20 Years Later on Cannon Cliff

It was 1994, and I was 16 years old. I had been spending every paycheck I earned after school at the Salem, N.H., EMS on climbing gear. While cooling off one night at the long-since-closed Mill City Rock Gym, I thumbed through a climbing magazine article titled “Ten Classic Trad Climbs Under 5.10.” Number 6 on this list? Lakeview, Cannon Cliff, N.H., Grade 3 YDS 5.6.

I was intrigued. Moderate multi-pitch climbing in New Hampshire? I had to do this. I started obsessing about it that summer. My first attempt was with my assistant manager, Peg Foss. We drove up I-93 in a light drizzle that ended right as we arrived at the iconic Franconia Notch. The cliff looked like it might dry, so we hiked up to the base. I took the first pitch – damp 5.3 climbing but doable. Peg started up the second pitch and, at the first overlap, struggled, yelling “Watch me,” and then slipped off.

It was her first leader fall.

It was my first leader fall catch.

She slid past me on the slab with enough time to make eye contact and ask, “You got me!?”

Her only piece, an inverted pink Tricam, kept her from going more than a few feet past the belay. Her ankle was bruised, and she had torn through her nylon hiking pants to her underwear, but we somehow decided it would be a good idea to keep going. I volunteered to do all the leading.

Two pitches from the top, the description in the guidebook confused me: “Up this gully into a left-facing book”?

“Well, this must be it,” I thought.

20 minutes later, while sketching out in what I later discovered was off-route 5.8x terrain, I finally admitted defeat and lowered off a suspicious horn, and we bushwhacked our way off the route to the north. After 20 years, I still remember it as being one of the most heinous bushwhacks of my life.

[Photo: Dave Lottman]
[/media-credit] [Photo: Dave Lottman]
So, then, my junior year of high school started.

For my second attempt, I convinced a schoolmate to play hookie to “Come try rock climbing.” I drove us north up I-93 with a borrowed harness and convinced myself he would be fine following in sneakers. At the top of the second pitch, he declared he was terrified and didn’t want to continue, so I traversed out right into the shrubbery and embarked on the second-worst bushwhack of my life.

On my third attempt, I teamed up with Tom. We arrived at the base of the route just as another party was starting. I did everything I could to stay on their heels, so I would find the correct finish to the climb. Finally, I stood out on the Old Man’s Brow and tried to take in the amazing valley that sprawled below me, having just completed my first multi-pitch rock climb: In only three attempts, in just under nine hours.

It’s been 20 years. What has changed? There were the four years in the Marines, covering 18 countries in five continents. Then, getting out and moving back to N.H., and going back to work for EMS in Newington, N.H. Transfer up to North Conway. Retail. Waiting tables. Bartending. Seeing people die in the mountains. Avalanche courses. Guiding courses. The Old Man falls down! Get hired as a guide. More courses. A couple more deaths. Some…Strangers in the mountains doing what they loved, and others…much closer.

A girlfriend. A fiancee. A wife! A son! A daughter!

Here I am, 20 years later, now back at the climb that made me a climber, leading Oliver, who started climbing a decade before I was born and was now making his way back into the sport after a 30-year hiatus. For this adventure, he still used the 40-year-old backpack he climbed with in Yosemite and the Cascades!

Here I am, 20 years later, now back at the climb that made me a climber.

[Photo: Dave Lottman]
[/media-credit] [Photo: Dave Lottman]
We left the car at 10:35 a.m. – a late start for Cannon in my opinion, but Oliver had shown endurance and skill over the past few weeks when climbing with me on Cathedral and Whitehorse, and I was confident we could make good time.

We reached the base of the climb in about 35 minutes. I had mistakenly took us up the Moby Grape approach trail, forgetting that the Lakeview trail requires taking a hard right on the Pemi Trail after crossing the bridge. No matter, I thought, as this only cost us five to 10 minutes. We roped up and off we went.

We made fairly good time up the first four pitches. The Old Man falling in 2003 had greatly altered the fifth pitch, and I chose to do the uphill tree thrutching bypass to the right to gain the traverse over to “Lunch Ledge.” Here, at 12:30 p.m., we took a minute to eat and drink.

Then, we went up the two iconic last pitches, where you’ll find some of the best 5.5 and 5.6 climbing anywhere.

All day in the back of my mind, I had been thinking about the memorable “Archival” Flake that guards the fun-stemming corner at the top. This flake has frustrated quite a few good climbers, and for the leader, it is a bit of a no-fall zone, due to the low-angle slab below it. I had it mastered 20 years ago, and today, muscle memory brought me up it via “monter a cheval,” or “mount the horse.”

At 2 p.m., we reached the top. While the flake move had provided a solid challenge for Oliver, the reward was obvious.

“This may be the greatest climb I have ever done,” said the guy who used to stay in Camp Four and lead friends on climbs in the Cascades in his college years.

It was at this moment I realized I first stood up here 20 years ago, a somewhat reckless teenager getting hooked on something that would steer my life forever.

After a 30-minute break, we made our way down the descent trail, reaching the car at 3:15 p.m. Along the way, I continued to pique Oliver’s interest in some of the area’s great climbing spots.