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The White Mountains: Training Ground For The Greats

Conditions in New Hampshire’s White Mountains are notoriously harsher than their altitude suggests. But for World Class mountaineers this makes the Whites a perfect training ground.

It’s a windy, but warm winter day.  Fred Wilkinson hopes the thaw will make for what he calls sticky ice over at Cathedral ledge, meaning easily pierced by the pointy end of an ice-axe.

Wilkinson: Let’s just stop here and put on crampons and helmet. This is kinda like the bunny hill. On a ten degree day the ice is much more brittle and you have to work a lot harder.

Wilkinson is a lot of things: a wiry good-natured ice and rock climbing guide based in North Conway, who fills out the off-seasons with writing for climbing magazines, and has written a book about an alpine expedition gone wrong. And increasingly, at age 33, he’s a little bit of a legend. We bump into another group of crampon-clad, pick-weilding outdoors-folk.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
The consummate mountain guide. Wilkinson can't help but give ice climbing pointers to those who surround him.
Evans-Brown: You know any of these cats?
Wilkinson: This is Joanne! Hey Joanne!
Veilleux: Hey guys, what’s happening. This is Freddie Wilkinson, have you heard about him. He’s just a local guy, lives in a cabin.

Joanne Veilleux is another local guide, taking a young group of fresh-faced mountain shop employees out for an introduction to ice climbing clinic.

If you hang out with Wilkinson at Cathedral Ledge long enough you start to feel a little star-struck.

We meet another local ice climber along the way, Dave Giampietro. This is the first time he’s met Wilkinson, but not the first time he’s heard of him.

Giampietro: Everyone knows who Freddie is sure. He will do climbs, lead them, where people won’t even follow him up, he’s an outstanding climber. He’s like the Tom Brady of ice? I can probably name half a dozen people in the country who can climb as good as him and that’s it.
Wilkinson: That’s gross exaggeration. ‘cause I’m a Pats fan.

So he says, but his laurels say otherwise.

Last year, Wilkinson and two expedition mates climbed the second tallest, previously unscaled peak in the world: a 24,000 foot peak in a recently demilitarized border zone between China, India, and Pakistan, called Sasir Kangri II. They did it without supplemental oxygen, in a super-light and fast style that appeals to traditional French alpinists who dictate the canon of the sport.

Wilkinson: Alpine climbers will go to extraordinary lengths to shave gear. One thing that’s pretty common is to share sleeping bags. To save an extra 2 pounds it’s cheaper for us to just snuggle up with your partner at night than it is to carry separate bags.

The climb won them a prestigious award from two French mountain magazines, the Piolet d’Or. That means a Golden Ice Axe for the aspiring Francophile mountaineers out there.

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
Fred Wilkinson rappels down an ice flow at Cathedral Ledge in North Conway.

Mounting and taking part in wild expeditions to the most remote and rugged corners of the world is Wilkinson’s other job. A sponsor pays him a small stipend for being an ambassador for the sport, and supports those trips, taking photos and doing slide-shows around the country.

Wilkinson: My life is crazy! I go on a couple big expeditions every year, I just came back from Antarctica on an expedition that was supported from National geographic.

Wilkinson says there are plenty of good ice-climbers and mountaineers in New Hampshire, but what sets him apart is his drive to get out to the “Greater Ranges”: the Himalayas, the Andes, or some of the Alaskan ranges. His resume is dotted with first ascents of routes all over the world.

Wilkinson says a lot of his training happens right here in New Hampshire, where irregular ice flowing over granite crags force mountaineers learn the stuff they’ll need to get up something 20,000 feet tall.

It’s meant a whole slew of world class climbers have cut their teeth in the Whites. Mark Synott, Brad Washburn, and Kevin Mahoney; these are big names in the climbing world.

For Wilkinson, who is at the top of that world right now, there are dozens of expeditions left, but when it’s all done he says New Hampshire is where he’ll wind up.

Wilkinson: There’s so many talented climbers. My friends here aren’t that impressed by anything I do on expeditions. They’re like “great, that sounds like a cool trip. We’re going out to Evans Notch tomorrow, you wanna come?”

And when he does, after months of sitting on planes and eating the wrong foods, Wilkinson says those buddies, quietly living in the shadow of Mount Washington, put him to shame.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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