Type: Trad, Alpine, 900 ft, 10 pitches, Grade III
FA: FA Lower: R. Underhill & L. O'Brien 1928, Upper: L. O'Brien and John Gray 1929
Page Views: 296 total · 11/month
Shared By: Robert Hall on Oct 13, 2016
Admins: Jay Knower, M Sprague, lee hansche, Jeffrey LeCours, Jonathan Steitzer, Robert Hall

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In late Sept. 2016 we climbed this route with Kurt Winkler. He had worked out the route, and especially the route through the upper tier, about 30 years ago.

The route we took on the lower slabs is probably a "left variant", it is believed that Underhill and O'Brien's route of FA may have gone to the right and up after the initial slab pitches, probably climbing somewhere near today's "Hugo's Horror". (see HISTORY)

In keeping with the "spirit" of early climbers (and this route was a favorite of the New England climbers of the 1930's and 40's) we tried for short pitch lengths and for belays from trees whenever possible. That being said, those tree belays formed a very natural line, following the line we took the belays were very "natural".

The route description was written "on the rock" as the party climbed the pitches. The amazing history of this route follows the description.

Description: Not for the faint of heart, the technical grade (which I have “upped” to 5.7 from the 5.6 listed in Ed Webster's 2nd Ed. White Mtns Guidebook) bears little resemblance to the “psychological” grade, especially for the upper tier section of the route. Ed Webster, “author” of MANY New Hampshire first ascents, went so far as to declare that the upper tier section of this route “cannot be safely recommended ” due to bad rock. Yet in the 10 pitches of climbing our team found only about 60-80 feet of really poor rock, and nearly all was on P7, and could be avoided (on a foothold-to-foothold “micro” scale) if you knew how to climb it. (Perhaps Ed, or the “strong team” he quotes in the 2nd ed. of “Rock Climbs in the White Mtns of NH, 2nd Ed. 1987", started up the “wrong amphitheater” and encountered the chossy slabs that Underhill had?!)

The “ 70 +/- feet of fractured rock” notwithstanding, any ascent of this route is a “necky” undertaking. Even such a good climber as Kurt Winkler spent nearly 30 years between ascents. Think lots of 5.4 to 5.6 PG-13, R and “R/(X?)". Think of going from “stacked blocks” of chossy rock…. to rock so solid that super-thin “Bugaboo” pitons go in only half way, both encountered only 50 feet apart!

Perhaps such a climb is best summed up by the idea Jon Krakauer expresses in “Eiger Dreams”: There are climbs you want to do, and there are climbs you only want to be able to say you have done!


START- At the bottom “toe” of the cliff, in “Cinema Gully”.

P1 – [Var’s], Climb fractured rock on the right side of the gully, and just left of the bolts of “Hugo’s Revisited”, onto the slab above. Continue up the slab, trending slightly right, to the large tree island with large oak tree belay. (as for “Hugo’s Revisited”) 160-170 ft 5.4-5.5 R If you only have a 120ft rope (a la 1929) then belay after driving in a piton.
[ P1 Variation(s): Var1- One can also start and climb the opening moves of Hugo’s, 5.7 but bolt protected. Var2 From the toe, scramble 60ft up and right and start just left of the first big (oak?) tree. Easily up 10-15 ft, in a sort of "corner/shallow gully" about 8 ft wide. Pass a bush/tree at the top then step left onto the slab above. Continue to the tree ledge. This is the easiest way to the first tree ledge.]

P2 – Traverse left and slightly up, easily, to a 2nd oak-tree island, just to the right of Cinema Gully itself. Belay in trees. 80-90 ft 5.3
NOTE: It is believed that the “right variant” (probably route of FA) starts from either the first tree island or this tree island, although it might start from the end of P5.

P3 – Traverse left across the gully (passing a 1980’s 2 bolt rap anchor, and a 1950-60’s piton) to a short, easy ramp/ledge on the left side of the gully.(photo#3) Now climb straight up on good rock, then move up and right entering a groove/corner formed by the right side of the large, smooth slab on your left. About ½ way up this establish a gear belay. (Key piece is #2 Gold Camalot-sized). 115ft 5.4-5.5 PG/R

P4 – Continue up the groove, then up and left on slab 80 ft to a tree/bush belay. There is an old ¼” bolt on the slab along the way. 80-100 +/- ft 5.6R [Do not go too high on this pitch. If you reach a 1980's dbl bolt anchor you are 40-50 ft too high.]

P5 – Traverse back right to an oak-tree island on the right side of the gully. 115-120 slippery 5.4PG/R

P6 – Back left into, and across, Cinema Gully to a sort-of “up-side-down” staircase. (photo#9) Up this, then continue easily to the rap-anchor-belay-tree at the top of Cinema. Take care in the last few moves, especially if wet. Almost a rope-stretching 200 ft 5.6 PG NOTE: The right-facing corner 10 ft left of the “staircase” is “more difficult than it looks”.

Hike /Scramble Time – Now we go on the hunt for the (correct) upper amphitheater. If you have approach shoes with tread, you might consider putting them on at this time. Some folk keep the rope on for this part of the climb.
I hope the following is reasonably accurate, I didn't take notes in the distances: From the belay/rap tree at the top of Cinema, scramble up steep talus-and-leaves for 30+/- ft, then traverse to the right below the obvious slab. Now a rising traverse rightwards for 100 - 150 +/- ft (from the slab) until a scree/sand slope is intercepted. (If you don’t find this you may have gone too far right.) Up the sand/scree 150+/- ft with care, especially near the top. On your right will be the incorrect “semi”-amphitheater. On your left should be a darkly-colored, nearly vertical wall (photo#11). Move up and left keeping to the un-vegetated space a foot or so from the wall. There’s a tight squeeze past a pine tree about ½ way along this section. After 150+/- ft you’ll come to a 35-40ft 5.0-5.2 slab. Up this, then a few more feet of high-angle sand/scree to two oak trees on the left*, below a huge water-runnel-type gully. Whew!! You have reached the correct amphitheater.
  • You don’t want the maple trees on the right, since they are “in the line of fire” for the next pitch.

NOTE: There’s much fractured rock on P7, especially the initial slab, including one ready-to-go block about the size of a toaster-oven that we didn’t kick off because others were somewhere below and we didn’t know where. There's a bit more fractured rock on the traverse, and stacked blocks in the corner. Keep your cool: 1) test your hand and footholds, 2) avoid anything that looks fractured as much as possible, 3) try to avoid putting 100% of your weight on any one hold, and 4) if you must pull, pull down not out!

P7 Up the slab (Photo#14) which is above and right of the belay trees, then traverse right (passing an old, 1940-50’s piton) into the ugly corner. (photo#16) Ignore the accumulated rap-and-back-off slings (but do note the semi-historic, large Hexentric nut from the 1970-80’s!) Also try to ignore the stacked blocks above. Part way up the corner you can physically ignore the blocks by stepping left onto the yellow face, making a few moves up the left face, and then moving back right to the top of the corner. Exit right. Behind the bush is easier than in front of it. Walk 25-30 ft right on a good ledge to a birch tree belay. 125 +/- ft This pitch is difficult to rate. The moves are probably actually no harder than 5.5-5.6 R/(X?), but the fractured rock and dangerous conditions in the corner make the psychological grade much higher. My partners also said there was an old 3/8” bolt on the final ledge, (possibly put in for a belay anchor before the tree was large enough) but I did not see it personally.

P8 – As ugly as P7 was, P8 is pretty! Start a few feet left of the birch tree (at the right end of the ledge) and climb up the solid rock slab. (Photo#19) About 50-60 ft up pass two ancient (1930-50’s era) pitons which probably were anchors (!!!) for a belay with shorter ropes. (Pins are only partially driven in, but are in as far as they will go!) At the pins, step left to surmount a small overlap and steep slab above, (probably the climb’s technical crux, about 5.7 – 5.7+) and continue up, now on slightly lower quality rock. At about 100-120 ft up this pitch I remember climbing a short open book, then more easy slab to a gear anchor at a small overlap. 170-180 ft 5.7 – 5.7+ PG This belay is about 35-40 ft below the start of the steep, upper headwall, and just left of an area with black moss. Do not go too high.

P9 – Step down and right, cross the moss, then up a steep gravel-and-sand slope (Photo#22), perhaps using trees and branches to assist your climb, to a gravel ledge and a few oak trees, just below a vertical slab. 70-80 ft easy, but ”sandy” R

P10 – Move left on the ledge a few feet, past a 2nd oak tree, to a dirty, 12ft-high corner. (Photo#23) Up this (height-dependent move 3/4 of the way up) to the slab above. Straight up this slab, passing a 1930’s piton in a horizontal crack (and, 2-3 ft right of the pin is a great horizontal placement, in a “nitch”, for a 0.5 (purple) Camalot-sized cam). The 6-8 ft above the pin is the technical crux of this pitch. [I climbed it at the cam placement, moving up and left; others climbed over and up by the piton.] Continue up the slab, eventually trending up and right to a good stance just in front of the forest-pine-trees. Now, up the 15 ft, mossy but fairly solid final steep wall on your left (the psychological crux of the pitch) to very easy slab. Walk up the low-angle slab and belay off any good tree. 130 +/- ft 5.6-5.7- PG-13/R It is probably possible to avoid the last 15 ft wall by a serious bushwhack into the forest.

From the final belay tree, walk up the low-angle slab 30-50 ft (depending on where you have belayed) to where there’s an obvious opening in the forest that marks a climber’s path that leads 200 +/- ft to the outlook at the top of Willard and the hiking trail back to the railroad tracks.

HISTORY: This route was one of the “Big 5” routes that were first ascended in 1928-1929. [In my opinion, the others were: 1) “Old Cannon” and 2) “Whitney-Gilman” [both on Cannon]; 3) Whitehorse “Standard”, and 4) Pinnacle’s “Allis chimney”, a.k.a. Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, in Huntington]

Willard’s lower slabs were first climbed to the “Big Tree ledge” by the team of Robert Underhill and Lincoln O’Brien in the summer of 1928, most probably by a right-side variation on the lower slabs, which climbs close to (or on) the route now known as Hugo’s Horror. (The left side variation was described above.) The team continued onto the upper tier. (a.k.a. “upper wall”, and/or “upper slabs”) An unspecified distance up this Underhill encountered a move at the top of a chimney that required the use of what we would call today a “chossy” handhold. Above him he could see/sense that the angle of the cliff relented. He untied and instructed O’Brien to walk to the right along the Big Tree ledge to where he could scramble in the trees to the summit, there to drop a rope to him. Alas, after a while Underhill realized this would take quite a bit of time, and even then, once on the summit, the rope would be too short to reach. (Underhill and O’Brien were the first, but hardly the last, climbers to grossly underestimate the size of the South Face of Mt Willard! )

Completely alone, Underhill committed to the chossy hold, soloed the move and…found himself faced with some of the chossy-est, most fractured rock in the Northeast: the yellow, decomposed granite below the “Devil’s Den” cave. Soloing up slowly, on holds where he felt each hold had only a “50:50 chance of staying on the cliff”, he eventually reached marginally better territory. There he continued up, but higher he was stopped again, this time by a polished water runnel.

Meanwhile, “back at the ranch”, or more specifically back on the summit, O’Brien had completed his task and tossed down the rope, which just barely reached. (Short ropes in those days) Underhill climbed over the polished rock and finished the slabby section using the rope as a hand rail! (i.e., not even tied in!)

The following year, (1929), Lincoln O’Brien and John Gray climbed up to the Big Tree ledge, hiked up left and found the key corner (P7 of the route description above, photo#17) that led the way to the upper tier on much more reasonable rock.

On the lower slabs a “left variant” would be established (which is believed to follow better rock than the original “right side”), but the “O’Brien-Gray” route on the upper tier would remain the only route through the upper tier for 37 years, and the only route through the “main wall” of the upper tier for 44 years, until 1973 when “6000 Salad Bowls” was established to its right. Indeed, when I started climbing with Boston climbers in the mid 1960’s, no one I met had ever climbed Mt Willard.

One must remember that in the 1920’s-30’s climbers used short, hemp ropes (60 to 120 ft; and don’t even THINK about the rope holding a leader fall). Pitons were almost never used to protect a move (why bother, when the rope would break anyway?!), and only occasionally at belay stances. (The FA of the Whitney-Gilman used zero pitons, none for protection, not even one for any of the belays, of which there were 17 on the FA.). Steel carabineers weighed about 5-6 oz each; a leader normally carried only a very few. Slings to reduce rope friction were unknown, besides this would take two of your ‘biners!


On the main slab, at the "toe" of the cliff (Cinema Gully)


Std Rack - "screamer's" are nice on some of the old pitons

Piton Hammer and thin-blade pitons optional and may reduce the "R" to "PG"