On February 23, 2008 I hiked up to the Harvard Cabin at the base of Huntington Ravine to join two friends, Randall and Andrew, to climb Pinnacle Gully. Described by S. Peter Lewis and Rick Wilcox as “one of the most aesthetic ice gullies in New England” in their book An Ice Climber’s Guide to Northern New England, Pinnacle Gully had been on my list since I first saw it. A couple years ago Randall had graciously offered to belay me anytime I wanted to climb it and this was the year. After climbing to the summit of Mount Washington a few days before in a -25F wind chill with another friend and ice climbing at Frankenstein Cliff I was eager to go. The week before nature had dumped 1” of rain high on the mountain locking in all the snow deposits above the gullies and reducing the avalanche hazards to low. Leaving the cabin for an alpine start at the early hour of 10:00 AM we hiked up into the ravine with three fellow Canadians eyeing, to our relief, Odell’s Gully. While approaching the base of the climb we also notice a three-person team heading towards the start of Pinnacle. We weren’t too concerned about a group being ahead of us on the route as they had one-hour head start, the weather was warm, for New Hampshire standards, and the ice looked plastic. However, we were disappointed to see the group ahead climbing slowly. It was going to be a long, slow day so we dug in for what turned out to be a very long wait.
As the temperature started to drop we were anxious to get moving. When the team ahead had fixed an anchor at the top of the second pitch, a mostly snow covered section, we started up. The first pitch of Pinnacle Gully is the crux of the climb and normally starts out with a long section of sustained 60° ice. This year was different as an abnormally high number of avalanches from the record snowfall in the area had filled in the lower section of the gully. This reduced the length of the steep ice section and allowed me to place fewer pieces of protection (2 screws) on my way to the first belay. Since the team ahead had not progressed as far as I had hoped I was forced to lay back off a third screw for quite a while before getting a better place to build an anchor. Ignoring the fixed protection available on the overhanging rock I quickly equalized two screws in the fat ice and put my partners on belay. Climbing with 8.0 mm half ropes we planned to use Petzl Reversinos to protect each other as we climbed and Randall and Andrew ascended the first pitch together each on a single strand. Unfortunately, the route was so wet that by the time they could climb a significant amount of water had froze on one of the ropes preventing it from passing through the belay device. This caused me a lot of grief and hard work as I ended up having to break off most of the ice stuck to the rope as the climbers were ascending. By the time they arrived at the belay it felt like I had climbed the pitch all over again.
The second pitch this year was basically a steep snow climb. This made for fast, but tiring, climbing but the pitch ended perfectly at the start of a steep 50° ice bulge. Under the snow was a thin layer of ice from the heavy rainfall previous in the week allowing us to kick good steps and to get bomber dagger tool placements. The security of the tools allowed me to ascend the entire pitch without placing any protection. Arriving at the belay at the base of the bulge the fat ice provided another great place for a belay anchor. After equalizing two screws and setting up the belay Randall and Andrew ascended the pitch arriving at the anchor in no time. At this point we were half way up the climb but it was starting to get late and the water we ran into on the first pitch of the climb had caused everyone’s gloves to freeze.
The third pitch required us to climb over several small ice bulges before entering another steep snow section with that wonderful ice layer underneath. Part way up the pitch I placed a bomber rock in the fractured overhanging rock for fun since I had carried them with me. Further up I was beginning to see the top of the gully but was forced to build another anchor when Randall told me I only had three meters of rope left. Once again fat ice on the right-hand wall of the gully allowed for nice screw placements but the underlying ice also made for a difficult belay stance. Laying-back off an additional screw placed higher up in the ice allowed for another comfortable rest.
It was getting late so Randall continued on past our third belay leading the final pitch of deep, steep snow up to the lip of the gully on a single rope strand. Since I could see the rocks high above me I didn’t expect him to climb for as long as he did but he ran out the rope trying to reach a decent place to build a two-picket snow anchor. No sense climbing all this way just to have an accident near the top even if the climbing wasn’t that difficult. At the end of the fourth pitch we coiled our ropes and stowed all our gear. From here we still had to ascend another seventy-five feet or so to reach the Alpine Garden trail. It was late in the afternoon so we took only a short break while discussing our descent. From the top of the gully there are several possible trails available but we chose the snow-covered Lion Head Winter Route feeling that the present conditions may have made the Escape Hatch icy. We would later find out that our fellow Canadians had in fact descended the Escape hatch from their climb up Odell’s Gully and it was in fine shape. Descending the Lion Head trail was uneventful but, to my surprise, we did stop to talk to two climbers ascending the mountain with full packs in a summit attempt.