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1973: The Cilley-Barber Route

[This Mountain Profile essay about Katahdin, Maine, originally appeared in Alpinist 84, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 84 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Henry Barber leads the crux section of the Cilley-Barber route during the first ascent in 1973. [Photo] Dave Cilley

The early 1970s were an exciting time in New England for ice climbing. I remember sitting around a table in North Conway’s top climbing shop with friends, celebrating John Bouchard’s 1971 solo first ascent of the Black Dike on Cannon Cliff—a coveted prize, given its standing as the longest and hardest-looking ice route in the dark and foreboding north-facing corner below the Whitney-Gilman Ridge—and spraying about what was possible next. The classic lines on Mt. Washington had been climbed. But everyone was hankering to do the next big thing and we were no different. We shared useless gossip with each other, hoping that someone would slip up and expose a potential new ice line. We also debated matters of equipment and ethics. I was wrapped up in the advent of clean climbing, so all elements of style were important to me. I was a staunch dissenter when it came to using wrist loops on ice tools, as I viewed them as aid—and hey, the real alpine pioneers we lauded didn’t use them. The wool Dachstein mittens we wore made the tools even more slippery, and it was critical to rub cross-country ski wax on the shafts to get a better grip. 

Since John Bragg was making the most progress on new routes in New Hampshire and New York, a small group decided to venture farther afield to Katahdin. This would be a real adventure: long climbs in a remote, relatively unknown and bitterly cold alpine basin. We were stoked. But who should be in such a party? My friend and fellow climber Rick Wilcox organized a group that included Frank Lawrence, Dave Walters, Dave Cilley and others. 

We arrived at Chimney Pond in February 1973, a motley crew of New England climbers. After the committing sixteen-mile approach, we were happy to settle in the cozy bunkhouse, which had acquired the stench of years of climbers’ fear and sweat. The cabin was dark yet welcoming as the heat of the woodstove began to dry out our steaming clothes. It was a great base for substantial imbibing and casual cook fests. We ate fancy freeze-dried food mixed with good ole Dinty Moore Beef Stew or Hormel chili. Our greatest entertainment, however, was listening to Frank and Dave as they explored the surreal world of Xaviera Hollander through her memoir The Happy Hooker. We howled until our sides ached as we prepared to explore the icy granite cliffs of Katahdin. 

I was keen to partner with Dave Cilley since he had a reputation as a sandbagger and I thought he would be the most fun. Dave had rope soloed first ascents of some rock routes on our local crag, Cathedral Ledge, in New Hampshire. One in particular caught my attention, a route he named Bombardment. It’s a perfect hand crack that was revealed after he removed all the moss and dirt choking it. He cleaned as he climbed (hence the bombardment) and rated it 5.6. Today it is a classic worthy of 5.8+ with a “necky” runout slab at the bottom. Dave had an easy grin for almost any comment, and his eyes went to slits as he pondered the fun that could be had at any time. 

The Cilley-Barber route climbs the prominent gully to the left of the Armadillo. [Photo] Marty Molitoris

The morning after our arrival at Chimney Pond, Dave and I set our sights on Pamola Peak, which had a short, steep approach and a line that looked like it would be a good warmup, and would allow us to assess the firmness of the ice. It was bulletproof, as we soon discovered. Our picks bounced off like ball-peen hammers and our ice pitons were essentially useless, fracturing the ice as we drove them in. We were successful only in dislodging large plates of ice around the entry holes and were forced to tie off foot-long gear at just several inches. We finished the day thinking we knew what we’d be in for and slogged back to the cabin. 

We got back to the cabin before dark, early enough to scope our next objective. We dried out our cotton fishnet and Duofold underwear, our heavy wool pants and our sodden mittens. Our overboots and outerwear were frozen as if we had just come down off an 8000-meter peak in winter. Gore-Tex wouldn’t be a development for several years; we instead relied on Sierra Designs’ 60/40 jackets, which weren’t waterproof in the slightest. And the Goldline rope we used turned into stiff cable when frozen.

As we contemplated what to climb next, one obvious route to the left of the Armadillo feature appeared to have our name on it. It was a full-on line with a steep section two-thirds of the way up. The crux remained hidden until we saw it the next day on our approach. The mystery for us was the steep section. Fierce winds had formed horizontal roofs that we would have to weave around. We didn’t know that low-angle ice would also slow us down, with hard-to-place gear and long runouts. Others on the trip were somewhat incredulous that we would attempt it, but we were committed. Not even The Happy Hooker could keep us in the cabin on day two.

Dave and I headed out to our route early the next morning in the dark amid strong winds and bitter cold—0°F and below. It was cloudy down in the basin and we were engulfed in blowing snow. We found our way to the base of the first pitch and started simul-climbing. We had to stretch out ropelengths to keep the rope from freezing as we encountered névé, ice, hard snow and soaking wet ice bits at the tops of bulges.  

At first we were able to simulclimb the low-angle bits and pound in a piton in the ice sections, which we were sure would protect us if one of us pulled the other off in a fall. My confidence in this strategy shattered, however, when I noticed our drive-in tubular ice pitons bobbing in and out of their holes like woodpeckers working on trees. Instead, we turned to solid-stock pound-in or corkscrew pitons, both of which were time-consuming to take out. No matter how efficient we thought we were being, daylight was draining fast. 

Barber’s ice climbing gear from the early 1970s. [Photo] Henry C. Barber, Mountain Ventures Collection 

We reached the crux pitch in midafternoon, and it was the worst of all nightmares.

Whiteout spindrift avalanches, the cold temperature and bulletproof ice all made the climbing slow and progress doubtful as I skirted around the right side of some horizontal ice roofs. I prayed Dave wouldn’t fall following this pitch: my gear was in questionable, shattered ice, and I was belaying above the crux from my seventy-centimeter wooden-shafted ice axe, which I had pounded into the turf forty feet back from the top of the pitch. Any higher and we would be back to soloing on unsettled snow. I stamped out a crappy foot stance, girth-hitched the axe and hoped that everything would work out. 

It didn’t. Dave fell, and I could hear him clearly as he yelled up to me. But my words of angst and outright fear back to him were lost to the gale blowing in my face. It was a formidable place to communicate. As my ice axe shifted ten, then fifteen degrees off of vertical, I strained with my legs to haul Dave as best I could. Swinging on the rope and flailing with his axes, he finally made it out to the right, to security. Yikes, that was close! We untied from the rope, and after several hundred more feet of soloing, we were on the famous Knife Edge ridge and walking down the right side of Katahdin. Wind-scoured ice and the ever-buffeting wind made even mere hiking treacherous. 

It was pitch black when we arrived back at the cabin to worried faces that appeared as expectant as Shackleton’s crew must have felt as he returned from his rowing voyage to South Georgia Island and back. We needed some help to get out of our ice-encrusted clothes. Our team was happy to see us after wondering where we were out in the void with no headlamps. As we were peppered with questions, we couldn’t say much as it hadn’t sunk in yet how lucky we were to have had our first big adventure and—more important—to have survived it. Dave just smiled with his eyes slit shut, enjoying it all.