The Northeast is rich in ice climbing options. Rick Wilcox's An Ice Climbers Guide to Northern New England is an excellent resource, but it is out of print and copies are hard to come by. In the post below, we present some information regarding a few of the most popular routes at one of the region's biggest ice climbing sites, Frankenstein Cliff in New Hampshire.
You Must Read This Before Proceeding...
This climbing guide is simply one person's views and recollections about various climbs. Memories fade, climbs change, conditions go in and out. Moreover, each climber has her/his own climbing style, quiver of techniques, and tolerance for risk. Therefore, the information presented here is not a substitute for your own personal decision making. Each and every climber must take responsibility for sharing her/his thoughts with the climbing team and that team must take responsibility for the decisions made and the consequences wrought. This is not only the duty of the climber, indeed it is the essence of climbing, its appeal and allure.
Climbing is not unlike many other arenas in which there may exist multiple views on a situation, each perhaps legitimate in its' own way. In reading some of these climb descriptions and some of the advice given, you may find you have different ideas from the ones I disclose. If you have constructive and respectful feedback to provide, I welcome it. If you wish to nitpick or complain, please instead use your time and energy to instead write and post a better free ice guide online for the climbing community.
Climbing is dangerous. Ice climbing is particularly dangerous. Falling, being struck by ice, being punctured by sharp tools, environmental hazards, and avalanche hazards are just a few of the countless hazards that exist in the ice climbing environment. There are way too many hazards to list them all. These hazards can cause injury or these hazards can kill you. Do not proceed with reading this online ice guide unless you are ready to assume all of the risks involved. In fact, do not proceed with climbing until you are ready to assume all of the risks involved. The world is a strange and crazy place. There is so much in the world that we do not control. The climbing environment is not different. But in the face of that unceasing uncertainly, climbing offers us the opportunity to take control of, and responsibility for, our actions. It is a refreshing antidote to much of modern living. You should not use this ice guide and you should not climb unless you are ready for that antidote. The author assumes no responsibility for any injury or death that occurs in the process of using this online ice guide.
BY CONTINUING TO READ THIS INFORMATION, YOU ARE AGREEING THAT YOU UNDERSTAND AND AGREE TO THE CONDITIONS ABOVE.
You Should Read This Before Proceeding...
A first blush, it may seem strange that a climbing guide service would provide free, useful, online advice about how to climb many of the most popular climbing routes in the Northeast. Isn't that a bit like killing the goose that lays the golden egg? In a word, “No”. In a few more words: This would be like thinking that by providing a neophyte NASCAR racer a map of the route, you have given him the keys to a victory lap in the Daytona 500.
There is a world of difference between knowing a route and knowing how to maximize efficiency and safety while climbing a route. Efficient and safe climbing is a lifelong craft. How quickly you develop in your craft will largely be a function of how effectively you are instructed along the way and how reflective you are throughout that learning process. As Paul Petzholdt (who climbed the Grand Teton at age 16 in his cowboy boots and later went on to found the National Outdoor Leadership School) opined in his matter-of-fact style: “There's a lot of fellers out there who say they've got twenty years of climbing experience. That's horseshit! They got two years of climbing experience and eighteen years of repeatin' the same mistakes over and over again.” A skilled guide-instructor can help you to avoid repeating costly, annoying, and dangerous mistakes over and over again. Your climbing will become safer and your climbing will become more efficient.
Most people are aware of the idea that effective guided-instruction will increase their safety on a climb—that's the most oft-cited reason I hear of for hiring a guide. And many people are aware that effective guided-instruction will increase their climbing efficiency, fleshing out their climbing toolkit with techniques to tackle bigger, harder, routes in less time. But the part of the equation that is often overlooked and seems to go oddly unspoken concerns that element which brings us to the sport originally: enjoyment. Whether it is the enjoyment of sharing an expansive view at the top of a cliff with your favorite climbing partner, the enjoyment of utter exhaustion back at camp after a summit, or the enjoyment of pulling the crux sequence on a sport climb that has been heckling you for months, it is enjoyment—in its myriad forms and facets—that draws us to climbing.
You don't need to climb long to discover that people are often definitely and definitively not enjoying their climbing day: Climbing partners screaming at each other because they've set their belays way too far apart, or a belayer hunched awkwardly over the ill-placed anchor by his knees, trying to bring in rope while his partner frantically yells “up rope!”, or a climber soloing up sketchy terrain to free a stuck rappel rope because she doesn't know the first thing about rock rescue. Perhaps worst of all is the couple you encounter in the parking lot, who pack up their things, and drive off in dead silence. These are just a few of the myriad scenarios that can unfold when people's technical skills sets do not progress in unison with their climbing ability. I know you'll see all of these examples and many, many more as you continue climbing. I have seen such things and—sadly—over the course of my climbing career I've lived many of them as well. But over the years I took steps to advance my learning and these moments happen less and less...and I'm enjoying climbing more and more.
So don't just consider hiring a climbing guide so that you can become a safer climber. Don't just consider hiring a climbing guide so that you can learn to climb harder, longer routes more efficiently. Hire a climbing guide so that you will learn techniques that allow you to enjoy your climbing more.
3 Frankenstein Ice Climbing Classics
A combination of easy access, range of climbing grades, and relatively straightforward layout make Frankenstein the epicenter of New Hampshire ice climbing. You'll find it just of few miles south of Crawford Notch, on the west side of the road. After turning onto the access road (the Arethusa Falls Trailhead), there is a large parking lot. At the far end there is a pit toilet, which can be useful, but if you don't need that then cruise up the hill until you see a large brown house and another parking area. The brown house belongs to to a fellow named Bill King and though he's not a climber, he is definitely an asset to the Frankenstein scene, plowing out the parking area when needed and maintaining a rescue cache underneath his deck. Be respectful of his residence and if you end up frequenting Frankenstein a bunch, bring him a plate of cookies or some-such from time to time!
After suiting up, go to the top of the lot and get on the train track headed north. The Smear, Pegasus, Chia, and Bob's Delight are south of the large train trestle. Areas and routes like Walk in the Woods, Standard, Route, and Dracula are north of the trestle. If you are approaching The Smear, Pegasus, Chia, or other routes in that vicinity you should come in from the south side of the trestle. Coming in from the north side of the amphitheater exposes you both to falling ice from the Widow's Walk area and to potentially hazardous avalanches that, though small, could drag you into some nasty tree terrain.
Frankenstein is not a great option if you don't do some lead climbing. Though there are many great top-rope areas, you need to lead climb in the WI2-3 range to set up the climbs or go through some pretty elaborate and sometimes exposed terrain to do so (the exception being The Blob in Chia Amphitheater, and arguably House of Blue as well). That said, if you are looking to lead climb, Frankenstein is a fantastic place to explore. The place has ample ice in the WI2-5 range, such that this place could provide a textbook layout in progressing your ice skills. Add in the occasional views of Mt. Washington and a generally sunny exposure and it's easy to see that—despite its foreboding name—Frankenstein is a pretty friendly place to climb.
Climbs below are described going south to north:
The Smear (WI3+ to WI4+)
Tucked away to the left of the main amphitheater, The Smear often gets overlooked in people's rush to Pegasus Amphitheater and beyond, but it is as equally an enticing option as any of those climbs and often less traveled. Moreover, it offers “choose your own adventure” terrain varying from WI3+ to WI4+. Head up on the main trail heading toward Pegasus and as you near the base, look for evidence of a bootpack heading left around the corner from Pegasus. Follow that path 1-5 minutes until you are at the base of a large and distinct ice face.
The climb goes in the WI3+ range if you go up the corner on the left side and the more you tackle things on the right, the harder and steeper it gets! Regardless of which avenue is chosen, things ease off considerably after about 40m. Though The Smear can be done in one 60m rope-stretcher, that can make communication difficult, and—depending on snow at the base of the route and the particular route conditions—might demand a few feet of simul-climbing toward the end if you plan to rappel from a tree. An alternative would be to simply go until the rope runs out and then build a V-thread; you may likely find existing V-threads from others using this program. Intermediary belays on the steep right side can be a bit uncomfortable, so a 70m rope and a clearly understood plan between the climber and the belayer may be a good option.
There are a variety of trees to choose from for rappel, or go off of your own V-thread. Depending on the tree chosen, one 60m rappel will barely get you down. With a single 60m rope (30m rappel) an intermediary V-thread will be necessary.
8-12 ice screws (depending on whether you plan to do it one full pitch or not), any length. Bring one 21cm screw if you're using a 60m rope, so that you can build a V-thread for the intermediary rappel anchor.
Pegasus Left (WI3+)
Pegasus Left follows the pure icPegasus is the name for two distinctly different routes up the same general ice flow.e line to the left of the orange granite buttress that cleaves through the top of the ice flow. Pegasus Right is ice on P1 (with two options available) followed by a steep, short ice column and then 15' of an enjoyable introduction to mixed/dry-tool climbing.
This is the large flow on the left side of the amphitheater seen from the trestle. Just before the trestle, look for a path heading up and left into the amphitheater. It is often a good idea to put crampons on while still by the tracks, as the path to Pegasus typically becomes slicker up high and the places for donning crampons aren't as plush. As you head up, look for the large ice flow ahead. Pegasus Left is the route that starts at the low base of the left side of the flow. It can be done as one long pitch, but is perhaps best enjoyed in two pitches. Pitch one is the warm-up, with thick and often soft ice and moderate bulges. Pitch two takes you up the steep finishing pillar. This pillar is frequently quite wet, especially on the left. Bring your shell on the climb unless you're certain the top is totally frozen—often hard to tell from the base. Topping out, you'll find a variety of suitable tree anchors. If there has been a thaw and the top-out area is quite muddy/wet, consider using a very solid tree and placing your anchor high and/or using a redirect, so as to keep the rope running above the muck (if you're unfamiliar with these skills, consider hiring a guide-instructor to make your climbing more efficient, safer, and more enjoyable!).
Pegasus Right is the more memorable and distinct option. On pitch one, trend up and right of the ice column that is typically about 6' in diameter. There is a nice shelf there and a two-bolt anchor. From there, step out on the column. Be strategic about where you place your first screw—too low will lead to rope drag. After the pumpy column, there is some respite as you approach the final 10' high rock finish. The rock finish has a few old pitons pounded into it; their quality is hard to determine, so if you have any doubts about your ability on this pitch, a few cams in the 0.4-0.75 range and/or a range of larger stoppers is advisable. Don't get too sucked into the 1' wide chimney in the corner, but use your right heel and toe to jam your way up the chimney. Make sure you're protected on the top-out, as it is slabby and often covered with snow that hides the good places for pick placements. Pull up and over. Awesome!
While possible to rappel all of the climbs in the amphitheater, given their popularity and the ease of simply walking off, that is inadvisable. Stow your rope after top-out and head climbers' right. The trail runs past the top of Pegasus Right, The Hobbit, and then Chia. After passing over the top of Chia, the trail begins to ramp down and right, eventually switching back over The Blob and then to the base of Chia. The final part is slightly exposed but climbers comfortable with WI3 climbing should feel at ease.
8-10 ice screws, any length.
During or immediately after big thaws, be aware that huge masses of ice can calve off the upper pitch and crash all the way to the base of the climb. Even when it's not thawing, Pegasus Left can be quite wet—bring and wear your shell.
Pegasus Right (WI3+, 5.6)
Pegasus is the name for two distinctly different routes up the same general ice flow. Pegasus Left follows the pure ice line to the left of the orange granite buttress that cleaves through the top of the ice flow. Pegasus Right is ice on P1 (with 2-3 different options available) followed by a steep, short ice column and then 15' of enjoyable introduction to mixed/dry-tool climbing on P2.
This is the large flow on the left side of the amphitheater seen from the trestle. Just before the trestle, look for a path heading up and left into the amphitheater. It is often a good idea to put crampons on by the tracks, as the path typically becomes slicker up high and the places for donning crampons aren't as plush. As you head up, look for the large ice flow ahead. Pegasus Left is the route that starts at the low base of the left side of the flow. Pegasus Right can be started here as well and provides the thickest ice. If you choose this option, as you head up trend right and aim to the right of the large ice column, where you'll find a two-bolt anchor. As you move toward the anchor, bear in mind that your second will also be traversing and put in protection at a level that keeps them comfortable and safe. Another option is to head 20-30' vertical up the path on the right and begin near the gully heading up toward Hobbit Couloir. This option can somethies be scratchy, particularly on the left side. If using the higher/Hobbit Couloir gully start, two options are available: Either follow the obvious couloir up (easiest of the Pegasus Right P1 options( and then trend left toward the two bolt anchor or head up the (typically thin and a bit grassy) left wall of the couloir.
Regardless of which option you go with, you'll set up for P2 at the two-bolt anchor. Stepping onto the column of P2 is a bit commiting and you can take some of the bite out of it by placing a screw up high on the column and clipping before “riding the lightening.” After a few steep moves to the top of the ice column and a small snow ledge, get ready to rock!
The rock section begins in the corner 10' back from the ice column you just topped out on. Depending on your comfort/experience with dry-tooling, it can be useful at this point to clip one tool to your harness—on the left side, as your right may be jammed/smeared into the 1' wide chimney in the corner. It's also a good idea to get down to as thin a glove as temperatures allow. There are several pitons in place on the 15' section of rock, but if you're new to rock climbing with crampons and tools, you might appreciate an extra piece or two. Cams in the .4-1” range will find a home. The start can be a bit tricky, as good foot placements are sparse. Don't get too sucked into the chimney in the corner and look for the many good edges for hands/tools up higher. At the top, you may find it useful to have two tools again, but even then the top-out often has some unconsolidated snow that demands a few swings and a light touch when pulling on the tools to make work. Once topped-out, you'll find some tree anchors back from the cliff. Pick a solid tree and set your anchor high, so as to provide a cleaner run over the edge to your second. There are a few smaller trees near the edge that you could use to re-direct your anchor/rope as well.
While it is possible to rappel all of the climbs in the amphitheater, given their popularity and the ease of simply walking off, that is inadvisable. Stow your rope and then to descend, after top-out head climbers' right. The trail runs past the top of The Hobbit, and then Chia. After passing over the top of Chia, the trail begins to ramp down and right, eventually switching back over The Blob and then to the base of Chia. The final part is slightly exposed but climbers comfortable leading WI3 climbing should feel quite at ease.
8-10 ice screws, some shorter, and a couple of double-length slings. Regarding any rock gear you might want, see the climb description.
During or immediately after big thaws, be aware that huge masses of ice can calve off the upper pitch of Pegasus Left and crash all the way to the base of the climb.