Recreational History of Huntington Ravine

 

The early and well documented Belknap-Cutler Expedition of 1784 may have been the first to feel the pull of Huntington Ravine. Notes and letters from the party indicate that after a successful summit trip they may have been lured partway down the Headwall in the clouds before a slip and subsequent scare convinced them to climb back up and find a better line of descent. It is unclear when the first ascent of Huntington was made but by the dawn of the 20th century visitors were looking at adding a greater degree of challenge.

At the turn of the twentieth century mountaineering was still an uncommon guest on the slopes of Mt Washington despite its popularity in other areas. By this time the sport was well established in Europe and most of the bigger peaks of the western U.S. (Rainier, Whitney, Longs) were being guided on a regular basis. During the next twenty-five years a number of ascents were made that utilized rudimentary rope skills but it wasn’t until the late 1920′s that any of the Huntington’s major features were ascended.

In 1927, the first of Huntington’s major weaknesses fell when Main Gully (now known as Central Gully) was climbed by John Holden and Nathaniel Goodrich. Clearly visible from Route 16 through Pinkham Notch, the gully remains very popular today with its exposed snow climbing and a relatively small amount of water ice that must be passed. Their historic ascent ushered in the first era of advancing technical climbing standards on Mt Washington.

During the autumn of 1928 Robert Underhill led a trip into Huntington with a group that also included future climbing pioneer Ken Henderson. Their goal was to push a route up one of the prominent buttresses to the left of Central Gully. While a number of adventurous souls had explored the scrubby ledges to the left of center, Underhill had a prouder route in mind. His route up the Northeast Ridge of Pinnacle Buttress was a direct line that has become a regional classic and undoubtedly the premier rock climbing route on Mt Washington.

Close to two years after the ascent of Central Gully visiting British geologist Noel Odell returned to the mountain to claim a first ascent. He had repeated the Central Gully route in 1928 and now had his eyes on another line. During this visit Odell introduced three of New England’s best climbers to the possibilities of ice climbing when he led the party up the route now known as Odell Gully. While Central Gully marked the first real technical ascent, Odell’s ascent pushed the standards up a notch by boldly attacking sustained bulges of water ice that required laborious step chopping and exceptional balance.

Although not the last to be climbed, the real plum that was eventually picked in Huntington’s came in the form of Pinnacle Gully. Its steep water ice on the first pitch had turned around a number of skilled parties before a couple of unknowns, Yale climbers Samuel A. Scoville and Julian Whittlesey, came in to steal the prize in February of 1930. Their ascent shook the climbing community and marked the end of the golden era of New England mountaineering.

Until the 1960′s Huntington Ravine was THE place for winter climbing in the Northeast but things were about to change. Climbing legend Yvonne Chouinard had completed his tutelage in the Alps and upon his return he introduced Americans to new climbing equipment and techniques. Chouinard provided one of the Northeast’s leading rockclimbers, Jim MacCarthy, with the new generation of ice climbing tools and showed him the techniques he had learned abroad. With these new short ice axes and radical front point technique, MacCarthy led a large party up Pinnacle Gully in 1970. It was the first ascent of the gully that hadn’t chopped steps and the party of 5 dispatched the route in quick time. New England mountaineering would never be the same.

By the end of the 1970′s, the routes that were once feared were routinely being climbed ropeless by a number of climbers. No longer was an ascent of Pinnacle Gully worthy of mention and by the end of the decade climbers would enchain all of Huntington’s gullies in a single day’s outing. As use shifted to other areas Huntington Ravine would no longer be considered the area for ice climbing. Recreational highlights since then have focused more on rock climbing, mixed climbing and extreme skiing, however the Ravine continues to be a popular mountaineering destination based on its dramatic setting, technically moderate routes, and rich history.