The Last Gentleman

by Ade Miller

After an "easy" day at Franconia Notch doing Dracula and Bob's Delight we drove up to Lake Willoughby for the main event. If the Black Dyke has a scary reputation then the routes at Willoughby haven't heard about it. We arrived at the lake just before dark to see one bad ass cliff above the lake. A huge expanse of ice 350' high stretching right along the cliff. Jim was on a mission - The Last Gentleman. At NEI 5 this seemed a bit stiff for me but then the Black Dyke hadn't felt that hard... so what the hell. What's the worst that could happen? Oh yeah, I remember, best not think about that.

We were staying in a cabin with Will, who arrived shortly after us, and Joe, who was driving up the following morning. At 7am we met up with Will's climbing partner, Joe, at the trailhead. He and Will had their eye on Bullwinkle a route just to the right of The Last Gentleman. We hiked up through the trees to the bottom of the main amphitheatre.

The first pitch of the Gentleman rarely forms so most parties climb some of The Promenade and then execute a rock traverse to get to the Gentleman. We soloed up the iced slabs at the bottom of the Promenade, successfully blunting our tools in the process - nice. The first pitch turned out to be pretty straightforward climbing although the position freaked me out a bit and I laced it with screws. Lucky for me as the ice thinned out making to top moves onto the rock a more than just entertaining few moments. I whined and muttered as I high stepped onto the top of the final bulge. This rock traverse had no soft landing, hitting Jim from 80' up just didn't seem fair. I shuffled across ledges covered in crappy neve looking for pin placements. All Jim could see from below was my heels sticking out into space. Good piton placements failed to materialize, maybe I just didn't look hard enough, a shallow lost arrow placement would just have to do. I continued to a good stubby screw placement and a icy ramp to better ice below the second pitch.

Shouts of "She no go!" from Joe and Will as they traversed below us announced that Bullwinkle wasn't in, the crux being baked ice. They headed off to try something further along the crag. The Gentleman as pretty much the same aspect as Bullwinkle. It crossed my mind that it too might be baked out higher up. The belay was an awkward hanging stance that I just couldn't get right. I shuffled and shifted as Jim followed the first pitch. He didn't make it look to easy, which is always nice. It was only this year that I managed to climb rock hard enough that he would bother to put rock shoes on to follow them.

The crux pitch traversed further before heading up some steep corners. The ice turned out to be baked to a crisp. Jim led out fifty feet on cruddy ice with marginal screw protection, cleaning off large chunks of ice as he went. I tried to stay warm and handle the ice ropes while wishing the belay was a bit more confidence inspiring.

A massive torso sized chunk of ice ripped off above Jim's head and crashed into the valley below. "That big chunk of ice just ripped one of my 'poons off", Jim's shout from above didn't improve my contemplation of the belay. I think we were probably equally scared as Jim hung off his tools and tried to reattach his crampon. I had visions of him peeling off and stripping most of the pitch. He managed to reattach his crampon and started up again. The ice at least seemed to get better from that point on.

"I'm safe", Jim shouted from a small ledge below the top of the steep ice. "He's lost it", I thought, and who could blame him. The pitch was far from done and I was screwed if I was gonna finish it. "What do you mean, you're not done yet!", I replied. He continued to a much better belay on slightly easier ground above.

Not fancying leading the final pitch of 4/5 baked ice I gave Jim the next lead - yeah, so I'm a wuss but at least I'm a wuss with no broken bones. I paid big time for it though. At the belay I was cold but my feet started to warm up. As they thawed I started to feel sick and dizzy. Jim could hear me whining and wanted to know if he should tie off. Having your belayer pass out isn't usually a good thing. I just stood their muttering and told him to get on with it, the sooner we were off the better. The final pitch turned out to be easier than it looked and I finally warmed up, aided by a lot of chocolate, and finished the pitch without resting on gear or the rope. Must stay warmer next time.

We ended up taking the long way down which again put us at the truck after dark. This was starting to get habit forming.

The following day was warm (in the 50s) and wet so day 13 would have to wait. We drove back to Syracuse and started to think about Banff...