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Classic Routes: Cathedral Ledge's Life, The Universe, and Everything (5.14a)

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Jay Conway, belayed by Michael Larson, above the arête crux on the 5.13c Edge of Bridge pitch, Life, the Universe, and Everything (5.14a; five pitches), Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire.Andrew Burr

On October 14, 2018, Jay Conway, a math teacher at Plymouth Regional High School, New Hampshire, stared up at the fourth ropelength of what was poised to become a new, five-pitch 5.14a on Cathedral Ledge. The route was Life, The Universe, and 

Everything, on the cliff’s forbidding Mordor Wall. Above him rose the 5.13c Edge of Bridge pitch, which tackled V8 refrigerator wrestling—the climb’s most difficult moves. To get here, Conway had climbed the 5.11+ first pitch of Cecile; a crux, 5.14a second pitch via his 2013 Difficulties be Damned that exited via a tough, new V4 mantel; and a sparsely bolted 5.12b “enduro slab.” Conway, supported by his friend Pete Arnold, had already put in five tries over three hours on the Edge of Bridge and was exhausted. If he could make it past the 30 feet of 5.13 above, only a 5.10b section guarded the summit.

While Cathedral is known for its multi-pitch free classics like Thin Air (5.6), Recompense (5.9), The Prow (5.11d), and Liquid Sky (5.13b), the dark, roofy, and seemingly holdless Mordor Wall has mostly been the domain of aid climbers. In years past, the hardest free climb there was Tim Kemple Jr. and Sr.’s Highway 61, a three-pitch, zigzagging 5.13a. “With Rumney close by, most of the 5.13s at Cathedral see very little traffic,” Conway says—with its mixed climbing and funky fixed pro, Cathedral has kept its mantel as the traditional bastion of New England.

In 2013, Conway, now 39, looked between the fixed bashies and old-school mank on the Mordor Wall to find Difficulties be Damned, a mixed pitch with five bolts and five pieces of gear. In spring 2018, he returned to scope a left exit to Difficulties. “That cliff is roadside and has been climbed at since the 1920s,” Conway says. “It’s picked over. I was shocked that I found stuff above that line”—including the 20 new feet off of Difficulties that segue into the new, upper pitches. “All the routes just seem so impossible at first,” Conway says of Cathedral Ledge’s smooth, fine-grained granite, “but once you figure out that almost everything is a foothold, the routes seem to click.”

After his fruitless battle on the Edge of Bridge, Conway rested at the belay. He queued up “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta” by the Geto Boys and got psyched for a sixth attempt. This time, Conway fought through the second V8 boulder problem, with its balancey windmill move, finally sticking the sequence. “It was like my version of the Dawn Wall,” he says. Elated, Conway romped up the last ropelength at dusk, bringing two and a half pitches of new climbing and a proud, new 5.14 to Cathedral Ledge. 


Mordor Wall, Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire 




400 feet; five pitches

First Ascent 

Jay Conway, October 2018