The Rock Climbs of North Conway, New Hampshire

The pages on the right are sample pages from the guidebook from North Conway Rock Climbs. They include the guidebook's introduction, as-well-as several pages showing the various styles of maps, topo photo-diagrams and descriptions that are used throughout the book. The featured route is the Standard Route the classic moderate(5.5) of the venerable Whitehorse Ledge.

 

The Land, Rules and Regulations ~ The Rock
The Weather ~ Camping and Amenities

 

Climbing areas in North Conway New Hampshire

North Conway climbing areas overview map. < Click for detail. >

The Land, Rules & Regulations

Seth Calkins on Nancy Boy, Laughing Lion cliff.The bulk of the crags in this guidebook are in the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF). For information such as road and cliff closures, campsite information etc., contact:

White Mountain National Forest: 603 528 8721
Saco Ranger District Office (WMNF): 603 447 5448

The Saco Ranger District office is located about 100 yards west of Route 16 on the north side of The Kancamagus Highway. Generally, there are few restrictions on climbers. A few of the cliffs, such as Square Ledge and Wild River Crag, are in Wilderness Areas. Wilderness areas have special regulations intended to keep these areas wild and to reduce human impact. The following apply in all WMNF designated wilderness:

  1. No mechanized equipment or mechanical transport (including bicycles, carts, and wagons; wheelchairs are allowed).
  2. Hiking and camping group size is limited to 10 people.
  3. Geocaching is prohibited.

To protect wilderness values, the following climbing-specific restrictions apply (2005 White Mountain National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, pages. 3-15):

  • S-1 Wilderness is open, unless closed to rock, ice, and mixed climbing.
  • S-2 The use of power drills is prohibited.
  • S-3 Storing equipment, including fixed ropes, is prohibited.
  • S-4 Installation of fixed protection, including webbing, bolts, or pitons, is prohibited on new climbing routes.

Cathedral and Whitehorse are in Echo Lake State Park, which has its own set of rules that mostly relate to the opening and closing of access roads, but that have few restrictions on climbers.

The cliffs in the Evans Notch and Bethel areas are a different story. Some of the cliffs are in the National Forest, but most are on private land. The inclusion of a cliff in this guidebook in no way implies a right of access, and the descriptions should be considered nothing more than an attempt to document the climbing that has occurred for historical purposes. Where climbing is tolerated, and to ensure continued access, at crags such as Shell Pond and Tumbledown Dick, climbers should show due consideration and respect to the wishes of the landowners at all times.

Perhaps the most important restriction on climbers relates to peregrine falcons. Peregrines almost became extinct due to the widespread use of the pesticide DDT. DDT's effect on the bird's eggs caused a precipitous decline in the population. Once the problem was recognized and DDT banned, the falcon population slowly recovered. Part of the recovery process included giving nesting birds a wide safety zone by restricting access to the parts of the cliffs where they nested. There are nesting birds on several of the cliffs in this book, Cathedral Ledge, Laughing Lion and the Painted Walls to name three. Where the birds nest, portions of the cliffs around the nests are usually closed until nesting season ends in late July/early August. The closed areas are clearly marked, using posters on prominent trees. The specific closures sometimes change from year to year, depending on where the birds nest. In order to maintain good relationships with the land managers, it is vitally important that these closures be respected. Thankfully, as of 2012, peregrines are no longer on the Endangered Species List and restrictions may well be lifted as the population continues to recover.

Mount Washington from Bear Notch Road

Mount Washington from Bear Notch Road.

Many of the access roads in the area are not maintained for winter travel. Bear Notch Road, Passaconaway Road, Evans Notch Road (Route 113), Sawyer River Road and several others are usually closed by the first major snowfall, sometime in November. The roads generally do not open again until they are clear of snow in the spring, usually in early May.

The Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) handles all technical rescues in the White Mountain Region. This is a volunteer organization, consisting mostly of local guides and climbers, and which depends on donations to operate. Contributions go toward the purchase of equipment such a radios, sleds, GPS devices etc, as well as specialized training for the personnel. As well as its rescue operations, the MRS has been instrumental in the upgrading of local fixed hardware and, in no small part, has helped create and sustain the good relationships between climbers and land managers in the White Mountains. If you are a New England climber, this is an organization that deserves your support.
Donations can be sent to:

Mountain Rescue Service

PO Box 494

North Conway, NH 03860

In the event of an accident call:

International Mountain Equipment (IME): 603 356 6316.

New Hampshire Fish and Game Department: 603 271 3421

North Conway Fire and Rescue: 911

The Rock

Generally speaking, there are three different rock types found in the area covered by this guidebook, granite, schist, and a volcanic rock called syenite. The syenite is only found in a small area on the north side of the eastern end of the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112). This is a beautiful, solid, fine-grained rock which is very good for climbing. There are a lot of attractive thin cracks and corners which allow for some very good traditional climbing. The faces have a lot of small, square-cut edges and the occasional flake which makes for some very good and usually quite fingery sport climbing, mostly in the upper grades.

Jim Surette on the superb granite of Cathedral Ledge. Webster's Unabridged.

Jim Surette on the superb granite of
Cathedral Ledge. Webster's Unabridged.

Most of the cliffs in the area consist of various forms of granite. This is quite a variable medium, which can be butt-smooth (much of Green's Cliff), or covered in holds (The Wonderwall on Whitehorse, the Thin Air Face on Cathedral). Mostly it is a very solid, medium grained rock which provides superb climbing; often characterized by cracks, corners, and faces that are usually vertical or less. Climbing on granite often requires the use of specific techniques, such as hand or finger jams, for most of the crack climbs. Even the face climbing is a very different style from that found on other types of rock; it is generally not as steep, but is often a lot smoother for a given grade. It is not a rock that is very forgiving of poor technique, and for most, the learning curve is not very steep. The bottom line is that it takes a bit of time and effort to learn the skills needed to climb here. But, once mastered you have as a playground one of the best collections of traditional-style routes in the country.

The hills to the north and east of North Conway have many outcrops whose rock is categorized under the general heading of schist. Basically, this is base rock which has been blasted with heat (metamorphosed) and infused with other minerals, most notably mica in this area. Depending on how intense or long the heating process was, the end result can be more or less similar to the original base rock. Some of the rock (Buck's Ledge, Jockey's Cap, Shell Pond's Family Crag) appears as a slightly tweaked granite, whereas other rock (Shell Pond's Main Cliff) looks completely different.

From a climbing point of view, schist generally doesn't lend itself to traditionally-protected routes; most of the routes on this type of rock are sport climbs. The rock has quite a bit of surface grain in its natural state but it quickly cleans up to leave a really nice, grippy surface. Unlike granite, the schists are usually covered with quite an interesting and varied assortment of face holds, which allows for some very steep climbing, and many long, pumpy pitches.

In many ways the schists provide a style of climbing that is a perfect complement to the technical granite and fingery syenite routes further west.

The Weather

The rock climbing season in North Conway generally extends from early April to the end of October, but conditions vary greatly from year to year and it is not at all uncommon to find good climbing conditions outside of these months. Certain cliffs such as Shell Pond, Shagg Crag, the South Buttress of Whitehorse, and Squaredock Ledge are very sunny and sheltered and can have great climbing even in the depths of winter. Conversely, a late spring snowfall can sometimes keep Cathedral Ledge soaking wet until early May.

Usually, the spring and fall have the best climbing conditions, with pleasantly sunny days and cool temperatures, together with low humidity providing great friction. The summer can be hot and humid, but not unreasonably so, and seldom for long. Furthermore, great conditions can, and often do, blow through at any time.

Sometime in late May black fly and mosquitoes start to make their presence felt. They are usually pretty thick in the air for a couple of weeks, before gradually thinning out towards the end of the hottest months; and they are usually more or less gone by September. For the uninitiated, the first few weeks of bug season can be very unpleasant, making the heavy use of insect repellent pretty much mandatory. However, wearing the right sort of clothes, knowing which cliffs to avoid, and climbing at the right time of day can all make a big difference, and make even the worst few weeks manageable.

There is quite a lot of rock in the area that is climbable when it's raining. Sundown (Main Cliff), Shell Pond (Main Cliff), Shagg Crag, The Cathedral Cave, and parts of Band M all have quite a lot of climbing that stays dry. It is usually possible to salvage a bit of climbing out of even the soggiest day.

Tim Kemple on the first ascent of The War between Love and Hate, a typically fingery and technical route on Sundown's syenite.

Tim Kemple on the first ascent of The War between Love and Hate, a typically fingery and technical route on Sundown's syenite

Staying in North Conway

North Conway is a tourist town and as such is set up to cater to visitors. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that there's much of the type of accommodation that climbers are usually looking for. The numerous family campgrounds in the North Conway area are mostly busy, noisy, and very expensive. Even the various National Forest campgrounds are quite pricey and often booked up months in advance. Car-camping is possible (the author did it for months at a time when researching this book!) but surprisingly awkward and restricted. In particular, the old standby of car-camping underneath Cathedral Ledge is no longer allowed by Echo Lake State Park. The same is true for all the National Forest Trail head parking areas. In the National Forest, camping is only allowed at the designated campsites. Backcountry camping and fires are allowed, but not within a 1/4 mile of the road, bodies of water, huts etc. Having said that, there are plenty of out of the way spots where it is possible to hunker down for the night. This is especially true as you get further away from the hub of North Conway. Just remember to keep a low profile and to keep your spot clean.

One of the nice things about car-camping in this area are all the beautiful rivers, which have a tremendous selection of great swimming holes; a real treat after a hot days climbing. There is a pump station for the North Conway water supply on the west side of the Saco River, just past the bridge on River Road. A spicket here is a useful source of good drinking water. For showers, the Mount Cranmore Recreation Center is a useful facility which charges a very reasonable day use fee. As well as the showers, there is a weights room, climbing wall, sauna, hot tub, and swimming pool.

North Conway has a very good selection of reasonably-priced bars and restaurants with good food, but special mention must be made of Elvio's Pizzeria which has provided low-price sustenance to many a climber over the years.

At present there are three large, well-equipped climbing stores in North Conway. Ragged Mountain Equipment in Intervale, International Mountain Equipment in downtown North Conway, and Eastern Mountain Sports at the south end of the North Conway strip.

Most of the area has cell phone coverage, but as of 2012 it was still quite temperamental and spotty, even in downtown North Conway itself. In some of the more remote spots there is no coverage at all.

There is free internet at the Starbucks at the south end of the Strip, and at The Frontside Grind coffee shop in the Eastern Slope Inn in downtown North Conway.

The town of Conway has a very nice library which also has free internet and public access computers.