The Prow, Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire

By: Scott Ghiz

Early October 1998.  A Saturday afternoon.  College football games fill the TV time on the weekends and yard chores fill the rest of the void.

My climbing activities have been filled with working for a start-up company, trying to sell software that really didn't exist.  Also, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter was taking up much of my free periods, not that I minded that at all.  My wife was five months pregnant with daughter number two.  I guess a good weather report for New Hampshire, a lack of climbing and too much BS at work got me thinking about rope-soloing the Prow on Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire.

I asked the boss (read: wife) if it would be OK for me to go climbing.  I got the thumbs up and began the task of sorting out all of the aid gear for this little adventure.  

The Prow, Cathedral Ledge.  We found it to be III 5.7 C1+.  The yellow dots are where we belayed.  The orange dots are where the standard belays are.

I knew my regular climbing partner, Mark, was in a very similar situation.  His first daughter was born two weeks before my daughter.  His wife just found out that she was pregnant with their second child and was due, June 1999.  I gave him a call to see if he could, would, join me on this mini-trip.  He also got the go-ahead after a little muffled discussion.

The trip was on within ten minutes at 5:00 PM.  Fastest planned trip ever.  Day trips to the Gunks take longer to plan.

After gathering all of the gear, we had to stop by the garage where Mark has work done on his 1987 VW Scirocco.  He had to pay for the work done on the car so he could pick it up on the way back from NH on Sunday night.  By the way, I live in Eastern PA and Mark lives in Clinton NJ, seven to eight hours away from Cathedral Ledge.

We drove all the way to the Kancamangus Highway, just a few miles south North Conway, NH where Cathedral Ledge is.  All along the Kancamangus Highway are state campgrounds.  We found an empty site around 1:00 AM Sunday and tried to get a little sleep.

We awoke after a few hours of broken sleep at around 5:30 AM and drove into North Conway for coffee and doughnuts.  It was very cold out and we hunkered down in the coffee shop for a little while waiting for the sun to filter into the Mt. Washington Valley.  We finally arrived below Cathedral Ledge at 8:00 AM.  It was still very cold, so we took our time racking up for the day.

Mark at the start of the first pitch explaining the ascender rental agreement.

As we hiked to the start of the climb, I realized I forgot my helmet.  Back down to the car, get the key out of the hiding spot, unlock car, get helmet, lock car, hide key, hike back up.  Once I got back up the talus slope, I realized I forgot my ascenders. S%^T!!! I'm either: Getting old, stupid, not enough coffee or not enough sleep.  I bet it's a combination of all four.  Repeat process, except for when I get to the 'retrieve ascenders' phase.  I realize that I left the ascenders hanging on the two pieces of 9mm cord in my basement. S%^T!!!  On the way up to meet Mark at the base, I try to figure out a clever way to explain my ineptitude.  No way.  Just plead guilty and get on with the climb.  Mark says he won't charge me too much to use his ascenders when I have to follow his leads.  Thanks pal.  I won't make you ride on the outside of my truck for the eight hour drive home later ;)
We still had to negotiate the final 40 feet to the start of the climb.  Heck, between climbing over the rotten trees or soloing up dirty slabs, I'm surprised we didn't give up and go back to the coffee shop.

We started climbing around 9:00 AM and it was actually nice and warm in the sunny, sheltered alcove at the base of the route.  I could have easily taken a nap.

Pitch 1 & 2:  

Mark combined the first two pitches into a single long pitch.  The first section is 5.7 free climbing starting in a wide crack and leading to a steep headwall.  The headwall is climbed on aid with fixed gear, small cams and nuts.  The aid is a little strenuous and awkward.  The belay is at a nice horizontal crack with a convenient stance.  155 feet, 5.7 C1+.

Mark gave the signal that he either had gas or my rope was fixed.  I got moving and regained some of the efficiency on ascenders that I had known during the Yosemite days.  I guess it is like riding a bike.

I really liked Mark's ascenders.  I think he uses Petzl.  I've always used CMI ascenders for their super strength, but who cares when either model could hold 40 of me?  I couldn't let on that I thought his ascenders were great.  When he asked how the Petzl's worked out, all I could muster was, "They basically stink like your shoes."

We did the big-wall/aid change over.  Drank some water and got moving on the next pitch.

Pitch 3 & 4:  

My lead.  I linked the standard 'book' pitches 3 & 4 into one pitch, our second pitch overall.  The pitch turns the corner on the right on small cams and moves to the other side of the Prow.  It's a neat experience to move back and forth around this big arete, just like some sport climbs, except we're aiding most of this.  The other side of the Prow was shady and cold.  While Mark was hanging out in the warm sun (and probably sleeping) I was getting chilled on the far side of the moon.

Mark on the steep headwall of the linked first pitch.

Me using Mark's ascenders on the first pitch.

The first piece of our second pitch on the Prow.

After moving around the corner, the pitch moves up a big and somewhat loose flake.  I used a hook and a sling over the top of the flake to avoid flexing this chunk of granite.  A crack right on the edge of the Prow is reached and is followed to the bolted belay at the end of pitch 3. Two bolts lead to a long reach from the top bolt to place a small Camalot Jr in the crack above (C1+).   A beautiful finger crack leads straight up towards the triangular roof on the next pitch.  

Me, very cold, at the Space Station Belay.

Mark ascending the fixed line to the Space Station Belay.

Mark getting into the crux aid section, beginning the corner leading to the triangular roof.

Mark, a little hungry, at the hanging stance above the triangular roof.

Mark greasing off the slab near the top.

Before reaching the corner leading to the triangular roof, I stepped off to the right and belayed at the infamous Space Station Belay.  The name was given to this spot because of it's exposed position and the large plywood platform Jim Surrete (sp?) used for his belaying station while he worked out the extreme free moves on a 5.13 around the corner from our route.

We didn't even have a belay seat, let alone a plywood platform.  I think a bosun's chair would have been nice.

The Space Station Belay was spectacular.  It is basically right on the nose of the Prow.  You can see a ton of climbers all over the Thin Air face.  You can also see the lines of climbers queuing up for Recompense, an ultra classic 5.9 just to the left of the Prow route that we were on.

Pitch 5:  

We did our typical gear exchange and I encouraged Mark to get moving on the next pitch, the triangular roof pitch.  I believe this is regarded as the crux of the free version of the Prow (5.11+).  I'm pretty sure it was the aid crux based on the pieces I cleaned.  It looked like MC had to use numerous small brass HB offsets up the corner leading to the roof.  I think we decided C1+ was about right, maybe even C2.  You didn't want to fall onto the small nuts and manky pins leading off the Space Station Belay for 40 feet.  Mark did quite a nice job keeping it together while I cussed him out for going so slow.

I really had to take a pee, but being at the Space Station Belay is tantamount to being in the midst of the Stoveleg cracks with a couple of tour busses worth of tourists eyeing you through dozens of binoculars.  I held it like a big boy.

Mark had a nice 5th Avenue candy bar stashed into the bottom of the mini-haul bag.  I ate it, but told him I dropped it while digging for more film.

Mark reached the hanging belay stance just above the triangular roof  just before I reached phase two hypothermia.  He fixed the lead rope and hand hauled the mini-pig.  I then heard the mumbling, "Where the heck is is that thing?  I thought I put a 5th Avenue in here..."

Pitch 6:  

The final pitch, or so I thought.  It starts off in a nice thin finger crack at 5.9.  But I was cold, tired and my fingers were covered in chocolate.  It was an easy C1 for 60 feet until I reached the slab.  I free climbed across the slab (5.6) to the base of the wide crack that leads to the top.  The crack is only about 15' long.  We brought a #3 Camalot as our token large piece.  I plugged this guy in low, made a move to the mantle into an alcove just below the top.  I could not do the move.  It's only rated 5.6 in the guidebook, But I tried everything to get up this move.  I just couldn't do it.  I had to set up a belay at the base of this crack and let Mr. Cool give it a shot.

I was pissed at myself for being such a wimp.  Mark came up and struggled across the slab.  I was thinking we would need to be rescued 15 feet from the tourist railing.  How embarrassing would that be?  We gathered our gear and Mark prepared for the final two moves of the climb.  I then realized that I couldn't do the mantle because of my helmet.  It hit the wall of the alcove just before I could get my center of gravity over my hands while doing the mantle.  I thought about not telling MC this revelation and letting him struggle, but I was hungry (not quite as hungry as Mark), cold and getting tired.  I gave him the keys to the city and we were on top two minutes later.

The Finish

We topped out at 3:30 PM after spending 6 and a half hours on the climb.  We were hoping for a ride down off the top via the auto road.  But the only people on top were a biker (motorcycle) couple making out with each other, a large conservative looking family piling into and out of their brand new mini-van and a couple of bicyclists.  We walked all the way down to my truck.  I finally took a whiz at the porta-potty and we hit the road and a huge traffic jam in North Conway.  Everyone was in the Mt. Washington Valley checking out the fall foliage and buying new shoes at the Bass outlet.

To make a long story short, we stopped for a lot of coffee and jetted across the Kancamangus highway to route 93 south.  I was falling asleep by the time we got back to NY and I let Mark drive back to his mechanic's station to pick up his car.  I drove by myself from there, getting home around 1:00 AM Monday morning.  A thirty two hour, round trip adventure.

The Gear
  • 1.5 sets of brass nuts (HB offsets useful)
  • 1.5 sets of small to medium wires
  • 1 set large wires
  • 1 #0.5 Tri-Cam
  • 1 #1 Tri-Cam
  • 1 each of the 4 smallest Aliens
  • 1 each of the 4 smallest TCUs
  • 1 each Friends to #3
  • 1 each Camalots to #3
  • Cam hooks
  • Talon hooks
  • 60m lead line
  • 50m haul/tag line

I recommend doing the direct finish up the 5.10a or C1 thin crack to the top.  Much less awkward and it keeps the route character consistent.  That last 5.6 section is totally different than the rest of the climb.

The Prow (III 5.7 C1+) is an outstanding day climb which is very similar to the difficulties you would find on either the Regular NW Face of Half Dome or The Nose on El Capitan, both in Yosemite Valley.

The scenic view of the Thin Air face on Cathedral Ledge from the top of the second 'book' pitch.



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