Upper Refuse is the most moderate multi-pitch route on Cathedral Ledge—the epicenter of traditional climbing in New England.

Quick Facts

First Ascent: Although the FA of Upper Refuse is often attributed to John Turner, according to Jerry Handren’s North Conway Rock Climbs a party of three—R.S.G. Hall, Walter Spofford, and Merril—first climbed the route in 1935.
Style: Traditional, multi-pitch rock climbing
Grade: 5.5

Length:2 to 4 pitches
Fees/Permits: None
Season: May through OctoberEastern Mountain Sports Climbing School

Why Climb Upper Refuse

Upper Refuse is one of the best moderate multi-pitch trad climbing adventures in the Northeast. Interesting climbing, killer exposure, and a hero’s welcome at the top all make it a must-do route.

Over the years, EMS Climbing School guides have made hundreds of ascents of Upper Refuse and spent thousands of hours on the route. In other words, who better to give you the beta for sending this super-classic route?

The approach to Upper Refuse
The Approach

Since Upper Refuse begins on the upper tier of Cathedral Ledge, climbers have two main options for getting to the route. The first option is to climb a route on the lower tier, with Fun House (5.7) and Bombardment (5.8) being the most popular choices. The second, and more common, option is to approach from the top of Cathedral Ledge, descending and traversing along a ledge system to the base of Upper Refuse.

To approach from the top, drive up the Cathedral Ledge auto road and find a spot to park at the summit. From the Cathedral Ledge overlook at the top of the cliff, hike south looking for a climber’s trail that drops down and then wraps around the Barber Wall. Continue following the approach trail past a number of climbs until you reach the base of Upper Refuse. Save yourself some confusion by downloading the GPX track for the approach ahead of time.

The last bit of the approach trail to the base of Upper Refuse is 4th class with fall potential. If you’re uncomfortable with the terrain, consider putting on your rock shoes or do what most guides do and treat it like a short pitch and rope up and protect it. The broad wooded base of Upper Refuse is a great place to transition to climbing.

EMS Guide climbing Upper Refuse
The Route

Climbers can do Upper Refuse in as few as two pitches, but the route breaks up nicely into four shortish pitches.

Pitch 1 (5.3)

The first pitch of Upper Refuse follows a ramp-like feature for 90 feet to a pin anchor on the right-hand side of the climb. The route’s first moves are often wet due to seepage, however, better conditions are often found above. If the rock looks dry after the first 20 or so feet, you’re likely in good shape.

Many climbers find the first pitch tricky to protect; when in doubt, look to the left side for gear options. These are mostly small and medium cam placements—ranging from 0.4 to 1—but about 30 feet up, there’s a spot for a 3.

The pin anchor at the top of the first pitch can (and should) be expanded with two finger-size cams. A Black Diamond 0.2, 0.3, and 0.4 will work pretty well in the various cracks near the pins. The stance also provides wonderful views, with climbers treated to a gorgeous vista and a surprising amount of air underneath their feet.

Pitch 2 (5.5)

Pitch 2 is the crux of Upper Refuse. Climbers have two options on this pitch: go right along a v-chimney feature or head left, ascending a ramp-like feature with some fun movement. Both variations are about the same in terms of difficulty, with the left variation offering better climbing and good protection.

The variations reconnect at the base of an inside gully. Work up this gully, aiming up and right for a pine tree on a small but comfortable ledge. Build your anchor in the crack behind the tree, then bring your second(s) up. Medium-sized nuts and cams from 0.4 to 0.75 work great for the anchor.

Pitch 3 (5.5)

Although pitch 2 is the crux, the third pitch also has some tricky moves, particularly right off the ledge. Fortunately, there are a lot of options for protection. Avoid getting sucked onto the small ledge on the right, instead ascending the twin crack systems using some push-pull oppositional force to overcome the difficulties. Then continue on mellower terrain to the large tabletop ledge.

The top of pitch 3 is wonderfully exposed, with the valley splayed out hundreds of feet below. Keep your composure as you near the top. The belay is fantastic, it’s two pitons backed up with a cam (a BD 0.75 works great). Word to the wise—the pitons can be tricky to spot, especially since they are downward-facing. Keep an eye out for them in the cracks on the back side of the ledge.

Pitch 4 (5.4)

Pitch 4 offers a variety of ascent options, though most climbers follow the path of least resistance to the top and choose to finish at the tourist outlook. While pitch 4 doesn’t provide the technical difficulty or aesthetic climbing found on some of the Upper Refuse’s lower pitches, for many climbers this is the money pitch.

Topping out at the tourist overlook is the closest many climbers will ever get to feeling like a pro. It’s rare to finish Upper Refuse without a crowd of interested spectators. Climbers should prepare themselves for applause, questions, and even photos with tourists. Seriously, this happens all the time!

The base of Upper Refuse on Cathedral Ledge
Upper Refuse Rack

A typical Upper Refuse gear list includes:

  • A personal climbing kit for each climber: harness, helmet, climbing shoes, chalk bag, a few locking carabiners, a belay device, and approach shoes with sticky rubber.
  • A rack: a set of nuts and a single rack of cams with doubles of 0.4/0.5/0.75 is great. Seven(ish) alpine draws will nicely round out your rack.
  • Material to build gear anchors—a cordelette and a long 240 cm sling are great options.
  • A 60-meter rope (two 60s for a party of three).
  • A small pack to carry essentials like food, water, layers, and a first aid kit.

Upper Refuse on Cathedral Ledge
Pro Tips

  • Ace the Approach: Many climbers have gotten lost approaching Upper Refuse. Save yourself the frustration by downloading the GPX track for the approach.
  • Know Your Surroundings: The climber’s trail travels both under and above a number of popular climbs. When approaching, wear your helmet and take care to not kick or knock anything off the ledges. If you do knock something off the ledges, make sure to warn those below with a loud call of “ROCK!”
  • Mind the Crowds: Upper Refuse is a popular climb in its own right and several popular climbs join it along the way—Fun House and Bombardment at the bottom, Black Lung at the first pitch anchor, and The Book of Solemnity between the second and third pitches. Weekdays or early and late on weekends offer the most likely opportunities for solitude.
  • Build Gear Anchors: Although there are a number of trees on the Upper Refuse, with the amount of traffic the route sees, they wouldn’t survive if climbers used them as anchors. Climbers should instead build gear anchors on Upper Refuse, using (and backing up) the piton anchors atop the first and third pitches.

EMS Climbing School

EMS Climbing school on Upper Refuse

Interested in climbing Upper Refuse, but not ready to take the sharp end? No worries. EMS Climbing School guides have logged serious time on this route. They can lead you up this must-do uber-classic or give you the beta in person to tackle the route yourself.