Icarus, Daedalus and the Minotaur

See a great write-up here at, home-sweet-home for the Northeast’s winter climbing community. Doug and Alan make the glue.


Click on this!

About four, maybe five, years ago Kevin Mahoney and I tried to climb a line up the right side of the Duet Butress on Cannon. I was looking at one line, he another. We ended up rambling off left over easier terrain, climbing neither. I went back a while later and took a whack at the line I wanted to do, what  I thought was the second pitch of Icarus, gave it my best, but bailed halfway up this beautiful corner.

Take one, with Peter Doucette and, photo by, Silas Rossi.

Kevin went back with Elliot Gaddy last spring in incredible conditions and fired his line to the top (see photo topo, Mahoney-Gaddy).


This year, just back from a week steeped in Scotish mixed climbing, I was super keen, and a day guiding the Black Dike gave me a glimpse of the great conditions that had settled in while I was away. One smear of thin ice particularly caught my attention.

Minotaur to be.

The next day was a warm one, with drizzle, but I was vibrating with energy despite of it all. Matt McCormick and I met up in the parking lot and we packed our bags slowly, unsure of what to do in the funky weather.  We broke trial, looked at corner systems, considered a few potential lines, talked about just heading back to the car but rambled on until that smear of ice came into view. It had gotten fatter, it looked protectable, we were off!

Minotaur, from Daedalus.

Matt tells a good story of the day on his blog (see it here), so I can consider it told. I’ll simply add two things, a quick comment and a reminiscence. First, the comment: It was a great day.  And, the reminiscence: As the pitches were strung together, and it really started to rain, I could here what my climbing partner in Scotland, Nick Bullock, said to me as I casually pointed out a rappel anchor one evening as twilight turned to darkness, “We’re going to the fucking top!”


There is another page to the story. I had really been enjoying this style of climbing; starting at the bottom of a big cliff and simply climbing to the top. The next objective was obvious, and it begun on what I thought was the second pitch of Icarus.

Icarus was the first new route to be done in the winter on Cannon (1974); that is, every other winter route is just an icy version of a summer climb. This intrigued me; it seemed special to try and free climb a route on the “Big Cliff” that was originally done in the same frozen and windy, winter world. The route’s story is legend, too: Like Icarus, Bouchard fell, breaking his ankle. He and Rick Wilcox were high on the route, but they persevered to finish their ascent on the third day, and endured a long and painful hike down.

Elliot leading the shared first pitch for all winter variations to Icarus.

From the ground, where we dropped our packs, you can’t tell much about a 3/4″ crack a pitch away, but we could see these little white dribbles oozing out at the crux. Good enough to warrent a look. From the top of the first pitch it was obvious that the crack was not only choked with good ice, but there where little dry spots for gear. It looked unbelievably perfect. If “in-ness” is a matter of degree, this pitch was pegged to the “in” end of the scale, true mixed conditions enhanced by the weather; snow, wind and spindrift.

This was something I have struggled with, particularly with this pitch- what is in? Often there is a toungue of ice spilling out from the bottom of the corner, arguably enough to warrant bringing the ice axes and crampons up the rest of the, otherwise, dry pitch. But, that never appealed to me. To look up with Elliot that day and see mixed climbing was fantastic – rock climbing it was basically out of the question. We simply needed the sharp stuff to get up it; as good of a definition of “in” as I’ve ever come up with.

Butt shot by Elliot Gaddy.

Almost every tool placement on the entire pitch was through solid ice, what had felt like M8 in slightly drier conditions, now felt like strenuous M7. I got past my highpoint, a stance below a crack pinched down too tight for picks, by pounding in a marginal piton for protection. I decided I could give-it for a body length or two, seeing the crack opened up above. A few more moves, some marginal gear, and my expectations for security were met. Gear still came slowly, but what I got was good, and the iced-up, offset crack just swallowed my picks as I swung into it. A little run-out towards the top, a spectre hook to take out the sting, and the pitch was was finished at a small stance with a rusty and flexing 1/4″ bolt and couple of other spread out pieces. I remember, a couple of different times, yelling down to my now-frozen-friend, “This is the best pitch I’ve climbed this season!”. It still makes me smile to think of it.

Full swings into icy cracks.. all day.


Elliot following.

The next pitch was pure class; an iced up crack, a bombay chimney and a dry crack offering great protection, depositing us at a sunny and spacious belay ledge.

Pitch 3. I have always wanted to climb this bombay.

A happy climber about to do something he has always wanted.

A quick ramble of a fourth pitch rejoined Quartet in the snow fields leading up to the dreaded M7 choss pitch, and another trip to the top; this time before the sun set (my first non-benightment in two weeks).


The unfinished final chapter of this story is this. I thought we had just climbed Icarus, but unsure, called it Daedalus (Icarus’s father and the most closely realated name not already taken from the story of Icarus’s fall). Just this morning I took a look at some of Rick Wilcox’s old pictures from 1974 which made it look like Icarus was done as an all-free-winter route last March by Kevin Mahoney and Elliot Gaddy, who added a direct finish, just a couple of days after they topped out on the Ghost Roof. Jon Sykes’s guidebook seems to suggest that the summer route Rodan (freed by Jim Shimberg and Bradley White) follows the same line as Icarus. That line is, at this point, still blurrier than I drew on my topo. Somebody placed that 1/4 bolt I used for a belay two or three corners south.. I’m just not sure who.

Did you place this?



The Ghost

Elliot Starting Up

Elliot Gaddy starting up in the sun. Mahoney Alpine Adventures photo.

There it is, it just happened.. it rained, it got cold and Cannon went off. If you just keep showing up year after year, eventually, you just might run into the conditions of a lifetime. Maybe. I didn’t show up. Kevin Mahoney and Elliot Gaddy did though; early on a sunny morning after a ridiculous rain storm.


It literally happened over night. Sunday afternoon was above freezing, but when those guys looked up at the cliff from the parking lot on a cold, clear Monday morning there was ice all the way to the ground; numerous 1000′ smears.

Cannon Left Side

Mahoney Alpine Adventures photo.

Now, there’s a little more to it than just showing up, as we all know. These guys were the ones that did though and they looked up again at this ridiculous looking route from the base, packs in the snow, and still decided to give it a go. This can thin out the willing pretty quickly, too. But you gotta try, especially when it might not ever be around again, and you’re actually there with a willing partner. It’s the same thing pitch by pitch and actually, truthfully, move by move. It can all seem too much when you look at it all at once, but they didn’t, and they never a had a good enough reason to turn around.

I have had a precious few days like this, we all have in our own ways, where pitch by pitch I simply cannot believe what is still happening, is still happening. It is a glorious feeling, flawlessly and safely passing pitches that just shouldn’t be there, and didn’t seem like they could be climbed. It is the beauty of ice climbing; all the million factors that had to come together to get this fleeting strip of ice where it is and where it probably shouldn’t be. I can appreciate how those boys felt up there on the wide open center of the “Big Cliff”, banging out pitches that would not be climbable even that afternoon as they rappelled; delaminated and turned to mush by the sun. But they were in a spectacular place I have never been. They were right were New England’s best ice climbers have wanted to be for generations, climbing that top to bottom strip of ice up Cannon’s Big Wall.

Congratulations guys, you sent the thing that was at the center of all this great climbing that has gone on around here over the years. I keep coming back to the feeling that everything else just seems peripheral.


But there’s more, after all that they went back Thursday and sent a line just right of Icarus, also to the top, in windy, snowy condition. Elliot slept for three hours the night before, driving to Franconia Notch after a short trip to central New York, a trip he had begun from the same parking lot three days before. That’s what it takes though, the drive to get there (no pun intended) .

It should be noted, however, that all this motivation comes at a price. After climbing Icarus, Elliot, sound asleep in a chair, got his toenails painted by a couple of friends in Madison.

To the Top!

Kevin Mahoney’s blog is up and running again with a post about a memorable couple of days during a winter season I look back fondly on, 2001-2002. There was nothing to climb anywhere but Cannon, I had just gotten dumped, moved to the MWV and my good friend Josh Hurst and I had been climbing up there all season without seeing another person – until we met Kevin and Ben Gilmore one morning, before sunrise, in the parking lot.

I remember those two trying to get up to this out-of-this-world looking smear of ice on the “Big Wall” section of the cliff, and not quite getting there. They blew our minds with the speed they were climbing, the runnouts and their audacity; if they had gotten to it they would have had to try and climb it! My approach was different, I just looked away and wandered off to a turf filled corner with a good Lost Arrow crack in the back.

At some point in the afternoon Josh and I were scratching up Sams Swan Song’s crusty first pitch when those two came running, and I mean running, by. Turns out they were calling it quits with the “Big Wall Smear” and headed south to the Omega amphitheater, but they stopped for a few minutes anyway to see what we were up to. Seeing the scrappy mixed pitch we had picked for ourselves they advised us we should go to Alaska – so we did (we figured these guys knew). A year later Josh and I landed on the Kahiltna Glacier, set up camp just like we saw in a Climbing magazine “Tech Tip”, and I layed down for my first night, ever, of snow camping. I didn’t manage to climb much during my first four weeks of snow camping, but eventually got up Mt. Hunter’s West Ridge with a just graduated Freddie Wilkinson and our great friend, and total ringer, Dana “Maddog” Drummond.

Back in the predawn Cannon parking lot, the next day, Kevin and Ben told us how they had tried this awesome new route over by Omega, but had run out of time – it must have been 1 pm when they started climbing – and they were on their way back up to try it again. They did the FA of the still unrepeated Prozac that day. I have no recollection of what Josh and I climbed, I just remember him saying at some point when Kevin and Ben were out of earshot, “Those boys can dance…”.

Still can to – check out this video Freddie W put together. That time lapse is Kevin Mahoney doing the first two pitches of Endangered Species in one, long go!

Surf’s Up! from Freddie Wilkinson on Vimeo.

The ice swell was ON at Poko-Moonshine cliff this season, the winter of 2010- 2011. My friends Matt Horner, Matt McCormick, and Bayard Russell pioneered an amazing new mixed line just right of the Jeff Lowe test-piece, Gorillas in the Mist. Only one pitch remained to finish Endangered Species to the top of the cliff… and Kevin Mahoney was psyched…