Conditions Before the Climb
After climbing Pinnacle Gully on Mount Washington with Randall only a few weeks ago I had the opportunity of returning the favour he did by offering to be his belay slave on a similar but longer climb in Huntington Ravine called Damnation Gully. For climbers, Damnation is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and the longest gully in Huntington Ravine offering five pitches of very exciting snow and waterfall ice. Like our previous ascent of Pinnacle mother-nature once again had dumped several inches of rain on the mountain the day we arrived in North Conway turning this predominantly snow-filled gully into a pure alpine ice climb. To make matters worse, a large snowfall forecasted for the area the day before our climb forced the United States Forest Service snow rangers to post HIGH avalanche warnings for all the gullies in Huntington Ravine. However, since we left the Visitor’s Center at Pinkham Notch early in the morning we didn’t know about the warnings until we arrived at the Harvard Cabin. Sitting in the cabin watching the snow continue to fall all day was depressing to say the least and as I knocked back a few beers we started to consider just climbing to the summit again with a few friends. The following morning, however, Snow Ranger Jeff Lane informed us that high winds during the night had scoured all the new snow off the mountain reducing the risk of avalanches and allowing us our chance to ascend this highly coveted prize.
Heading in to the Ravine
The next morning we left the cabin at 8:30 AM in fantastic weather with an overly eager plan to ascend Damnation Gully, then descend Central Gully and quickly ascend Odell’s Gully before returning to the cabin. The trek in to Huntington Ravine using the USFS fire road was easy given the ice-crusted snow and soon we were ascending The Fan, the steep snow slope located in the bottom of the bowl at the base of the ravine where avalanche debris from the gullies constantly accumulates during the winter months. As we headed towards Damnation Gully on the north side of the ravine we soon realized that the recent rainfall had created a thicker layer of ice covering the snow than we had expected providing little traction for our crampons. Our easy ascent to the base of the climb soon became extremely tiring as the conditions prevented us from kicking any useful steps in the snow and we began to wonder if this was the reason the gully had received its name. When the climbing got steeper and the objective hazard of a fall increased substantially we set a single picket anchor under the protection of a rock buttress and prepared our gear. Meanwhile, high winds began to develop and it started to feel like the predicted wind chill factor of between -25F and -35F would soon be upon us.
The first pitch of Damnation Gully is typically a 40-50° snow climb but the recent rainfall had turned all the pitches into pure alpine ice. Under the ice the precious snow would have allowed us to kick deep steps to create a virtual staircase up the route but like the ascent of The Fan the ice was too hard to penetrate. Front-pointing all the way Randall led the opening pitch and placed only a single ice screw in some exposed waterfall ice on the left-hand side of the gully for protection half way to a belay beneath the first ice bulge. Running out the rope Randall arrived at the belay and quickly equalized two ice screws in the fat ice. Belaying me up on our two 60-meter half ropes the climbing was fun but strenuous on the awkward angle due to all the front-pointing. Using both our tools in the piolet panne position, hands on top of the tools plunged into the ice and front-pointing with our feet allowed us to quickly ascend the pitch.
The second pitch of Damnation increases in steepness to about 50° and keeping to the left-hand side of the gully Randall started up the pitch skirting the next small ice bulge. At the bulge Randall placed a single screw for protection before continuing upward and I soon lost sight of him as he climbed toward the second belay. While feeding out the ropes I had the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the scenery, especially North Gully to our right. This year the ice on North looked fat with several sections of tall, vertical waterfall ice that would be incredibly challenging so I made a mental note of this for our next visit. At the end of the pitch there was little ice for protection so Randall opted to equalize his two well placed tools with a picket before putting me on belay.
After leading the first two pitches Randall offered the third pitch to me which I eagerly accepted. The slope of the third pitch was comparable to the second and made for quick climbing. Keeping to the left-hand side of the gully I soon arrived at the hydraulic, an ice dam covering the start of the waterfall underneath the ice and the site of an accident that claimed the life of the very well liked Harvard Cabin caretaker Ned Green. Crossing over the hydraulic from left to right it soon became apparent that the ice was very thin when I punched through it with my foot releasing a deluge of water down the climb. Continuing up the right-hand side of the gully I found a great spot from which to belay Randall near a few exposed rocks. Slinging one of the rocks with a cord and equalizing it with a well placed picket provided us with a solid anchor.
Arriving at the belay and noting the time we decided to nix our aggressive two-gully plan as we were progressing slower than expected. This would allow us to take our time on the remaining two pitches and just enjoy what the gully had to offer. Climbing through Randall began leading the fourth pitch which appeared to be slightly steeper than the third offering a few short sections of steep waterfall ice. After crossing back over to the left-hand side of the gully and surmounting the ice I again lost sight of Randall as he continued to climb. Veering up and to the left he climbed quickly running out the rope until he could go no further. Ignoring an old piece of webbing slung around the rock on the left-hand wall he again fashioned a quick anchor between his two tools and a single picket where the slope had tapered off to a lesser degree.
On the last pitch of the climb the slope again lessened ever so slightly but the ice was thinner allowing Randall to climb quickly on solid tool placements and finally getting to kick some good steps. Keeping to the left-hand wall he continued to run out the ropes ascending the entire pitch without placing any protection, something he must have surely enjoyed. Reaching to top of the ravine the rocks provided a solid anchor point from which to belay me while providing a fantastic view of the ravine below. After completing the climb we took a leisurely stroll along the Alpine Garden trail to the Lion Head Winter Route where we would descend back to the cabin. This allowed Randall to check out the condition of the route before he would lead our two friends up the following day.