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:
Hard Rane (WI4)
Yes, it is spelled "Rane". Hard Rane doesn't come in very reliably, but when it does, it's a great bit of fun, hidden in the trees between Hobbit Couloir and Chia. From the base, it looks rather unspectacular, a bit of a jumbled mess of trees, rock, and ice, but when your in the mix it provides a combination of challenge and aesthetics. Because it isn't initially and immediately alluring, it's often open, and a good option on crowded days.
Hard Rane is a thin ice smear about 20' left of the left edge of Chia (see Chia approach information). It is often thinnest at the bottom, so if it looks like you can get on it at the bottom, you're likely in for a good ride up higher. The bottom is often quite featured but thin, so delicate hooking is a good idea to save what ice is there. A few small trees can be slung as you ascend and some rock pro could be found—though the traversing necessary is likely more work than anything else and there are several rotten flakes. Higher up there are a few ice steps and then a more vertical section at the top-out. Despite the spruce needles down your back, you're likely to be smiling after this little adventure!
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. 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 screws, with several in the 10-13cm range, plus a few double slings for trees (if you like). Rock gear is possible but not necessary.
Chia can be served up straight up or diagonally. Taken on straight up, it's a stout route with a bit of reprieve in the middle. Climbed diagonally left to right, It becomes a much more moderate undertaking. Either way, it offers some reliable and enjoyable ice perched right at the center of the amphitheater with nice view to and beyond the trestle.
This is the large flow smack dab in the middle of the amphitheater seen from the trestle. Just before the trestle, look for a path heading up and left into the amphitheater. It's often a good idea to put your crampons on while still by the rails, as the path typically becomes slicker up high and the places for donning crampons aren't as plush. As you head up the amphitheater, the path typically splits, with the upper path heading toward Pegasus and the lower one heading toward Chia. If you end up at the base of Pegasus, just follow the trail to the base of Hobbit Couloir and then it's just a short hop over a right-traversing trail past Hard Rane to Chia. Chia sees a lot of climber activity and before throwing down your rope at the base of Chia, it can be useful to see what others are up to, because—for example—if you're planning a direct ascent, then a party crossing diagonally might shell you with ice. Similarly, consider where your own climber will be dropping ice, and make sure it's not right on top of the belayer—a mistake commonly seen here.
You can pretty much choose your own adventure once at the base of the climb. Starting left and trending right provides the simplest path, while starting on the right curtain, then stepping left across the low angle terrain to the left curtain provides a sustained challenge. Parties getting the hang of leading in WI3 terrain who are doing the diagonal option may opt to set up a mid-way belay, as it is a bit of a rope stretcher.
Regardless of which route you choose, pay attention to climbing parties at the base, making sure not to drop ice on them. There are several trees at the top to set up on—but be careful and look up before slinging them as anchors, as at least one of them is stone-cold dead!
Stow your rope and head climbers' right to descend. 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 leading WI3 climbing should feel quite at ease.
8-10 screws, any length, shoulder length or quick draws, and a 60+m rope (unless doing two pitches)
As noted in the description, Chia is witness to a lot of ice fall hazards--usually created by climbers above, both within the climbing team and outside of it--this is a popular route. Communicate with other climbers on the route and carefully consider where you place your belayer. Also, resist the urge to access Chia from the north side of the trestle, as that access is subject to ice fall from Widow's Walk (the cliff with hanging ice daggers) and passes through avalanche terrain that might not bury you, but would end in a nasty run-out.
Bob's Delight (WI3+ to 4)
This route is on the far right side of the amphitheater. It is an enjoyable one pitch option that sees a lot of sun—however, that often means it's out of shape.
This climb should be approached from the far (north) side of the trestle. If you attempt to take a shortcut from the Chia area, you will pass under the daggers of the aptly-named, south-facing, Widows Walk area and then through potential avalanche terrain with a nasty run-out (I've seen two slides occur here). Once at the base of the climb, head up as you choose and use a tree anchor at the top to set up an anchor and a rappel.
Rappel the route with two ropes or be prepared to set up a V-thread mid-way. You could also bushwhack left and rappel down the Trestle area, but that's a DYI adventure.
8-10 screws of a variety of lengths. Standard set of draws. Double 60m ropes provide the smoothest exit.
Be sure to pay attention to the cautions regarding the approach, regarding falling ice and avalanche hazards, mentioned in the climb description. Also, because Bob's Delight faces south, the top layer of ice is frequently sun-baked s'nice and the top can be delaminated.