It’s a sunny October morning in Rumney, a sleepy town in the southwestern corner of New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. The air is brisk and the leaves shimmer yellow as an occasional car glides down Buffalo Road. The slow and winding Baker River meanders by, and windmills dotting the opposite hillside spin steadily.
On this perfect autumn morning, however, it isn’t long until the bucolic peace is broken by a loud cry echoing off the cliffs of Rattlesnake Mountain, an abrupt reminder that Rumney isn’t just any picturesque New England town. Rumney is one of the nation’s premier sport climbing destinations, with routes ranging from beginner jaunts to grueling challenges that rank among the toughest in the East, and that sudden shout means that a climber has come face to face with his limits.
Richard Wiese, cohost of Weekends with Yankee, is cliffside with a WGBH film crew to try his hand at this increasingly popular sport. When they hear the cry from a climber above, their faces seem to say, Is that guy OK? But Lee Hansche, the guide for today’s shoot, lights up. He watches intently for a few moments, nearly as tense as the climber himself, breathing out deliberately after each successful move. The route is a 5.13b called King Cobra, an elite climb that Lee has done himself. When the climber gets to the top, his friends hoot and holler, and Lee visibly relaxes. “He’s been working on that for a while,” he tells the Weekends crew, grinning.
Lee is a climber, coach, and all-around rock-climbing fanatic. His life revolves around the sport: He is a manager at Vertical Dreams, an indoor climbing gym with locations in Manchester and Nashua, New Hampshire, and a director for the Rumney Climbers Association, a nonprofit that spearheads the effort to preserve the crags at Rumney via land acquisition, gear replacement, trail development, and maintenance.
“Anyone can climb,” says Lee, whose father taught him to climb more than thirty years ago. “It’s an equalizing sport where strength and technique are on a scale.” He’s brought Richard to Rumney’s New Wave cliff to climb a 5.8 route called Air and Pleasant Danger, which follows a sharp ridge up past the treeline toward spectacular views of foliage and rolling hills below.
Rumney first caught the attention of New England climbers in the 1970s, and by the time Rock Climbs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire was published in 1987, there were 48 published routes here. Today there are nearly 700.
Though he has some rock climbing experience, Richard seems a little nervous as he dons a harness, helmet, and brightly colored climbing shoes. The ledge on which he’s standing is fairly narrow — just a wrong step or two would lead to an unpleasant tumble. Lee starts first, leading the route with ease. As he attaches devices called quickdraws to bolts in the rock and clips the rope in, he points out spots where a certain technique or approach might help Richard on his ascent. After the final clip, Lee is lowered to the ground, hovering in midair as morning light glows through the foliage.
Gear is swapped, ropes are tied, and soon it’s Richard’s turn to get on the wall. A few climbers hike past with rope draped over their shoulders, and Lee asks them if they’re looking for a specific route. Sure enough, they are, and without pause, he points them “around the corner to your right” where they’ll find “this big chimney” and the bolt line they’re looking for. Lee knows Rumney like the back of his hand, often directing people to routes he set and bolted himself.
Richard approaches the wall of schist, a jagged type of rock that Rumney is known for. The crux on this particular route is low, and it takes Richard a few tries to get past an initial ledge. Lee offers coaching and encouragement, and Richard admits, “This isn’t as easy as it looks!” Once he gets going, though, and no longer needs play-by-play from Lee, the cliff falls quiet. A breeze passes through the trees and the rope rhythmically thuds as Lee belays Richard.
In climbing, there are moments of meditation in which the climber connects with a route and can relax. In Rumney, these moments feel amplified by the scenic backdrop. Richard completes the route and is lowered slowly from the top. He turns and looks over the trees toward a picture-perfect New Hampshire hillside. An athletic triumph, punctuated by a peaceful ride down.