I’ve climbed Mt. Washington several times in the summer and fall, and each time the weather has been nearly perfect. Although I’ve wanted to climb it in winter for a couple years, I’d never pulled the trigger. That trigger came when Vinovampire (Thomas) posted on the Backpacker dot com forums that he was in a contest where the winner got a Sno-cat ride to the summit and got to stay the night at the observatory. Long story short, he didn’t win contest, so I told him I’d gather some hikers together and we’d “guide” him up. Many signed up and bailed for the typical reasons, but we ended up with a strong group consisting of SP members Spindle, Nartreb, and myself (and of course Thomas).
The plan was to leave the trailhead at noon on Friday, and hike to the Harvard Cabin (except Nartreb, who would hike in later in the evening). If we had time, we’d check out Tuckerman’s or Huntington Ravine. The next day, we’d summit via Lion’s Head and descend back to the cabin. The following morning we’d hike out and drive back home. Surely far from an aggressive schedule, but with 15-16 hours of round-trip driving necessary, we didn’t feel like rushing our time on the mountain.
I left work early Thursday evening and drove until White River Junction. On my drive I encountered light snow, then sleet, then freezing rain, then more sleet, then more snow. The roads were relatively clear, but some people were driving like they were bad. Like 20 mph bad. I am Jack’s road rage. The next morning, we left White River Junction and drove in rainy and slushy conditions to the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center.
It was gusty and rainy at the Center. Upon setting foot on the trail, I realized that barebooting wasn’t going to be very efficient in the wet mashed-potato snow. So we had our first gear change within 100 yards of the trailhead. Spindle and I donned our snowshoes, while Thomas strapped on his microspikes. The ascent could only be described as a wet slog. Thomas fell far behind. When he caught up, he told us his new boots were killing his feet. Spindle suggested he change out of his microspikes. He agreed, and then realized he was carrying a softball-sized ball on the bottom of each foot. We reached the Huntington Ravine trail intersection, and decided we’d rather tackle the rough trail than continue the slog up the Tuckermans Ravine trail (which is actually a fire road).
The Huntington Ravine trail was definitely a change-of-pace. Very rugged with a couple of stream crossings on sketchy ice bridges, we steeply ascended towards the Raymond Path. I was the first to arrive, and realized I didn’t know what direction the cabin lay. To the left was a steep gully, which didn’t seem right… so I headed right. I thought I saw smoke, but after a couple minutes of hiking I realized it was only a low cloud. Back at the intersection, I met up with Thomas and told him I was headed to the left. I crossed a stream and saw a clearing ahead. Unfortunately, there was no structure in the clearing. I was then hit by a gust of wind, but no ordinary gust… it had to be about 70 degrees. The best example of an adiabatic wind I’ve ever experienced.
Not finding the cabin, I returned to the intersection and took the fourth option, further up the Huntington Ravine trail. Within one-quarter mile, I reached the fire road and soon thereafter, the cabin. It was a welcome sight since a lot of my gear was soaking wet. For some reason, I wasn’t expecting rain on Mt. Washington at the end of January.
We unpacked, started the wood stove, and set out our gear to drive. Soon we were eating dinner and having good conversations. Nartreb and another group arrived after dinner. I only formally met one of the other tenants, Doug, who was training for a month-long solo adventure in the Wrangel (Alaska) wilderness. We did get to overhear a story of how one of the guides saved a Chinese climber by cutting leg-holes in his pack, placing the climber inside, and walking to safety. I believe it occurred on Mt. Huge (45,000’). We all agreed it’d be much more believable had the climber been Philipino. We called it quits at hiker midnight (9:00), and I had a good sleep.
Boott Spur from Harvard Cabin
Spindle Ascending the Summit Cone
Rime Ice on the Summit
At 7:00 the next morning, I awoke to the crackle of a radio. It was the summit forecast, and went something like this:
Winds… out of the northeast… at one-hundred… twenty-two… miles per hour.
Temperature… -5… to -10… degrees Fahrenheit
Windchill… -45… to -55… degrees Fahrenheit
Visibility… 30… feet
Humidity… 100… percent
There was a communal laugh. The forecast called for improving conditions, but we still felt it would be a nasty day. The good news for the ice climbers was that the winds sculpted out Huntington Ravine, and the avalanche danger was Low. We were in no hurry, but still we hit the trail around 9:00 am. It was mostly sunny, and the view of Boott Spur was spectacular. Last night's cold temperatures turned yesterday's mashed potato snow into a perfect powder. We reached the Lions Head trail intersection, and started ascending. Slightly at first, and then in earnest. After a few minutes of very steep travel, I reached an ice flow that was steeper still. I donned my crampons and began ascending, assisted by my mountaineering axe. The others followed soon behind as I took photographs. Unfortunately, the photos didn’t come close to capturing the steepness of this section.
The trail above was steep, but snowy. The mountaineering axe was not needed the remainder of the day. I began to overheat, especially in the sunny areas. The skies continued to clear, but I still felt the weather above would be very different. More steep hiking, and we reached treeline. The weather was much better than expected. Winds were blowing around 30 mph, but the full sun warmed me. I didn’t change into my jacket shell, hat, and overmits until just shy of Lions Head itself. Even then, I had my jacket fully unzipped, and never changed into my shell pants. It seems I picked yet another perfect day on the Rockpile.
Atop Lions Head, my cheeks were beginning to burn in the constant winds, so I put on my half-face balaclava. I think my cheeks had gotten wind-burned a couple weeks ago on my traverse of the MacIntyre Range in the Adirondacks. That hike was supposed to be my practice hike for Mt. Washington, but as it was turning out, that hike was much more brutal than I was experiencing. The weather continued to hold. Nartreb noted that the clouds were dropping slightly, but didn’t appear to pose any danger of descending upon us before we would summit.
A bit further, and the winds nearly stopped, blocked by the summit cone. Thomas took off ahead, fueled by his excitement of summiting this monarch. For the rest of us, it was time for another gear change, lest we overheat again. Gear changes would be the theme of the day. We made a slow but steady pace up the summit cone, and finally to the summit itself. It was windy on top, but nothing like I imagined. We were able to stay for an extended period on top, snacking and taking photographs. The rime ice was quite stunning. Just before we began descending, I mentioned to the group that we should consider taking the Boott Spur back, and asked them to contemplate on the way down the summit cone. For me, the weather provided too good an opportunity to bypass this exposed and extended route.
Hazy Sun on Boott Spur
Nartreb Ascending Boott Spur
We quickly descended and soon reached the intersection with the Tuckermans Ravine trail. We decided that Spindle and Thomas would take the Lions Head back down, while Nartreb and I would tackle the Boott Spur. We said our goodbyes, and Nartreb and I began descending to just above the headwall of Tuckermans Ravine. On the way up the “summit” of Boott Spur, the winds began to get stronger, picking up snow from the windward side of the mountain and blowing it across the thin icy crust into Tuckermans Ravine.
Further down the trail, Nartreb and I entered a fog bank on a small knoll. On the far side, it dissipated and we angled off-trail to a rocky point overlooking Hermit Lake at the base of Tuckermans Ravine. I mentioned that proceeding forward would be the quick way to Hermit Lake, but bouncing off the rocks 1,000 feet below might hurt a bit… so we decided to take the trail instead. We soon reached the intersection with the Link trail, and began descending the proven way to Hermit Lake. There was just enough snow to hide some of the rocks underfoot, and the first few minutes were a bit tedious. However, upon reaching treeline, the snow deepened while the trail remained very steep. The snow was very powdery, so I was able to “ski” down in my crampons at an amazingly fast pace. I figure I descended about 800 feet in 5 minutes… it was a blast! Nartreb wasn’t far behind, and we hiked together to Hermit Lake and then the cabin.
Back at the Cabin and the Hike Out
Inside the cabin, I re-packed as much as I could before the ice climbing crowd appeared. Spindle and Thomas started the wood stove, and I started cooking my dinner when the others arrived. Much booze was consumed and many stories were shared, including:
Always look before jumping into water. You never know when a rotting cow carcass will appear. "What are the odds of landing IN a cow carcass versus, say, getting struck by lightning? I mean, way more people get hit by lightning every year than crash through a rotting cow ribcage. “I’d bet an asteroid strikes the earth before another person jumps through a rotten floating cow carcass."
"So this morbidly obese woman comes into the emergency room complaining of pain in her side. So the doctor reaches into a roll of fat and pulls out a chicken wing. No, seriously, it happens all the time." "Hit the bull$#@% button man!!! Hit the bull$#@% button."
"The Russians... they smack each other with witchhazel branches in a sauna, and then they jump into cold water. Crazy bastards those Russians."
We did our best to act out Portlandia sketches.
“Damn gimmick skins. I hate them. I kept sliding backwards on the way up to Huntington.” “Well, did you put them on backwards?”
"All women are college coeds 18-25. That's the real world, right?"
Someone was having good (and vocal) dreams Saturday night.
I awoke to the crackle of the radio again on Sunday morning, and the forecast called for another warm spell. That was immediately followed by a surfer-accented “This winter is BULL$#@% man!”. A new group of climbers began cooking breakfast as if they were making it for the crew of an aircraft carrier. It was quite entertaining. They also decided to fry some hot peppers, which volatilized and basically filled the cabin with low-grade pepper spray. About 100 coughing fits later, we finished packing, left the cabin, and began hiking down to the trailhead. For the first time in my hiking experience, the trailhead came sooner than I expected.
It was a great hike, on a great day, with great friends. One that I won’t soon forget.
Spindle helped me write this, as I was having difficulty finding the words:
This hike is dedicated in loving memory of Ka-Bar. His shirtless, no shell remembering, no pack remembering, bored-to-tears self. He tragically lost his self-esteem when he was dumped by his date at the trailhead parking lot, after having turned around 200 feet from the summit. Know that we raised your bottle of Knob Creek in your rememberence. Several times. Peace out brother.