Nowhere, except perhaps Scotland, is traditional mixed climbing more vibrant than in the Northeastern United States, especially Vermont and New Hampshire. And with a full season of amazing conditions, and a motivated contingent of strong, psyched traditionalists, standards took a leap this season, with hard new routes established in most of northern New England’s major winter arenas.
Josh Hurst and Ian Austin, both builders in Maine, have completed about half a dozen routes in impeccable style—no pitons, bolts or falls—in Stratford Notch, a remote area of northern New Hampshire.
Most notable is Hurst’s ascent of Fluffy (NEI 6 R/X), a long-standing, beautiful and runout project. Hurst placed his first piece—an excavated cam in a granite overlap—after climbing 80 feet of ½- to 2-inch-thick ice.
Hurst and Austin also established Foxhole Prayer (NEI 6 R M7), a unique two-pitch adventure that begins 80 feet inside an overhanging chimney. Equipped with headlamps, the duo climbed a first pitch defined by sketchy, detached ice and steep rock. On the second pitch, Austin tunneled farther into the cliff and squirmed out of a tiny break. Hurst’s broad shoulders, however, didn’t fit through the opening, which Austin described as only “big enough for a pig, one of those little Vietnamese pot-bellied ones.” Only Hurst’s head completed the route before a severe bout of claustrophobia sent him down.
“I was terrified the whole time,” Hurst said … so much so, in fact, that he vowed to only “follow pitches and go sport climbing” for the rest of the season.
On January 24, Kevin Mahoney and Ben Gilmore established Kryosonics (NEI 5+ M7 R) at Lake Willoughby, Vermont. “Kryosonics” refers to the creaky condition of the route’s ice and its position above Vermont’s deepest lake, which also lets out its own booming creaks on a cold day. The four-pitch line charges up through the hanging icicles left of the Last Gentleman (NEI 5). Mahoney, going ground up, spent 2.5 hours on each of the first two pitches—both extremely runout and tenuous M7+ R.
Two weeks later, Mahoney returned to Willoughby with Greg Benner to establish Lake Effect (NEI 6 M7+). The four-pitch line takes an inside corner on a broad arete to iced-up cracks and flakes right of the classic Called on Account of Rains (NEI 5+).
“I unloaded my double set of cams while I hand jammed, fist jammed, laybacked, hooked, torqued and tapped into one-inch ice,” says Mahoney, a mountain guide, husband and father of two. “I can’t remember climbing a finer mixed pitch, ever.”
At Cannon Cliff, the 1,000-foot hub of New Hampshire’s bolt-free mixed climbing, it’s rare to nab a first ascent. However, sick early season conditions led to the birth of two new climbs, both left of Omega (NEI 5+): Will Mayo and Andy Tuthill’s Mean Streak (WI 6 M7), and Freddie Wilkinson and Peter Doucette’s Firing Line (NEI 5+ M6).
“Pete and I got to the parking lot and saw how much ice was over there,” says Wilkinson. “We had to at least try because the route might not come in like that for another 10 years.”
On January 4, Doucette and Wilkinson bobbed up two mixed pitches to skirt detached ice on Omega’s nebulous first pitch. After traversing left, Wilkinson fiddled in gear and surmounted a crux mixed corner coated in verglas. The final pitch weaved through steep columns and daggers, including what Doucette described as “corkscrewing” around the back of a pillar.
Tuthill, Cannon’s most prolific, if reticent, climber, and Mayo completed Mean Streak ground up and onsight on December 11. The route’s three pitches are all sustained, harder than M6+ and classic.
Finally, Cathedral Ledge, home to the best traditional mixed cragging in the universe, saw four new routes: The Intimidating Bicycle Ride (NEI 5+ R M7), by Doucette and Dan Corn; Jack on Ice (NEI 5+ R), by Doug Madara and Jeff Lougee; Frozen Beast (NEI 6), by Bayard Russell, Jr. and Ray Rice; and the thin Underground Kinetics (NEI 5+ R), by Madara and Steve Larson.
Madara explains the unique nature of Cathedral mixed climbing: “It’s the combination of protection and climbing techniques that makes these routes hard. If you climb WI 5 at Lake Willoughby, you don’t stand a chance. That’s why these routes are worth doing, and ice climbing isn’t.”
What Are “NEI” Ratings?
NEI, or New England Ice, is a “1” to “5+” grading system that was invented by Rick Wilcox, Everest summiteer and North Conway local. The standard WI system came later; it parallels its older relative, but more readily jumps into grade 6 and beyond.
Originally, the NEI system took into account the commitment level of a route, not just its technical difficulty. The classic example is the Black Dike on Cannon—graded NEI 5, but technically a WI 4 that is intimidating and far from the road.
The latest guidebook unilaterally overthrew Wilcox’s quirky scale, replacing it with the big-box grades of the West. But recently, the NEI grade is again being assigned to new routes, even making a cameo in Alaska. By modern standards, NEI 5+ is still stout—you can’t just go running around New England calling every new overhanging drip-fest NEI 6, especially after climbing such 1970s NEI 5+ routes as Mindbender at Lake Willoughby.
This brings us to the essence of NEI—it works best when you are reminded that you are not as good as you thought you were; otherwise you could climb harder than they did 30 years ago with their gear. There might be some disagreement out there if WI 7 exists, but I can tell you with certainty that NEI 7 does not.