On Sunday, I attempted a Mount Washington climb for the second time this season. I reached the summit on my climb back in December, although, with high winds and low temperatures, it wasn’t much fun at the top. A glutton for punishment (and in serious need of training for Mount Whitney next month), I headed up to Pinkham Notch with some friends from New York for round 2.
I drove up from New York with three friends – Vanessa, who has climbed Washington multiple times alongside her other varied mountaineering achievements, and Cliff and Rob, both serious sportsmen who came along for their first winter mountaineering excursion.
It had been snowing all week in New York and we were hopeful that by the time it got to the weekend, we would have a clear spell in the weather. Alas, it wasn’t to be. By the time we arrived on Saturday afternoon, the Mount Washington Observatory was reporting very high winds and low temperatures. The following is an excerpt from their forecast:
“However, the bigger story with this passing low will be the winds associated with it. As the low moves up the eastern seaboard, it will rapidly intensify in a process known as bombogenesis…Winds may average near 100 mph at times with gusts reaching well over 100 mph overnight through Sunday.”
Bombogen… what? If it sounds scary, then I can assure you that reading this a few hours before climbing is terrifying! The White Mountain hostel was full of people on Saturday night lamenting what everyone were calling “the worst day of the year”.
We left the hostel at 4am and drove up to Pinkham Notch. We were to get a taste of the mountain conditions just getting out of the car. The wind was really strong and lifting snow up and across the parking lot. It took a lot of effort just to start up the trail! We left at approximately 5.30am, after sorting out our gear in the visitor center.
The Tuckerman Ravine trail was a straightforward hike up. Snow is now totally covering the trail – back in December, it was mixed rock and ice, and a different kind of climb. It took us just over an hour to hike up to the intersection with the Fire Road and down to the junction with the Lion Head Winter Route. As we were getting cramponed up, a ranger on a snowmobile came past, shouting at us to “wrap up warm”, followed by another ranger in a giant snow-truck (I’m not sure that’s the technical description), who stopped and said that he was expecting winds of up to 120 mph above the treeline.
The winter route is very different to the summer route I took back in December. The summer route is longer, but up a series of ledges and switch backs which made for a relatively easy route. The route was icy, but there was little snow on the ground. In contrast, the winter route on Sunday is a much steeper climb, and was covered in knee deep snow for most of the route. Vanessa was leading and following in the tracks of a solo climber who had left before us. Whenever you stepped off the path, you would immediately sink into snow up to your knees and sometimes your waist.
Having said this, it was a lot of fun. The route is mostly sheltered from the wind, and with the sun coming up, it was very pleasant to be moving through the trees high up on the mountain before most people would be arriving at the trailhead. There was one particularly steep section with a fixed rope left on the route, which required a bit a technical mixed climbing up 10-15 feet of snow and rocks. At a few points, I thought that it would have been useful to have had two axes to plunge into the slope rather than just the one, which sometimes unbalanced me.
Unfortunately, the winds were really strong once we emerged from the tree line. In the 15 minutes we walked up to the Lion Head, we kept getting knocked over by the wind. Mindful of what the ranger had said about conditions on the summit (and I remember that the summit was much worse than the Lion Head back in December), we decided to turn back and head down through the trees. It was a pity, but we felt like we’d given it a good shot, and at least shown Rob and Cliff how things look once up on the shoulder of the mountain. I think you always end up doubting yourself when you decide to turn back, and we talked about whether we had turned back too early on the way back down, but it was the sensible decision, given the circumstances.
Heading down, we passed 40-50 climbers from the Naval Academy – we were thankful we had left as early as we did!
The soft snow made descending very easy, and we plunge-stepped down at super-quick speed – arriving back at Pinkham Notch (where the sun was shining!) at 10.30am.
If you are interested in seeing more, I have put photos and a gear list on my blog at www.philflynn.co.uk.