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John Bouchard and Rick Wilcox are Alpinists who live not in Chamonix or Zermatt but in North Conway, N.H., where only the tallest mountain exceeds 6,000 feet. Such an area might seem to offer slim pickings for a couple of hot climbers like Bouchard and Wilcox, who between them have ascended such classic peaks as Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, the Eiger (north and west faces), the Petit Dru, Mount Logan in Canada and assorted South American summits.
But while New Hampshire mountains may not be particularly altitudinous, they offer a number of routes that demand superior technical climbing, and Bouchard, Wilcox and others have been able to record first ascents on nearby cliffs that have already been climbed hundreds of times. Obviously, there can be only one first ascent of a mountain, but there are various routes to a given peak, and to be first up an unclimbed route is a gratifying accomplishment. Thus, the first first ascent of the Matterhorn was completed on July 14, 1865 by the Englishman Edward Whymper. And the second first ascent of the Matterhorn came three days later, credited to Jean-Antoine Carrel, who led a team from his native Italian side.
The objective of the original Alpinists was simply to claim an unclimbed peak, and in time, as the neighborhood became climbed out, a mountaineer had to travel farther and farther afield to bag a first ascent. Those who stayed behind, however, were not without sporting alternatives. Original ascents tended to follow the lines of least resistance. The next wave of climbers sought different routes, and inevitably these posed greater challenges.
Early ascents tend to be "aided" (accomplished with pitons, chocks, or bolts used as climbing aids rather than as points for protective belays); they are followed by attempts to climb "free," the climber using only natural holds and cracks, or making the ascent alone, or in winter. That is the usual progression of creditable first ascents. (From time to time nude ascents have been claimed, but that's silly.)
If multiple firsts seem to be a contrivance to keep the game going in perpetual overtime, they do allow succeeding climbers to knock off tougher and tougher climbs and thus get into the record book. But somewhere along the way, someone is bound to declare that finally the game is over, that the mountain's last climbable route has been conquered. Uh huh, and Dewey beats Truman.
It's easy to scale Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch, N.H. It's only a hill climb, but if that's too strenuous, one can ride to the 4,180-foot summit via a tramway. One side of Cannon, however, presents a genuine test. The mountain's east face is a steep granite wall a mile and a half wide and a thousand feet high, the biggest rock cliffs in the East.
A modern guide to climbing the Cannon cliffs describes no fewer than 70 lines of varying difficulty. Many of these routes were established in the early 1970s, and the one ascended by Bouchard and Wilcox is a fine example of how the umpteenth first ascent of a comparatively modest cliff can be serious business. Bouchard and Wilcox went all the way, and they went in winter.
Bouchard, who is 28, scored his first notable climb in 1971, also on Cannon, as a 19-year-old home from school in France and under oath to his parents not to solo-climb. Promises, promises. But look, Ma, all he did was scale a little 600-foot ribbon of ice in a gully called Black Dike, which Yvon Chouinard had identified the year before as a great unconquered ice climb. That feat made Bouchard something of a Wunderkind, and he kept getting better.
Wilcox, 32, a prudent climber, didn't burst on the scene with Bouchard's flair, but he has made many valorous climbs, too, and has often worked as Bouchard's partner. The two make an effective team, Wilcox' conservative approach tempering Bouchard's explosive style. And they trust each other.
After 1971 several difficult climbs were added to the Cannon itinerary, and then Bouchard and Wilcox decided to up the ante by forcing a new route in winter, which hadn't been done before. To make sure the ascent would be truly significant, they picked a difficult Grade IV line, meaning they would have to spend one night on the cliff face. In January of 1974 they had at it.