Just as El Cap in Yosemite is not, strictly speaking, a "mountain", certainly Cathedral Ledge - the 500 foot bluff overlooking New Hampshire's Saco River Valley doesn't exactly fit into the same category as Everest, Denali or Aconcagua. Nevertheless, I think Cathedral is worth making a page about simply because for generations of climbers, it has come to represent their way of life. Cathedral Ledge is, among other things, a place of "firsts". As the birthplace of technical rock climbing in New England, its Standard Route is among the oldest in North America, yet at 5.6+ this is actually a rather challenging and sketchy route to this day, even for advanced climbers.
Cathedral is home to America's first 5.13 free route - Liquid Sky, put up by Jimmie Surrette back in 1986 at the age of 16. Cathedral, like Yosemite's Camp 4, abounds with history and is associated with many, many names...names like Henry Barber, John Bouchard, Jimmie Dunn, Chris Gill, Rainsford Rouner, Brad White, Tom Callaghan, Ed Webster, Alain Comeau, Marc Chauvin, Hugh Herr (that crazy bastard with 2 artificial legs who put up Stage Fright - 5.12cX - the only route of this rating in the world and still unrepeated), Paul and Eddy Ross, of course Jim Surrette and many others. But it's not only for the sake of those guys (who are way above and beyond most of us on the climbing level) that Cathedral is special for.
For so many of us our first memories of climbing are on Cathedral. Who can forget that first multi-pitch climb, when you launched out across the pitch 2 traverse of Thin Air, suddenly finding yourself looking down on the tops of trees....who can forget that feeling? Or your first 5.6 lead, the exhilaration and/or the fear. Or the first 5.9 crack lead?
Whatever it is, Cathedral has come to symbolize climbing for all New Englanders - both "established" ones and newcomers like myself.
Switching gears from all this romanticism, Cathedral is, in fact, an awesome place to climb. While not very high (you seldom climb more than 5 full pitches to get to the top), the wall abounds with routes of all difficulties and lengths. The far right hand side (called the North End) is a good toproping area - between 60 and 90 feet high, with mostly crack climbs ranging from 5.6 to 5.11+ in difficulty. It also has a number of classic routes worth climbing in and of themselves - They Died Laughing (5.9) being my favorite.
Cathedral's central section is big and largely smooth and features half a dozen grade IV aid climbs, up to A4+ level. Further left is the classic Thin Air Face, which other than the classic Thin Air (5.6) contains many other route of excellent quality, with lots of Gunks-type face climbing. Above the Thin Air Face is a huge ledge, followed by the Airation Buttress which sits atop the wall and is mostly tough, one or two pitch climbs on a severe overhang. To the left is a huge, tree-filled gully; to the left of the gully are some of the finest, classic free climbs of New England - The Prow (5.11d), Recompense (5.9), The Book of Solemnity (5.9+) to name a few. There are also several routes in the 5.7 and 5.8 category, and of course some on the other end of the spectrum such as the infamous Liquid Sky (5.13b), or Women in Love (5.12c)
it takes a rather large guidebook to cover all of Cathedral's routes; the above is just to give some indication of what to expect.
If you're coming from the south (which is the case for most people), there are 2 ways of getting to Cathedral. Most directions advise you to follow route 16 North into the center of North Conway until you see the International Mountain Equipment climbing store on your right and the Eastern Slope Inn with the Eastern Mountain Sports climbing store on your left, and then take the next left onto River Road at the lights. From there, you follow River Road for about 2 miles until you see a brown sign towards Echo Lake and Cathedral Ledge. The turnout has two dirt roads heading off at different angles - you need to take the one at the lesser angle - in other words, continue more or less in the direction the main road was going. At this point you shouldn't have any problems finding Cathedral because it will be right over your head. Park several hundred yards from the turn-off and take one of the numerous trails to the base, depending on which route you want to climb. Most of the approaches are no more than 5 minutes.
These directions are in theory shorter, however in practice, it almost always takes longer than the second option, because of the persistent and very annoying traffic in Conway and North Conway. Therefore what I personally reccommend is that unless you're driving there after midnight and before 5 AM, take a left onto West Side Road right in Conway, right BEFORE route 16 takes a sharp left turn. Simply stay on this road for about 6 miles until you hit the intersection with River Road; take a left on it and the Cathedral turnout will be about a thousand more feet or so.
No permits, but there are annual closures of some areas due to peregrine falcon nesting. This is mostly in early summer. The closings are generally posted at the bottom of the cliff. Please obey them or the authorities will start to put all kinds of restrictions on our climbing (you know how it is...)
Best time to climb rock is spring (AFTER snowmelt or else expect really wet rock) and fall. Perfect temperatures and, if it's fall, incredible colors. Early summer can be buggy, and July and August have a propensity for muggy, hot weather. I personally climb at Cathedral all summer and in all honesty, compared to Boston the summer heat and humidity is really not all that bad. Word to the wise: the North End is ALWAYS in the shade and even on those 90s days it stays fairly cool. I've never found a problem with heat there, although cracks to get a bit greasy on those humid days.
Winter brings ice (sometimes) which can be climbed. The ice climbing is high angle and difficult, sometimes thin. It's not a place for newbies to pound their first tool into ice...consider other New Hampshire areas (the Flume, Crawford Notch, Frankenstein) before trying a Cathedral ice route.
Rock routes are also climbed in the winter in alpine style; of course this is considerably harder than in the summer (because oftentimes you're wearing plastic boots) and it's f-ing COLD, but hey, isn't that what climbing is all about??
Camping isn't allowed at the Cathedral area, fortunately or unfortunately (i don't know...on one hand it would be cool to camp there, on the other hand, with the heavy use it wouldnt' be great for the natural balance of things...). There are plenty of other places to camp in the Mount Washington valley though...
the Neclimbs.com website has finally installed a webcam:
view of the Thin Air face, updated every 5 minutes.