Here is a report of my first winter climb on Mount Washington. I met up with the other participants in the Big City Mountaineers’ Mt. Washington Benefit Climb Team at the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School in North Conway on March 18th at 8:30 AM. We checked our gear and then regrouped at the Pinkham Notch Trailhead. The weather was perfect –it was sunny, the temperature was in the upper teens with very little wind. We hiked up the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail to its intersection with the Huntington’s Ravine Fire Road. We then proceeded up the Huntington’s Fire Road about a half mile and set up camp above the Harvard Cabin. The caretaker at the cabin keeps a hole cut in the ice on the river so we didn’t have to melt snow for water. After we established the campsite we headed up to the floor of Huntington’s Ravine. This is a spectacular place in the winter. We climbed part way up the fan and practiced self-arresting and glissading. We then put on crampons and received instruction and practiced several climbing techniques –ascending to the base of the central gully and then returning to the ravine floor. We discussed possible routes for the next day. Our guides/instructors noted that the reported conditions on the Lion’s Head Winter Route were very icy and might be too technical for our group and suggested that we might try either the Central or Yale Gully in Huntington’s as it appeared that steps were fairly well established and that the snow conditions looked exceptional. By this time, it had become cloudy, the wind had picked up to about 20 mph and the temperature began to drop. We headed back to camp and fixed dinner. It was 7 degrees and still fairly windy. We were all in our tents by 7 PM. After our practice session in Huntington’s, it was clear to me that my teammates’ climbing skills and stamina far surpassed my own. With no winter mountaineering experience, I had been pretty nervous about he climb in the first place and by the time I went to bed I was worried that I would not only be unable to complete the climb, but might hold back the other team members as well. Once my nerves settled I had a fairly comfortable night –especially considering the cold and wind.
Day 2 --March 19, 2006
We got up around 5:45 the next mourning with the temperature around zero. The winds had calmed during the night. After a quick breakfast, we were climbing by 7:30 AM. The EMS instructors had evaluated our performance the previous day and decided that as a team we were capable of handling the Lion’s Head route despite the conditions. Normally the Lion’s Head Winter Route is one of the easiest ways up the mountain, but because of the recent heavy rains and additional fresh snow, it was expected to be quite challenging –mostly because of the ice. After about 10 minutes of climbing, we stopped to put on crampons and the steepest portion of the climb began almost immediately. After another 20 minutes, we reached the first technical crux. At this point I was sure that I would not have the stamina to complete the climb and voiced this concern to the rest of the team. Everyone was very encouraging and the one of the instructors misunderstood –thinking that I didn’t believe I could safely climb the pitch and offered to put me on belay. I accepted and continued climbing. I had little difficulty with the three steepest and iciest pitches, but was already exhausted. Once we got above tree line, the view was incredible. We estimated the wind was blowing 40-50 mph –it later turned out that it was actually blowing 60+, with the temperature around zero. I had much less difficulty handling the weather than I had expected but I was still struggling with every step. It was clear to me by this time that Mt. Washington was more of a challenge than was prudent for my first winter mountaineering experience –even with the help of the guides and very helpful teammates. We reached the lower Lion’s Head around 10:30 AM. The climbing conditions were a mixture of snow, ice and rock. The cairns were clearly visible even with somewhat reduced visibility so the route was easy to follow. When we stopped for a break at the upper Lion’s Head, I insisted that it would be unsafe for me to go much further and it seemed like a logical place to turn around. One other team member had an injured foot that was giving him a lot of trouble and he and I and one of the EMS instructors had an uneventful descent back to the campsite. By the time we turned back, the mountain was back in the clouds and it had begun to snow. The remainder of the team reached the summit successfully and returned to camp by 2 PM. Many of the other climbers we encountered that day also turned around at the Lion’s head as well. The other team members assured me that I had completed the most difficult part of the climb, but I’m certain that I made a sound decision both for myself and the team as a whole by turning around this time. If I had ended up being “short roped” to the top, I would have felt undeserving of the summit anyway. As it was, I had an incredible experience, climbed well beyond my comfort zone and had an opportunity to climb with some talented mountaineers in support of a great cause. What a great weekend!