Alpha Guide: Ice Climb Shoestring Gully

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Easily accessible alpine-style climbing at a modest grade and in an amazing setting make Shoestring Gully a must-do climb for ice climbers of all levels.

An ascent of Shoestring Gully in New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch is a rite of passage for aspiring ice climbers in the Northeast. Offering 2,500 feet of varied climbing, an incredible view of Crawford Notch, and an alpine feel without the above-treeline weather and exposure, Shoestring Gully is perhaps the best moderate ice climb in New Hampshire.

Quick Facts

Distance: 4 miles round-trip and 2,200 feet of elevation gain
Time to Complete: Half day
Difficulty: ★★★ (WI2, Grade III)
Scenery: ★★★★


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Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Turn-By-Turn

Shoestring Gully is located off Route 302 a few miles south of Crawford Notch and the AMC Highland Center, with the best parking at the Webster Cliff Trailhead (44.170673, -71.388153). The parking area accommodates anywhere from five to 10 cars, but space fluctuates depending on snowfall. This is a popular climb, so parking spots fill up quickly. There is additional parking available along 302 in both directions, but will add roughly an extra half-mile of hiking in each direction to your outing.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Acing the Approach

From the Webster Cliff Trailhead, the most straightforward approach to the gully is crossing Route 302 and hiking up the Webster Cliff Trail. The trail is flat and, after you walk for a few minutes, comes to a bridge that crosses the Saco River. Take the bridge across, and at the trail junction slightly uphill from the river (44.171936, -71.385475), turn left (upstream) onto the Saco River Trail. The trail is often icy, however; if you find that’s the case, this is a good spot to put on either MICROspikes or crampons.

Follow the Saco River Trail for approximately 0.5 miles, until you see the climber’s path leading uphill on the right (44.175751, -71.391571). Looking for a clue that this is the right gully? As a great landmark for heading uphill, a large boulder displays large painted trail markers for the Saco River Trail. Also, thanks to the popularity of this climb, the approach heading uphill is usually pretty broken in.

Historically, climbers have approached by parking roughly a half-mile further north on Route 302 and crossing the Saco at an old dam. Over the years, however, the crossing has gotten a bit spicy. Although this approach puts you directly below the gully and is shorter overall, it also means a road march back to the car on the descent.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Getting to the Start of the Climb

The climber’s path slowly gains altitude as it steadily moves into Shoestring Gully. Once in the gully, the trail steepens as you ascend a bouldery stream bed that gradually opens up near the first ice flow. If you haven’t yet put on your crampons, this is the place to do so, as this section is often slippery, and the “real” climbing is fast approaching.

After roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain, climbers will encounter the day’s first ice flow (44.178432, -71.386986) at the top of the stream bed. Just below this bulge, a well-worn flat spot is perfect for getting kitted—harness, helmet, crampons, ice tools, rope, and protection—for the climbing above. It’s also a convenient place to have a drink and a quick bite to eat before the rhythm and mechanics of climbing are involved. From the trailhead, it’s roughly 45 to 60 minutes to get here.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The First Ice Bulge

Most years, Shoestring Gully has a short (20- to 30-foot), moderate ice bulge at the base of the climb. The bulge’s right side is typically less challenging, but one of the joys of Shoestring Gully is the opportunity to increase or decrease the climb’s difficulty to meet your skill level. On top of the bulge, climbers will find trees on both the gully’s left and right sides to use as anchors. As a tip, building an anchor on the left side offers a better view of followers, while building it a little higher on the right provides an easier transition to the snow pitches that follow.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Snow Pitches

After the first ice bulge, the next few rope lengths of the gully typically consist of moderate snow with a few interspersed ice patches. Climbers use a variety of techniques to move through this terrain, depending on experience, comfort, and conditions. Some parties will simply pitch out the snow, as they would on any other type of multi-pitch climb. Others will shorten the rope and simul-climb—that is, climb together with running protection between them. No matter how you choose to approach this terrain, however, the ice patches and occasional trees on the gully’s sides provide protection and anchor opportunities.

This section is also a great place to give your calves a break and show off your French technique (or practice it), thanks to the angle and nature of the snow. When the snow starts to transition to ice, the pitch begins to steepen, and the gully’s walls grow in prominence, build an anchor, and get ready for the day’s most technical climbing (44.17893, -71.385422).

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Climb Some Ice

The next three to four rope lengths are Shoestring’s “Ice Pitches.” They begin with a one-to-two pitch climb up several steps of moderate ice, before eventually transitioning to steep snow. The most consistent ice in this section is typically on the gully’s right side.

After a brief snow climb, the gully widens and becomes comparatively steeper. From here, there are three ways up. The rightmost variation climbs the line that hugs the wall on climber’s right and is generally considered the easiest route. The center variation heads directly up the middle of the gully, putting climbers on steeper—closer to WI3—and more difficult ice. Heading farther left puts you on even slightly steeper ice. Beware not to take the fun climbing on the far left variation too high, as it eventually climbs out of the main drainage and will require some bushwacking to get back on course.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

No matter which option you choose, the gully narrows after about two more pitches, with terrain turning into a combination of snow and intermittent ice patches. Trees line the left side, providing some protection and anchor-building opportunities. After roughly one-and-a-half rope lengths of snow-ish climbing, exit the gully into the woods.

Pro Tip: Parties that move quickly through the Snow Pitches can sometimes catch up to slower climbers just starting the Ice Pitches. Although the much-wider gully makes the Ice Pitches a tempting place to make a pass, be careful to avoid tangled ropes or getting stuck at an unprotected belay below a climber who’s raining down ice.

The optional WI3 finish looking thin. | Credit: Tim Peck
The optional WI3 finish looking thin. | Credit: Tim Peck

Optional Finishes

Shoestring Gully offers two alternative finishes for those looking to do more than simply slog up the snow at the top. The first option involves climbing the obvious rock wall on the climber’s right roughly one rope length below the woods. The climbing is moderately rated at 5.5, but finding protection can be tricky, especially if the ice is thin. The second alternative is found above the rock finish, and involves climbing a corner with ice rated up to WI3.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Descent

From the proper finish, climbers should continue walking into the woods until they reach the Webster Cliff Trail (44.179947, -71.382828). The path to the Webster Cliff Trail is often well-broken in, making it easy to locate. The intersection of Shoestring Gully and the Webster Cliff Trail is a great spot to regroup, pack away the climbing gear, and have something to eat. Once everything is packed and you’ve refueled, simply follow the Webster Cliff Trail back to Route 302 and your vehicle. As you head down, make sure to stop at the overlook just a few minutes from the top for a fantastic view of Mount Willard, Mount Willey, and the rest of Crawford Notch.

If you didn’t bring MICROspikes, leave your crampons on for the descent. The Webster Cliff Trail descends several steep sections and is often extremely icy. You’ll want the extra traction.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • Never climb steep ice without a helmet. Shoestring Gully gets a lot of traffic, and the potential for someone knocking ice down is high. The Black Diamond Vector is a long-time favorite for its great fit and minimal weight.
  • Lugging a heavy rope 2,500 feet up is no fun. Consider lightening the load with the Sterling Rope Fusion Nano 9.0 dry rope.
  • The Black Diamond Dirtbag Gloves are just warm enough for most winter days, durable enough for ice climbing, and offer enough dexterity to handle the rope, making them a key to any Shoestring Gully kit.
  • Whether you’re pitching it out, simul-climbing, or mixing the two techniques, an ascent of Shoestring Gully often involves several stops and starts. A jacket like the EMS Alpine Ascender is the perfect insulation piece, as it keeps you warm when you’re stopped at the belay, but breathes when you’re on the move.
  • Winter days are short, and everything from conditions to other parties makes it longer than anticipated. Avoid getting stuck in the dark with the super-bright and easily rechargeable Black Diamond Revolt.
  • The Petzl Caritool Evo can be added to most harnesses and makes it easy to keep your climbing gear organized.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Get there early! This is a popular climb, and arriving early is the surest way to beat the crowds. And, thanks to Shoestring Gully’s moderate grade and fun climbing, expect to encounter people of all abilities—from people taking their first turn on the sharp end to climbers going ropeless.
  • Shoestring Gully gets lots of sun, so it’s a great option even on cold days.
  • Be willing to do variations. There are ample opportunities to pass slower parties by doing different (and sometimes harder) variations of the route’s pitches.
  • If you finish with time to spare, consider climbing to the summit of Mount Webster, approximately 1.5 miles further up the Webster Cliff Trail. Or, consider climbing another of the area’s moderate multi-pitch routes, including Willey’s Slide, Flume Cascade, and Silver Cascade, to name a few.
  • If you worked up an appetite climbing, Fabyan’s Restaurant, located across from Bretton Woods, is nearby, or head into North Conway to visit Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewing Co., which is the place for climbers to congregate.
  • Not sure if you’re ready for Shoestring Gully? Contact the EMS Climbing School to arrange for a guided ascent, or spend a day brushing up on your ice skills with one of our guides.

Current Conditions

Have you climbed Shoestring recently? Post your experience and the conditions (with the date of your climb) in the comments for others!


Top 5 Winter Hikes Under 5 Miles in the White Mountains

Winter hiking in the White Mountains can be extremely rewarding. Not only can you avoid the crowds, but also, you’re able to see the mountains in a vastly different light. You’ll further find that there’s nothing quite like the tundra experience atop some of New Hampshire’s tallest peaks. Here, you’ll see pines encased with perfectly white snow, and trails full of fresh powder or slicked with ice. And, whether you’re new to winter hiking, or looking for a quick lunchtime trek to burn off those holiday calories, the Whites have a winter-wonderland of options.

Credit: Maxwell DesMarais
Credit: Maxwell DesMarais

Mount Willard

Mount Willard is easily one of the Whites’ most rewarding hikes. Specifically, with minimal effort, you can experience stunning views of Crawford Notch. The notch’s southern slopes rise over 1,500 ft. to the summit, and to the left, the exposed rocks of Mount Webster’s cliffs are ice covered. Together, these features create a striking contrast of dark rocks and pure white ice. As you make your way to the thousand-foot cliff rising from the valley floor, you wonder how you could have ascended so quickly.

The trailhead begins at the train station just east of the AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch. The Mount Willard Trail then climbs gradually over 1.6 miles to the cliff overlooking Route 302 and the Saco River. If you have never hiked in winter, Willard is the perfect starter peak. Particularly, the gradual incline keeps ice and snow manageable for all levels, without the need for crampons or other more serious gear.

Credit: Maxwell DesMarais
Credit: Maxwell DesMarais

Cannon Mountain

A winter hiking essential, Cannon is one of the few New Hampshire 4,000-footers that you can hike round-trip in under five miles. Located in Franconia Notch, it has incredible views of Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge to the east and North and South Kinsman to the south. Here, the strong winds and elevation create multiple layers of ice that envelope the summit tower. The 360-degree views show off the flat lands to the northwest, the white-tipped pines of the Kinsman Ridge Trail, and the steep valley of Franconia Notch. You’ll even get a glimpse of the ski lift up Cannon.

The Kinsman Ridge trail (a.k.a. Hi-Cannon Trail) can be accessed from the Cannon Mountain Ski Area parking lot off I-93, and offers a very short four-mile round-trip hike to the summit. The trail is fairly steep and likely requires MICROspikes, but the views from the observation tower are worth it. As you ascend, the incline will get your heart pumping, and the breathtaking sights will keep it going long after you stop.

Credit: Chris Picardi
Credit: Chris Picardi

Arethusa Falls

Also in Crawford Notch, Arethusa Falls involves a 2.6-mile round-trip hike to a stunning waterfall. Over the 1.3 miles from the parking lot, you’ll climb roughly 800 feet along the Bemis Brook Trail, which parallels Bemis Brook. Here, you can always stop to listen to the falling waters, or take a look at the unique rock formations carved by the brook. And, at the end, there’s nothing like seeing a 140-foot ice wall looming over you. If you come at just the right time, you may be lucky enough to see water rushing down the middle, flanked by ice walls on either side.

Credit: @ayu_river
Credit: @ayu_river

Ripley Falls

Ripley Falls is located just a couple miles up the notch from the trailhead for Arethusa Falls, with parking clearly marked along Route 302. At only 1.2 miles round-trip, this short hike along the Ripley Falls Trail is great if you only have an hour or two to spare. While Ripley Falls isn’t quite as steep as Arethusa Falls, it still creates a giant ice slide that can completely cover the entire cascade, leaving no rock exposed. Consider combining both in a day via the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail.

Glen-Boulder-Winter

Glen Boulder

The Glen Boulder trailhead is located just south of Pinkham Notch on Route 16 at the Glen Ellis Parking Area. The trail up is a steep 3.6-mile round-trip hike—perfect for those wanting a more challenging workout. In less than 1.5 miles, you will the reach treeline, where you’ll get to see gorgeous views of Mount Washington and Pinkham Notch. In winter, you may need snowshoes, and should bring MICROspikes for traction. Glen Boulder appears to beg for a nudge off the mountainside. So, if you’re bold, stand on top of it.

Going beyond Glen Boulder gives you even better views. But, understand that snow drifts can create very deep powder on the ridge to Boott Spur. To prepare, snowshoes are recommended. For a bonus, check out Glen Ellis Falls at the trailhead. To get here, a short trail leading under Route 16 takes you a short distance to what may be New Hampshire’s best waterfall.


Crawford Notch Slab Climbs for Fall Foliage

Fall is the perfect opportunity for rock climbers to take advantage of the cool air and increased friction, escape the White Mountain crowds, and do a little high-angle leaf peeping. And, those seeking out moderately-rated routes and great views won’t need to look any further than the slab climbs found in and around Crawford Notch.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Central Slab on Mt. Webster

Mt. Webster’s Central Slab has some of the region’s best climbs. Popular moderates—Lost in the Sun, Direct, and A Bit Short—all go at 5.6 or less and have bolted cruxes and belay anchors. About 1,000 feet long, each offers bird’s-eye views of Crawford Notch, Willey’s Slide, and, in the distance, the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Even better, the 30- to 40-minute uphill approach is such a good crowd deterrent that you’ll rarely encounter too many parties.

For first-time visitors, acing the approach might be more of a challenge. If you’re coming from Conway, park in a small dirt pullout on Route 302, just after the Willey House on the left. Climbers coming from the I-93 side of 302 should use the slab itself as a reference, as the pullout is almost directly across. From here, walk across the street and cross the Saco River. Orange ribbons and small cairns lead you uphill on a climbers’ path into the approach gully and the base of the climb. Pro Tip: Leave some post-climb beers in the Saco to chill.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Lost in the Sun and Direct both leave from the toe, while A Bit Short starts a little up on the right. All three climb interesting slab, interspersed with some fun flakes and overlaps on mostly clean rock. Every belay station offers great views, but be sure to check out the flattish one at the end of Lost in the Sun and Direct. Here, sit down, take off your climbing shoes, have a snack, and soak in the expansiveness of Crawford Notch’s foliage, before you transition to the rappel. Note: The route requires two ropes, and there is no walk-off.

In terms of gear, first-timers should bring a standard rack up to two inches, along with a few doubles of smaller cams. As well, some of the pitches—especially on Direct—have several bolts. So, to prepare, consider adding multiple quickdraws to your normal assortment of runners and alpine draws.

Credit: Doug Martland
Credit: Doug Martland

The West Wall of Mt. Oscar

If long approaches are a turn-off, then check out Mt. Oscar’s West Wall, home to New Hampshire’s most European approach. Simply park at the Bretton Woods ski resort, walk 100 yards to the chairlift, and take it ($5 per person) to the top. From here, hike west on a gravel road for 10 minutes towards the West Mountain summit, enter the woods, and turn left at a wooden sign for West Wall. Then, walk downhill through a pine forest for 10 to 15 minutes to the wall’s base.

The 300-foot tall West Wall has about nine multi-pitch routes ranging in difficulty from 5.4 to 5.7. The slab climbing is fun, with bolts where you want them and generally good gear interspersed. Moreover, it’s a great place to take less-experienced leaders. Specifically, the pitches are short, and every belay station includes bolted anchors with rap rings. However, the shade-induced dampness does make the climbs’ first 10 feet a little slippery.

Once you get above the second pitch, make sure to turn around and enjoy the wilderness behind you. From left to right, you’ll see Mt. Tom, Zealand Notch, the Pemigewasset Wilderness, Mt. Hale, and the Sugarloafs. As you climb higher, look for Mt. Carrigain looming in the distance.

Most West Wall climbs eventually converge into Guides Route, which becomes markedly easier on the fourth and fifth pitches. As a result, many try a route’s first few pitches, rappel to the ground, and then head back up another route. When you’re done, simply keep climbing up Guides Route, until you can scramble on third-class slabs to the West Mountain summit. From there, savor the views as you unrope and pack your gear for the short hike back to the chairlift.

Credit: Doug Martland
Credit: Doug Martland

The Main Slab of Mt. Willard

Mt. Willard’s two-tiered slab looms as one of Crawford Notch’s most prominent landmarks. Home to some of the Whites’ first technical climbing, this is the place for fantastic views and fun, history-steeped routes.

To get to Willard’s Main Slab, park on Route 302 at the dirt pullout just south of the Silver Cascade parking lot. A well-tread trail leaves from the back, heading directly uphill to Hattie’s Garden and a railroad track. Turn right, and follow the track for five to 10 minutes to the loose gully that climbs up to main slab’s bottom left side. Pro Tip: Put your helmet on here. Hugo’s Horror Revisited, the slab’s “easiest” route, begins here. The starts for two other popular routes—Time-Space Continuum and Across the Universe—are along the climbers’ path to the right.

Compared to similarly-rated routes on West Wall and Central Slab, the climbing on Willard is stout. Further, although you’ll find some bolts in between the bolted anchors, the runouts sometimes feel spicy, and you won’t always find good gear in between. Some loose, crumbly rock on a couple segments also complicates matters.

All that said, the view down is unparalleled, especially during peak foliage season. Mt. Webster’s slabs command it to the southeast, soaring above the Saco River and Route 302 to the notch’s southern end. In the west, Mt. Willey’s forest and slides reach 4,000 feet in elevation.

 

Credit: Doug Martland
Credit: Doug Martland

There is much to love about climbing in Crawford Notch, and in the fall, these crags get even better, as the bugs go away and friction improves. Best of all, after a rope-length or two, you’re far removed from the leaf-peeping masses and get rewarded with a view that beats anything they’re seeing down below.