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The Sharp End – Ice Climbing Hitchcock Gully on Mount Willard

With the approaching ice climbing season on the horizon here in the North East I thought I’d reminisce about the last real ice climb I was on last season. It was April 2nd, 2017 and the diminishing weeks of late ice climbing season were upon us. Luke and I were eager to get one last climb in before it all fell down. Most of the popular multi-pitch routes in the notch undergone freeze/thaw cycles and returned to bare rock, fractured unsafe ice or flowing water. We knew we’d need to seek out the resilient ice that hid from the warm sun in the shadows. We decided to head into Crawford Notch and see what Mount Willard had to offer.

The Ice Climbers Trunk

Today I’d be climbing with a new partner Luke. Luke and I hadn’t climbed together before but we had met on a previous trip through our mutual friend Zac. He seemed like he knew his stuff so I was happy to join him for a day on the ice. I was a little concerned when I started my drive north. No snow or ice was along the highway. Luckily Crawford Notch manages to retain its own weather system. Driving down Rt 16 it became clear that today was going to be a success. It got colder, and the snow was piled deep along the roads shoulders.

I was hoping for a special day today. After a season full of belaying a leader, top roping, and following on multi-pitch routes. I decided today would be my first lead… My first time on the “sharp end”.

The Approach

Walking the railroad tracks of Crawford Notch

After sorting out what gear we were bringing along, we started up the railroad tracks by Crawford Depot. Post holing through 5 foot tall dirt covered snowbanks at first. Within a few minutes it seemed we were already beginning our slog up the steep snow and ice covered drainage towards the cliff band.

Left Hand Monkey Wrench (WI3)

The hike up the drainage is steep.

Our first objective is a climb I had done a couple times before this season. Left Hand Monkey Wrench. This climb changes drastically throughout the season. It can be bulgy fat ice, or thin steep delicate ice. The crux is a dihedral that can require some stemming and clever mixed tool placement on wet, loose rock. Luke decided to take the lead here and made quick work of the single pitch climb.

Left Hand Monkey Wrench

Traversing to Hitchcock Gully

Approaching the ice covered cliff line

After climbing Left Hand Monkey Wrench we coiled our rope and stowed our gear for the short walk over towards Hitchcock Gully. This is a beautiful walk along Mount Willards rarely seen cliff band as there are no marked trails in this area. The bushwhack weaves through thick forest to an exposed boulder and talus field that offer a great view of Crawford Notch.

Luke standing near the base of the East Face cliff line

Mount Willard – East Face Right Ice… Looking fat!

Hitchcock Gully (WI3-)

Looking up through the cleft of Hitchcock Gully

Shortly later, we approached the base of Hitchcock Gully. Hitchcock gully is a deep rocky cleft cut in the side of Mount Willard. This cleft serves as a ice box and keeps the ice intact even on warmer days. The climb is a couple hundred feet tall and is usually done in two pitches. This area was busy with climbers roping up for their ascent of the East Face Slabs. Luke and I talked to a few friendly climbers and their clients before we roped up.

Halfway Up

I had led or solo’d some easy ice in the past (WI1-WI2) but this would be my first WI3 lead on a multi-pitch route. I was ready, my stoke was exceedingly high. I was excited to be on the sharp end. Luke, being a more experienced climber than myself gave me a quick pep talk and a few last minute tips. “Sink those tools like your life depends on it” he said. “Don’t be afraid to place screws, use them all if you need to”. I appreciated the enthusiasm and moral boost.

Racked up!

Soon, I was racked up with screws, draws, anchor building gear, and ready to go. I started up the initial slope made up of snow and ice towards the edge of the steeper stuff. I threw on my Outdoor Research Storm tracker gloves as the temperatures were bearable and I wanted a thinner glove to lead in.

Looking down from the climb to Luke at the base.

“Climbing”… “Climb on!” we exchanged our verbal signals and Luke had me on belay. This ice was in great shape. My ice tools had good solid feeling sticks and I felt confident as I moved up the gully.  I cut my first screw in near the base of the climb. I decided to place a LOT of screws. Both for practice on sinking them, and for added protection on the steeper bulges. I placed 5 screws before reaching the top of the first pitch. This is where I set up an anchor to bring up Luke. Man! that was a thrill.

Second Pitch (WI3+)

The left side of the Second Pitch. Much Steeper, but pretty short.

Luke climbed up and we talked about who would lead the next pitch. He wanted a bit of a challenge so we decided to climb the left face of the second pitch. This face is much steeper than the right side, being near vertical. The face tops out into thick brush so we’d need to bushwhack our way around to get back to the trail.

Climbing up the ice bulges of the second pitch.

The Summit, and Hike Out

Mount Willard Summit Panorama

After finishing the second pitch we collected our gear, coiled the rope and packed up for the hike out. The bushwhack over to the marked trail was covered in fresh powder and hard to follow. Once back on the marked “Mount Willard Trail” we decided that we had enough time to stop at the summit of the mountain to take in the views before we left. The view from Mount Willard is spectacular. It was a clear day and the valley below was salt and pepper with ice and snow. I was glad we opted to stop at the summit!

Hiking out on the Mount Willard Trail

After making some friendly conversation with hikers curious about our ropes and helmets we moved on. The hike out down the Mount Willard Trail is very easy and fun. The walk is only about 1.5 miles on tame terrain back to the parking lot. We made conversation the whole way out, reliving the climb and talking about what we’d get after next season. This was a great way to wrap up the winter of 2016-2017’s ice season. A successful climb with a new partner and friend. I can’t wait until next season!


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