Towering above North Conway is Cathedral Ledge, one of the most historic cliffs in the Northeast and the hub of New England trad climbing. For decades, Cathedral has been a proving ground for climbers looking to test their mettle on the cliff’s cracks and faces while ascending routes established by legends like Henry Barber, Ed Webster, and John Bouchard. Before tackling one of the cliff’s uber-classic lines, make sure you have the gear you need to climb Cathedral Ledge.

Preparing to Climb Cathedral Ledge

EMS Climbing School and Cathedral Ledge

The EMS Climbing School is the oldest climbing school in the East and has been providing technical climbing instruction since 1968. Cathedral Ledge sits right in the Climbing School’s backyard and school guides have logged thousands of hours on the cliff over the years—both professionally and personally—while also establishing numerous routes on it.

Climbing Cathedral Ledge NH

Five Pieces of Essential Gear for Climbing Cathedral

Below are five essential items the EMS Climbing School recommends for climbing at Cathedral Ledge.

1. Helmet

A helmet is a must for climbing at Cathedral. A road runs to the top of the cliff—it’s a popular tourist attraction—putting all types of people above climbers, many of whom don’t understand the danger of a dropped object. The primary job of a climbing helmet is to provide protection from falling objects and it’s common for items like small sticks, trash, and water bottles to plummet from the top.

2. Leader Pack

From Upper Refuse to Thin Air to RecomBeast, most of the classic multi-pitch routes at Cathedral Ledge require a walk-off (or car shuttle) to get down, rather than rappelling. While you can clip all your non-climbing kit to your harness, it’s much more comfortable to climb with a small “leader’s pack,” like the Black Diamond Bullet 16, than climbing with a bunch of extra stuff dangling from your harness. A good leader’s pack is a very small 10- to 20-liter bag that can hold your food, water, shoes, and maybe an extra layer.

A bonus of a leader’s pack is that, at the end of the climb, you can stuff some or all of your climbing gear in it to avoid it swinging and clanging on your harness on the walk back to the base.

3. 70-Meter Rope

Most Cathedral climbs involve a walk-off, however, a number of classic lines—like The Saigons and Turner’s Flake—are just as easily rappelled. A 70-meter rope isn’t a must-have item, per se, but it will make descending far more simple. While it’s common to see guides using a 60-meter rope when working one-on-one with clients, doing so requires the use of well-refined techniques.

One note of caution: a super-long 70-meter rope makes it tempting to try to link pitches. Resist the urge unless you’re very familiar with the cliff’s terrain. Many of the classics were established when rope lengths weren’t measured, and their pitches break down well into short 20- to 40-meter lengths.

4. Offset Cams/Nuts

Most climbers will probably want more than a single rack of gear to climb at Cathedral Ledge. If you’re going to carry doubles, do so in the midrange (0.4-0.75 in cams and 7-10 in nuts) and consider offsets. Offset cams and nuts are designed to work in irregular cracks. After more than 50 years of guiding Cathedral, trust us—the cliff is home to more irregular cracks than perfectly parallel ones.

Whether protecting an old pin scar or vertical crack, offsets just work. Add them to your rack and thank us later.

5. Mobile Route Info

Cathedral is a complex cliff with many sections, buttresses, walls, and corners. The huge trees at its base make orienting yourself even more challenging. It’s not unusual to see climbers walking back and forth at the base looking for a particular climb. All of this makes it essential to have route info handy.

Unless you’re cragging, leave the book at home. Instead, take a photo with your phone of the approach, routes, and beta you’ll need when at the cliff. Apps are also great for this. Prefer analog to digital? Take a photocopy of the guidebook pages you’ll need.

Rock climbing on Cathedral Ledge

EMS Climbing School

Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School is one of less than 40 guide services in the US accredited by the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA). Whether you want to climb Cathedral but aren’t sure you’re ready for the sharp end, or you want to build the skills to tackle the cliff’s classics on your own, our guides can help make your climbing dreams a reality.