The Other Side of the Coin

Every time something happens around Cathedral, something major, like the recent retro-bolting of Thin Air and its subsequent chopping, I find myself climbing there more often. There is a need to look after the cliff, to see whose around and what’s going on. I may solo Thin Air when I would normally go up Fun House, or just go cragging there when I might otherwise go work on my latest sport climbing project or new route. Events like this, while divisive on the local website, bring large parts of the community here closer together. Most of my good friends, whether 23 or 60, are people that I see at the cliff after work, on the weekends, on a Tuesday. They own the cars I recognize that are parked in front of the kiosk in the dirt. They are the people I spend my free time with, I will invite to my wedding and share a rope with, and for the most part we all have very similar opinions about what the future of style on Cathedral Ledge should be.

In an ideal world, I would love to see every retrobolt on Cathedral and Whitehorse removed, but I realize that’s unreasonable. So we, the elitist locals (as we are often referred to on the local website), pick and choose our battles, and Thin Air is the obvious choice. Before I chopped four bolts on it in 2003 its sorry state was used as an excuse for retrobolting other routes, “Look at Thin Air, its got bolted cracks all over it, fuck it, North Conway doesn’t have any ethics anymore”. For almost six years the bolts stayed away, and with a lot of quiet support from the local community, making the point that this is a climbing area where you can actually learn to climb traditionally, practice the skills and then go to the mountains having a clue. It was an uncomfortable silence though, one which no one thought would actually last after the pendulum swung the other way for so long. Then, one day this spring, it was over. The bolts on the so called pedestal belay reappeared, and they reappeared in a manner more typical of a Ken Nicols style bolt chopping, quietly and without any ownership of the action.

It was a sad day for me when the anchor reappeared. In our little community of Cathedral climbers, those ones with the cars I recognize, the frustration built up quickly. No. There is simply too much pressure on the cliff from its proximity to Rumney. Convenience has become expected, people can’t even be bothered to take their gear home with them at the end of a day. In this sport climbing world, all we are looking for is a little niche where protection skills are a part of climbing. A place in a state park in North Conway, NH where climbing is not just about gymnastics. What we are asking for is actually pretty reasonable, especially on the granite crags in the White Mountains, let the perogative of the first ascencionsit stand. Let that person choose how to establish the route and then let it be. If we’re talking about a sport route, whatever, but on a granite route, established at least in part as a trad route, let it exist as such. The gear might be a bit sketchy, but so what, climbing doesn’t have to be all about movement and safety. There are plenty, plenty of safe places to climb. Let the mental challenges of protection and its associated skills have a place to flourish. That is why New England climbers do so well in the mountains and in other climbing areas, we have a variety of climbing skills – variety is an asset.

I have drilled hundreds of bolts on new routes all over the White Mountains, I have chopped quite a few retrobolts too. In Britian they have a well known ethic concerning the gritstone, no bolts. That works for them, but they have tiny cliffs and need to perserve their adventure. Our cliffs are lot a bigger and we have a long history of using bolts. A history that no one, but maybe Henry Barber, has a contention with. With the exception of one unfortunate and isolated incident at Crack in the Woods, that, in hindsite, even the chopper admits wasn’t a great idea, no one is talking about chopping other people’s routes. Its not even on the table. The only problem anyone up here has with bolts is with the ones that appear on established climbs. Thats it, its simple. If the established routes are left alone, those of us who have chopped bolts in the past and would in the future, are happier to just go climbing.