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Style Matters | Cryokinesis and the New Ethics in New Hampshire Winter Climbing

A rare ascent of the Cathedral Ledge winter-climbing testpiece Cryokinesis by Jon Nicolodi inspires thoughts on the future ethics of mixed climbing in New Hampshire.

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There is a rich history of winter climbing on New Hampshire’s Cathedral Ledge. While there are clear boundaries as to which type of climbs are predominantly winter routes and which are exclusively rock routes for most of the cliff, there are a few question marks that are  still being debated. Unfortunately, it is trickier than simply deciding what is off limits to winter climbers, as the area has evolved similar strictures to its sister ranges in Scotland, where the ethic is “If it is white, it can be winter climbed.”

In the past, the issue of winter climbing on certain routes that others thought crossed a line typically culminated in phone calls or angry  emails. This method has outlived its usefulness, the proof of which is found in the fact that many climbers these days are thoughtlessly climbing classic rock routes with their tools and crampons. As the number of winter climbers grows, the region is finding that more consistent messaging is needed to drive home the lessons about acceptable ethical standards.

Looking at Cryokensis. Photo: Erik Howes.

In 2019, in an attempt to bring about the consistent messaging needed, Friends of the Ledges, a stewardship organization serving New Hampshire and western Maine, began a campaign titled “Tread Lightly – Winter Climbing in the White Mountains.” The campaign seeks to educate the growing numbers of climbers on protecting the resource we all love. The campaign brought much-needed attention to the issue, but also caused some noticeable polarization within the community.

One of the routes in question—and rightfully so—is called Cryokinesis. Immortalized by Jim Surette’s photos of first ascentionist Ray Rice taking a back-bending fall, the route has been attempted by many of the the region’s best winter climbers over the years, but has still seen only a few full ascents. The controversy with Cryokinesis stems from its first 25 feet, which it shares with a stellar existing rock climb. Most attempting Cryokinesis  have dry-tooled up this rock climb to gain the steep ice above, finishing on more steep dry-tooling (not an existing rock climb).

Several months ago, I got a text from Tim Doyle at International Mountain Equiment (IME) that said something like, “Hey Zac, a dude named Jon is looking for winter climbing partners and was wondering who he should get in touch with.” I got Jon’s number from Tim and a partnership was born. Jon Nicolodi hails from Pennsylvania and currently resides in Jackson, New Hampshire. New England climbers often tend to be good “all-arounders,” as the dynamic seasons require climbers to hone their skills in various disciplines if they wish to climb year round. Jon is a perfect example of the all-arounder and, since returning to the Valley after a long stint in Colorado, has quickly earned his place among the young division of talented climbers of the North.

[Also Watch VIDEO: Get Stoked For Winter – Mikayla Tougas’ First Female Ascent Of First Blood (M11)]

On January 25, Erik Howes, Jon Nicolodi and myself met at the base of Cathedral to discuss in what style we were going to attempt Cryo. With some hemming and hawing it was decided that, with the current state of affairs, there was no way we could ethically justify dry-tooling the corner.

Jon’s ascent that followed is one of the proudest things I’ve ever witnessed, and sets the style not only for the route, but winter ascents in the area going forward: With Erik rapping in from above to capture the lead on film, Jon lead Karen’s Variation (a heads-up winter climb on its own), to Blueberry Terrace, the large platform where Cryokinesis begins. Jon then switched into Erik’s climbing shoes, and, gloveless, climbed the first 25 feet of Cryo. From there, he built an anchor and we tagged him up his ice boots, tools and ‘pons.

Jon Niccoldi transitioning to his ice gear partway up Cryokinesis. Photo: Erik Howes.
Jon Nicoldi transitioning to his ice gear partway up Cryokinesis. Photo: Erik Howes.

With an aider clipped to the anchor so as that he could still avoid using his front points on uppermost part of the rock climb, Jon gained the ice and carefully climbed the 40-foot candled column. He clipped the high pin at the top of the column, shook out for a while, and then, in a race against darkness, launched into the steep dry-tooling above.

The craziest shit I’ve ever seen then happened: With his tools on tiny holds, while shaking out his right hand, his left tool popped and he was off. But as he was falling, Jon brought his right hand quickly up and around and managed to grab his right tool that was torqued in a tiny crack. He caught himself! All points were off the wall but he never weighted the rope. We all were completely astonished, including Jon, and fierce screams of encouragement erupted from Erik and I.

Jon danced his way up the remainder of the steep section, committing to holds that were most certainly not a guarantee. At the very top of the route, we were expecting that Jon would have lovely turf shots, but  this was not the case. I could hear his labored  breathing, in disbelief that one small move at the very top of the route might be the showstopper. Finding a frozen stump and a small patch of verglas, with resignation in his movement, he pulled the lip. Sent: Cryokinesis (5.10+, A0, WI5+, M7+). What a grade stack, eh?

Nicolodi has solidified the status of Cryokinesis as a mixed climb in the truest sense–mixed mediums, mixed techniques, and impeccable style. The discussion about the use of Cathedral Ledge will continue, but this ascent will serve as a precedent for the style of future winter climbers in the region.

The standard is set. Style matters.

Also Read

Who Did It First? Style, Grades And Dispute In First Ascents