Mt. Washington--A Novice Approach from a Novelist, High Point 2A month had passed since my first summit and state highpoint (Wheeler Peak, NM in September of ‘12) and I was busy researching and reading and thinking way outside of my skill level. My buddy Tony in Oregon suggested I fly out to join him on a late winter bid of Mt. Hood. It only took a paragraph of Wikipedia to realize, even with a guide and the legend of a woman summiting in high heels, if would be foolish to attempt a real mountain without even knowing how to properly secure a harness or tie a “Figure 8.”
As a result of that conclusion, in the proceeding weeks, my wife had to hear the mopings and cries and baby sighs everytime I saw a mountain or looked at a map. “Too bad I’ll never have the skill set to go do my lifelong (as of a month ago) obsession and destiny, to stand atop the highest point in every state,” I would mutter between the taste of salty saline tears.
Then Santa Clause came. Although I cannot speak to his race, I can tell you he left me a 3-day “Intro to Mountaineering” paid-for class from some mysterious (to an Ohioan) Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) company out of New Hampshire (NH). (At the time I was quite confused, convinced NH was a coastal state with little to no elevation.)
At the end of the course we would take our skills to the top of Mt. Washington, NH’s highest point.
“Dude, Mt. Wishington is only like 6,000 some feet. I did a “thirteen-er” three months ago, this will be easy,” I told da wife.
“What did you call it? Mount what? You better have respect; they call it the ‘Everest of the East,’ really strong winds and you’ll be doing it in the winter.”
Once again, research enlightened me, and I found Mt. Washington to possibly be out of my wheelhouse.
“Yo Santa Clause, did you take out a giant life insurance plan on me before you got me this ‘gift’?” I asked her.
“Oh don’t worry honey; Mt. ‘Wishington’ is nothing for a man like you.”
I took her sarcasm literally, and got new confidence. I quickly called my cousin in Ohio’s capital city:
“Dummy, I’m going to New Hampshire to climb some mountain, wanna come?”
“Shut up. Shut your mouth. Don’t ever call me,” my cousin said.
“It’s like a 19 hour drive, but don’t worry, I’ve already booked a shitty hotel in North Conway that is smoking and they assured me of fecal and other fluid excrements to be well stained into the mattress.”
“Fine I’ll go. But no talking the whole way, I’m in charge and when you die I’m not telling anyone how it happened.”
In late February, and after 19.5 hours of fake silence, we arrived in the ski/snow/mountain town of North Conway, NH.
Friday, Course Day 1
“I’ll take my equipment just in case, but I’m pretty sure we’ll just be sitting in a classroom all day learning how to tie ropes and shit,” I told my cousin when he dropped me off outside of the EMS store. He was not doing the classes, but had his own back country plans.
After finding the climbing area inside of the EMS store and checking in, I was told the instructor was late. I then asked how much time would be spent inside on day one. Looking down at my jeans and cotton-based dress, the worker replied with contempt, “You’ll be outside all day and should be dressed accordingly.”
I could have called EMS. Could have not gotten totally drunk the night before. Coulda been dressed and ready. Three other humans were in the same class, and along with the guide, they were adorned with $5 million dollars worth of gear. Most of mine was rented. (You should also know that I tried my crampons on in the store and was going to walk to the parking lot before the instructor stopped me. I knew it wasn’t right, but my flakey, post-imbibed brain-dead-slungover mind kept repeating, what? What? WHAT?)
We assaulted the White Mountains after a 10-minute drive from the EMS store and learned the French style of footing, the modern, the lost, the preferred. We mastered knots, harnesses, ice screws, mountaineering axes and technical tools. Within hours we were ice climbing and I was incorporating incorrectly into my vocabulary “on belay,” “pitches,” “cairns” and other words sewn into mountain culture, much to the annoyance of my team. Also, not having enough food impacted my will and performance, and at the end of the day and some pretty steep but short ice climbs, it was apparent I was the weakest team member.
Saturday, Course Day2:
As soon as I left the EMS store after class day one, redemption was all I cared about (my teams departing eyes that showed disappointment and angst was sufficient motivation). My climbing crew accurately viewed me as a fuck-up; I just needed to illustrate to them that it was simply circumstantial. On the evening of day one the local grocery was raided for all the “proper” mountaineering food, I drank ever so lightly (3-4 four glasses of Kentucky Bourbon, neat) and stuffed Asian goodness into my esophagus. And while my cousin sat snoring in his clothes on his stained mattress, I went over my knots, steps, holds and processes, over and over again, well into the night. “The Mountaineering Handbook” that I read cover to cover many times before the trip was also revisited, so my brain would have exam-day-recollection.
Big breakfast Saturday morning and switching out my lazy slow-dry gear for the “proper” clothes I planned for summit day. (The reason I put “proper” in quotes is because I found very early on that climbers have a rather snobby approach to what they wear, eat and the equipment they use. I understand shit has to work, especially in dangerous conditions, but proudly displayed parkas worth more than their car are often directly related to the hiker seeking notoriety. “Look, I don’t have to rely on my skill or personality; I have the most expensive gear, which instantly puts me above you.”)
That said, and with great hypocrisy, I was proud of my Patagonia hard shell jacket that cost hundreds. My top layer was Mercedes. The rest was pieced together from friends, family and the EMS rental store.
That Saturday, for almost the entirety of day two, we did a series of 40 ft. rope pitches up a long slab of ice. With redemption mode still in effect, I was well geared up, fueled, hydrated and had an absolute mental focus that lead me to outperform everyone. Never hit a bulge, equal weight distribution, fluid form, clipping through carabiners and tying knots with ease, belaying like a porn star gives head (leaving just the right amount of slack and being quick with the come up, pun intended) and smiling the whole time. A beardless man from Ohio has never front pointed so good on the slopes of the Whites.
Two of my teammates tore their shell bottoms when we practiced self-arresting with our mountaineering axes. “That slide just cost me $500 bucks,” he said. Sounds like you got ripped off, get it, ahahah, I thought.
Sunday, Course Day 3,Summit Day
One margarita and an early retirement the previous evening made me fresh in the morning. I aggressively told the team on the way to the trailhead not to worry, that I wouldn’t leave them to die alone up there. The guide was the only one that smiled. On the trail I said, “With you, I feel like we’re totally fine.”
“That’s the halo effect; too must trust in your team leader. And if I were to go down…”
Lion’s Head winter route up the three steeps, across the alpine garden, and finally to the base of the summit cone. My team was majority young, having failed to summit age 30, and their regenerative nature and quick movements had them in the lead the whole climb. The summit cone was just an all-powder accent, however, devoid of real technical handling.
I had been holding back information from my team. I wasn’t quite the novice I appeared to be on day one. Ice climbing, yes, but extensive parts of my life have been spent in the backcountry, spanning the Pacific Coast Trail, Appalachian Trail, Kalalau Trail, as well as winters in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of northern Michigan snowmobiling, hiking and snowboarding—from Boyne to the Sault. It should also be noted that I played competitive soccer twice a week and had a nice relationship with endurance, despite the light but constant fusion of spirits and my blood.
My childhood playground in the UP, Munger Hill, was an almost exact powder ascent replica of Washington’s summit cone (sans the borderline unbearable winds). I was in my backyard now and I passed one, two, three and finally the guide. I was first on Mt Washington. My summit pic was laced with ego and asshole-ness. And on the descent, between glissading, half running and feeling no obligation to be “guided,” I had to constantly wait for the team at different checkpoints. We did break a rope out and go off so we could get some “Class 3” action, which wasn’t much compared to the previous two days of climbing anyway.
My second summit showed me that I know infinitely less about climbing and mountaineering than I could ever imagine. But there was also the realization that I could learn, and fast. And so my home-schooling began…