Henderson Ridge: Alpine Climbing for the Everyman

The Northeast is filled with fantastic opportunities for alpine climbing, with much of it at a modest grade. For instance, a few iconic places like the Whitney-Gilman Ridge on Cannon Mountain, the Armadillo Buttress on Mount Katahdin, and the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle on Mount Washington offer great New England moderates at a 5.7.

Occasionally, however, 5.7 can feel like 5.9, especially on classic climbs previously graded 5.7 – once considered the peak of difficulty. Sometimes, climbers seek the alpine experience without all the arduousness and fear, and instead would prefer to test themselves on an easier route, work out their systems, and evaluate their readiness before moving onto bigger treks higher in the mountains.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Why Henderson Ridge is Perfect

Henderson Ridge in Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravine is the perfect proving ground for both aspiring alpine climbers and the everyman looking for a weekend adventure. For one, it delivers a big route on a quintessential New England mountain while offering beginner-friendly climbing no harder than a 5.4. Even better, it’s located directly across from the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, perhaps giving a glimpse of a future objective – if things go well, that is.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Be Prepared

Like many alpine climbs, the approach to Henderson Ridge is lengthy and will have you considering what is vital to take. Over the years, my rack has gotten noticeably smaller, the rope has gotten shorter and skinnier, and energy gels have replaced real food to minimize the amount of gear I’ll carry during the two-plus miles and nearly 3,000 feet of elevation to the base.

While thinning out the pack is important, it’s critical to remember that Mount Washington is “home to the world’s worst weather,” and bright, sunny days can quickly become windy, rainy, snowy, and miserable, so pack accordingly. Furthermore, this is a traditionally protected climb with no fixed gear, so you should bring enough supplies to safely get through the route, know how to properly place trad gear, and be comfortable building your own anchors. If you’re a first-timer, bring a standard rack of small- to medium-sized cams and a set of stoppers, as gear placements are abundant.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Know Your Approach

The most common way for climbers to reach Henderson Ridge is via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to either the Huntington Ravine Cutoff Trail or the Huntington Ravine Trail, and then follow the trail to the base of the ravine. From the ravine’s base, Henderson Ridge is the prominent rib of rock on the far right that occasionally and dramatically juts out over North Gully. To reach Henderson Ridge, continue moving up the trail, until you are near level with the beginning of the ridge and start bushwhacking over to it.

On some visits, I have been able to find what I think is a faint climber’s path that made the traverse easier. Other times, I have not and have been nearly swallowed by undergrowth. Depending on the bushwhack you choose, this traverse may seem like a few forgettable moments before the climb or become the hardest thing you’ll do all day.

Of course, if none of this sounds appealing to you, there is always what I have heard referred to as the lazy, luxurious, or smart approach to Henderson Ridge: Just drive up the auto road, and descend to the climb.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Pitching It Out

The technical beginning of Henderson Ridge is fairly obvious, as a large sliver of rock dips into the lower ravine’s vegetation to form a sharp ridge above North Gully. In my experience, the first pitch is often the route’s hardest point, as my legs struggle to adapt from the uphill hike to the few delicate slab moves you need to make. While I have often climbed Henderson Ridge using only my approach shoes, there have been moments on the first pitch where I have wished for a pair of real climbing shoes.

To continue from the top of the first pitch, hug the ridge for three or four more rope lengths through the increasingly blocky terrain. Then, sustained climbing ends on a large ledge above what’s known as the “diving board,” an incredible feature hanging out over North Gully. Climbers comfortable with exposure will love walking the plank, taking in the fantastic view, and feeling the air beneath their feet.

While most climbers will de-rope and scramble after four pitches, first-timers may want to keep the rope out, depending on their comfort with the terrain, their abilities, and location, as there are still some steep sections and intermittent portions requiring more technical skills. Those not satiated with the first four pitches can then scramble left and find a few more rope lengths in North Gully.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Descent

At the top of Henderson Ridge or North Gully, climbers can connect with the Alpine Garden Trail. From here, you can choose to go to Mount Washington’s summit via the Nelson Crag Trail before going down the mountain, or continue across the Alpine Garden to the Lion Head Trail and begin the descent immediately. For those who did this route auto-assisted, jump in your car and enjoy the drive down. And, for those who wish they’d taken the auto road up, stick out your thumb, and hope someone takes pity on you.

 

Hike or drive, rope up or solo, summit or go summit-less, or even link it with The Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle for an alpine extravaganza, Henderson Ridge offers ample adventure opportunities for climbers of all levels. With an incredible setting on a must-visit mountain, it makes the alpine experience accessible to the everyday climber.