Climb Free or Die
It was late afternoon on a bluebird day in February 1986, and 17-year-old Jim Surette had climbed into the worst kind of dead end. Poised on a sloping foothold 200 feet up New Hampshire’s Whitehorse Ledge, Surette had just pulled a balancey and committing 5.11c move around an arête. He was feeling inspired, in the way you only can when you’re young and ropeless—until he looked up and realized that the next pitch was soaking wet.
Surette watched in horror as water dribbled down the wall and doused the crux moves he’d just pulled. “At this point, my unwavering confidence fully melted away,” he recounts. But, despite his youth, Surette was already one of the most talented climbers in the country, and he knew how to keep his balance. He considered yelling for help, but back in those days, the town of Hales Location hadn’t yet been built below the crag, nor had the White Mountain Hotel—Whitehorse Ledge was a lot more remote than it is today.
Sussing out his options, Surette spied a line of face holds that cut diagonally across the steep, blank wall to his left. It wasn’t an established route, but he was pretty much up a creek without a paddle. He took a deep breath and made an iron-cross move between widely spaced edges, his shoes pedaling on the blank face. Bearing down, Surette prayed that holds would keep appearing. He was soon able to reach a ledge, where he traversed off the face. When Surette got back to his house that evening, his parents asked how his day had been, and he simply said, “fine,” leaving out the details of his botched winter solo.
Surette was one of the leading proponents of what might be called the Golden Age of ground-up, traditional climbing in New England. The basic idea, which peaked during the 1980s, was to preserve the rock. If a patch of stone could not be reached by climbing from the ground up, it was left untouched. The obvious cracks were picked off during the 1970s, so by the 1980s most of the last great problems were slabs and faces, which often necessitated the use of bolts. But if a bolt was needed, the first ascensionist had to figure out a way to drill it on lead, whether by balancing precariously at a no-hands stance or using aid off a hook. This was before the day of power drills; quarter-inch bolts were placed with hand drills, whose bits were notorious for breaking. It was not uncommon to crack two or three bits per hole, which often meant balancing on delicate smears for an hour or more to create a single piece of protection.
Today, with countless steep sport climbing crags across the country, the art of delicate slab climbing on sweeping faces, with its emphasis on balance, smearing, and precise footwork, has somewhat lost its allure with the mainstream. So why risk a severe road rash by climbing slabs? Simple: it will make you a better climber. Slab climbing will teach you how to stand on your feet like never before, and as Surette explains, “When you’re using your feet really well, you don’t have to pull that hard.”
So if you’re curious how good your footwork really is, see the following pages for some of New England’s most classic balance climbs. With your latest sticky rubber, they should be a piece of cake, right?
Whitehorse Ledge, N.H.
“The interest of Whitehorse Ledge lies in the peculiar type of climbing that must be employed. The slabs are literally hold-less throughout much of their extent, and the ascent is possible only by relying of the soles and hands on the rock together with a well considered distribution of weight.” —Robert Underhill, 1920s climbing legend; Rock Climbs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, by Ed Webster
Modern climbers can be thankful for the foresight of some North Conway, New Hampshire, residents who purchased Cathedral and Whitehorse Ledges in the 1890s to protect them from quarrying. Both cliffs and nearby Echo Lake were deeded to the state and are now the crown jewels of Echo Lake State Park, which boasts some of the best climbing east of the Rockies. Whitehorse in particular is one of the premier friction climbing areas in the country, with glacier-polished slabs up to 800 feet high. The cliff also has a distinctly steeper section called the South Buttress, which features adventurous, multi-pitch face climbs from 5.8 to 5.12.
Regardless of your skill level, it makes sense to run up the easy classics, like Standard Route (5.5) and Beginners Route (5.5), at the Whitehorse Slabs before moving onto more challenging objectives. And before you scoff at the fledgling grade, remember that these routes were established from the ground up by fanatics who barely used protection. Beginners Route has 50-foot runouts, and the first pitch of Standard Route follows an R-rated 5.3 slab, with one or two Tricam placements in a full rope length. And as you balance precariously across the polished and devious “Brown Spot” on Standard’s fourth pitch, tip your hat to Leland Pollock, who led this pitch onsight in 1933 wearing tennis shoes, and without any protection. Most climbers today find the Brown Spot a bit spicy with its one bolt, and the 5.5 grade is questionable, even if you read the sequence perfectly. If you’re new to slab climbing, Standard Route is where you’ll learn to find that perfect balance point that encourages your shoes to stick. You might also experiment with using your hands like feet, relying on mantellike pressure to keep your palms glued to the rock.
After balancing up one of those classics, try the nearby Sliding Board. At 5.7, the crux at the start of the second pitch will undoubtedly grab your full attention. The key is to maintain upward momentum while not flubbing the sequence. If you handle that without a problem, don’t worry about the third pitch (5.4), which has one lonely bolt near the top.
As you turn the corner from the slabs, the cliff rears back into a stunning 700-foot headwall known as the South Buttress. Here you’ll find many classic single-pitch routes like Seventh Seal (5.10a) and Ethereal Crack (5.10d). These routes’ thin finger cracks require delicate footwork on the polished smears alongside the cracks—brute strength won’t get you anywhere.
A little further along the base you’ll find the cliff’s signature 5.9, the three-pitch Children’s Crusade. This steep face and friction climb has just enough bolts to make it safe. Like a lot of these routes, the crux is a mantel onto a sloping foothold, and it’s difficult to clip the next bolt until you’ve completed the move. If you cruise the first few pitches and are looking for a greater challenge, the 5.11a direct finish takes a corner through the tiered roof system that looms above. It goes more easily than it appears, and has just enough fixed pins to make it feel reasonable for the grade.
Looking for a taste of steep 5.11 slab without the runouts? The first pitch of Total Recall is a wellbolted and user-friendly introduction to the grade at Whitehorse. It can also be easily toproped from the first anchor of Children’s Crusade.
If there’s one absolute must-do route on the South Buttress, it’s The Last Unicorn, a threepitch 5.10 face climb with a mix of bolts and traditional gear. The route actually starts halfway up the cliff, so it’s a bit of an adventure finding your way to the base. Word of warning: The first pitch has lost some holds and is extremely taxing for the 5.10- it gets in the book. Suffice it to say your stemming and smearing skills will be put to the test.
If you’ve fired everything else, try the first pitch of Future Shock (5.11c). This 60-foot climb follows a rising, slopey foot traverse on a slippery dike, and is the quintessential study of your smearing ability. Most of the way, you only use your hands for balance.
Quincy Quarries, MA
“When you climb at the Quarries, you get good at slab climbing or you leave.” —John Strand
In 1825, a hilltop site in Quincy was chosen to provide granite for the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston. A railroad was built to extract the stone, and for the next 140 years, chunks of the immaculate rock were quarried and shipped all over the country. Local Boston climbers first began exploring the quarries’ climbing potential in the 1920s.
The quarries, with their slick, fine-grained face and slab climbing, soon became a training ground for local legends like Robert and Miriam Underhill, Ken Henderson, and Lincoln O’Brien—who used the skills gained on the quarry walls to make the first ascents of all of New Hampshire’s major cliffs during the late 1920s and early ’30s.
After the quarries closed in the 1960s, they filled with rainwater and became a mecca for cliff jumping. The city of Boston purchased the quarries in the mid-1980s, but so many people were dying from cliff jumping that the city shut them down. It wasn’t until Boston’s “Big Dig” highway project started in the early 1990s that a solution was found: 700,000 tons of dirt from the giant hole dug downtown was dumped into several of the quarries, including the Railway Crag, which had 200-foot cliffs. Today, the Quarries remain an afterwork training ground for many Boston climbers, who still venture north on weekends to ply their slab skills in the White Mountains.
Located just off Boston’s Southeast Expressway, Quincy Quarries’ biggest selling point is its three-minute approach; its biggest negative is the shocking graffiti that covers the bottom of most walls. The guidebook Boston Rocks describes hundreds of routes on more than 20 “craglets,” which range from 20 to 90 feet tall. Most of the routes at Quincy Quarries have been led, but for the average mortal this is primarily a toprope area, with some reasonable leads sprinkled here and there. Landscaped trails with stone staircases lead to the tops of virtually every crag, where you’ll often find fixed anchors.
Most agree that the 40-foot J-Face is one of the best crags, with a host of topropes from 5.4 to 5.11. Lurch (5.7) is a great introduction to the quarries’ slick, granite face climbing. It may also be your first time climbing on paint, which, as you can imagine, has about as much friction as glass. (The graffiti usually ends a body length above the ground.) When you’re warmed up, don’t miss Ladder Line, a thin climb that requires balance, precise footwork, and a refined smearing technique. Ladder Line is rated 5.10 in the guidebook, but this grade was attached back in the late ’60s when it was first climbed by Kevin Bein— most call it 5.11 now.
The slabbiest wall at the quarries is the C Wall, which has a host of moderates on a 70-degree face. Don’t miss Ripple (5.10), established in 1967 by Pete Cleveland. Beware of a sandbag: Cleveland was one of the best free climbers in the country in the 1960s, establishing the 5.12d grade at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin in 1969. Success on Ripple will require an ability to stand on microscopic smears, which will come in extremely handy on the nearby Temple of Doom (5.12+), the quarries’ ultimate slab testpiece, led by John Strand in 1988. The footholds at the crux are virtually nonexistent, so be prepared to bend your fingertips backwards on the sharp, thin crimps.
Spread it around: More great New England face climbs
Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire
The heart of New England traditional climbing, Cathedral Ledge rises just to the north of Whitehorse and hosts a variety of climbing styles, including plenty of slab and thin-face climbs on cliffs like the Lower Left Wall, the Thin Air Face, and the Airation Buttress. Start on Bombardment (5.8), with a clean slab leading to a perfect hand crack. Start on the same slab to reach Ventilator (5.10a), one of the first rap-bolted lines at the cliff. To the left is the incomparable and runout Western Lady (5.11), which John Bouchard soloed in the late 1980s. Or push your limits on Once Upon a Climb (5.11c), with delicate smearing and small crimps, or the well-protected Ego Trip (5.11c), where crisp temperatures are crucial for friction on the dime edges. Or head to the classic four-pitch face Thin Air (5.6) or two 5.10a pitches up clean, white slabs: Freedom or Windfall.
Guidebook: Rock Climbs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire; North Conway Rock Climbs
Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire
Your slab climbing apprenticeship won’t be complete without an ascent at Cannon Cliff, a 1,000-foot dome of exfoliating granite. Many of Cannon’s best routes are cracks, but the far right side of the cliff has some classic slab routes that should not be missed, like Wiessner’s Buttress (5.6), Consolation Prize (5.8), Odyssey of an Artichoke (5.10), and Condescender (5.11a). Feeling cocky? Take a burn on Stretched on Your Grave, a 5.13- slab done on toprope by Strand and the late John Mallmen in 1988. Strand said he climbed “thousands of feet” of 5.12/5.13 slab in Quincy Quarries to prepare for it. Never bolted, it could be one of the hardest slab routes in the country.
Guidebook: Secrets of the Notch: A Guide to Rock & Ice Climbing on Cannon Cliff and the Crags of Franconia Notch, by Jon Sykes
Big Chick, Clifton Crags, Maine
Located just outside the thriving metropolis of Bangor, Big Chick offers the best slab climbing in Maine. This 250-foot dome is reminiscent of Tuolumne, its slabs peppered with crystals, knobs, and chickenheads of all shapes and sizes. The rock is mainly lowangled and extremely coarse-grained, so plan to lose a fair amount of skin if you fall. The majority of the routes are 5.8 to 5.11, but don’t miss the first-rate My Time (5.6), a three-pitch moderate that ends with a long slab. Some call it one of the best multi-pitches in the state.
Slab attack: New England isn’t the only area with great slab climbing—let’s not forget the following calf-straining crags.
Glacier Point Apron, Yosemite National Park, California
A short approach combined with high-quality granite makes this a do-not-miss destination. The massive face has some of the best moderate slab climbs in the park, but beware: There is occasional severe rockfall.
Recommended routes: Monday Morning Slab, Harry Daley Route (5.8), Point Beyond (5.8), Goodrich Pinnacle, Right Side (5.9), Angel’s Approach (5.9)
Laurel Knob, North Carolina
This isn’t a place for beginners, but this 1,200-foot dome has some of the best and tallest slab climbing in the East. The trademarks are grooved water streaks, runouts, and exposure.
Recommended routes: Groover (5.8), Seconds (5.8+), Fathom (5.10a), Have and Not Need (5.10c), Stranger than Fiction (5.11)
Flatirons, Boulder, Colorado It’s hard to mention Boulder without picturing the Flatirons, jutting proudly from the foothills. It’s common to see climbers trotting up the classic sandstone slabs on nice days with only rock shoes and a chalkbag.
Recommended routes: Bulges (5.2 R), The Slab, Direct Route (5.6 R), First Flatiron, Freeway (5.0), Second Flatiron, East Face (aka Standard Route, 5.4), Third Flatiron
Enchanted Rock, Texas
One of the largest pink granite batholiths in the U.S., the Main Dome area in Texas’ Enchanted Rock State Natural Area sports more than 40 routes, from multi-pitch slabs to singlepitch cracks.
Recommended routes: Harder Than it Looks (5.6), Devil’s Slide, Mark of the Beast (5.8+), Devil’s Slide, Ripple (5.9+), Cheap Wine Wall, Bold Talk for a One-Eyed Fat Man (5.10d R), The Shield
Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah
This U-shaped canyon near the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts is well known for fun face climbs on granite. If you tire of friction climbing, there are plenty of jam cracks and incut edges to pull on.
Recommended routes: Pentapitch (5.8), The Viewing (5.10a), The Dorsal Fin (5.10d), Neuromancer (5.11a)
Chapel Pond, Adirondacks, New York
Chapel Pond is celebrated for its long, enjoyable, and moderate slab routes, breathtaking views, and short approach. Beware: There is no fixed protection here.
Recommended routes: Empress (5.5 X), Regular Route (5.5), Greensleeves (5.6), Thanksgiving (5.7 R)