This story is a bit late in coming. However, since I'm currently an undergrad, time seems to be a luxury I cannot afford... at least until the semester ends. Anyways, this story is one that has certainly humbled me as an amateur climbing enthusiast. When I discovered trad climbing a few years back, I was incredibly eager to learn as much as I could and hit up the local New England crags as soon as possible. I got the literature, the equipment, and some instruction; I even spent part of january climbing in the Tahoe area. But I would soon learn that without incredibly intensive training, empiricism would end up teaching you in a way that will leave your adrenaline rushing whenever you think about your... well, let's just call it an incident. I always took stock and was aware of the adage that warns that people of my age are prone to doing very reckless things because they think that they are invincible. I was aware that trad climbing is an inherently risky sport. However, before my run-in on Mount Washington, I did not fully appreciate the necessity of preparing with incessant hands-on practice. Theoretical knowledge is certainly great, but I learned that you need to get the all-important muscle memory--knowing how to build anchors, manage ropes, and manage your climbing party inside out, with your hands behind your back, in your sleep, etc. Anyways, enough with the preachiness and on with the actual story...
Jump Back about 7 Months
Out at the university I go to, there is a surprisingly strong climbing community on campus. Cornell has an outing club, a climbing club, and a university-backed outdoor program. All of this is surprising since the nearest solid crag is the Gunks, 3.5 hours away. But a dormmate and I were climbing wall buddies. We would constantly head over to the school wall and really push ourselves on hard toprope routes (weirdly, the university decided to prohibit lead climbing at the wall about 10 years ago). The two of us started talking about outdoor climbing and the possibility of doing it this summer along with her, Jen's, sister (Stephanie). They were gym rats; their idea of an approach to a crag was driving and parking in a climbing gym's parking lot and walking inside to the wall. I, however, was set on converting them to becoming outdoor climbers. I had 'rehabbed' myself from being a gym rat to an outdoor climber with a little lead experience and a lot of toprope anchor setting at a local granite quarry back home. I told them how satisfying it would be for them to get their hands on real rock. I didn't doubt my friend's or her sister's ability to climb difficult routes. They both had pulled off 5.12b's at the gym. So I convinced Jen that we could potentially try something up in the White's over summer break. She half-enthusiastically, half-grudgingly agreed. She was a self-proclaimed 'climbing princess' who was a not a fan of long, sweaty summer approaches to the wall. But the dates were roughly set for sometime in late June or early July. I then set out to do everything in the power of a poor college student to become a strong lead climber... or what I thought constituted a strong lead climber at the time (RED FLAG #1).
The Lead-up to the Incident
After a few phone conversations, Jen and her sister decided to meet me at my cousin's house up in the Waterville Valley area. By then, I had taken a few leading clinics, read a bunch of climbing literature, and had practiced setting up anchors in my backyard (there's a lot of stone back there). As you can probably, tell by know, I was setting myself up for a situation that is, as the military calls it, FUBAR. So Jen and Stephanie decided to come up to the house just before the July 4th holiday. We'd go climbing and/or peakbagging, snag a summit and a few sweet routes, and then head home for some quality July 4th barbecue. So I packed a daypack with food, a warm layer, 3 liters of water stowed in a Platypus bag, and the climbing gear and prepped to leave. Very soon thereafter, Jen and Stephanie showed up, and when I went out to greet them, I saw what I should have realized was Red Flag #2. They emerged from their car wearing athletic shorts, tank tops, trail runners, and school packs. Initially, my risk evaluation sense did spike a bit... but in my stupidity, I thought "We've got this. I've been practicing, and they're strong climbers. We'll be fine." Nope, we wouldn't be in just a few short hours.
So we all clambered into my car and headed out. We had researched either climbing at Cathedral up in Conway or Huntington Ravine's Central Buttress on Mount Washington. We all decided on Washington. The two sisters were now actually kind of eager to climb a mountain the hard way and return to their local gym with some bragging rights. After much winding along the Kancamagus Highway, we arrived in North Conway, snagged a few last-minute supplies at EMS and headed for the mountain. By the late morning, we were standing in the parking lot of the Pinkham notch visitor's center with the mass of both Tuckerman's and Huntington's Ravine looming over us like two giants tempting us into their clutch.
Heading up Mount Washington
We hit Tuck's trail hard and fast. Despite the occasional complaint from Stephanie and Jen about how much they hated being so sweaty, we trudged up the trail at a pretty brisk pace.
Jen even decided to call her boyfriend, who was at a summer training camp run by the Marines to tel him the badass thing she was about to try to do. We were certainly all anticipating what lay ahead of us. However, none of us were truly prepared for what we would get ourselves into on the Central Buttress.
Tuck's Trail was packed. It was a veritable highway filled with families, recreational hikers, and even a guy with skis who said there was still some skiable snow up in a portion of Tuck's itself. Our party got a bit of a false morale booster when a hiker, even more ill-prepared than my friends and I were, stumbled up to us and asked it she could look at our map. She had gotten sick and had fallen behind her friends, who were headed up to Tuck's. She was attempting to catch up to them with only some cross trainers, some small snacks, and a very low water supply. she thanked us and continued stumbling up the large stones that make up Tuck's Trail. The three of us looked at each other wide-eyed, seemingly thinking the same thing: "Damn, I'm glad I'm not her." With a slightly inflated senses of what was attainable, we headed farther up Tuck's Trail until the trail for Huntington Ravine broke off from the main trail.
Surprisingly, Huntington's trail is a radical departure from the broad, highway-like avenue of Tuck's trail. Huntington's trail is very narrow, highly uneven, and crosses the river above the Crystal Cascade 3 times. With all of the people on Tuck's I was surprised that, while on Huntington's, we saw no other hikers or climbers. It was just the three of us pushing on through the woods towards our big objective: they large grey mass in the distance that made up the Central Buttress. I kept checking my watch incessantly.
We were making decent time, but we would not get onto the wall by about 2 pm. My nerves began racking me more and more, as I realized the truly enormous scale of what i was undertaking. I was, in essence, in charge of two other climbers who had never done a trad climb. Even worse, I was armed with minimal equipment, meaning that everything was going to have to go smoothly for us to make the summit. Although these thoughts began running through my mind the closer we got to the Ravine's entrance, I kept a very relaxed, somewhat professional demeanor. I wanted my friends to feel that what they were doing wasn't insane... and I was also trying to convince myself of the same thing simultaneously.
Into the Ravine and the Up into Trouble
We finally emerged from the trees at the base of the headwall and below a huge boulder field.
Now, both the Pinnacle Buttress and the Central Buttress stood before us with their enormous scale. I started making silent promises to myself that if everything went smoothly, I would never again do anything considered 'ridiculously stupid' for the rest of my adult life. Clearly, that was something that was not going to become a reality. We pushed through the boulder field and finally ended up at the base of the Central Buttress, at which point we stopped for a quick lunch and suited up and prepared for what would turn out to be a complete fail.
I began on the sharp end and chose a spot that I thought would be manageable: three pitches of some challenging climbing up the buttress before an emergence onto a class 3 section of boulder scrambling out of Huntington's Ravine and into the Alpine Gardens. Jen flaked out my rope and I began climbing up the wall. Immediately, I knew we were getting into trouble. I had trained on lengthy routes in the gym, but now I had to not only hang at a hold for a long period of time to place a piece of protection, I had to do so while negotiating a 20-25 lbs. backpacks, making every move harder.
About halfway up the first pitch, I had placed very little protection, determined to get to the first belay ledge and get the hard climbing over with as quickly as possible. However, as I tried pulling myself up onto a small ledge at the bottom of a small dihedral, my left foot, which was bearing most of my weight and saving my quickly tiring arms, stepped on a small patch of wet grass and lichen. Instantly, my feet came off the wall. the added weight of the pack generated too much forced for my tiring arms to hold onto in such small holds. I plummeted. I was very high above my last piece, so the fall was large. I had never experienced a fall of that size before... and hopefully I won't have to for a very long time... if ever again. As I look back on it, the only thing really that prevented me from a pretty hefty ground fall was a #10 Black Diamond nut. Amazingly, everything held. the nut sunk further into the crack, and the rope and belayer caught me for a soft fall. The initial shock was startling, but I realized that we would need an easier way up the wall. So i picked and easier route and brought my friends up to the first belay station. Indeed, the summer days meant that we had the luxury of more daylight to help us complete the climb. However, it was already getting into the late afternoon around 4:30 pm. The winds began to pick up at the first belay station and the shadows began growing long, since Huntington's is on the east side of Mount Washington. I began to think of what I was going to do, now that we were in a pretty serious cluster****. We were on the Central Buttress, running out of daylight, and dealing with three tired, inexperienced, adrenaline-ridden climbers.
I looked out and saw another climber over on the Pinnacle Buttress. He saw me, but all I did was wave, still thinking that I could scrape this outing out successfully by the skin of my teeth. I climbed harder and farther up the buttress, eventually pulling myself over a huge block that I knew was going to get funky for the Jen and Stephanie. the holds were small and I nearly fell off of it trying to place a tricam in a crack (the tricam ended up popping out). I suddenly felt my rope go tight. I new I had some minorly awkward placements that could create rope drag, but this was odd. I called out to my friends to pay out more rope, only to hear them yell back that I was at the end of the rope... From one terrible thing to the next. I was about 12 feet below a monstrous ledge that would have provided an amateur like me plenty of places to set up a belay ledge. However, being in the situation I was in, I was relegated to a tiny sketchy ledge. I set up the best anchor I could and began pulling in rope as my friends ascended towards me. When they got to the point at which I knew they would have to climb the block, my fears were realized. I kept pulling in rope, but I suddenly was yanked forward as jen fell off the block. I could feel everything in my anchor tighten, and my adrenaline immediately shot up. Jen and Stephanie each tried to conquer the block, but to no avail. They kept falling, and the rope kept taking a beating as it kept kinking over the sharp granite at the corner of the massive block.
After multiple tries and a hyperventilating freak-out session by Stephanie, Jen yelled up to me that neither of them could overtake the block. They couldn't reach me at the belay station. So there we were: a climbing party of three on the Central Buttress, running low on daylight and energy. I was trying to disaster manage the best I could, thinking of the best and safest option to put an end to this trip. At this point, there was no easy way back down to terra firma in the Ravine. I knew that descending the block was crazy, if I fell, I would most like groundfall back to the base of the first pitch. From where i was on the wall, the only feasible way was out. Jen was clearly and rightly worried. She called out to me and asked what we were going to do. I told her where we stood. I told her that I would fall if I tried to descend back over the big block. I took a deep breath and told her the only thing I could think of was to climb out on my own and get help for her both by phone and at the summit. She ans Stephanie were afraid of the idea because their phones were low on battery and the signal in the Ravine was shoddy at best. But we agreed it was the best thing we could do given our circumstances. For me however, I faced another daunting prospect. I had jettisoned most of by gear back to Jen and Stephanie back at the base of the block on the previous pitch. My already tiny climbing rack was now nearly devoid of significant protection and a rope. The solution off the buttress was singular but scary: I was going to have to free solo to get myself out of this mess. At the same time, I realized free soloing could put me into the greatest mess of all: falling off the wall and killing myself.
Half fueled by fear and half fueled by the desire to get my friends home safely, I grasped the holds on the wall and continued out towards the top. I am normally not a praying person. In fact, I am not religious at all. However, I found myself asking for help from whatever greater force there might be. I ascended higher and higher and finally looked down and nearly had my heart leap into my throat. I was way the hell above the Ravine's floor, any mistake would be one from which I could most likely never bounce back. As i look back on it, I used the adrenaline to fuel the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. Rather than thinking about my climbing technique and carefully conserving energy to make it out of Huntington's, I instead powered my way through the remaining pitch, as I wanted to just get the hell out of there as fast as I could.
I am not sure how long it took me to finally pull myself up into the Alpine Gardens.
My climbing muscles were completely burnt. I had smashed up my shins and knees on the final pitch out of the Ravine. To compound my problems, I expended a massive amount of energy free soloing out, and now I had now water left to keep me going. I ended up in a slope filed with with scree. Unfortunately, the summit weather station was still nowhere in sight. Instead, another large slope marked with cairns proceeded up and over it. I was running low on both mental and physical resources, and I knew I it. Speed was the only thing that could make everything have a happy anding at this point. I began clambering up the scree and I spotted the Mount Washington auto road on the ridge just ahead of me, and I began ascending towards it.
My feet soon began to ache enormously as I was still wearing my climbing shoes. So I stopped for a moment to breathe and change shoes. Unfortunately, my hiking boots, which were tied down to the outside of pack, had a knot that had cinched down hard during the climb up the Central Buttress. With my hands shaking I went to remove the knot. As my hands latched around the knot itself, I froze. Due to dehydration and a few hours worth of adrenaline, my hands locked down around the boots' knot and I was unable to open up my hands again. It was as if someone was forcefully holding both hands in a the formation of two lame fists. My heart rate elevated again as i desperately tried to reopen each of my hands. I ended up pushing the top knuckles together and held my hands in a yoga-like prayer pose for a minute, and, to my relief, they remained open. I went to untie the boots again, and I could feel my hands starting tense again and reform the fists. But, I was able to untie and retie the boots on my feet before my hands locked down again. With more comfortable boots, I headed up the auto road and made a frantic call to my parents. Even on the summit ridge, the reception on my cell phone was sketchy. I sheltered the mouthpiece from the increasing wind and tried to tell my family, as calmly as I could to quickly call the local ranger service for help, which they promptly did. My parents later told me that they sprouted a few more grey hairs when they got my phone call.
From the summit ridge, I could see the sun was getting lower on the horizon, and daylight was running out for Jen and Stephanie back on the Central Buttress. I had stellar views of the rest of the Presidential Range, and I foolishly tried to pull out my camera, thinking a commemoration of this day would either be a memory to look back upon and learn from or fodder for one of those juvenile scared straight programs. Without even looking I pushed the button on my camera as I continued to run up the ridge towards the summit.
Grabbing the camera was a stupid idea. Instantly, my hands locked down again. To compound the problems with my hands, upon stopping to try and fix them, both of my quads locked into place. Leaving me stiff legged with closed hands. For a moment, I was immobile, and I feared that if I attempted to move anything else, those parts of my body would freeze up too, leaving me completely incapacitated near the summit of Mount Washington. I wrestled with my extremities for a few minutes before I was able to free them and continue up the mountain.
Finally, the summit weather station came into view. I began flailing my helmet above my head, calling out to get someone's attention. I had been doing that ever since I got up into the Alpine Garden.
However, since it was so late in the day, there were no hikers or climbers around to hear me. The sight of the weather station gave me a morale boost. I finally had a goal in sight. I pushed forward and eventually crossed the cog railway tracks.
I made it to the summit of Mount Washington via Huntington Ravine... but definitely not in the way I expected. I attempted to soak up as much of the view as I could.As a looked around, I spotted a lone late day hiker was sitting over at the picnic table outside the weather station cafeteria entrance. I ran over to him, thinking he was someone with the ranger service. He just looked at me sideways, wondering why there was a panting, sweaty, wild-eyed, blabbering college student trying to get his attention. I looked over toward the cafeteria entrance and saw a man in a green vest emerge from the double doors, and I ran towards him and eventually got his attention. He saw me and brought me into the station. I was clearly out of energy and stricken with fear, as I remember the man, Bill, telling me to relax and slow down for a minute. He brought me behind the desk and sat me down. I shed my gear and told him that I desperately needed something to refuel. He disappeared into the cafeteria and came back with a sandwich and two waters, everything of which I finished in under 5 minutes.
Bill looked at me and said my friends were okay. Jen and Stephanie ended up getting a call through to emergency services who then redirected the two sisters to the ranger service on the mountain. Conveniently... if you can even apply that word here... there were some crew members already on the mountain who had gone out for a hike earlier in the day. The rangers were able to redirect them to Huntington's from the location somewhere on Tuck's trail. My friends were okay, but still stranded on the Buttress in the Ravine. It would take at least a few hours for the climbers to get to jen and Stephanie and bring them back down to the visitor's center. By this time, my head had cleared in large part, and I began to assess what I would do when I got home; how I would explain the whole incident to my parents; how I would explain it to Stephanie's and Jen's parents. I was interrupted form my thoughts by Bill, who said he could give me a ride in his truck back down to the visitor's center. I climbed into his truck, fully expecting to get some sort of lecture on knowing one's ability in matters as serious as climbing. Surprisingly, he was pleasant. He told me that incidents on Washington were fairly common because of its draw on non-outdoorsy folk who visit the area. In fact, he said my incident would most likely be small in the whole scheme of annual incidents on the mountain since the crew sent to assist my friends would only be one or two guys at most. My fears allayed, I sat back in the seat and waited for our arrival back at the visitors center. By the time we reached to parking lot, it was pitch black, the only lights in the area coming from the visitor's center and lodges next door.
Clean-Up Crew and Closing up Loose Ends
I went back into the visitor's center and was greeted by the head of the local ranger service who brought me into the cafeteria to fill out an incident report. I gave him everything I knew about the incident, and I began to grit my teeth as i waited for a response about how much this whole kerfuffle would cost me. To my amazement, he told me that it would most likely not cost me anything, as the ranger service did not have to deploy extra teams or equipment to get Jen and Stephanie from their perch up on the Buttress. the guys who went out for them were already out there and had their gear at the ready. I felt surprised at the lack of anger and disappointment coming from those surrounding me. They seemed surprisingly cool and understanding. I, on the other hand, was beating myself up inside for not picking up on the numerous red flags leading up to the incident. I knew I would have a lot to work on if I wanted to be a truly great outdoor leader. But at that moment, I decided to put those thoughts aside and simply wait for my friends to return to the base of the mountain. I felt bad for them. Not only did I deny them a wonderful summit opportunity, but I also probably made them more averse to outdoor climbing than they were before.
After ruminating in the cafeteria for a while. I made my way out into the shop of the visitor's center and sat down on a ledge. I looked down at by legs. They were battered, dented, bruised, and, in places, caked with dried blood. I didn't care. Tomorrow would be a new day and I would deal with it then. The visitor's center eventually closed, and my friends were still not down off the mountain. One of the employees offered to stay with me unti my friends returned, but I declined, saying I didn't want to keep him there. I moved outside, and sat on the patio surrounding the center. Two men smoking cigars and drinking some beer saw me and started a bit of conversation. I tried to be as cordial as possible but I honestly was ready to just head home. By midnight, Jen, Stephanie, and the guys on the rescue team were stil not down off the trail, and the two guys I talked to decided to turn in for the night. I sat alone outside the visitor's center. It was truly a point at which my brain decided to turn off and not think for a while. I had information and sensory overload during the entire day, and my brain had declared enough. It needed to rest. Eventually, fatigue began to creep up on me and I retreated into the entrance of Joe Dodge lodge, eventually falling asleep until about 1:15 am, sleeping on the floor with my head up against my backpack. I woke up briefly and resolved that I should find a more comfortable place to sleep in the lodge's living room. Before I could leave the atrium, I spotted my friends emerging from around the corner of the visitor's center. We all rushed to each other, checking if we were all okay. I was fully expecting to get chewed out or even hit in the face by either of the sisters for getting them into such a mess. Though they were visibly worn out and a bit shaken, they actually laughed and forgave me. For both of them, everything was apparently remedied by a really good-looking dude on the rescue team. Jen and Stephanie got to spend a few hours with him on the descent, so they were feeling quite good. The rangers brought us inside to make one final phone call to our families to tell them we were fine and were headed home. By about 2:00 am, we were back in my car. After caffeinating at a local gas station in North Conway, we drove slowly through the dark mountain roads of the Whites and eventually returned to my cousin's house, ready to put this day to rest. I could tell my parents were visibly annoyed, at the very least. However at 3:15 am, they were too tired and too emotionally spent to really chew me out. They instead told me that they would see to it that they would help me out to get more training... anything to keep me from getting into the same situation again.
Everyone turned in for the night. Jen and Stephanie ended up staying with us until the next morning, when they returned home. Nobody was hurt in the making of this mountaineering adventure. But it certainly left both my friends and I with a greater respect for mountains. It's funny, really. I have heard from climbers and mountaineers about the respect they have for the power of mountains, and I thought I was showing the same respect, too. Apparently, it was, before this Mount Washington mishap, in word only. I suppose the mountains decided that I had to be taught the hard way before I could climb a mountain successfully and with the proper reverence with which I must approach a climb.
As an endnote, I am still climbing. I have since hired guides, taken courses, and widened my network within the climbing community. Oh, and I finally have a true alpine rack ;P, which I am hoping to use on Mount Whitney.