Dancing Hawks

AMC Outdoors, June 2007

Mount Katahdin: The Armadillo Buttress (5.7)

Gazing up at the 2,000-foot alpine cirque that forms the South Basin of Mount Katahdin, you might think you were in the Sierras or the Rockies. But Maine? How many people even know the Pine Tree State boasts an alpine wall with nearly the same vertical relief as Half Dome? And right in the middle of this amphitheater rises the Armadillo, a soaring buttress of rough Appalachian granite.

The Armadillo Buttress was first scaled in 1935 by a team of 15 AMC members from Boston and New York who spent a week camping at Chimney Pond. Herbert "Hec" Towle led five other climbers on the historic first ascent. A couple days later, another team of 12, led by Roger Wolcott, completed the second ascent. His team included four women.

Back in the day, women were just as active as men in AMC and some, like Miriam O’Brien (later Miriam Underhill), would routinely out-climb the best of the men.

From Chimney Pond, you’ll have the pleasure of bushwhacking through brush and over fourth-class mossy slabs for the better part of two hours to reach the base of the Armadillo. This route should only be tackled in good weather because the gullies at the bottom tend to turn into raging rivers when it rains. The Armadillo itself is triangular shaped and about 400 feet tall. At the bottom you’ll find an obvious chimney approximately six to eight feet wide at the start. At the top, you’ll traverse right on a terrace before arriving below a huge detached flake lying against the wall. On the first ascent, Towle avoided this intimidating fea-ture, taking a more circuitous line to the right instead. The flake is the standard route today.

Eventually the Armadillo Buttress blends into a wild knife-edge ridge that leads to the summit via easier scrambling for three or four more pitches. If it’s a sunny day you’ll probably have an audience as you traverse Katahdin’s real Knife Edge; both trails to the summit offer a perfect view of the route’s upper reaches. The Armadillo Buttress illustrates how early AMC climbing routes have stood the test of time.

Climbers at Quincy Quarries. Photo: AMC FilesQuincy Quarries: Ladder Line (5.10)

Most climbers today forget that Boston was essentially the birthplace of American climbing. AMC members Charles Fay and Frank Mason were two of the first to bring European rock climbing techniques to North America. After reading a British publication that suggested using small rocks as practice for mountaineering, Mason began scouring the woods in and around Boston. He found and subsequently developed many of the crags that are still popular today. By 1926, AMC was running regular climbing outings, with the schedule printed in the Appalachia Bulletin. Venues included Black and White Rocks, Hammond Pond, and Quincy Quarry, the region’s premier crag.

In the 1950s, MIT student Willy Crowther pioneered may of the routes that people line up for today. Climbing in tennis shoes, the steel fingered Crowther established dozens of difficult routes, and he later used this experience for several noteworthy first ascents in the White Mountains, such as Sliding Board at Whitehorse Ledge. Like Otter Cliffs in Acadia, Quincy Quarries is mainly a toprope area. Landscaped trails with stone staircases lead to the tops of virtually every crag, where you’ll find many fixed toprope anchors.

Located just off Boston’s Southeast Expressway (Route 3), one of Quincy Quarries’ biggest selling points has always been the approach: within three minutes of parking you can be at the base of almost every climb. The area is covered in detail in the second edition of the guidebook Boston Rocks, but your best bet is to hit up the local crag rats for inside information. Boston climbers are an exceedingly friendly and outgoing group and will gladly help you find the specific area or route you’re looking for.

There are more than 20 separate climbing walls at this area, de-scribed rather unimaginatively with letters A through Q. Most agree that the 35-40-foot J-wall is one of the best, with a host of topropes from 5.4 to 5.11. If you’re up for it, the best of the best may be Ladder Line, a 40-foot-thin face climb first put up by Harvard student Kevin Bein in the late 1960s. Ladder Line exemplifies the unique nature of the Quarries’ granite, with its emphasis on pre-cise footwork and the importance of good smearing technique. As local climbing activist Paul Niland says, “If you can climb at the Quarries, you can climb anywhere.”

Ragged Mountain: Vector (5.9)

Connecticut is home to at least a half dozen high-quality climbing areas. Ragged Mountain is the standout of the bunch. Located three miles southeast of Southington, Ragged’s west-facing cliff is an impressive 600 feet wide. Routes range from 20 to 100 feet. Like most Connecticut cliffs, it’s composed of traprock, a type of basalt formed from ancient lava flows. It has a beautiful texture for climbing with incredible friction, but its compact nature means that weaknesses (cracks) are often shallow, and therefore opportunities for protection on some routes can be limited. For this reason, top-roping is a popular pursuit at Ragged. Keep in mind though that the trees you’ll want to use for anochors are set well back from the top of the cliff, so pieces of static line or long slings are essential. of the cliff, so pieces of static line or long slings are essential. One thing you won’t find much of at Ragged, or at any crag in Connecticut, is fixed protection. The state has always adhered to a strict traditionalist ethic, and the locals want to keep it that way.

People have been climbing at Ragged since the 1930s, with Wiessner establishing many of its first routes. Some lines were so far ahead of their time that 75 years later they’re still hardly ever led. Climbing historians have traced the first 5.8 and 5.9s to western crags, like California’s Tahquitz in the 1950s. They overlooked the fact that Weissner had established routes at this standard decades earlier—in the East.

Major development of Ragged Mountain began in the mid-1950s and ’60s when the area was rediscovered by Yale students Sam Streibert and John Reppy. Reppy was one of the first climbers in the United States to practice clean climbing ethics. While most climbers of the day were hammering their way up the cliffs with pitons, Reppy began exploring the use of nuts, which in these days were just that—hex nuts from truck wheels, strung with loops of perlon. Unlike pitons, nuts could be placed and removed by hand, thus saving the rock from permanent damage.

Ragged has many classic lines, but all signs seem to point to Vector as perhaps the most significant. It was first climbed way back in 1935 by Fritz Wiessner, who fired this stiff 5.8 in tennis shoes, with a hemp rope tied around his waist. With modern gear, the climb protects well—but be sure to bring some hand sized cams for the crux. The route is located slightly right of the cliff’s center and about 40 feet west of the equally classic and well traveled Wiessner Slab (5.3). Find the start by locating a 12-foot-high pedestal of rock. Some easy moves lead to a small overhang. Above this, the crack becomes flared, and like many routes at Ragged, demands a high degree of jamming technique.

- Mark Synott

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Photo: AMC Files