It's been a strange winter for me. I spent nearly all of February in Los Angeles, leaving me with an unfulfilled craving for snow and ice. (I did manage to go up Mt Baldy twice, and spent my one weekend "home" climbing Frankenstein Cliff, but I had to cancel the real sufferfests I'd been looking forward to, such as a camping trip in the Adirondacks.) So when I found myself back in Boston, with a flexible schedule, and Brad Marshall mentioned that he'd be climbing in Huntington Ravine the weekend of March 8th, I figured things were finally going my way.
Since Brad already had a rope partner, I called a couple of the usual suspects looking for a climbing partner (preferably one with experience leading ice), but wasn't having much luck. I was in the rock gym talking to my friend Lei about the trip when we were interrupted. "That sounds cool, do you need a second?" Actually what I really needed was a leader, but a man has got to prioritize. I asked one question: "Do you have gear?" "OK, you're in!"
Between carpooling considerations and an increasingly dire weather forecast, our planning went through several iterations. By the time Friday came around, the plan was this: I'd carpool with Marcia (the interrupter from the gym) and her friend Sara. Saturday we'd climb at Frankenstein, and meet up with Lei in Conway for dinner. (She'd be driving up with another set of friends, and hiking during the day.) Sunday would be our opportunity to climb Huntington Ravine, if the weather and avalanche risk cooperated.
Saturday: Frankenstein Cliff
We woke up early on Saturday morning - no, I cannot tell a lie. Friday night involved a few beers and much philosophical discussion, and on Saturday morning we were not exactly a model of alacrity. But by 11:00 everybody who could manage to eat and drink had done so, and we were strolling along the railway from the Arethusa parking lot. With plenty of time in the day, we figured we'd warm up on a couple of the "Russian routes" (with names like "Cossack"), which are low-angle one-pitch slabs. We trudged uphill through deep snow, met another climbing party who helped us get our bearings, and decided the "Russian routes" were too melted-out to be worth climbing. So we slid back down to the railway and continued to Standard Route. With Marcia and Sara not comfortable leading NEI 3+, I was elected "fearless leader" for the day.
Me and my actual path
The first pitch is a straightforward climb up to the cave. I took my time fiddling with screws and quickdraws, placing a screw every ten feet or so, partly for practice and partly for comfort. Unbeknownst to me, at that moment Eric B. was standing alongside route 302 with a telephoto lens, and snapped the photo you see at the left.
I anchored to the rap rings inside the cave at climber's right, partly to keep the rope away from the lip, and partly because I had a surprise in store. The ladies followed without much trouble, and soon we were organizing gear for the next pitch. I think it was Marcia who gave me the opening I was waiting for when she said something about not wanting to go under the dripping curtain at climber's left. "Oh, don't worry about that," I said with a grin, and pointed over my shoulder. "We're going out the Window."
It was my first time out the Window too, and it looked a little intimidating: a climb inside the cave, then a narrow squeeze through an opening in steep, hard-looking ice. But the ice turned out to be in excellent condition, and the move through the gap wasn't hard because you could place your tools almost anywhere. I poked my head through to appreciative comments from below, and climbed on with confidence.
I should have stopped to pay more attention, or at least place a screw, because I soon found myself on slabby ground facing some very thin, rotten ice. I was ten or twenty feet above and to the right of the cave, with a large drop below me, and my only protection was the anchor *inside* the cave. Talk about a potential pendulum! First things first: I moved up and to the side, placing my tools in bare dirt a couple of times, and slung a tree. Then I took a look around and considered my options.
I could rap from the tree, or downclimb unprotected, and start over by exiting the cave on the left as I'd done a few weeks before. Or I could climb the boulder directly above me: it was bare of ice, but it had a very tempting fracture system right up the middle. However, I couldn't see past it and I was pretty sure it would lead me off-route. I didn't like any of the options so far, so I spent some more time studying the slabs to my left. I could climb them, I just wasn't sure the ice would stay on. But now that I'd slung the tree my exposure was acceptable. Eventually I found a line where I was reasonably confident of the ice, and traversed it back to the main flow. I sank a screw in the first thick bulge and breathed a sigh of relief. I scrambled up a bit further until I came to a wall of ice with some trees to the right.
I wasn't sure whether these were the trees I'd belayed off of last time, but I didn't want to get much farther from the cave since, between the natural accoustics of the cave and the rain that was starting, my seconds and I already couldn't hear each other. I found a little ice cave that looked like a comfortable seat, and went to town setting an anchor using two screws and a V-thread (with several false starts - for example, I thought I'd be able to sling a fat pillar, but it was fused to the rock and it was too far back in the cavelet for me to swing my adze at it).
Using a pre-arranged sequence of tugs, I signaled to Sara to come on up. While she was climbing I sat in my cavelet with water dripping over me and had ample time to look closely at the hairline fractures that penetrated the warm ice my anchor screws were sitting in, and to watch some of the smaller ice columns spontaneously break off and fall. When Sara reached me I had her tie in to a nearby tree. She was too far away for easy conversation, but while she was sitting in the snow, hunched over under pouring rain, I clearly heard her say "this is pretty miserable." I heartily agreed; my pants were most definitely not waterproof, and every time I shifted in my seat I could hear sloshing from my underwear.
Once Marcia was up and the gear sorted, I started traversing left from my cave. The ice here was dead vertical, deeply columned and of variable quality. My feet were supported by a rain-crusted snowbank that had a nasty tendency to collapse under my weight, and I had a couple of nervous moments. I got tired of this and decided to climb straight up the curtain. I placed a screw as high as I could reach, placed a tool, kicked my feet in, stepped up - and repeatedly failed to get another good tool placement. I'm sure I could have managed it eventually, but suddenly the traverse wasn't so bad after all. I backed down and finished the last ten feet or so of the traverse rather easily (except that I had to backtrack to add a sling to the quickdraw on that last screw, which was placed all wrong for a traverse). Once past this curtain I could see the last pitch, but I concluded (wrongly, it turned out) that the trees just above me were the ones I had previously used as anchors, and I knew the last pitch was a full rope-length long. So, I slung those trees and we made an extra pitch out of the traverse I'd just done, which, including the walk back to the trees on the right, was at most twenty feet tall. This time Sara was sitting right next to me as I brought Marcia up, and as we sat in the rain we talked about the Caribbean.
The last pitch was easy and I raced through it, placing only two screws along the length of the rope. The hardest part of it for me was the fear that my pants and harness, dragged down by water weight, would slip off my waist at any moment. But soon we were at the top, hastily piling rope onto our shivering backs, and walking toward the snow-gully descent. A quick glissade and some missing gear later, we were back in our steaming hotel room, rigging slings as clotheslines, taking a hot shower (no, not the three of us at once), and laying plans to meet Lei and Ron for dinner.
Sunday: Lion Head winter route
The forecast for Sunday called for decent avalanche conditions but lousy weather. Most of us were tired (and soaked) and nobody really had much desire to climb Huntington Ravine in a blizzard, so three of us (Lei, Marcia and myself) decided to hike up the Lion Head winter route while the remaining two (Ron and Sara) would find some ice to climb close to a road.
After another blazingly early start (yeah right) the three of us started trudging up the Tuckerman Ravine trail. It was barely snowing and the wind was calm, and it was a warm day: nearly freezing. There were times when I was thankful for the fact that my boots were still completely soaked: they kept me cool.
The hike up to the fire road was uneventful, and we soon turned on to the Lion Head winter trail proper. The snow was incredibly deep, so much that I had trouble recognizing the trail, but it had an icy crust over it so the powder didn't slow us down (as long as we stayed on the trail where others had walked before). Just as I paused to admire this winter wonderland, the sun came out, as you can see in the photo.
But the mountain didn't plan to go easy on us this day. Soon the sun vanished for good and the wind began picking up. Meanwhile the slope of the trail increased, and the previous week's rain meant there was ice everywhere. Not only did we put on crampons early, we found ourselves making use of ice axes.
It was a tough slog to treeline, and by the time we reached the krummholz and bedecked ourselves with full winter gear, the wind was whipping. New-fallen snow was blowing up off the ground into our faces, and of course our goggles were fogged up. But treeline hits me like a shot of adrenaline, and I burst into song as I launched myself uphill. Sometimes I crawled up the snow and ice, sometimes I couldn't stand up due to wind, but as long as I could see the next cairn, I was moving forward.
After a while I had to slow down, and I started to notice that my wet toes were going numb from cold. Visibility was getting worse, and new snow was starting to drift over our tracks. Today wasn't a smart day to go to the summit. It didn't take much discussion to decide to turn around at the Lion Head, which was now just ahead of us (even though we couldn't see it)..
Once arrived at the Lion Head we made a brief stop in the relative shelter of a crack in the rock, to have a bit to eat and drink and to snap a few photos. Normally the Lion Head offers a great view into Tuckerman Ravine, but visibility was down to about ten feet. After a minute or two we exchanged views about various cold body parts and headed down.
Visibility was even worse on descent, but we soon made it back into the relative shelter of the woods. The temperature had been dropping, and we never really warmed up, but we were in good spirits thanks to a series of fun glissades. (Don't tell anyone, but we left our crampons on.) The combination of loose new snow over an extremely icy crust meant I actually had to self-arrest once or twice, providing useful practice. (Note to self: grasp head of axe FIRMLY.)
A meeting with Melvin
Melvin acting shy
We kept our crampons on until we were nearly down at the fire road. In the same glade where we'd paused on the way up, we sat down and started fighting with frozen straps. Suddenly Marcia was pointing and yelling: a fox was trotting right past us! It circled a couple times, licking its lips every time we mentioned the words "food" or "beef jerky". Its fur was icy and it seemed to be shivering - at least it was shaking its back legs. This was accompanied by a snout-low, back-arched posture, and somehow I leapt to the conclusion that it was trying to wag its tail. When it didn't think we were looking, it stood much more normally. Eventually it decided we weren't a source of food, and moved on.
A few years ago Tim Seaver photographed a fox on the summit of Mt Monroe; that fox, known as "Monroe" from then on, had a regular patrol route that included the Lion Head winter trail. Two years ago I photographed it (or possibly a member of its growing family) just below the Lion Head. The fox we'd just seen was not the same one, nor was it Monroe's son Monroe Jr; Tim says this one is called Melvin. Nice to meet you Melvin, hope to see you again next year.
Oh, I almost forgot: we then stopped by Harvard Cabin to say hello to Brad. I took a couple of photos of him too, but I think you'll agree he's not as cute as Melvin.
Melvin checking us out