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Adirondack Explorer

Monday, September 25, 2017

Comparing Two Classic Climbs On Wallface and Cannon

New Hampshire rock-climbing guide Jim Shimberg approaches the Whitney-Gilman Ridge, the conspicuous arête  on the cliff face. Photo by Phil Brown.

Wallface is the biggest cliff in the Adirondacks and so naturally has attracted the attention of rock climbers from way back. The first recorded routes were put up by two of the country’s best climbers of the 1930s—John Case and Fritz Wiessner.

The authors of Yankee Rock and Ice say Wiessner regarded Wallface as the loveliest climbing cliff in the Northeast, because of its “feeling of altitude” and “charm of solitude” (Frtiz’s words).

Soon after I started climbing, my friend Mike and I went up Wallface with the help of Don Mellor, who is nearly as famous in these parts as Fritz Wiessner. On that day, we indeed felt the altitude and charm of Wallface.

The route was Diagonal, a moderate climb named for its long sloping ramp, a conspicuous feature of the cliff that can be seen by hikers from Indian Pass. It’s the most popular route on Wallface and rates four stars in the guidebook Adirondack Rock. Click here to read my story about the climb.

Looking down from the airy crux pitch. Photo by Phil Brown.

Charming as it may be, Wallface is not the biggest cliff in the Northeast. That superlative belongs to Cannon Cliff in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

For several years, I had set my sights on Cannon’s most popular route, the Whitney-Gilman Ridge. When first done in 1929, the ridge was thought to be the hardest climb in the country. Whether it was or not, it was an impressive feat for the time.

The route is named after the first-ascent party: the cousins Hassler Whitney and Bradley Gilman. They had gone to Cannon intending to climb the only known route on the cliff (established the previous year), but finding that route wet, they decided to give the ridge a go. They climbed it without pitons or belay anchors, draping their hemp rope over horns and other natural features for protection in case of a fall. And of course they also lacked the sticky shoes, comfy harnesses, helmets, and other paraphernalia of the modern climber.

Wallface’s Diagonal is of more recent vintage. Adirondack Rock says it was first done in its entirety by Joseph Rutledge, Tom Morgan, and Jane Morgan in 1962.

In July, I had the chance to climb Whitney-Gilman with Jim Shimberg of Rhino Guides. Shim, as he’s called, has been guiding for decades and knows Whitney-Gilman like the back of his hand. In his younger days, he soloed the route on occasion.

Every part of the climb was enjoyable, each with its own challenges, but the highlight had to be the notorious Pipe Pitch, where the climbers step over the arête onto a smallish platform that seems suspended in air and then make a series of balancey moves to reach easier ground. A year or two after the first ascent, another climber pounded a pipe into to the cliff to offer some protection. The original pipe has been replaced, but it is not used by today’s climbers.

Although I can now boast that I have climbed the two most popular routes on the two biggest cliffs in the Northeast, I’d be hard-pressed to say which is better. For one thing, I was less experienced when I climbed Diagonal—and it’s been a number of years since I did it. However, I thought it would be interesting to compare the two:

Approach. Getting to Wallface is far more difficult. From Adirondak Loj, it’s about a three-hour hike on trail and then across a talus field. The approach to Whitney-Gilman from a parking lot at the base of the cliff takes about an hour, much of it scrambling over talus boulders.

Jim Shimberg relaxes at the top of the climb. Photo by Phil Brown.

Number of pitches. Diagonal is typically climbed in seven pitches. All told, the route is 860 feet long. Whitney-Gilman is usually done in six pitches, though it can be done in fewer. The route is 600 feet long. Both climbs offer a lot of variety.

Difficulty. Diagonal is rated 5.8 on the Yosemite Decimal System scale, which ranges from 5.0 (very easy) to 5.15 (nearly impossible). Most of the pitches are considerably easier than 5.8. Whitney-Gilman is rated 5.7, but there is a 5.8 variation.

Exposure. This refers to the airiness of a climb. As I recall, the greatest exposure on Diagonal was on the ramp. The upper pitches were more vertical, but somewhat enclosed and less airy. The greatest exposure on Whitney-Gilman is on the aforementioned Pipe Pitch. If you like exposure, WG has it.

Setting. Wallface wins this category, in my opinion. It’s wilder, more remote. The only blemish on the landscape that I can think of is the old mine at Tahawus, miles away. Whitney-Gilman has great views of Franconia Ridge (as well as Cannon itself), but you look down at a highway. In this respect, it’s like the cliffs at Poke-o-Moonshine.

Descent. Most climbers rappel off Diagonal and walk off Whitney-Gilman. Diagonal requires several raps, including a midair affair. The return to the WG parking lot takes about an hour, via a descent on a steep herd path and a walk along a paved bike path.

Most climbers would agree that Diagonal and Whitney-Gilman are stellar climbs. Indeed, both are included in Selected Climbs of the Northeast by S. Peter Lewis and Dave Horowitz. If really pressed to choose between them, I think I’d opt for Wallface, given its wild setting and my local prejudice. But I’d like to climb them both a second time (and maybe a third) before making up my mind.

Meantime, if you’ve climbed both routes, we’d be interested to know how you would compare them.

Phil Brown

Phil Brown has been editing the Adirondack Explorer since 1999. When he isn't at his desk, he's usually out hiking, paddling, skiing, or doing something else important. You can follow his adventures and his musings on the Adirondacks in the Explorer and on this blog.

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