The Man in the Mountain, or what remained of him, hung above me as I scraped my way up the climb. His absence reminded me of what many had said about the cliff: Cannon was an exfoliating onion periodically shedding its layers. I heard loose rocks in the near distance tumbling down, adding to the boulder field that stretched halfway to the bike path with rocks that previously comprised the cliff.
After pulling up to the ledge, completing the pitch, I rested my head against the rock and decided then and there that I was done. My climbing career was over. I quit.
Todd leading Pitch 1 Down east 2004
Unfortunately for me, I was only 150’ up a 1000’ climb. The physical retreat would not be so easy. There was no fixed anchor to use for a rappel. Ironically enough, the safest way off the cliff was up. My two partners stood below waiting for me to secure the rope and belay them up. I fiddled with some gear placements and clipped a fixed piton that I hoped was ok.
I quit several times more after that; I forget how many. The technical element of the climb was not the issue, for I had climbed “harder routes” with more challenging moves. The insecurity of grabbing a wobbling hold often rattled me, but today, the fear was especially strong. Though the fear dominated that day, I felt great satisfaction during sections of the climb when I had no choice but to push the fear aside and move from a secure position or off a ledge.
Todd on Pitch 2 – note the large rack of gear by his side!
We stood at the end of the final pitch and read the guidebook’s description: “Step left, face climb to a corner, then mantle to the top.” We had completed a mantle – pushing down with the palm of one’s hand like one would do when getting out of a pool – and looked up to see that we still had another few hundred feet of climbing above us. I cursed the author and wondered if this day would ever end.
Later, when we were safely hiking down, my friends teased me; in fact, they continue to tease me to this day. “When are we going back?” For years the question created uneasiness in my stomach, but it also reminded me of the physical and mental challenges I faced that day. Even though I wanted to retreat to the safety of the ground, I ventured upward until I reached the top. A few days later, we climbed at Crawford Notch on a route with the same technical grade; this time I took the crux pitch. Less affected by the difficulty of the moves and the sparseness of gear placements, I focused on the climbing, enjoyed the exposure, and savored the time with my friends.
Renowned climber and author John Long once wrote: An honest failure never haunts you because the body knows no shame. But if you let your mind defeat you, if you bail off because the “vibes” are weird and you let fear run away with itself, you have not truly failed, rather defaulted, and it will nag you like a tune till your dying day – or at least until you return and set things straight.
The passage struck a chord with me the moment I read it, and it has stayed with me to this day. It could be applied to so many climbing adventures, so many facets of life, in fact, but not “Down East.” This route was the exception: I would never want to climb it again. Then a few years back, I reflected upon my experience. I thought about the route and that day. I even wondered if I could lead the crux pitch. Though we did not “bail off,” and certainly not from a lack of wanting, I still hear that tune and want to “set things straight.”
In order to successfully climb the route, I will need more mileage on the rock so that I can regain the necessary strength and endurance. But unlike in previous years when the idea of climbing “Down East” scared me, I now look forward to the opportunity and the challenge…and to giving dear friends more fodder for laughter.
Sykes, Jon. Secrets of the Notch: A Guide to Rock and Ice Climbing on Cannon Cliff and the Crags of Franconia Notch. Huntington Graphics. 2001.
Long, John. Rock Jocks, Wall Rats, and Hang Dogs: Rock Climbing on the Edge of Reality. Fireside, 1994.
Todd Goodman MMG Guide