Greens Cliff: New Hampshire's Mega Backcountry Destination

Liam Byrer climbs the 200-foot The Cracks to El Dorado (5.11+), a slab climb to bottomless hand crack that traverses over a large roof, giving it a very “airy” feel—Greens Cliff, New Hampshire.Josh Laskin

As the sun sank behind the Main Wall at Greens Cliff in New Hampshire, Ray Rice arrived at a sequence of powerful underclings on a climb he’d recently bolted, Trusting the Rubber (5.12a). The route was an hour hike from Sawyer River Road along a ridge through dense coniferous forest. Four times, Rice had fallen off the crux of this 90-foot steep slab. This time—August 2018—he pushed through, finishing off the fortieth first ascent at the cliff since 2013, when climbers ferreted out the new approach, making this remote slab-and-crack paradise just east of North Conway more accessible. While popular cliffs like Rumney and Cathedral are often mobbed, Greens’s backwoods location has kept it off climbers’ radar until recently.

“It’s some of the last remaining pristine granite in New Hampshire,” says Rice of the 120-
million-year-old rock, riddled with glacial-plucked cracks, sweeping arches, towering dihedrals, and featureless 300-foot slabs. Located in the heart of the 751,000-acre White Mountain National Forest and over two miles from the closest road, Greens had been overlooked for decades. Today, there are more than 65 routes ranging from 5.7 to 5.13.

As logging became New Hampshire’s major industry in the late nineteenth century, a network of access roads was developed. Visitors used these roads to hunt and picnic at Greens’s base. In October 1928, a party of Appalachian Mountain Club rock climbers ascended 100 feet, but “impregnable” slabs turned them around. Then, as the country began to feel the effects of the Great Depression, New Hampshire’s logging industry faltered. The roads were decommissioned and disappeared, as did the crowds.

In 1975, Jimmie Dunn and Michael Macklin made the then eight-mile slog out to Greens. The pair made the cliff’s first full ascent by way of Stewart’s Crack (5.10b), a classic 300-foot hand crack that opens to offwidth. The cliff saw sporadic development for the following 18 years, with stories of a grueling approach and unclimbable rock repelling most suitors. Still, a few classics went up, like Michael Hartrich and Matt Peer’s The Ginsu Flake (5.9+) in the 1980s, and John Strand and Gerry Lortie’s Black Flies Consume Jim Dunn (5.12d)—a 100-foot steep, sustained slab protected by 5/16” buttonheads—in the 1990s.

“There were rumors,” says Justin Preisendorfer, a local climber who works for the United States Forest Service (USFS) as their Eastern Region Winter Sports Team Leader. “People called it ‘The Porcelain Wall’—there were no holds, no cracks, no gear.” In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Preisendorfer, Steve Dupuis, Tim Martel, Jamal Lee-Elkin, and others began hand-drilling new routes here on lead. In 2001, Lee-Elkin aided Greenpeace (5.5 A3), a 200-foot finger and hand crack that was later freed and is considered the best 5.11+ in New England. Still, other, more accessible cliffs around the state received more attention, and Greens remained relatively untapped. After at least 60 routes were established on the nearby, 250-foot-tall Owl’s Cliff, only one obvious objective remained.

Ray Rice sticking the undercling crux on the FA of his steep-face testpiece Trusting the Rubber (5.12a).Josh Laskin

In 2010, Mark Sprague, a Rhode Island climber, skied out to Greens. Over the next few years, Sprague, Dima Shirokov, Amy Colburn, and others put up first ascents, including the network of slab and flakes I’m Still Here (5.10b) and the thin crack to slab Blurry Eyes (5.10c). With the help of a few bolts, Shirokov and Sprague also freed Greenpeace (5.11d). Then, in 2013, the new two-mile approach was found from the north. Eventually Rice, Will Carey, Sam Bendroth, Liam Byrer, and other North Conway climbers caught wind of the development.

The North Conway climbers began freeing unfinished projects, bolting new lines, and exploring unclimbed cracks that rival the best at Cathedral Ledge. In 2013, Bayard Russell, Rice, and Conor Cliffe made a ground-up onsight ascent through Greens’s main headwall. After traversing in from A House Called Dawn (5.11b), the group followed sketchy flakes between corner systems to establish two unnamed pitches, both 5.11 R. That same month, Cliffe freed the overhanging crack Angel (previously 357), establishing the cliff’s first and only 5.13.

Things were taking off, but not without hiccups. The USFS had Greens on their radar, and they weren’t particularly pleased with the downed trees at the cliff base—the result of route cleanup—or the flagging of the new approach trail.

According to Preisendorfer, while climbers are permitted to develop new climbs on USFS land, trail work is technically prohibited. And when a high concentration of people suddenly starts using an area for recreation, there will be impact—like cliff-base erosion, says Preisendorfer. “Depending on the environment, [the base] can be an enriched site where nutrients are leaching out of the cliff, resulting in a plant species you wouldn’t have other places,” he adds.

After the USFS spoke with the local climber organization Friends of the Ledges to address impact concerns, locals replaced flagging along the new trail with cairns and removed illegally cut debris from the cliff base. There have been no further complaints. “We have a lot of success stories from the climbing community,” Preisendorfer says. “Rumney has more rare plants than just about anywhere else for popular climbing. [When] that information is shared, the community does a really good job of protecting that.”

Mike Morin, the Northeast regional director for the Access Fund, shares Preisendorfer’s optimism: “What [Greens] has going for it in terms of natural protection is that it’s an hour slog uphill, which thins the masses out considerably,” he says. Then there’s the fact that much of the cliff is blank—Rice, for his part, thinks it’s nearly climbed out. “There are just stretches of rock that are never going to be able to be climbed, which makes it that much more enticing and awesome,” he says. “Maybe they will. Maybe they’re for the future.”