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Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby John Duffield » Sun Dec 19, 2010 1:22 pm

You've hiked it before? So you have an idea of the basic layout? Have you checked the phases of the moon? Last night was Waxing Gibbous, 97% of Full and I didn't need a light outside. Of course moon won't help you much in a whiteout. Personally, I'd just keep going up or down. On the wall at the visitors center at the summit, is a story of someone, long ago, who lost their way in a whiteout, they found the body very close to shelter. And yes, you won't want to fall in Tuckermans. Will you consider the trekking poles for this? I know you've done a big section of the Devils Path in the dark. Good Training.

There's a stretch of big rocks to clambour over near the summit. You'll want to be completely buttoned down for this section. Anything you drop will be lost. I'd suggest extra gloves and hat. Everything leashed like whatever you're using for route finding. Two even three lights like you were going into a cave. A coat and bag with lots of little pockets so whatever you need will be by itself.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby kozman18 » Sun Dec 19, 2010 2:19 pm

I would bring a GPS with some preloaded waypoints, but wouldn't rely on it -- I think a compass/map is your best bet. The trail is easy to follow until treeline (steep in spots, an ice ax wouldn't be out of the question). After that, you'll need a good navigation plan if the weather doesn't cooperate (which is most of the time).

The cairns might help -- the cairn system above treeline in that area is pretty good, at least along the Alpine Trail (north to south). Not sure about the size/spacing heading of the cairns (east/west) to the summit. I can't remember -- maybe someone else can chime in. Wands would help on the way down.

The other "danger" on descent is missing the trail to the north and ending up in the Raymond Cataract. A nasty series of drops/ledges/waterfalls that is a bear to descend in winter & dark (been there after getting off route in a whiteout, 2+ hours of misery). The Lion Head trail runs between the Raymond and Tuckermans -- if you miss the trail up high, you will end up in one or the other, neither being a good option.

You should probably file a flight plan with someone, but if you get stuck out in the middle of the night no one will expect you back until early morning -- be ready to overnight. If the wind/cloud cover moves in, it is easy to get disoriented even with good navigation gear and skills. If you have to bail to the treeline, you might get stuck until dawn.

Ditto on the trekking poles -- if the wind is up, they can make a big difference. Ditto on extra gloves/hat. A face mask is key, and for a night climb you might want clear goggles.

Sounds like an adventure, especially if solo -- have fun.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby adventurer » Sun Dec 19, 2010 2:34 pm

Seriously, and with all due respect I think you need to realize that a whiteout on Mt. Washington is not simply a case of "inclement weather". Very high winds, blowing snow, and sub zero air temps make It an immediate life threatening situation. It is probable, not just possible, that these conditions will result in wind chill temps of minus 40F or worse! Any exposed skin will freeze very quickly and you may not be able to stand on your feet, let alone read a compass bearing or a GPS heading. Wands are worthless if you can't even see your hand held out in front of your face.

IMO, your planning priority should emphasize avoiding this situation in the first place. You can get a 24 hour summit weather forecast immediately before starting your climb and you can check with the Rangers. If bad weather rolls in after you've started your climb, if possible you should turn around immediately.

I've climbed Mt W via Lions Head in winter and also done the complete winter traverse. I've never been caught out in a whiteout but if I was, personally I would hunker down instead of attempting to climb or descend. I never attempt a serious winter climb without carrying the gear/clothing necessary to survive a night out.

Think first, and be safe.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby Jerry L » Sun Dec 19, 2010 4:13 pm

I've been on the summit once during a whiteout (4 or 5 summits total). We had a very long day doing the Yale Gully Route and when we arrived at the top it was just dark and began to snow quite heavily. We had a difficult time finding the cairns but obviously we made it out. No GPS, maps, nor compass. Not sure what you want to "learn", but I learned that I'd rather be up there in better weather in daylight. I agree with Adventurer completely.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby MoapaPk » Sun Dec 19, 2010 5:46 pm

First, I assume you are worried about conditions that will obliterate your tracks.

I've navigated too many whiteouts by map and compass. The first when I was 16, was on Algonquin Peak in the Adirondacks. I put pink yarn on the scrub balsam and a few rocks on the way up, and was able to find all but one yarn on the way down; but to be honest, the yarns were only confirmation, as I couldn't see them till I was right on top of them. Nowadays people would frown on any such marker.

The scariest was on Santa Fe Baldy, when 1.5' of snow fell during the ascent, obliterating our tracks. We found that we could see the faint depression left by 4 sets of snowshoes if we went about 20' to the side and looked at a low angle, even though the route was now covered with new snow. Using a compass and map was an experience; the map flapped uncontrollably in the wind, and the compass face was unclear through goggles and blowing snow.

The last two times I've been in whiteouts, I used a GPS, and it was so, so, so much less creepy. If you are above timberline, you won't have an issue with tree cover. The clouds and snow have an absolutely trivial effect. Always use Li metal batteries in a GPS in cold weather -- if there is any chance of whiteout or epic days -- and always have at least one spare set of Li batteries in your pack. (Some gps now have rechargeable Li-ion batteries-- not as good in cold, usually short on battery life, and usually not replaceable en route.) And be experienced with the gps before you first take it out in whiteout conditions. For a day climb in the White Mountains, just let the GPS record a continuous track as you go. Modern GPS will last at least 20 hrs of continuous recording on one set of AA Li batteries, even in sub-zero T. (Alkaline and NiMH batteries do much, much worse in the cold.) If you want, you can put an external antenna on your pack or shoulder, and keep the GPS inside your coat till you actually need to consult it. Put some waypoints in before you go, labeling each with mileage. If it is dark, try to use your headlamp to illuminate the GPS face, as the backlight eats up batteries quickly.

IMHO, it would be nutty to make the climb at night if there were a whiteout. In a raging whiteout, even during the day, you have no good sense of direction; you can't even perceive slope. I remember just heading for any dark object. Also consider if the champagne is a great idea.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby nartreb » Sun Dec 19, 2010 9:12 pm

Taking a compass bearing from treeline on the winter Lion Head trail would have you ascending the east side of the summit, which is the steepest possible way other than the ravines. The real problem, though, is finding your way back. Treeline on the LH winter route tends to see a lot of drifting. Usually somebody sticks in a bunch of wands with big reflectors, but at night in bad weather that wont be enough unless you get within a few feet of the right spot in the first place. Are you prepared to bushwhack if you can't find the trail? The way the terrain works, you'll have good odds of ending up trying to descend Raymond Cataract in the dark.

If you've never been above treeline in bad weather, doing it in bad weather at night is just plain stupid. It's not just a question of limited visibility; it's damn hard to walk in hurricane-force winds. If I were to go to the summit at night, I'd wait for reasonable weather (by winter standards) and I'd go cairn to cairn along the trail, that's the easiest terrain and your best odds of finding the trail again on the way down. If you can't see at least two cairns ahead, don't go any further. Also, make sure you memorize a map of the various trails so you don't end up on, say, the Alpine Garden trail by mistake.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby Brad Marshall » Sun Dec 19, 2010 10:16 pm

KristoriaBlack wrote:For those of you who have done Mt. Washington by the lion's head route, what navigation tools have you used in case of a white out above tree line. In particular, I would like to compare notes on what route is best, how do keep yourself from falling in the Tuckerman's ravine. I'm looking at various options to get me to the summit come what may. (The whole point of this exercise is to get me to the summit in incliment weather. I pray for it to be nasty so that I can have an opportunity to learn.)


Hi KB:

On any mountain you really need to know where you are at all times so study the map if you haven't already. It's very easy to get lost on Washington in bad weather and the main reason why so many people have been killed here (140+). It's also why this mountain is often referred to as the deadliest little mountain in the world. I wouldn't "pray for inclement weather" up there if I were you and I wouldn't be going at night if I didn't know the route well enough in the day. If you decide to go and you do get in to bad weather your best bet would be your option 1 above, moving from cairn to cairn. The cairns mark what is the easiest route to the summit and are the biggest cairns you'll probably find on any mountain (the reason for this is stated above). If you stray off the LH and end up having to take your own route down, like trying to head straight down, it can be extremely difficult to descend and, at times, dangerous. Best to be prepared to spend a night out.

FYI I'll be there the last week in January with several experienced and some not so experienced climbers who want to ascent that route. Send me an email, perhaps our schedules will overlap and we could get together.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby kakakiw » Sun Dec 19, 2010 11:59 pm

Leave a good looking corpse.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby John Duffield » Mon Dec 20, 2010 1:06 am

KristoriaBlack wrote:Thank you everyone for your responses. I’m still digesting the information.
...


Regardless, at this point I'd really just prefer to keep the discussion focused on what is the best way to handle such a situation (where retreat is not possible).
....

What kind of terrain features can help with navigation. What kind of hazards are there, what kinds of catching features? What kind of tools are there at my disposal.
....

And how would one survive the night if forced to bivy above treeline? My feeling would be to get the hell down below tree line, spend the night there and give her a fresh go in the morning light. Be prepared for an overnight stay. But what if one simply cannot descend and is forced to stay above tree line? Is it possible to survive the night in a bivy in a gale with enough warm gear or should the objective be to descend whatever the difficulty?


Given your climbing objectives, I like it. In theory. You are exactly correct. At some point, you will need to know how to do this. What better place than where there's a refuge at the top? Some of the mountains you have on your future list won't have that little feature. So you'll need to have the experience of doing it.

Is skiing down the road an option for the descent? Say carry up a light set of three pins? Fact is, as usual, descent is the true danger. Where would this climb be based from? Hermit Lake? Downclimbing snow and ice in the dark? I would imagine, there'll be a New Years Eve party somewhere at the top. So if this thing really comes off the rails,conceivably you could party away the night and downclimb at first light.

There's a full moon and a lunar eclipse tomorrow night. New Years, will see a waning crescent. Some light. Assuming no cloud cover.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby MoapaPk » Mon Dec 20, 2010 1:38 am

There used to be an emergency shelter above treeline, NE of Washington. I guess that shows how old I am.

How many people will be with you? There is always the 2-3 person storm shelter.
http://www.blizzardsurvival.com/product ... vival-tube
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby kozman18 » Mon Dec 20, 2010 1:48 am

I can give you a first hand description of the Raymond Cataract at night, in the winter. Last year, my climbing partner and I got caught at dusk after a climb up Yale -- we tried to find the Escape Hatch back down into Huntington Ravine, but the visibilty was poor and the winds were 60+ knots (for reference, these weren't really bad conditions for the Whites -- luckily, it wasn't very cold). After failing to locate the top of Escape, we traversed towards Lion Head -- heading south, below the Alpine Garden, using a compass. But as we traversed, we slipped into the Raymond Cataract without realizing it -- until it was pitch dark and too late to ascend. The next day, after another climb in great conditions, we could see our path into the Cataract. We missed the Lion Head trail by about 100 yards.

It's a bad place -- a lot of steep drops that are hard to see in the dark, even with headlamps. The cataract was not frozen, we could hear a lot of running water (it was February). The guidebook calls this an epic bushwhack -- it was. A lot of crawling through brush, sliding down drops, and a near miss or two. Not a place to be at night, especially alone. When I mentioned this bushwhack to the ranger the next day, he gave me an really odd look and asked "You've got both legs?"

I understand and applaud your desire to practice navigation in bad conditions, but there is a lot of good advice in the prior posts. Might be better to test those skills under conditions where retreat is easier than it would be high up on Washington.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby John Duffield » Mon Dec 20, 2010 2:23 am

kozman18 wrote:the winds were 60+ knots (for reference, these weren't really bad conditions for the Whites -- luckily, it wasn't very cold).


Now this is true.

Fifty years ago, when I was twelve y/o, I spent a night on the summit of one of the Presidentials, not far from where you'll be. We'd taken a tarp and put stones all around the edge.

Wasn't enough. In the middle of the night, there was a bang, and the tarp wafted away never to be seen by us again. The winds howling through the ruins of the Dartmouth Outing Club are something I'll never forget.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby Jerry L » Mon Dec 20, 2010 12:19 pm

Kristoria......one last thing to say and then I'll leave you alone to implement your plan. Would you sink a ship or set a building on fire so that you could practice escape drills ? This is what comes to mind. You want to create the disaster to see how you'll react. Mt. Washington may be a small mountain, but the weather can be and has been deadly. At a minimum, leave the alcohol in your vehicle. Best of luck..................
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby hikerbrian » Mon Dec 20, 2010 4:38 pm

Orienteering in whiteout conditions on Washington is surprisingly difficult. And unfortunately, if you miss Lion Head, your probable landing points are very bad: Raymond Cataract (sounds pretty rough, haven't been there) and Tucks (has added challenge of huge snow deposition - if it's whiteout conditions, all of that snow is blowing into Tucks and you're getting into high avy danger land). If conditions are bad, you REALLY want to hit Lion Head. I would advise against "just going down." Furthermore, while the rockpile MIGHT have enough snow to cover the rocks, there almost certainly won't be enough cover to build a snow cave - it all blows away (into Tucks). Trying to bivy in a gale on that section of the mountain - I wouldn't want to be you. Even if you COULD get yourself into a bivy sack behind a rock, it may be DAYS before the wind lets up enough for you to move. That's IF you don't get blown off the mountain before hand. And good luck lighting your Jetboil in those conditions. Winds on Washington increase alarmingly fast - you'll see winds going from 75 mps (highly uncomfortable) to 120 mph (can't possibly stand) in the amount of time that it takes you to get from treeline to the summit. Bivying above treeline on Washington is where people die. If I were you, I'd do whatever I had to do to be sure I could hit Lion Head on the way back. And that's not trivial: wands blow away, a compas bearing off by 2 degrees is 61 yards off course over 1 mile; GPS is best, as long as it stays functional. I personally HATE relying on electronics in the winter. IMO, everything on Washington is manageable by a prepared individual - EXCEPT the wind. Yeah it gets really cold, yeah there might be a lot of snow, yeah you can't see very far. Fine. But once the wind pins you down, you're all done.
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Re: Mt. Washington whiteout navigation plan

Postby bdynkin » Tue Dec 21, 2010 5:02 pm

[quote="KristoriaBlack" I can imagine a few options in case of whiteout:

A) once I'd get above tree line I could just head straight toward the summit without bothering hitting up the lion's head.
B) Follow a bearing to the lionhead, follow a bearing straight towards the summit
C) Follow a bearing to the lionhead, follow a bearing until 5700 feet and then follow another bearing turning north towards the summit.
[/quote]
Kristoria,

Over the years I've been many times on mt Washington including quite a few times in a whiteout. I'd venture to say that your listed decisions (A,B,C) are wrong. Frankly, if one comes out of the woods on Lions Head trail and sees that it's a whiteout then one should turn back. There are of course exceptions for some people. Say someone who has climbed this hill in winter 100 times in all kind of winter weather, has a proven set of gear, a reliable GPS with pre-programmed waypoints, compass, laminated paper map, and of course an ability to use all these gear in 80 mph wind and -80F windchill.
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