The dizzying walls of Yosemite. Colorado’s Flatirons. Oregon’s Smith Rock sport climbs. The boulders of Hueco Tanks, Bishop and J Tree — that’s where climbing happens. Or at least that’s what conventional wisdom says.
There was a time, too, when Freddie Wilkinson might’ve believed that. Growing up in the relative flatlands of suburban Connecticut, he didn’t climb his first mountain until his teens. And by the time the climbing bug bit him, he just assumed he’d move West after graduating from Dartmouth. (In fact, he’d already chased far-flung big mountains, summiting Denali and Nepal’s 6,440-meter Cholatse.) But instead he stuck it out in New Hampshire, where the mountains are smaller, sure, but the climbing, as he puts it, “can fit into the rest of your life”.
Nowadays, Freddie’s home is in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where he climbs and guides most of the year between putting up alpine first ascents on expeditions to Alaska, Nepal, Patagonia, India and Antarctica. In 2012, he was awarded the Piolet d’Or — one of mountaineering’s highest honors—for his first ascent, along with Mark Richey and Steve Swenson, of Saser Kangri II, which was then the second tallest unclimbed mountain in the world. For all of that, though, Freddie knows that some of the country’s greatest climbing still happens on the sunrise side of the Mississippi. It’s part of the reason he’s stuck around (the other, as far as we can tell, is a girl). Here are Freddie’s four favorite climbing areas in the East.
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Acadia National Park, Maine
Nearest Town: Bar Harbor
Climbing Styles: Trad/Toprope/Sport/Boulder
Freddie’s Take: Acadia offers a totally unique setting for climbing. Otter Cliff and Great Head are two cliffs rising directly out of the Atlantic Ocean on the eastern side of Mt. Desert Island. There’s also the Precipice, which is a mile inland but offers the most routes in the park on beautiful pink granite. When the rest of New England is smothered in sweltering midsummer heat, the ocean breeze keeps the temps on the island relatively cool.
Fuel Up: Cafe This Way serves up solid breakfast standards — flapjacks, oatmeal and omelets galore — and strong coffee all day long.
Crash Pad: There are plenty of charming B&Bs in town if you’re willing to pay (Yellow House is a standout), but the park’s Blackwoods Campground offers a good option that’s just a 10-minute drive (or hour-long hike) from Otter Cliff.
Post-Climb Beers: Grab a window seat at Cottage Street Pub, a beer-and-cocktail joint with free popcorn, and ogle the parade of tourists while you swap stories of the day’s achievements.
Beta: More than 100 traditional and top-rope climbs range in difficulty from 5.5 to 5.11, with a handful of 5.12s and 5.13s. Beware of high tide at Otter Cliff and Great Head, or you’ll have wet ropes and salt-encrusted gear. Swing by Alpenglow Adventure Sports for gear, guidebooks, and beta. The shop is one of two in the area owned by Acadia Mountain Guides, which also offers guided climbing and top-notch instruction from the area’s most professional guides.
Whitehorse and Cathedral Ledges, New Hampshire
Nearest Town: North Conway
Climbing Styles: Trad/Sport/Toprope/Ice
Freddie’s Take: Few crags anywhere in the country can rival Cathedral Ledge for year-round diversity in vertical adventure. Cathedral’s got everything from wonderful beginner rock climbs in summer to grade-5 ice chimneys in winter, with plenty of traditional cracks and slabs thrown in. There’s even a smattering of aid routes and bolted sport climbs mixed in. The surrounding White Mountains, meanwhile, offer possibilities for every season, experience level, and desire.
Crash Pad: With its hearty breakfasts and refreshing pool, The Red Elephant Inn offers a good value. Plus, you can see Whitehorse Ledge from the front porch.
Post-Climb Beers: Most climbers retire to the Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co. or scarf wood-fired pizza at The Flatbread Company in North Conway.
Beta: Just a couple miles outside of North Conway and right in Freddie’s own backyard, these neighboring granite cliffs are the epicenter of New Hampshire’s traditional climbing scene. There are hundreds of climbs here, ranging from 1,000-foot slabs to short crack climbs and even a few sport climbs. In town, International Mountain Equipment sells gear and dishes beta, while Freddie’s guide service, Cathedral Mountain Guides, offers year-round lessons and private climbs.
The Gunks, New York
Nearest Town: New Paltz
Climbing Styles: Trad/Toprope/Boulder
Freddie’s Take: Less than two hours from New York City, the Gunks offer city-goers a breath of natural solitude — and plenty of kick-ass climbing. The geology of the area provides heart-stopping, near-horizontal roofs, as well as plenty of “thank god jugs”. I’d recommend either focusing on the old-school traditional lines (some original climbs date back to the late 1930s), or the new-school bouldering areas that have been more recently developed.
Fuel Up: It’s worth the wait to be seated at Main Street Bistro, a laid back bistro/diner that serves the best breakfast and lunch food in town.
Crash Pad: Come spring, the American Alpine Club will open a campground at the base of the Trapps and Near Trapps (the two busiest crags) that’s perfect for a cheap bivy and meeting fellow outdoorsmen.
Post-Climb Beers: Boasting more than 400 beers, passable food and a killer deck, Bacchus is the original dirtbag hangout.
Beta: Despite its decades of alpine tradition and proximity to America’s biggest city, there are still undocumented, “locals-only” crags in the Gunks that you can find by talking to the right people. If that doesn’t pan out, there are still over 1,400 routes on the four main crags. Rock & Snow is the best climbing shop around, selling a number of reliable guidebooks, including the classics by Todd Swain and Dick Williams. Alpine Endeavors is a reliable guide service that can get you off the ground, particularly at the limited-access Sky Top.
The New River Gorge, West Virginia
Nearest Town: Fayateville
Climbing Styles: Sport/Trad/Toprope
Freddie’s Take: The popular Red River Gorge in Kentucky gets much more attention, but for a diverse mix of routes of all grades, it’s hard to beat the New. Here, you often find nice cracks and traditional routes next to well-bolted sport climbs. There’s also an amazing trail running along the rim of the gorge, whitewater rafting, and popular water bouldering just up the road at Summersville Lake.
Fuel Up: Due to its Dagwood-size proportions and even bigger taste, The Secret Sandwich Society may be Fayetteville’s worst-kept secret. But fresh ingredients, unique flavor combos, and local suds to wash it down mean you should get in on it anyhow.
Crash Pad: Whether you’re sleeping at the staid Historic Morris Harvey House B&B (from $85) or crashing at the AAC campground ($7 per night), the New has reasonable digs.
Post-Climb Beers: Pies and Pints does pretty much the same things as Secret Sandwich, only in pizza form. Might as well make a day of it.
Beta: When you factor in the nearby Meadow River and Gauley River Gorges, there are more than 1,600 established routes on over 60 miles of sandstone cliffs in and around Fayatteville. The vast majority of routes are 5.10 and up, but there are a few dozen moderates for nascent climbers. The friendly staff at Water Stone Outdoors is always psyched to help out with gear and beta.