The SetupThis story is a bit late in coming. However, since I'm currently an undergrad, time seems to be a luxury I cannot afford... at least until the semester ends. Anyways, this story is one that has certainly humbled me as an amateur climbing enthusiast. When I discovered trad climbing a few years back, I was incredibly eager to learn as much as I could and hit up the local New England crags as soon as possible. I got the literature, the equipment, and some instruction; I even spent part of january climbing in the Tahoe area. But I would soon learn that without incredibly intensive training, empiricism would end up teaching you in a way that will leave your adrenaline rushing whenever you think about your... well, let's just call it an incident. I always took stock and was aware of the adage that warns that people of my age are prone to doing very reckless things because they think that they are invincible. I was aware that trad climbing is an inherently risky sport. However, before my run-in on Mount Washington, I did not fully appreciate the necessity of preparing with incessant hands-on practice. Theoretical knowledge is certainly great, but I learned that you need to get the all-important muscle memory--knowing how to build anchors, manage ropes, and manage your climbing party inside out, with your hands behind your back, in your sleep, etc. Anyways, enough with the preachiness and on with the actual story...
Jump Back about 7 MonthsOut at the university I go to, there is a surprisingly strong climbing community on campus. Cornell has an outing club, a climbing club, and a university-backed outdoor program. All of this is surprising since the nearest solid crag is the Gunks, 3.5 hours away. But a dormmate and I were climbing wall buddies. We would constantly head over to the school wall and really push ourselves on hard toprope routes (weirdly, the university decided to prohibit lead climbing at the wall about 10 years ago). The two of us started talking about outdoor climbing and the possibility of doing it this summer along with her, Jen's, sister (Stephanie). They were gym rats; their idea of an approach to a crag was driving and parking in a climbing gym's parking lot and walking inside to the wall. I, however, was set on converting them to becoming outdoor climbers. I had 'rehabbed' myself from being a gym rat to an outdoor climber with a little lead experience and a lot of toprope anchor setting at a local granite quarry back home. I told them how satisfying it would be for them to get their hands on real rock. I didn't doubt my friend's or her sister's ability to climb difficult routes. They both had pulled off 5.12b's at the gym. So I convinced Jen that we could potentially try something up in the White's over summer break. She half-enthusiastically, half-grudgingly agreed. She was a self-proclaimed 'climbing princess' who was a not a fan of long, sweaty summer approaches to the wall. But the dates were roughly set for sometime in late June or early July. I then set out to do everything in the power of a poor college student to become a strong lead climber... or what I thought constituted a strong lead climber at the time (RED FLAG #1).
The Lead-up to the IncidentAfter a few phone conversations, Jen and her sister decided to meet me at my cousin's house up in the Waterville Valley area. By then, I had taken a few leading clinics, read a bunch of climbing literature, and had practiced setting up anchors in my backyard (there's a lot of stone back there). As you can probably, tell by know, I was setting myself up for a situation that is, as the military calls it, FUBAR. So Jen and Stephanie decided to come up to the house just before the July 4th holiday. We'd go climbing and/or peakbagging, snag a summit and a few sweet routes, and then head home for some quality July 4th barbecue. So I packed a daypack with food, a warm layer, 3 liters of water stowed in a Platypus bag, and the climbing gear and prepped to leave. Very soon thereafter, Jen and Stephanie showed up, and when I went out to greet them, I saw what I should have realized was Red Flag #2. They emerged from their car wearing athletic shorts, tank tops, trail runners, and school packs. Initially, my risk evaluation sense did spike a bit... but in my stupidity, I thought "We've got this. I've been practicing, and they're strong climbers. We'll be fine." Nope, we wouldn't be in just a few short hours.
So we all clambered into my car and headed out. We had researched either climbing at Cathedral up in Conway or Huntington Ravine's Central Buttress on Mount Washington. We all decided on Washington. The two sisters were now actually kind of eager to climb a mountain the hard way and return to their local gym with some bragging rights. After much winding along the Kancamagus Highway, we arrived in North Conway, snagged a few last-minute supplies at EMS and headed for the mountain. By the late morning, we were standing in the parking lot of the Pinkham notch visitor's center with the mass of both Tuckerman's and Huntington's Ravine looming over us like two giants tempting us into their clutch.
Heading up Mount WashingtonWe hit Tuck's trail hard and fast. Despite the occasional complaint from Stephanie and Jen about how much they hated being so sweaty, we trudged up the trail at a pretty brisk pace.
Tuck's Trail was packed. It was a veritable highway filled with families, recreational hikers, and even a guy with skis who said there was still some skiable snow up in a portion of Tuck's itself. Our party got a bit of a false morale booster when a hiker, even more ill-prepared than my friends and I were, stumbled up to us and asked it she could look at our map. She had gotten sick and had fallen behind her friends, who were headed up to Tuck's. She was attempting to catch up to them with only some cross trainers, some small snacks, and a very low water supply. she thanked us and continued stumbling up the large stones that make up Tuck's Trail. The three of us looked at each other wide-eyed, seemingly thinking the same thing: "Damn, I'm glad I'm not her." With a slightly inflated senses of what was attainable, we headed farther up Tuck's Trail until the trail for Huntington Ravine broke off from the main trail.
Surprisingly, Huntington's trail is a radical departure from the broad, highway-like avenue of Tuck's trail. Huntington's trail is very narrow, highly uneven, and crosses the river above the Crystal Cascade 3 times. With all of the people on Tuck's I was surprised that, while on Huntington's, we saw no other hikers or climbers. It was just the three of us pushing on through the woods towards our big objective: they large grey mass in the distance that made up the Central Buttress. I kept checking my watch incessantly.
Into the Ravine and the Up into TroubleWe finally emerged from the trees at the base of the headwall and below a huge boulder field.
I began on the sharp end and chose a spot that I thought would be manageable: three pitches of some challenging climbing up the buttress before an emergence onto a class 3 section of boulder scrambling out of Huntington's Ravine and into the Alpine Gardens. Jen flaked out my rope and I began climbing up the wall. Immediately, I knew we were getting into trouble. I had trained on lengthy routes in the gym, but now I had to not only hang at a hold for a long period of time to place a piece of protection, I had to do so while negotiating a 20-25 lbs. backpacks, making every move harder.
About halfway up the first pitch, I had placed very little protection, determined to get to the first belay ledge and get the hard climbing over with as quickly as possible. However, as I tried pulling myself up onto a small ledge at the bottom of a small dihedral, my left foot, which was bearing most of my weight and saving my quickly tiring arms, stepped on a small patch of wet grass and lichen. Instantly, my feet came off the wall. the added weight of the pack generated too much forced for my tiring arms to hold onto in such small holds. I plummeted. I was very high above my last piece, so the fall was large. I had never experienced a fall of that size before... and hopefully I won't have to for a very long time... if ever again. As I look back on it, the only thing really that prevented me from a pretty hefty ground fall was a #10 Black Diamond nut. Amazingly, everything held. the nut sunk further into the crack, and the rope and belayer caught me for a soft fall. The initial shock was startling, but I realized that we would need an easier way up the wall. So i picked and easier route and brought my friends up to the first belay station. Indeed, the summer days meant that we had the luxury of more daylight to help us complete the climb. However, it was already getting into the late afternoon around 4:30 pm. The winds began to pick up at the first belay station and the shadows began growing long, since Huntington's is on the east side of Mount Washington. I began to think of what I was going to do, now that we were in a pretty serious cluster****. We were on the Central Buttress, running out of daylight, and dealing with three tired, inexperienced, adrenaline-ridden climbers.
After multiple tries and a hyperventilating freak-out session by Stephanie, Jen yelled up to me that neither of them could overtake the block. They couldn't reach me at the belay station. So there we were: a climbing party of three on the Central Buttress, running low on daylight and energy. I was trying to disaster manage the best I could, thinking of the best and safest option to put an end to this trip. At this point, there was no easy way back down to terra firma in the Ravine. I knew that descending the block was crazy, if I fell, I would most like groundfall back to the base of the first pitch. From where i was on the wall, the only feasible way was out. Jen was clearly and rightly worried. She called out to me and asked what we were going to do. I told her where we stood. I told her that I would fall if I tried to descend back over the big block. I took a deep breath and told her the only thing I could think of was to climb out on my own and get help for her both by phone and at the summit. She ans Stephanie were afraid of the idea because their phones were low on battery and the signal in the Ravine was shoddy at best. But we agreed it was the best thing we could do given our circumstances. For me however, I faced another daunting prospect. I had jettisoned most of by gear back to Jen and Stephanie back at the base of the block on the previous pitch. My already tiny climbing rack was now nearly devoid of significant protection and a rope. The solution off the buttress was singular but scary: I was going to have to free solo to get myself out of this mess. At the same time, I realized free soloing could put me into the greatest mess of all: falling off the wall and killing myself.
Half fueled by fear and half fueled by the desire to get my friends home safely, I grasped the holds on the wall and continued out towards the top. I am normally not a praying person. In fact, I am not religious at all. However, I found myself asking for help from whatever greater force there might be. I ascended higher and higher and finally looked down and nearly had my heart leap into my throat. I was way the hell above the Ravine's floor, any mistake would be one from which I could most likely never bounce back. As i look back on it, I used the adrenaline to fuel the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. Rather than thinking about my climbing technique and carefully conserving energy to make it out of Huntington's, I instead powered my way through the remaining pitch, as I wanted to just get the hell out of there as fast as I could.
I am not sure how long it took me to finally pull myself up into the Alpine Gardens.
From the summit ridge, I could see the sun was getting lower on the horizon, and daylight was running out for Jen and Stephanie back on the Central Buttress. I had stellar views of the rest of the Presidential Range, and I foolishly tried to pull out my camera, thinking a commemoration of this day would either be a memory to look back upon and learn from or fodder for one of those juvenile scared straight programs. Without even looking I pushed the button on my camera as I continued to run up the ridge towards the summit.
Finally, the summit weather station came into view. I began flailing my helmet above my head, calling out to get someone's attention. I had been doing that ever since I got up into the Alpine Garden.
Bill looked at me and said my friends were okay. Jen and Stephanie ended up getting a call through to emergency services who then redirected the two sisters to the ranger service on the mountain. Conveniently... if you can even apply that word here... there were some crew members already on the mountain who had gone out for a hike earlier in the day. The rangers were able to redirect them to Huntington's from the location somewhere on Tuck's trail. My friends were okay, but still stranded on the Buttress in the Ravine. It would take at least a few hours for the climbers to get to jen and Stephanie and bring them back down to the visitor's center. By this time, my head had cleared in large part, and I began to assess what I would do when I got home; how I would explain the whole incident to my parents; how I would explain it to Stephanie's and Jen's parents. I was interrupted form my thoughts by Bill, who said he could give me a ride in his truck back down to the visitor's center. I climbed into his truck, fully expecting to get some sort of lecture on knowing one's ability in matters as serious as climbing. Surprisingly, he was pleasant. He told me that incidents on Washington were fairly common because of its draw on non-outdoorsy folk who visit the area. In fact, he said my incident would most likely be small in the whole scheme of annual incidents on the mountain since the crew sent to assist my friends would only be one or two guys at most. My fears allayed, I sat back in the seat and waited for our arrival back at the visitors center. By the time we reached to parking lot, it was pitch black, the only lights in the area coming from the visitor's center and lodges next door.
Clean-Up Crew and Closing up Loose EndsI went back into the visitor's center and was greeted by the head of the local ranger service who brought me into the cafeteria to fill out an incident report. I gave him everything I knew about the incident, and I began to grit my teeth as i waited for a response about how much this whole kerfuffle would cost me. To my amazement, he told me that it would most likely not cost me anything, as the ranger service did not have to deploy extra teams or equipment to get Jen and Stephanie from their perch up on the Buttress. the guys who went out for them were already out there and had their gear at the ready. I felt surprised at the lack of anger and disappointment coming from those surrounding me. They seemed surprisingly cool and understanding. I, on the other hand, was beating myself up inside for not picking up on the numerous red flags leading up to the incident. I knew I would have a lot to work on if I wanted to be a truly great outdoor leader. But at that moment, I decided to put those thoughts aside and simply wait for my friends to return to the base of the mountain. I felt bad for them. Not only did I deny them a wonderful summit opportunity, but I also probably made them more averse to outdoor climbing than they were before.
After ruminating in the cafeteria for a while. I made my way out into the shop of the visitor's center and sat down on a ledge. I looked down at by legs. They were battered, dented, bruised, and, in places, caked with dried blood. I didn't care. Tomorrow would be a new day and I would deal with it then. The visitor's center eventually closed, and my friends were still not down off the mountain. One of the employees offered to stay with me unti my friends returned, but I declined, saying I didn't want to keep him there. I moved outside, and sat on the patio surrounding the center. Two men smoking cigars and drinking some beer saw me and started a bit of conversation. I tried to be as cordial as possible but I honestly was ready to just head home. By midnight, Jen, Stephanie, and the guys on the rescue team were stil not down off the trail, and the two guys I talked to decided to turn in for the night. I sat alone outside the visitor's center. It was truly a point at which my brain decided to turn off and not think for a while. I had information and sensory overload during the entire day, and my brain had declared enough. It needed to rest. Eventually, fatigue began to creep up on me and I retreated into the entrance of Joe Dodge lodge, eventually falling asleep until about 1:15 am, sleeping on the floor with my head up against my backpack. I woke up briefly and resolved that I should find a more comfortable place to sleep in the lodge's living room. Before I could leave the atrium, I spotted my friends emerging from around the corner of the visitor's center. We all rushed to each other, checking if we were all okay. I was fully expecting to get chewed out or even hit in the face by either of the sisters for getting them into such a mess. Though they were visibly worn out and a bit shaken, they actually laughed and forgave me. For both of them, everything was apparently remedied by a really good-looking dude on the rescue team. Jen and Stephanie got to spend a few hours with him on the descent, so they were feeling quite good. The rangers brought us inside to make one final phone call to our families to tell them we were fine and were headed home. By about 2:00 am, we were back in my car. After caffeinating at a local gas station in North Conway, we drove slowly through the dark mountain roads of the Whites and eventually returned to my cousin's house, ready to put this day to rest. I could tell my parents were visibly annoyed, at the very least. However at 3:15 am, they were too tired and too emotionally spent to really chew me out. They instead told me that they would see to it that they would help me out to get more training... anything to keep me from getting into the same situation again.
Everyone turned in for the night. Jen and Stephanie ended up staying with us until the next morning, when they returned home. Nobody was hurt in the making of this mountaineering adventure. But it certainly left both my friends and I with a greater respect for mountains. It's funny, really. I have heard from climbers and mountaineers about the respect they have for the power of mountains, and I thought I was showing the same respect, too. Apparently, it was, before this Mount Washington mishap, in word only. I suppose the mountains decided that I had to be taught the hard way before I could climb a mountain successfully and with the proper reverence with which I must approach a climb.
As an endnote, I am still climbing. I have since hired guides, taken courses, and widened my network within the climbing community. Oh, and I finally have a true alpine rack ;P, which I am hoping to use on Mount Whitney.