Climbing the Black Dike

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Climbing the Black Dike

I’ve been hearing about The Black Dike since before I’d even swung my first ice tool. It’s a fabled ice route on Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire that’s name conjures mental images of a pirate ship. It follows a line up such an obvious feature it is easy to describe its position even to non-climbers. As one would drive up I-93 through Franconia Notch and stare out the left side of your car window at the rock that used to feature The Old Man of the Mountain, the mile-long cliff has a dramatic gash on the southern or left end. In the furthest recess of this gash lies a thin frozen waterfall of ice still considered one of the proudest routes in Northeast climbing history for over 40 years since its first ascent by John Bouchard in 1971.

Myself shamelessly posed with Cannon Cliff as a backdrop. The Black Dike is obscured slightly by trees on the left of the photo.

With six seasons of ice behind me I finally felt ready to tackle this winter test-piece. My first few days of this unreasonably warm season had been spent in Huntington Ravine on Mt. Washington climbing the little bit of moderate ice available. With those days as my warm up and reports of good conditions on the Dike, all I needed was a free day and a willing partner. Everything came together on a balmy Thursday in January with my friend Tom. We had roped up together on plenty of rock routes last year but this would be our first ice route together. Tom had climbed the Dike on a few occasions but never lead the challenging second pitch. He gave me all the leads which I graciously accepted although I knew I had my work cut out for me.

The Black Dike in the shadow of the Whitney-Gilman Ridge viewed from the approach.

We met up in Southern NH and arrived at the parking at 7AM hoping to be the first at the cliff, but we were not the earliest bird that day. We could see a party of two roping up at the base of the route from our car. We decided to wait around until they got far enough up the route for us to hike up and start as they were finishing. Unfortunately another two groups showed up around 8AM and forced us from our warm car and 80’s music in order to claim our spot in line. We hiked up and waited in the sun for another couple hours only shivering slightly from the wind. Finally we were able to start at about noon. I raced up the first pitch of relatively easy ice to get my blood flowing again and warm myself up. Tom followed me quickly and it was now time for the crux of the route.

Looking down on Tom at the first belay after climbing the very thin start of pitch 2. Sorry for the camera leash in the photo.

In lean conditions, as the route is typically found, the leader heads directly above the belay and traverses left on exposed rock to reach solid ice. However on this day the flow of ice extended all the way and made the rock traverse unnecessary. I started up this thin smear and was able to get one 10cm “stubby” screw in half way up. The ice got pretty thin at the top of this first 30ft section and I had to tap my tools delicately to prevent them from bottoming out on the rock below the ice. I finished this section on a large ledge with enough space to take a breath and snap a couple photos. The remainder of the pitch wasn’t quite as vertical, but took an amazing position in a shallow groove of rock allowing me to lean my shoulder onto the right side of the slot occasionally to aid forward progress. Topping out this pitch was very rewarding and by far the most technically demanding I had climbed. Tom followed quickly and efficiently and after a quick re-racking of gear I was off on the final pitch of ice.

The third and final pitch.

Plenty of thick ice on this pitch with a couple claw like icicles or “clawsicles” formed by updraft winds to check out along the way made the climbing enjoyable. About an hour later Tom and I were back at the car and headed south. This climb was certainly one of the best I’ve had the chance to climb, and it’s a treat to have it right in the backyard of my home state. On just my fifth day out of the season this ascent really excited me for the rest of the year. Hopefully some appropriate temperatures and serious frozen precipitation head our way soon to help grow the ice and keep the season going!

Jeremy Devine


Jeremy Devine loves being outside and fighting gravity to the top of a rock or frozen waterfall. He calls New Hampshire home, but his love for climbing has taken him all over the East as well as a few forays out West. Climbing has also inspired Jeremy to become an AMGA Certified Single Pitch and Climbing Wall Instructor. When he's not working at the Eastern Mountain Sports in Acton, Mass you'll find Jeremy climbing all over New England and sharing his experiences at jeremydevineclimbing.blogspot.com