lead to a pretty nasty swing backwards. Nevertheless I think this pitch is really fun and different from all the others, and it is totally unheralded. There is a great handhold to latch onto before you make the move, and the challenge of the pitch is figuring out how to squirm your body around to grab the hold effectively. Once you've got it (and I'm not telling you which hand to use!), it's just a couple of moves up and around onto the face of the wall, then easier climbing straight up to a good stance.

Pitch 8 (5.6)

There is a popular alternate finish to Moby Grape, a 5.7+ left-facing dihedral called Curt's Corner. We'd hoped to try it out, but it was really wet, just running with water. The guidebook described another 5.6 finish to the right, but looking up neither of us had much of a clue where we were expected to go. I tried to find the line, but failed, and then Adrian came up and picked out a line I wasn't even considering, getting us off the route in no time. I have no idea whether we found the correct finish.

(Photo: a view from the top.)

The descent from the top of Cannon reminds you how far you've come up. It took us more than an hour to get down, but this may have been partly because the descent path was damp and slippery. For us it was borderline unpleasant, but I bet in drier conditions it would be no problem at all.

As we left and I steeled myself for the 6 hour drive back to NYC, I tried to look on the bright side: this would make the commute to the Gunks seem short!


  1. Great post! Looking to do this route sometime this summer.

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  3. I just climbed Moby Grape yesterday and it was wet, rained on and off after we finished the first 3 pitches. You can see my write up here:

    Didn't read your write up until now, but I've always enjoyed coming to your site from time to time.

    I see that Yum Yum Yab Yum is on your 2017 list. I just climbed it again recently with my dad and it's so epic, the traverse at the end is amazing, hard to believe there is a climb that nice that is only 5.3.

    You're a bit of a stronger climber than me, but if you ever need a partner for the Gunks let met know. I'm at bhoste[at]gmail