On Cannon Cliff

A tutorial at a classic site with one of America's pre-eminent alpine climbers

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

ON a late-winter morning John Bouchard starts up the steep snow slope at the base of a 600-foot-high gully of ice and rock known to climbers as the Black Dike. The gully splits the broad granite face of New Hampshire's Cannon Cliff like a hatchet wound. It is thirty degrees and nearly windless; a fine, dry snow falls through the dense fog that conceals the summit. In its present wintry aspect the cliff -- which is nearly a mile wide, a thousand feet high, and an average of ten degrees off vertical -- could easily be mistaken for the base of a north wall somewhere in the Alps.

From the foot of the Dike a talus field descends into beech trees. Farther lies a two-lane road. Half a mile away Bouchard's truck stands alone in a parking lot.

Bouchard, a forty-six-year-old alpinist from neighboring North Conway, New Hampshire, is shod in neon-yellow plastic boots. Steel crampons are secured to the boots' soles, their points freshly sharpened with a hand file. In each gloved hand he carries a short-shafted ice ax. Bouchard knows the route well; in 1971, then an unknown teenager with two years' experience, he was the first person to climb it. The year before, Yvon Chouinard, the godfather of American ice climbing, had proclaimed the unclimbed gully "the last great plum in the East," believing that it lay beyond the technical standards of the day. The Dike was quickly acknowledged as the country's most challenging line on ice, and the details of Bouchard's first ascent -- he did it solo, broke an ice ax, lost a glove, and finished at night in a storm -- established his reputation as one of the country's pre-eminent ice climbers. Nearly thirty years after the first ascent the Black Dike is still widely considered to be the finest alpine climb in New England.

Bouchard went on to complete a number of landmark climbs in the Alps and elsewhere, including the first ascent of the North Couloir, on the north face of the Grand Charmoz, in Chamonix, France, in 1975. In 1981 he and a partner, Mark Richey, climbed the north face of Switzerland's Eiger in fifteen hours, then the second-fastest ascent ever. Bouchard abandoned climbing for paragliding in 1987, and spent six years competing and designing paragliders. The No. 1-ranked U.S. paraglider pilot in 1990 and 1991, he returned to climbing full time in 1993. In 1996 Bouchard and Richey made a successful second ascent, in six days, of the East Pillar of India's Shivling peak. (Not a single attempt on that high-altitude route had succeeded since an epic twelve-day first ascent in 1981.) They trained for the climb in winter on Cannon Cliff.

On Cannon, Bouchard says, an alpinist in training can find routes as challenging as -- albeit much shorter than -- anything to be found on the world's most notorious faces: Patagonia's Cerro Torre, for example, or Shivling's East Pillar. "Cannon has everything except altitude," Bouchard claims. "You can practice on snowed-up rock in crampons, mixed ice and rock, and technical rock climbing, all on a single route in varying conditions."

Cannon Cliff is feared for instability and rock fall. Four climbers have been killed on its face. Mount Washington, an hour to the northeast, is called the most dangerous small mountain in the world, owing largely to freezing temperatures, blistering winds (231-mile-per-hour gusts have been clocked at the summit -- the highest winds recorded anywhere in the world at a fixed location), and the threat of avalanche. For high-altitude climbers in training, the winter conditions on Washington, Cannon, and other regional crags are ideal. "If you train in bad conditions," Bouchard explains, "you're less surprised when they hit at higher altitudes."

I have asked Bouchard to put me through a three-day training program covering the vertical-ice and alpine techniques used on high-altitude walls. We plan to ascend a number of classic alpine winter routes -- commonly a mixture of ice, snow, and rock. Because it is late winter, we are prepared to encounter what Scottish climbers happily embrace as "full conditions": bad weather.

UP on the Black Dike, Bouchard quickly comes to the end of the first pitch, or rope length -- generally in the neighborhood of 150 feet -- and sets a belay anchor. At this stage the climbing is straightforward, and I have soon joined him on a ledge at the base of the route's crux, or most difficult section -- a short rock buttress bare of ice.

Bouchard leaves the safety of the ledge and scrapes out across the rock in his crampons. I belay, feeding the rope through a device affixed to my harness as he proceeds. He slowly spirals up and out around the buttress toward a section of snow and ice, perching the points of his crampons on small ledges, grasping knobs of rock with ungloved hands. For the moment his ice tools rest in holsters at his waist. He pauses, clips his rope into a piton, and climbs on.

He is less than eight feet from me when a rock the size of a toolbox comes loose in his hand. The rock misses his boot by inches and skips down the gully. Luckily, we are alone on the route. Unbalanced by the falling rock, Bouchard teeters for a moment on his crampons and then plunges from the face.

It is a short fall, easily belayed, but it surprises me. Bouchard is one of the world's most experienced alpinists, at home on a route he pioneered, a climb he has frequently made unroped. It is easy to forget that he might actually rely on my belay.

"There is an element of randomness that you can't control," Bouchard says later of such alpine routes. "But part of the pleasure is knowing that you're willing to take that chance. It's very different from the risks taken by the Everest crowd, or by bungee jumpers. The risks on Everest are high but totally out of the climber's control -- the actual climbing takes very little skill. Bungee jumping is the reverse -- nothing can go wrong if you do it right."

The bare-rock crux notwithstanding, most of the Black Dike is sheathed in ice -- tinted ocher by minerals in the groundwater -- and offers challenges well suited to the intermediate ice climber. (Like rock climbing, ice climbing has seen a tremendous boom in participation in recent years. In 1980, Bouchard estimates, there may have been 1,500 regular ice climbers in the United States. At this writing the figure stands above 10,000.) Hooking and swinging with our tools, toe-kicking up narrow chimneys, or vertical slots, of ice, we finish the route without further incident.

When I top out into the trees at the end of the climb, I shake Bouchard's hand and congratulate him. We hike off through the snow along a trail on the back of the cliff and drive to a neighboring village for lunch. I am elated from the climb, but Bouchard is pensive, and the conversation soon turns to mortality.

lives in northern California. He is the author of (1998).

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1999; On Cannon Cliff - 99.11 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 5; page 111-115.