Cathedral Ledge, located in North Conway, New Hampshire is one of the oldest and top trad crags in the United States. The 150m granite (bluff/cliff) cliff lies just outside of town and is a bastion of quality of routes, with ease of access that is second to none. Cathedral’s walls seem to radiate with climbing lore. Long before climbing was cool; before fancy light-weight cams, super skinny ropes and newfangled sticky shoes, old-school climbers were pushing the limits of climbing at Cathedral.
Climbing areas that can be referred to by one name typically say something about the quality of climbing there. When someone says “The Creek”, “The Valley”, “Smith” or “Cathedral”, you immediately know where they are talking about. Climbers have been visiting Cathedral for decades to push themselves, and its splitter cracks are one of the birthplaces of trad climbing in North America.
Spring and fall are the best times to visit as the temperatures can be perfect and during the change to autumn, the colours of the fall foliage are outstanding. If you do decide to visit in fall, it can be one of the busiest times of the year in the Mount Washington Valley. Be prepared to pay higher prices for accommodations and cross paths with an increased amount of visitors out to see the fall colours. During the summer, the temperature and humidity can make climbing there a bit warm and muggy, but it’s nothing a quick swim in the Saco River can’t cure. If you end up visiting when it’s hot and humid just wait until the afternoon and then the routes will be in the shade.
What makes Cathedral great, also makes it busy; short approaches, quality climbing and great views often guarantee that most days you won’t have the place to yourself. Especially, when you top out. Expect to be the center of attention to all the view-seeking tourists who are on top.
Although Cathedral can be busy, it is the center of trad climbing in New Hampshire for a reason, with a high concentration of quality pitches and splitter cracks there’s no reason to climb anything but 5-star routes on your first couple of visits. The cragging at Cathedral is excellent, but the multi-pitch routes are what make it special.
Being 150m high, Cathedral has a large selection of excellent multi-pitch routes. For many, their first route is Thin Air, a 4 pitch route with an exciting traverse pitch that leads to some fun exposure almost immediately. A quick search of multi-pitch routes at Cathedral seems to bring up a list of the same routes and deservedly so. A list of the best multi-pitch trad routes at Cathedral
Multi-pitch routes not to miss are Thin Air 5.6, Recompense 5.9, Diedre 5.10a and the Prow 5.11d.
Although not a multi-pitch route in itself the Beast Flake is astounding. Combine Recompense and the Beast Flake to climb Recom-beast in what easily has to be one of the top trad lines in the east. After some initial climbing on Recompense it takes an exciting traverse move to get established in the flake, then stellar climbing and lay-backing lead to an awkward step or two getting back to Recompense. If you want to climb the flake make sure to bring along some wider gear unless you don’t mind being a little run-out.
One of the additional benefits of the road to the top of Cathedral is the ease of access that it provides to the Barber Wall and Airation Buttress. Grabbing a few extra laps at the top of the cliff as the sun goes down, knowing that you are only steps away from your car can be a pretty stress-free way to finish of the day. Driving up the backside provides pretty fast exposure. Walk over to Airation Buttress, and you get the experience of being several pitches off the ground which usually only occurs after a few hours of work. Not here, a casual 5-minute car ride and a short walk over and you get the multi-pitch experience without the effort. Climbing there almost feels like cheating being 150m off the ground with none of the work required to get there.
Airation Buttress has some classic routes and can be used as the finish to the Thin Air face too. Pine Tree Eliminate 5.8+, Airation 5.11a and Camber 5.11b are all top notch routes that are worth checking out.
A bit farther from the car but still a short walk away is the Barber Wall, it is the upper left area of Cathedral Ledge when looking at the cliff from the ground. Named after Henry Barber, the wall is stacked with splitter cracks and is a great place to jump on some classic one to three pitch routes. If you are looking for splitter, well-protected 5.10s then both Nutcracker and Book of Solemnity are must-dos. The road up provides easy access to these upper crags, but it also makes access to the ones at the base easy too.
Located in the shade just above the orange gate that closes the road during winter is The North End. Although it misses out on the views that you can find at Airation and Barber walls, it is a great place to go for some single pitch cragging but can remain damp a little longer than some of the other areas. Being in the shade, The North End can be a bit cooler than the other Cathedral crags. It often seems to be a little bit cooler and stays damp longer than the routes above the forest canopy. Whether you are looking to escape the sun or get a quick session in before heading home, it is a great crag to visit. At 5.9, both Bird’s Nest and They Died Laughing are great routes, for the more experienced you would not want to miss The Possessed, 5.12a.
If you are looking for a ‘quality’ trad climbing destination where you will spend more time climbing then approaching, Cathedral is an excellent choice. It is one of the cornerstones of American climbing and has a great selection of splitter lines, ranging from routes fit for a first multi-pitch lead to hard, engaging lines. It might be a bit busier than some crags, but the short approaches and the large selection of five-star granite climbs make it a destination worthy of the praise.