It’s been an awesome season so far up at Lake Willoughby. A little of that heartbreaking rain fell at just the right time, and routes that we seldom see have been just sitting there for over a month. My first trip up there this year I saw someone casually leading an enormous pillar way up high on China Shop – where there is normally just a series of broken off icicles.
Deep Lake Willoughby wasn’t frozen yet, just before New Years, when I hiked up with Alexa Siegel to have a look at Solstice, a rare former in it’s own right. I tied in and poked my head just past a bolt hidden behind a wobbly little pillar, and had a good look at the climbing above. I could see exactly what it would entail, and I wanted nothing to do with it! (Kevin Mahoney climbed it last week by the way.) Heading south, for the second time that day we walked under this big fat flow that just ended, abruptly, on a gently overhanging wall in a tapered series of free hanging icicles. The wall behind the biggest icicle look gray and smooth, with only a hint of features.
I put my head down shyly below it and we slipped and slided our way south, doing what Peter Doucette calls the walk of shame – a sometimes heinious and seemingly endless traverse of the cliff base over frozen leaves and hidden patches of ice – most commonly done after getting served on a dreamy line. Arriving at Bullwinkle, we gave up the hike.
Back up I went to the fjord-like Lake, still not frozen, this time with Sam Bendroth to climb 5 Musketeers. We got a little higher on this one, but I still wasn’t quite warmed up for the season. We bailed below some spooky ice climbing out a little roof on a too-warm day. Now for the fourth time, back under this hanging icicle we walked. Still there, dangling in space, the ice further up disappearing beyond a horizon line on the parabola shaped big wall section of Mt Pisgah. What is that thing?
Peter Doucette and I snuck up to the backwoods of Coos County the Saturday before New Years and the day before a snow storm. We breezed into a quiet crag known for a long approach and put up a new two pitch mixed route we called Allied Forces, and repeated a North Country classic – Peter’s lead, adding a new finish. A day of getting pumped at the local mixed crag that same week, and I was starting to come around.
I had a little side mission on Cathedral to finish up a rare forming project I started 10 years ago. This detour took a couple of attempts, but it all helped, I was starting to feel relaxed climbing. While this was going on I put in a phone call into Peter and left a pregnant message, “Peter, I’ve got a question for you, give me a call.”
We played phone tag, didn’t connect, but finally bumped into each other while he was guiding and I was climbing Remission Direct.
“So what’s this question?” he asks with a mischievous smile.
“What is this hanging icicle right of Solstice, it looks incredible?”, I reply.
We mumble back and forth about how the ice was probably shit. That’s always a good out.
The next Saturday comes and we were both free, but what to climb? Distracted by a busy schedule and life with a 9 month old at home, I hadn’t put much thought into what was next on the to do list. But Peter had. He suggests the mystery line right of Solstice – maybe the ice wasn’t so bad after all? He remembered seeing bolts up there and hearing rumors of phantom Quebecois climbers materializing in Vermont, sending, and vanishing. I said great, I’ll charge the drill just in case.
That Saturday never really warmed up, it was gray with the temps hovering around zero, -7 as we suited up in my truck. Peter lead the lower half of the first pitch of Luna Kahuna, a slightly heady bit if winter climbing in it’s own right, and traversed off left to build a belay out below the still mysterious icicle.
I love history, and there was some very clearly written above our belay. There were maybe four different lines of bolts, some old, some new. Maybe a bolted rock climb, an ancient aid climb, another abandoned line, and maybe something else mixed in. We clipped a few of these offerings, and did a wild ice blob traverse left, eventually belly flopping onto a 16″ wide ledge below a gently overhanging wall that leaned back until it caught up with the massive hanging icicles we came for.
We discussed the pros and cons of continuing, but never found a good reason to quit, discussed how we could avoid any of the existing lines and picked one for ourselves that moved out from an existing bolt with a bail ‘biner on it – most likely someone’s highpoint from an abandoned aid line? I haven’t done this in years, and I felt a little rusty, but once we were in agreement I got right to it. The process I’ve always used for bolting on the lead in the winter is pretty simple, and a little spooky. Drill a bolt, clip into it, find a hook good enough to pull on with my ax, test it..as aggressively as seems appropriate, hang a draw from the bottom of the handle of the ax, aid up to it and clip it into my belay loop. Once hanging there in position, drill a high bolt and repeat. It’s a good process that I’ve been lucky with over the years, almost always able to find the next hook. It ensures there are enough holds to put together a route, and that the bolts are drilled in places that you’ll actually be able to clip them. It seems to lay the protection out at just about the right interval, too.
After who-knows-how-long of this, I was tired, my right toes were cold, but the route was equipped right up to the attachment point of the hanging icicle. I’ve always found this a brilliant moment – when a fairly far fetched idea begins to look like it may become a reality – basically as a result of simple determination and work. We now had the knowledge of the route and the protection in, but it was getting late.
Peter is built for winter, and not one to complain of the cold, but he had just been belaying me for about 2 hrs in 0 degree temps. Graciously, he offered to keep belaying and give me a chance to rest before I gave the pitch a go. I convinced him to take a burn to get the psyche up, and to warm up.
He seemed to warm up pretty quickly though. He basically sent the pitch on his first go, pulling onto the icicle and building a belay at a small stance about 40′ up on the ice-flow.
It was almost three o’clock. We didn’t have a plan. I followed the pitch – I was worked from a week of building with timbers and a couple hours of hanging in a harness drilling – and basically pulled on every piece.
We had one headlight, and had left the trail rope at the last belay. We rapped.
This was a blessing in disguise.
I haven’t put up as many new routes in the past few years as did at one point. I have come to realize that one of my favorite parts about the new route process is the anticipation of simply having a project. That period has lasted years with some projects, days or weeks with others, but having something to think about and focus on always helped me stay fit and motivated. I like to savor it.
We both spent the next week with our heads down working but agreed on another Dad’s Saturday (Peter has a twins a few years older than my son) at Lake Willoughby. It rained mid-week. Got cold again. Monday turned into Friday. 4:30 am came on Saturday and back in the GMC for a another pre-dawn ride up to the Lake.
It had lightly snowed, it was a beautiful morning, about 10 degrees at the car. There was a big posse of young folks ice fishing out on the lake, hooting and hollering every time a trap flag was raised. We had a vague plan to allow for the time to really work out the crux pitch, both take a turn, but that evolved quickly.
We simply swapped leads up an incredible route, both freeing every pitch. Four pitches. A simple and perfect day of climbing.
I called around the day after we did the route. My friend Josh Hurst said he thought a Quebecois guy called Mathieu something had been involved with an earlier ascent of the route. I got in touch with an old friend who lives in Montreal, Nathalie Fortin, and she suggested it was Mathieu Péloquin. I found him on Facebook and he got right back to me. I had been conscience of the fact that we had put in a bunch of bolts in the vicinity of where others had most likely climbed. It seemed very unlikely that our exact line had been done, it was just so blank and totally unprotectable. Mathieu said he had done their version of route, the first ascent, with Olivier Ouellet and never named it. We traded photos and he graciously agreed to let me share them.
It was the best of all outcomes, they had put up a pitch that accesses the ice from the right – not an option with the conditions Peter and I had – while our line accesses the left. This thing will be able to be climbed now pretty much whenever – and it’s a rarity – it comes in. We were able to stay well away from their line, and I think we did the best we could to avoid all the others which criss-cross here. My congrats to Mathieu and Olivier, you guys put up one hell of a good route!