Cannon Mountain: the king of screwing me overI've now been on Cannon four times, and can officially state that there is a pattern of some sort of failure. Jeremiah and I were lucky enough to have a guide and client climbing below us the first time we tackled the great alpine mountain of the northeast. Route finding was an issue that day, and the guide was instrumental in getting us up the proper pitches even though we hadn't hired him. When we got to the top we confidently asked him how long it would take for us to hike to the summit."Oh, about a half hour," he said. We ditched our gear beside the thick, rusted cables that used to hold the Old Man together and headed up the slabs to the top, by-passing the thick, stiff-branched pockets of wind-resistant spruce trees on the way up. By the time we crossed our fourth false summit after about forty-five minutes of easy hiking, we saw the real summit, where the lookout tower and the ski lift are, and realized that not only was the summit still a good forty-five minutes away from where we stood, but also that there was an enormous black cloud speeding our way. Within minutes the slabs turned to waterfalls and we were forced into bushwhacking through the spruce trees, sometimes dangling our bodies ten feet above the floor, with water pouring over the lips of the edges of the slabs and down our shirts and pants, while we dared to let go and drop straight down through the sharp branches to the ground below. Where the dry slabs had saved us from certain impalement by the sharp branches on the way up, they now presented more of a danger than the knife-like branches on the way down. It took us over an hour in the fog and pouring rain to find the Old Man again. It was a wonder we hadn't been struck by lightening, and a miracle we hadn't slid all the way down the slabs and over the edge, plummeting over a 1000 feet to the crumbly talus field at the base.Happy to be on the trail, we suffered the hour-long hike down to find our car alone in the wet, dark parking lot. Jeremiah had forgotten a spare set of clothes (and his sleeping bag, and a jacket, and his sleeping pad, and I accidentally smashed his cellphone charger in the car door earlier in the day, and he accidentally dropped my radio from the bottom of the last pitch before we topped out), but I had an extra set of clothes he could try on. Still we wondered, do we wait until we get to the tent or change in the parking lot?"Fuck it," I said. "I'm wet now and I'm changing here. Besides, there's no one here to see us change." He agreed, and we both stripped out of our wet clothes and stood there, completely naked, in the middle of a dark and empty parking lot, ready to pull on the dry clothes that sit in the trunk of the car...when a car of sightseers drove in with their headlights unfortunately aimed directly at us.
But it doesn't end there. No, the next time Jeremiah and decided to climb Cannon, we (read: he) were determined to hike to the top come rain or shine. This time we were prepared. We weren't going fast and light this time, not if the weather was going to suddenly rise in vengeance from the west where we could not see it coming (Cannon is east-facing). We packed my bag with our gear, our rope, a stove, some food, and the rain fly and poles off my tent for shelter in case we got dumped on again. This time we were going to wait out any storm and stay dry. We weren't stupid. Golly no we weren't.We headed up the classic Whitney-Gilman Ridge with relative ease (well, at one point, on the last pitch, Jeremiah had difficulty pulling the final crux with the 20lb pack on his back, but we got through that debacle no problem) and sat on the top to catch a breather and pack up before heading up to the summit. We walked a bit up the summit trail looking for the obvious path that would take us to the upper slabs. We walked some more, following the descent trail down to the left all the while keeping the wall of thick spruce trees to our right. There had to be a trail up to the slabs, right? We weren't going to have to bushwhack through the spruce trees again, right? Fuck. Despite there being absolutely no trail leading from the WG descent trail up to the upper slabs, we (read: he) were determined to get to the top. Eleven hours after we left the car we returned with more bruises and scratches than the previous time. We were wiped and swore that we'd never do something so dumb again.Oh-ho!, but you say that's nothing eh? Well, I returned to Cannon last year with Jen. We wanted to tackle another classic that has a classic within the classic: Reppy's Crack and Moby Grape (Reppy's being the first pitch of Moby). But when we got to the parking lot it was obvious that the mountain was still fresh with the previous day's rain. A friend of ours who knows the climbing in New England well, said that Whitney-Gilman would be good and that Moby would be too scary. We had both done Whitney before, but we didn't want to drive all the way within an hour of the Canadian border without getting at least some climbing in, so we racked up and headed to do the Ridge one more time. This time, however, with two pitches to go, we and another party found ourselves watching black clouds form over head and hearing the rumble of thunder off in the distance. Whitney-Gilman is no place to be in an electrical storm, but we all figured that rapping down to the talus field below was just as dangerous as getting under cover at the top (because there was still going to be a wet, exposed hike of about an hour in the rain across the massive fallen boulders at the bottom before reaching the lower tree line). Both teams essentially climbed the same pitches at the same time, with the leaders only a few feet away from each other until we let the other party top-out first and take off. Jen and I felt relieved to have reached the top without getting soaked, but that was spoken too soon. Within 15 minutes of topping out and hiking down the descent trail (yes, this time, I was much happier to be following the steep, muddy, and loose trail back to the bottom) the rain started to trickle down through the trees. Still, we felt good that the darkest clouds seemed to be to the south and we were only catching the edge of the storm. But again, we had spoken too soon. First it sprinkled. Then it sprinkled harder. Then it rained. And then it rained harder before the rain turned into a healthy downpour; and the trail became a waterfall, the roots became as slick as ice, the mud as loose as the screws in our brains; and our self-confidence crashed to the point where we thought we were finished, destined to be rescued, freezing, wet, and nearly unconscious until our attitudes reached the depths of darkness that we had never knew existed; and then we were convincing ourselves that if we willed the rain away it would stop; and then we convinced ourselves that if we believed the rain would never stop then it would; and then when we got back to the paved bike path we walked in pain, with our shoes sloshing beneath us; and when we were close to the parking lot we called to it as if it were a dog (come on parking lot, come here, come on! you can do it, yes, you can do it, good parking lot); and then, completely soaked to the core, with a fair amount of daylight under the late breaking sunshine still around us, in the middle of the still-crowded parking lot, we each got naked and changed into dry clothes, neither of us caring that everyone was watching us.
Now cue this past weekend's adventure. What a weird climbing season this has been for me. I sprained my ankle slipping on ice on the way to work this winter. That kept me from not only climbing in the gym, but also from climbing in Moab during a week trip there with Jeremiah (all I did was try to aid a few things and belay). Then, out of nowhere, I bag two of my goals for the year in a matter of weeks. Then I get elbow tendinitis and it freaking rains all of June. My confidence is still high, though, and I ignore my lingering lack of endurance. I immediately got spanked on Bonnie's Roof in the 'Gunks the first weekend out after the rains. All at the same time I'm sending with ease a bunch of climbs that I really should have struggled on. What would Moby Grape be like? I couldn't wait to find out.As you might have guessed, Cannon is no place to climb when the weather is even remotely suspect. It is east-facing and there are no easy descents. In fact, if you do have to descend then the adventure doesn't end once you're at the base. The talus field, which is a mixture of huge boulders, thousands of potentially loose, body-sized stones, and millions of small, sand-like pebbles, can be a major pain in the butt on the way up. It wouldn't be out of order to suggest that the talus field can represent 80% of the time during the approach despite only being 50% of the distance (depending on the route, of course). Now imagine working down that talus field, particularly if it's in the rain when all the rocks are wet and slippery. Whether there are worse places in the world is irrelevant; Cannon can still be a major pain in the ass to get to and off of even in good weather.And good weather is what we finally had on Saturday. When the month of June was as waterlogged as a ham sammich dropped into a stream, Saturday had a zero chance of bad weather. The chance of rain was so small that the weather service didn't even list the obligatory 10% chance of precipitation that one usually sees in New England weather forecasts. Excellent weather meant Jen and I would finally get a chance to tackle Moby Grape. Unfortunately, this also meant that everyone else was thinking the same thing. We were lucky, though, in that we were the fourth party to get to the base of Moby Grape at 11am, with one party already on the second pitch and another party working its way up Reppy's.We waited and chatted with the folks who were ahead of us, and then we chatted some more with the folks behind us. It was a conga line at its very finest, but it was soon our turn and Jen was nervous. Something has happened to my partners the past couple of years. I'm perfectly happy playing on horizontal cracks, crimps, slabs, and, in general, face climbs, but my partners have each gravitated toward vertical cracks over time. First it was Jeremiah. Initially, he kept wanting to climb cracks because "I need to practice them because there aren't any in the Northeast." That was great until I made two trips out west to visit him (after he moved, of course) only to find that where there was an abundance of cracks and a limitation of face climbs and that he was still climbing cracks - not that he needs to get any better at face climbs, but it's the principle of the matter: he wasn't climbing cracks in the northeast because he needed to practice them, he was doing it because he wanted to climb them. That's the truth, so don't let him tell you otherwise.
Then Jen became more enamored with cracks. To be fair, she hasn't sought them out as Jeremiah did, but she's seeking them more and more often as she gets bored climbing in the 'Gunks, which, to some, could be considered a face-climbing paradise. But then there's me. I completely, decidedly, unequivocally, and unabashedly hate most vertical cracks. I think I've found one or two cracks that I really like. One was the fourth pitch of Kor's Flake at Lumpy Ridge in Colorado and the other is Toe Crack at Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire. I like them because I can do them. They are fun because I can get my hands and feet in the cracks and actually climb up. Jeremiah once told me that he thinks I really hate hand cracks and that I'd be better at finger cracks. I've never had the chance to test that theory and upon seeing Reppy's Crack, I was certain I wasn't going to get that chance on Cannon.Reppy's is a 190-foot pitch with about 140 feet of pure crack climbing. It's a splitter crack, too, and probably the only one of it's kind in New Hampshire where there are no features on either side to use. One must jam both hands and feet, one right on top of the other, the entire way. The only rest is in a pod about half-way up, but the crux is actually getting out of the pod. The crack size is a perfect #2 Camalot most of the way up: too big for me to hand jam and too small for me to fist jam.Now, Jen is having a good year climbing. She's climbing harder routes than she ever has before and is taking many more risks outside of her comfort zone. Somehow things have simply come together for her, and she's sending like crazy. But she was nervous and getting worked up. The best way to get her into sending mode is to show confidence that she's going to do it. This isn't a pep-talk and it isn't contrived, but it is calm confidence instead that helps her to put aside the self-criticism that often dogs her. I knew she was going to send, and she did. She apparently had one moment where she fell, but she caught herself with a fist jam and was able to continue. Then it was my turn, and a good turn it wasn't. I got to the pod without incident, but by this time my toes and ankles were screaming for a break. I found some good hand jams, but they always came with the caveat that my feet wouldn't be good. And when my feet were solid, my hands sucked. I fell about four times, with one of those times finding me seeking a way up the lichen-covered arrete to the right instead of fighting the impossible 25-foot stretch of crack that remained above me. I found no other route other than going straight up the crack (and Jeremiah and Jen can both testify that I am the MASTER of finding features around a crack when I really, really, really don't want to climb the crack), so I battled to the top completely exhausted and bruised and banged up all over my feet, shins, forearms, and hands. It was so bad that when I got to the top I was barely able to stand because my ankles were rolling from fatigue.
It was a good thing that we had decided that Jen would lead the first two pitches, with us splitting the pitches the rest of the way up. This allowed her to get the premier money pitch (Reppy's) and for me to bag the other two money pitches (the Triangle Roof and the Finger of Faith). She'd get a couple of more leads in, but I'd get more pitches at the full grade. It was also good that she got the second pitch because I was completely and utterly exhausted when I finished Reppy's. Still, it didn't take long for both of us to make it up the next pitch to our anchor below the roof. I racked up and took off, only a slight bit nervous because, as I got closer, I noticed the roof was a jam crack roof, and that I'd need to polish my crack climbing quickly if I was going to get up and over this thing.The climbing was easy getting up to the roof, even if it was a bit heady at times. Below the roof is a thin, right-leaning flake that appears to have no feet. It's not as scary as it looks, though, and soon I found myself at an awkward spot where I could either stay low and traverse right before getting the small edge that is below the roof or bomb straight up to the edge. I went straight up, but I later saw someone go right instead. Meh, it could have been easier going right, but I had fun making my little dynamic move. I mean, what's a fall if it is well-protected? It doesn't matter, right?The next part was trying to figure out how to get over the roof. I had already been told what cam size to plug into the crack so I felt pretty good about placing the piece from below. But it's a big roof. If it were more horizontal then it would be a full-body roof. As it was the edge of it was higher than I am tall, but I was still able to reach above it and layback up to see what was above: nothing but more crack with the exception of a nice ledge out right. I wouldn't be able to get that ledge until after I got my feet up over the roof, so it was useless working that into the crux moves. I lowered myself back down and talked with the folks above me and below me. They gave me some beta and I felt ready to go.It was pumpy at first, but I was able to reach up high, grab onto the edge of the crack and pull myself upward, with my feet walking up the face to my left and my hip bouncing up over the right edge of the roof. Good, I was high enough to really start cranking now. All I had to do was get my right foot up high and then stand up. But as I tried to do this there was something holding me back. Everyone was cheering me on, "You got it! Keep going! It's all you!," but I couldn't move any higher. It was frustrating because at first I didn't know what was going wrong? It was then that I realized the cams on the right side of my harness were dangling low enough for the heads to catch on the lip of the roof. "Bugger," I thought when I realized that I wasn't getting any higher with the gear in the way.
I cautiously lowered myself and took a quick break. After a couple of minutes of taking in deep breaths, I moved all of the gear that was on my right side to my left side and I went back up. This time it was much easier to slide my hip up higher on the upper slab above the roof. I was struggling with the crack because I was laying it back and my center of gravity was to the right of where the crack was. I was finally able to pull myself closer into the crack where I found a nice fist jam with my left hand. This allowed me to palm the face in front of me with my right hand and bring my right foot up. Bingo. I was there. I was only one move from grabbing the nice ledge out right. All I had to do was slowly shift my weight off my left foot to my right foot and bump my right hand up high. This felt good at first, and as soon as I shifted my weight I felt comfortable enough to take my right hand out of the crack and...AHHHHH!!!Within a second I was flying past the roof and slamming down into the slab below it. I looked up as I struggled to get my feet underneath me and felt the rope slide through the cam above. It had held, but I was still running backward because the rope hadn't pulled tight yet. I started to fall backward some more and I felt a pain shoot through my right ankle. Soon enough I had stopped completely. I was relieved at how well the cam held and I breathed deeply for a few seconds while I figured out what to do next. I was there. I was so close that I could feel that if I went back up a second time that I'd get it for sure. But as I hung there, breathing deeply and sorting all of my racing thoughts in my head; as I hung there ten feet below the roof and looked up at it and thought about what could possibly have gone wrong; I felt my ankle swell.Within a few seconds it was difficult to even stand there. I asked Jen to lower me and she did. I then brought her up to the anchor where the team below us was camped out and we discussed our options. For certain, they were going to go ahead of us. I needed time to rest and think about if I could continue to climb, so letting them pass through was the appropriate thing to do. What we didn't know was if Jen could lead the rest of the way while I jugged the parts that were likely going to be too difficult on my ankle. The guys below us were willing to use our gear to get through this section and they also offered to clean and lower the gear down to us if we decided not to continue. It was clear, though, what we were going to do when Jen came to the new anchor. She had burnt her hand in the fall and she didn't think she could belay or climb effectively the rest of the way.It was blind fate that the fall happened there. If we had gone any higher then we wouldn't have been able to descend without leaving gear. As it was there was a rap station at our current position and one at the top of Reppy's Crack. Two raps down and we were on the ground. Now we had to tackle the talus field.I wasn't looking forward to the talus field. I knew I was going to be using mostly one foot and she was going to have to down-climb with a burnt hand. But we had discussed taking the shortest descent we knew: the trail just below the route Lakeview, the route Jeremiah and I had climbed before my first epic on Cannon. The walk alongside the cliff toward the Lakeview descent was painful, but we made progress. Jen had found a hiking stick for me to use, and I was grateful for the crutch while it was still useful. The hike down through the talus field was scary because I had little control over my shifting body weight, and the hiking stick was too much of a burden to carry at this point so I tossed it. Jen was walking below me so that she could find the proper route down. The idea was that she could move faster and make route mistakes less of a time issue than if I screwed up and went the wrong way, but I was always fearful of slipping and knocking chest-sized rocks down onto her. It took us over an hour to pick our way back to the car. I was hardly able to take my shoe off after I collapsed near the trunk, but after a while I found it easier to limp around. We went to a small creek where she dipped her hand into the cold water and I dipped my leg beside her. I also had to wash up a few of the nasty-looking scrapes I had earned in the fall.Before long we drove to the store and cooked fish at a friend's house. The next day's climbing adventure was canceled and we realized that Cannon was not the kind of place where you want to get hurt. We knew this, of course, but somewhere, in the stupid part of our brains, we talked about coming back to Cannon this year when the weather was guaranteed to be cooler and drier just so we could get to the top of Moby Grape before the season ended. That would mean she would have to lead Reppy's again. I would have to follow Reppy's again, and then I would have to muster the courage to get up and over the roof that doomed us on the best weather day Cannon had seen in 2009. Go figure.
Greg shares a Blog with his friend Jeremiah "Jello" Meizis. Click here to see Greg and Jeremiah's Climbing Blog. Click here for Greg's Route Index