It's 10.00 pm on Sunday the 19th of February and I am growing worried. I have returned from the Old Red Inn located in North Conway New Hampshire. I have just met Cory and Brett Fitzgerald of Northeast Mountaineering who will be our climbing guides for the next day. On Monday my brother in law Mike, six others and myself are going to attempt to climb Mt. Washington.
The reason we met with the guides from Northeast Mountaineering is to pick up our rental gear. We pick up crampons, parkas, headlamps, gaiters, harness, trekking pools,ice axes, avalanche transceivers, shovel, avalanche probe, and a pair of Asolo 9.5 mountaineering double boots for Mike. All the other gear we have.
I don't need to rent boots. I picked up a pair of Asolo boots on Craigslist from a nice guy in Vancouver. Wore them on a snowy five hour hike thru the Blue Hills Reservation as part of my training. I wore these boots with a weighted backpack on while on my inclined treadmill. Over the preceding two months I have ran, hiked and worked the stairs. Mostly with a weighted pack. All while catching two stomach bugs and three head colds. Now all the training is done and all the gear is ready.
It's 10.00pm the night before the climb and I am back at the vacation house in Conway. I need to be at Pinkham Notch in nine hours. I need to be up in seven. As I pull out my crampons to size them to my boots, I see that the back of my right Asolo has a crack. The closer I look I see that it is not a crack. The boot has totally split. It must have happened in transit. Did I do this when I packed the van? Is the boot usable? It's not! I call Corey's phone. It keeps going to voicemail. Of course it does. Tomorrow will be his forth day straight on the mountain and he and his brother will be in deep sleep by now. I go on line and every place that has boots is shut. I see if anyone on Craigslist is selling boots. I email some guy in North Conway. Now it's 11.15pm. My only option is to try Corey in early morning. If he does not have boots my size laying around then I am sunk and all my hard work will be flushed.
I figured, before the drive up here, that I would be nervous the night before the climb and not be able to sleep. Nervous about the unknown of the climb to come. Now I was in the position of needing a miracle to even start the climb at all. Sleep came easy. I sleep for almost five hours. Up at five and dressed. Grabbed our equipment and out the door. Mike and I head to Dunkin Donuts. We eat. The clock strikes six and I call Corey's phone. It rings once. Brett answers. I tell him my boot issue. He has boots. I am overjoyed.
We get in the car and proceed to take a wrong turn and go 15 minutes in the wrong direction. We figure it all out and arrive at Pinkham Notch at seven sharp. As far as the summit forecast for the day goes. 10 degrees. 45 to 50 mile and hour winds. Blue sky. We go to the visitor center and connect with Northeast Mountaineering. Brett immediately gives me size 10 LaSprotiva boots to try on. They fit great. At this point I would have wore a fourteen and said they fit great. The next while is spent sorting gear. Getting our rental heavy gloves and meeting our fellow climbers. Corey and Brett spend a good amount of time with some of the climbers advising them what layers to wear and how to pack their pack in the most efficient way.
The Summit Push
8am and its time to head out. It's about nineteen degrees out. Cool but once we got going not cold at all. The Ski Trail is our first destination. We pass the avalanche board and we see that the Lion Head Winter Route is open. The next hour is a nice walk. Always up hill. Great views of the mountains peak out from between the trees. It's a busy day on the trail. We see skiers, and other hikers all with various destinations in mind. Most heading up. Some heading down. About half way up the trail we took a ten minute break. Just enough time to drink and eat a little. The welcome packet received when I signed up for the climb left no doubt about how much food and water to bring.
Our next break was at the avalanche cache an hour into our day. Here we got to do something that every adult male wishes they can do just once. Put on crampons and get out an ice axe. We were at the base of the Lion Head Winter trail. Brett had us turn on our avalanche beacons and he dutifully waved his magic receiver over our devices to ensure we were transmitting. Next Corey gave us a lesson in crampon and ice axe use. How to side step up hill. How to lock your legs to help endurance. How to hold your axe and use it when ascending. Then we were informed that after a nice little walk in the woods, things were going to get steep in a big way.
About a quarter way up the steep section of the Lion Head Winter trail we came to the only real technical part of the day. It is about a forty foot climb at about a seventy degree angle. The was a traffic jam when we got to this section. As we waited I could hear a person above me complaining about a guy who was stuck half way up this section because he was not wearing crampons. Then someone far up dropped their ice axe and it came bouncing down. People above me swore up at the offender. Then another climber above fifteen feet above me dropped his snow shoe. I moved over, grabbed it and threw it back up to him. Our guides having seen this before took advantage of an icy area to the right off the jam. One guide climbed up and sent down a top rope. One by one we tied in and climbed up after him. Never really needing the rope but it was nice to be on top rope just in case. Soon all our group was up and passed the traffic jam. For the rest of the day not too many people passed us by.
Lion Head Winter continues to be very steep all the way up to tree line. We used all our newly learned crampon techniques and settled in to a good pace. The higher up you go the trees get shorter. As we approached tree line the wind would now and again race in and give us a first taste of what was to come. Little did I know that the wind I was feeling now was nothing compared to what was to come. About twenty feet below tree line we took a ten minute break to eat lunch and drink. Now the day would begin in earnest.
Corey lead us out above tree line. It was very windy and to our right we could see big snow and ice twisters wandering down Huntington Ravine. Up and up we went and as we hit the Alpine Garden we saw the full view of Tuckerman's Ravine. Our next break saw us switch to heavy gloves, balaclavas, goggles and extra layers.
Brett went on point and began to wand the route. I have read a bunch of mountaineering books so the three foot wands with orange flags on them were familiar to me. These markers would show us our trail when we began our decent. By the time we came back down this way any trace of our footprints would be long gone. The wind! Looks like Brett wanded every fifty feet or so.
At this point I am feeling great and strong. We arrive at the base of the summit cone. Corey explains to us that we are about to set into a steep section of snow. He will break trail and the rest will follow. All the time trying to step into the footprints of the person in front of you to help save some energy. The higher we went the less sun and more cloud there was. The wind really increased as it blew right into our faces. If this was not enough reason to think about stopping.... the hail came. You have not felt hail unless it hits you on a 60+ mph wind.
Split rock would be our next and last stop before the summit. I was chugging along number three in line. About a hundred yards to Split Rock and I was losing power in my legs. I would take two step up and slide three steps back. Conscious of people behind me I stepped aside and waved them past. Then I noticed my goggles icing over big time...on the inside (worth mentioning that at the time I did not realize the lens of the goggle was coming way from the frame). Soon Brett, the last man in line, had made his way up to me. He reminded me how to kick steps into the snow and encouraged me to get going. Soon I too was at Split Rock. Wind, hail, cold and much decreased visibility. But we could still see into the distance and nothing ominous was in the weather forecast.
I made a mistake at this point. Not wanting to hold up the group I skipped my water break. As the group moved forward I found myself again three in line as we made the final push to the summit. The higher we went, the worse the wind and hail got. Straight into the wind and by now my goggle were so frozen I could see nothing except blur. Struggling to see and with energy fading I moved to the side and waited for the trailing guide. I think at this point I was about 200 feet from the summit. Corey arrived and asked where I was feeling it. I said "everywhere, plus I can't see anything". It was time to remove the goggles. It made a big difference but it did expose me to some frost nip above my right eye. Under Corey's instruction I got into a pace of ten steps up...quick break...ten steps up.. quick break. At one point I noticed that I could still see the main group. This made me feel better that I was not too far back. I was just going from rock to rock, cairn to cairn. Soon we hit the auto road. I remember being silly and looking both ways before I crossed the street. As we did a gust of I don't know what slammed us and knocked us down...I can still hear the hail thundering off the avalanche shovel on my back. Up on our feet and across the road to the shelter of the Adams building. We are all at the summit. Two guides and eight clients. All quietly happy, drained and drinking.
We all dropped our packs and headed to the summit sign. The wind at this point was nuts. The guides told us all to stay close..this was not possible. At the summit sign it was all the eight of us could do to stand and say cheese. We did and got back to the Adams building.
It was really cold..we are at the summit from 2.30 to 3.00. Later I emailed the Observatory and got these weather stats for the 30 minutes we were on the summit.
"I took a look back at the weather during the time you were on the summit, approx. 2:30-3 pm. During this time period, the average temperature was a chilly 1F, with winds
from the NW at 62 mph. The peak gust during this half-hour period was to 83mph at 2:55 p.m. There was also plenty of blowing snow and freezing fog, reducing visibility to 1/16 mile (or approx. 200 feet) on the summit."
By three we were all ready to go. Our guides gave us a lecture on where we were and why on the way down you do NOT
want to fall, twist and ankle or buckle a knee. After my food, water and hot chocolate (provided by the guides) I felt like a new man. Now I began to work muscles that had been out of action since 8am. I felt like I could descend all day. Always watching where I stepped...wind at our backs pushing us down. As the time went by so did the Alpine Garden. Lower down on Lion Head the wind was really howling. Being above the tree line for so long was starting to take its toll and I could not wait to dive back into the tree line. Soon enough we were there. We were the last group to summit and we saw nobody else on the way down.
With about an hour of daylight left we headed down the steep sections of the Lion Head Winter route. Slow going....tired legs making sure of our steps. At our "Top Rope" section we rappelled down. Soon we were back on the Ski Trail for the walk back down to Pinkham Notch. Using headlamps for the last hour.
Great experience....great guiding company.
This is the link to the video. For some reason this is not showing as a hyperlink so you will need to copy and paste the below link.
Wrap it up - tips
Sorry about the lack of pictures. Everything was frozen. It was so cold that anytime hands were out of gloves it was pretty painful. Especially when your finger tips warmed back up. I hope you enjoy the video. It is a great look at how we moved thru the Alpine Garden. Looking back on this I am still shocked that I summited Mount Washington on the first real hike of my life.
When you think you have trained hard enough for this trip..... train more. Start at least 10 weeks in advance and shut down one full week before your climb.
Your pack on climb day will be about 25 pounds. 5 will be water. When training on stairs your pack should be 40 pounds.
Budget your water. 1 liter on way up. 1 liter on way down.
In your pack your food will freeze solid. Plan ahead and your next snack needs to be placed near your body so you can easily eat it when the next break comes.
For me trail mix was hard to eat since I had to take my gloves off to eat. In winter just bring Snickers instead of trail mix. This way you can keep your gloves on and keep your heat in.
Have 2 sets of goggles. Plan on the fact that one will freeze over. They are light to pack and trust me. Seeing is everything.
Use a guide the first several times you do this in winter.
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