Friday, March 6, 2009

John Henry: The Hammer Swinger

Leaving the ice. Freddy Wilkinson photo.

When we started bolting routes in the quarry in Evan's Notch it was a free for all. In two days we had four mixed lines, all with substantial sections of ice climbing. No one was hurt, there aren't any plants to kill, and after the dust settled we had some great projects.


To make a good mixed climb you don't need much more than a chossy overhang and a little dangling ice. Steep terrain is the important part. I've had visiting friends from out west tell me the overhanging choss we were climbing was really good compared to what they had at home, so its all what you're used to. But, when Ray Rice took Eliot Gaddy, Freddy Wilkinson and I out to this abandoned quarry in Evan's Notch I thought we might be on to something, and as it turned out, the Mica Mine, had some great choss.

It also has ice, so when we first rolled into the cave it didn't take long to put together the line that would become John Henry. There was a twenty five foot flow of shoulder wide grade 3+ ice in the back of the cave and a hanger at the lip, separated by twenty five feet horizontal dry tooling. There were other options too, and Ray Rice had already begun equipping one of the best, a hard M7 pitch that came to be called Gold Rush. A true mixed climb with an easy ice start, some mixed climbing around an amazing hanging blob and steep drytool moves out to a free hanger. One of the best pitches of the grade around, complete with a bit of up-side-down dangling.

The line that was to become John Henry was all dangling, and it took a few days of effort to finally to send, and an uncomfortable morning to equip. There is only one way to bolt such a steep route, from the ground up (and over, as the case may be). Me, an aider, a home-made daisy chain, my ice tools, my Bosch and a two hour belay from Freddie got most of the route equipped. Make a couple of hook moves hanging from your tools, drill a bolt, repeat. I aided as far as I could but the hooks ran out and my kidneys were bruised. After a break on flat ground, I jugged the fixed line up towards the hanger to drill the last bolt, feeling really nervous there wouldn't be any holds out there. There were, they were just hidden, and really far away.

Its a long way up.
Freddie WIlkinson photos.

Most of John Henry is fairly straight forward, positive drytooling; fluid and fun, right to the lip of the cave. Outside of the cave, the wall is about forty five degrees overhanging and there is body length section of blankness. Its a funny moment, dangling from a figure four at the end of the traverse of the concave roof, no where to put your feet and looking up to what seems like completely blank rock. The shallow hook you're hanging from, with the inside of your knee locked over your opposite wrist, is positive but not huge. There is nothing else to do but swing. With a bit of momentum, and lots of flailing learning the move, I could eventually grab it, a good positive hidden hook in a quartz pocket. The climbing isn't over yet, a couple of drytool moves followed by the thin ice of the hanger, but it definitely gets easier.


John Henry is a great route to work, the climbing is fun and unique, it's in a beautiful, quiet cave. It's an ideal modern mixed route in that you begin on ice and drytool to some more ice. Hopefully, we'll continue to find good conditions at the Mica Mine. It takes a few years to develop a sense of what a crag needs to form, but this one has the right ingredients; its wet, dark and cold.

I'm not really sure of how hard the route is, New Hampshire routes of comparable difficulty are mostly in the dry Cathedral cave where I haven't spent a whole lot of time. Some well traveled hard man will have to swing by, onsight it and tell me what the grade actually is. I figure it to be somewhere in the M10-M11 range. Let me know.

The Mica Mine