MT Washington (6288’)
February 5, 2012
Participants: Sam, Kim, and Corey (Northeast Mountaineering)
We had been planning to climb Mount Washington in the winter for a while knowing it was a large under taking. One thing we do know is our limitations so we signed up with North East Mountaineering to guide us through the climb. Going with a guide is a decision that everyone with out a lot of mountaineering experience should do. Mount Washington is one of the most dangerous small mountains in the world. The mountain is known as the “home of the world’s worst weather.”
It get’s this reputation because of the combination of extreme cold, wet weather, high winds, icing conditions and low visibility consistently found atop Mount Washington. Despite it relatively low elevation Mount Washington is located at the confluence of three major storm tracks. Being the highest point in New England, means it generally takes the brunt of passing storms. Add to that the steepness of the slopes, combined with the north/south orientation of the range, causes the winds to accelerate dramatically as they rise up from the valleys. This is not a mountain to be taken lightly.
To me there is as much enjoyment in planning an adventure as there is going on the adventure itself. The thoughts going into and the excitement leading up to the trip is what fuels me and motivates me to keep going. We drove up to North Conway the night before to save ourselves from having to wake up at 3am to start our day. On most trips we normally stay at one of the AMC lodges or huts but this time we decided to stay at an Inn just out side of North Conway. There was a lot going on around North Conway with the Mount Washington Valley Ice Festival taking place. International Mountain Equipment (www.ime-usa.com) puts it on every year and the energy around the area is excellent.
Climb Day 7:30am Start
The day dawned clear and cold with a temperature of -3 at the base. We did our gear check in the basement of Pinkham Notch visitor center and put on our climbing harness and avalanche transceivers. We set out at 7:30am; our planned route was to take the ski trail to the fire road then the Lion’s Head winter rout. From Lion’s Head we would go to Split Rock then onto the summit.
Mount Washington Fire Road
The ski trail was hard packed snow which made for easy hiking to the fire road. Here we put on our crampons, climbing helmets and replaced one of our hiking poles for our Ice axes. Soon after putting on our crampons the trail became very steep all the way to the tree line. Corey our guide from North East Mountaineering scaled the most difficult sections and set up ropes for us to tie into so he could belay us through them. With Corey’s experience, ability and calmness you never felt that you were in any danger through these parts.
Mount Washington Rock and Ice Section
We decided to wait until we broke tree line to take one of our longer breaks which was a great choice because of the clear skis and incredible views. What an awesome place to sit and have a turkey sandwich, some GU and drink some water to help keep our energy up and hydrated. After our break it was time to push on to Lion’s Head which we could see but was still a good distance away, at this point we took off our climbing helmets because they would no longer be needed until the decent.
Mount Washington Just Above Tree Line
When we got to Lion’s Head we could feel the fatigue in our muscles setting in and new we were in for a long day. Seeing this Corey pulled out his thermos of hot chocolate, this went great with our little packets of GU that we had brought to sustain our energy. We would be eating one to two packets of GU every half hour from here on out to keep a constant flow of usable energy going into our system. I had also mixed Cytomax into our waters to help replace any lost nutrients and to help sustain our energy. During all of this our view of Tuckerman’s Ravine was absolutely breath taking and it only gets better from here.
Tuckerman’s Ravine Kim and Sam
When we had stopped to put on our crampon’s we had found out that the other couples camera was frozen and not working. I had decided to bring my son’s little flip camera which fit perfectly in a pocket on the thigh of my climbing paints. I had switched his 1GB chip with a 16 GB one to hold more pictures and videos. Having it so close to my body and the heat I was generating was keeping it from freezing up. I had been taking pictures the whole way with a few video’s as well, but Lion’s Head was the first place we could take some group pictures with Tuckerman’s head wall as our back drop.
Up until Lion’s Head we had climbed in a base layer of Teckwick on our upper and lower bodies that are designed to wick away sweat and help keep you worm. Then we had on a pair of EMS winter climbing paints that are wind resistant and water resistant to help keep the elements out. They are also designed to wick moisture away from you body. On our upper bodies my wife wore a Teckwick middle layer and her North Face fleece liner, both of these are also designed to wick moisture and keep you warm. I opted for just the North Face fleece since I tend to generate more heat than my wife. We were also wearing synthetic for me and wool for my wife sock liners and heavy weight Marino wool socks, a good pair of fleece gloves, a Marino wool hat that fit under our climbing helmets, and a pair of sun glasses.
At Lion’s Head it was time to put on our North Face shells, our face masks to protect us from the wind, replace our sun glasses for goggles, and switched to our heavy down mittens for our hands.
We set of from Lion’s Head on the Alpine Garden and Split Rock trail which Corey told us had moved about 20 feet to the left since last week. The first thought that comes to mind is how does a trail move? When you’re above tree line and there is a lot of snow the first person through sets the trail and every one follows. To me this was a great because it set us over closer to Tuckerman’s, not close enough so you were walking on the edge. But close enough so we could see that there was one group of three people that were skiing one section of the ravine and one other person just starting there ski down on the other side from us. This section of the climb had a lot of wind blown snow that made it feel like you were walking on a sandy beach. The only difference is it was not eighty degrees out it was around 0 with out the wind chill. So instead of a bathing suite you were wearing a lot more close, carrying a backpack and wearing mountaineering boots with crampons attached to them. I do have to say the views made all the hard work worth it. When you’re looking down at a ski area and the trails that have been cut into the mountain look like there flat made for cross country skiing not down hill skiing it is amazing.
Climb to Spit Rock
At Split Rock we took another break to take in the views and refuel our bodies for the final push to the summit. At this point both my wife and I were exhausted and we knew it was going to take every bit of energy we had to make it to the summit and back down again. Corey was watching us close and setting a slow comfortable pace for us and keeping us focused on getting to the next rock out cropping. I asked him at Split Rock what his thoughts were and he said he knew we were tired but he thought we had enough left because when he would stop for small breaks while climbing we were not leaning on our climbing pole. So we decided the summit wasn’t that much further and we would push for the summit.
We made it to the summit around 2:30 in the afternoon a marathon 7 hour climb. Our welcoming party at the summit consisted of 40-50 mph winds and a wind chill down near -30 below. We got to watch the clouds blowing in from the west and funnel over the lakes of the clouds hut and into Tuckerman’s were they would immediately dissipate. We tucked into a corner of one of the buildings switched out our North Face shells for our EMS heavy down summiting parkers. With our face masks, goggles, and hoods on we made our way up to the summit sign for pictures. My little flip was still the only one working. I took two quick pictures of my wife standing at the summit and as she walked over to me I took a picture of the other couple. By the time I walked up to the sign to get my picture taken the poor camera froze up and shut down. This took all of about one minute. My wife and the other couple felt horrible that I did not get a picture but I did not care I had gotten what I had come for.
Mount Washington Summit
We headed out from the summit and started our descent a little before 3pm. The descent was uneventful and we reached the ice and rock section as the sun was setting. Corey again set up a rope so we could rappel through this section, which was a new adventure for both my wife and I. Corey’s instruction made it an easy and fun section of the climb for us beginners. After a short hike we were back on the ski trail for a moonlit descent reaching Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at 7pm. That’s right it was an 11.5 hour round trip and according to Corey a new record. The record was not for the shortest climb but the longest. Like Corey said all that matters is we got every one to the summit and back safely.
Exhausted and hungry we made our way to our car absolutely amazed at what we had just experienced. For any hikers out there that would like to climb Mount Washington in the winter I highly recommend it, it is an experience of a life time. I also cannot say enough about Corey and Northeast Mountaineering (www.nemountaineering.com). I know with out his knowledge, calmness, and ability to keep us focused on the next section we would never had made it to the summit. They are true professionals.
Now it is time to start planning our next adventure, I thinking a winter traverse of Franconia Ridge would be great. Maybe making it a two day were we do some winter camping as well.