Summer 2020: We’re In This Thing Together

It’s happening!  We’re finally reopening!

Over the last few months, we have worked hard – and thought even harder – about if and how to reopen Cathedral Mountain Guides and how to get back to climbing in the places we love with the people we care so deeply about.  Most importantly, how to do so responsibly.  And now, finally, we’re happy to say that we are ready!

It is going to be different.  There will be face coverings when we share a tight belay stance, there is a health form that you will have to fill out (twice…), we’ll have to drive separately to the crag, sanitize our hands throughout the day, our gear once the day is done.  And the list goes on.  It’s a lot to ask, we know, but we already ask a lot of each other in a day of climbing.  We are partners out there on the cliff, literally taking each other’s lives into our hands.  This is just one more move along those same lines; one more instance where good planning and good communication is key to a successful day in the mountains.

The responsibility of minimizing the risks associated with climbing during a pandemic is shared between guide and guest.  The only way we can do this is with your help.  Together we can move forward to climb again, to teach and learn again, and to be on those brilliant New Hampshire rock climbs once again.

So if you are ready to get out climbing, we would love to be out there with you.  Know that the safety and well-being of our guests and guides remain our top-priority.  We pledge to take this risk seriously and to remain vigilant as we navigate an ever-evolving situation.

Please check out the nittier, grittier version of our Climbing & COVID-19 response and don’t hesitate to contact us with any ideas or questions you may have.  As always, we’re here to fine-tune the day(s) to meet your goals and needs.



Responsible Climbing in the Era of COVID-19

As the promise of warm weather and dry rock combines with the pent up energy from hunkering down for the last 10 weeks, a lot of us are beginning to venture back out to the crag.  Dipping our toes in the climbing waters feels strange… but really good and grounding… but also a little strange…

Is this the right thing to be doing?  Are we being responsible to our community?  Are the risks worth it?  

The questions weigh heavily and everyone is likely to answer them a little bit differently.  Ultimately, for me, I have decided that it is worth it.  The level of personal risk is acceptable and the risk of exposure to the community is low.  It definitely feels a little weird and it is hard to add so many rules and caveats to something that I was first attracted to because of the freedom I found in it.  However, I’ve been adapting, trying my best to figure it out, and adjusting as the times change and the understanding of the situation improves.  Flexibility seems to be key here, and just like everybody else, I’ve been rolling with the punches.  This is as true in climbing as it is in day-to-day life right now.For what it’s worth, here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about as I make my decisions surrounding going climbing:

  • Who am I climbing with?  Up until yesterday, I had only gone climbing with people living in my household (I am lucky to live with two different climbing partners).  Yesterday, I climbed with a friend outside of my personal quarantine bubble for the first time.  Before doing so, I considered his approach to life in the age of the coronavirus.  Was it in sync with mine?  What was his day-to-day exposure like?  Most importantly, did he have any signs or symptoms of COVID-19?
  • Where am I climbing?  Crags that are open, local, and where I can easily avoid other parties.  It feels really good to see other climbers and say hey, but I want to steer clear of close quarters and shared belay ledges.  I realize I’m really lucky right now because in the North Conway area there are no shortage of options – climbing at the popular venues like Cathedral or Whitehorse at the off-peak times, checking out the backcountry crags on the weekend, rapping in to check out those obscure routes that have always been on the list…
  • What am I climbing? Usually at this point in the season, I am fit and finding my groove – my mental game is as strong as my fingers and I’m starting to send some harder routes and aim for the season’s big projects.  Obviously, that’s not exactly where I am right now.  I’m taking it easy.  I’m still warming up the head and the body and climbing rather conservatively.  I do intend to start pushing the difficulty envelope more and more, but only on the routes that I know are well-protected.  It’s probably not the season for those spicy Cathedral Ledge routes that are still on the list.
  • What else has changed?  For one, hand sanitizer used to be just be buried in my first aid kit.  Now it is in the brain of my pack and I reach for it regularly throughout the day.  I haven’t donned a mask at the cliff yet, but as climbers venture out more and more, I expect this to become a part of climbing this season.  I’ve been wearing my helmet even when I maybe would otherwise choose not to, I try to place more gear, and I take the opportunity to use a stick clip more than I usually do.  In general, I’m trying to be more thoughtful, more flexible, and extra cognizant of the potential impacts of me going climbing.  I’m keeping an eye on what’s happening at the local hospitals and asking myself whether or not it is ok for me to hobble into the ER with a broken ankle.  I’m thinking of what a full-blown rescue would look like – the large group, the close quarters, the reality of rescuers in the field not having hospital-grade PPE – and am reminded that this is unacceptable.

If you, too, begin to grab the rack and head for the crag, please do so thoughtfully and responsibly.  Check in regularly with the current regulations regarding travel in your area, as well as wherever you plan to climb.  Be conservative.  Be flexible.  Stay local.  Wash your hands.  And remember that sometimes, making the right choice means staying home.

And while you’re thinking about it – check out these resources from the Access Fund and the American Alpine Club.


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.