Jon Nicolodi has had a busy season. In March, the 30-year-old resident of Jackson, New Hampshire, notched two coveted first free ascents, putting the relatively unknown alpinist on the map.
First, on March 10, Nicolodi reached the top of Across the Great Divide (M8 R, 5 pitches, 550′), a 1975 Rick Wilcox and Peter Cole A4 aid route on New Hampshire’s storied Cannon Cliff. Several other prominent local alpinists had attempted the route before; in Alpinist 21, New England first ascensionist Freddie Wilkinson called it one of the area’s last significant aid routes left unfreed. Nicolodi was able to redpoint the line in two days–sending the first pitches on day one and then jugging back up to his high point on day two–after five previous days of effort across the 2021/22 season.
Then, less than two weeks later, Nicolodi freed the Shurayev-Mirkina-Dynkin Route, first established as an A2 winter aid line within Huntington Ravine on Agiocochook (Mt. Washington). He ultimately dubbed the free version “The Resistance” (M10, 5 pitches, 360′)–both as a nod to nearby Star Wars-themed route names like Skywalker (M6+), and as a symbol of support for Ukrainians confronting the Russian invasion of their country.
As for style: Nicolodi made his free ascent of Across the Great Divide with both traditional gear and an array of hammered-in pieces: Spectres, Terriers, Peckers, Lost Arrows, and knifeblades. With permission from Rick Wilcox, one of the first ascensionists, he also added one bolted anchor to a belay stance to protect the belayer in case of a leader fall, but he used no bolts for protection on route. While Nicolodi did clip the odd piece of existing fixed gear during his redpoint ascent, he either placed or hammered in the bulk of his protection on lead. He and his followers (Seth Fisher on day one and Pat Cooke on day two) then removed added lead protection, including pitons, except for rare instances when Nicolodi felt removal could potentially damage the route. (Some of the seams are already littered with broken-off pieces of metal, he notes, blocking potential placements.) Nicolodi’s ascent of The Resistance, on the other hand, involved only traditional protection–cams, nuts and Tricams–on lead. He also adjusted the position of two existing fixed anchors, in an effort to replace aging bolts and to protect future belayers from leader falls. Nicolodi ultimately tackled the 360-foot line in a single day, with partner Patrick Cooke, after several previous attempts dating back to 2020.
“It feels like a great wrap-up to the season,” Nicolodi explains. “I already have a host of ideas for next winter, and it’s great to wrap up the main projects so that I can focus on my next ideas.”
Cooke, who accompanied Nicolodi on both The Resistance and on the upper pitches of Across the Great Divide, says he found both routes incredibly demanding.
“What I appreciate about Jon is that he kind of wears on his sleeve the fact that these pitches he’s leading are very scary,” Cooke says. “As a belayer, I can tell he’s unsure or nervous, but he works through it, and he works through it methodically.” While belaying the crux pitch of The Resistance, a 35-degree overhang split by an offwidth crack, Cooke recalls holding his breath. Nicolodi was on lead, hanging from a rattly torqued tool head, with almost nonexistent footholds. He matched on the tool, moved carefully, controlled his breathing, placed a piece–and then moved into a slippery, insecure knee lock and did it all over again.
“He was able to work through it, and he sent that pitch on his first go of the day,” Cooke says. “He was hanging out on the steepest terrain there, on a tool he’s very much worried is going to rip out, and he’s both calm enough to stay focused and has the physical strength to hang on, find those rests, and move through. He really showed his mastery of the craft on that kind of terrain.”
Though Nicolodi has only been mixed climbing for about three years, he exhibits the patience and analytical cool-headedness of a highly experienced alpinist, Cooke says. Rick Wilcox seems to agree. “These routes are state-of-the-art as far as difficulty goes around here,” says Wilcox, who was one of the area’s trailblazing climbers back in the 1960s and ’70s and is now the owner of New Hampshire-based outfitter International Trekking. “[Nicolodi] came in to talk to me at work a few times and said he was working on Across the Great Divide in winter, and I thought that he was totally crazy.”
That’s because Cannon Cliff has held a place in New England Climbing lore for as long as it’s been climbed. The wall is 1,200 feet tall and a mile wide. It holds ice late into the season, and it’s home to some of New Hampshire’s most notorious testpieces.
“I’ve climbed in Yosemite, the Alps, the Himalaya-all over the world-and I’ve never been kicked so bad as winter on Cannon,” says Wilcox. “Throw in the Arctic-ness of the winter, and I don’t think there’s anything much like it in the eastern United States. When I started going to other places around the world, I felt it prepared me for just about everything except the altitude.”
It should be noted that while this season’s ground-breaking ascents have brought Nicolodi into the spotlight in a new way, they come after several years of focused practice and continuously building momentum. Last year, Nicolodi established an M10- variation of Dial M for Murder (WI4, M8) on Mt. Willard, which he dubbed Dial N for Nonsense. He also established four new bolted routes within New Hampshire’s Pig Pen crag, the last of which he completed in late 2021: What We Do in the Shadows (M8). The route gets its name from a cult-classic Flight of the Conchords mockumentary, but it also “does a good job of reflecting the reality of drytooling in the Washington Valley,” Nicolodi jokes.
As for what’s next? Nicolodi has big plans for next winter, but he says he also misses crimping in the sun. “I’m ready for some rock climbing.”