This winter Sue and I joined up with two friends, Randall and Allan, to climb in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington. We drove down from Canada and stayed at the fabulous School House Motel. The following morning we drove out to the AMC Visitor's Center at Pinkham Notch and followed the trail in to the Harvard Cabin hauling our packs and a small sled each for the ride out. The day was unseasonably hot given the mild winter all over Canada and the US and after two hours we were at the cabin. After claiming our sleeping spots and cutting wood for the evening (you can have a fire between 4-9 PM) we started gearing-up for the next day.
The following morning we enjoyed a good breakfast and left the cabin carrying two 60M Beal ice lines, 8 screws, 2 pickets and a small alpine rack. The weather had turned colder and the wind chill was a cool -47F. We walked into Huntingtion Ravine following the Huntington Ravine trail until we reached the "Fan" leading to the base of several gully climbs. We ascended the Fan, a low angle section of snow and ice, to the base of Yale Gully. As planned Randall and Allan would climb Diagonal, a committment grade II, NEI 2 route, to the top and descend the Escape Hatch, a shallow snow gully. Sue and I planned to climb Yale Gully, committment grade II, NEI 2-3, and descend the same route. However, after reaching the base of Yale Gully a group vote was taken and due to the cold weather we returned to the cabin as the weather forecast for the following day was for warmer temperatures and less wind.
The Next Day or The Beginning of Another Epic
The following day turned out just as predicted and we left the cabin a little later to allow it to warm up. Outfitted with the same gear and an avalanche report that was moderate we again headed into Huntington Ravine. The day was beautiful as we ascended the Fan to the base of the first ice slab where we enjoyed a nice break in light winds. Randall and Allan then began to ascend the Diagonal while Sue and I pitched it out in Yale Gully. After the first pitch we lost sight of Randall and Allan due to the terrain.
The Weather Turns
The first pitch in Yale is relatively easy ascending low angle ice and snow. Since this was our first time in the gully I began the climb making sure I had placed solid anchors of either equalized screws or a well placed picket and belay bucket depending on the terrain. The second pitch grew steeper and the ice more plentiful but still not difficult. Being overly cautious when climbing with Sue (I worry when I really shouldn't) I again used equalized screws and belayed her up instead on simul-climbing with protection. Nearing the end of the second pitch the weather started to turn and the wind began to increase making communication difficult. When I called out to find out how much rope I had left it was difficult to hear one another and, so, some of my leads were a tad short increasing the overall number we would have to make. On a good note Sue and I had worked out a system of "rope-tugs" to let each other know when the leader was secure and when the second could begin climbing that seemed to work well.
Even though the weather looks bad in a few pictures we had fairly good visibility and it wasn't too cold so we decided to continue. I was leading each pitch with Sue following but her hands were getting colder at each belay. We put on our Primaloft jackets and decided it was better to continue to the top and walk off rather than rappel off of V-threads (although that would have been fun). Up we continued through three or four more pitches as the day grew darker and communication got worse. Some of my pitches were again short as I sought out good belays for Sue where I wouldn't pummel her with ice instead of pitching it out. The slope got steeper and the ice harder making for slower progress. We hurried each pitch but still remained within my comfort zone. When it turned dark enough for headlamps we were a pitch from the top. At the top of the ravine I belayed Sue and only saw her headlamp when she was 20 feet away. We rested at the top of the ravine in high winds, falling snow and pitch dark coiling our ropes and stashing everything for the walk down.
A Long Night or "Happy Valentine's Day"
Glad to be out of the gully Sue and I started heading towards Tuckerman Ravine. Although it was dark Sue and I had both been on the mountain several times before and felt confident we could find the Lion Head trail to descend. We opted for this trail as we were not familiar with the Escape Hatch and did not want to attempt it in the dark. We followed the rim of Huntington Ravine for what felt was a very long time in the howling wind and snow but it wasn't that cold. I was amused by the fact that we were on the deadliest mountain in the US (140+ deaths) in the night walking around in the Alpine Garden when a lot of climbers have difficulty getting to the summit on a good day! We continued along until we hit a trail which I assumed was the Lion Head trail. Following the trail it began to increase in slope which I soon realized was not something the Lion Head trail did on this part of the mountain. We left the trail and again began moving towards Tuckerman Ravine which we could barely make out the headwall of in the moonlight. Since the weather was getting worse we decided to descend the mountain early to get out of the wind angling towards what should have been the Lion Head trail but soon found ourselves waist deep in snow falling through spruce-traps. Deciding this was not the way to go we pulled out our map and decided to climb back up and over to a cataract to follow thinking there would be less trees. There were less all right but the cataract had a slight waterfall which stopped our descent. Sue found a good fallen tree to make a snow cave under and we were prepared to snuggle in until morning but we knew our friends would be worried so we continued on. We re-ascended about 400-500 feet and continued through the low brush until we happened upon the trail at 10:00 PM. An hour later we were back at the cabin where the caretaker and Randall had kept the fire going for us after hours, thanks guys. We had a big drink of water, a hot meal and some chocolate before jumping in our bags. Sue told me on the way back to the cabin that she thought it was the best climb we had ever done together and had a blast. Happy Valentine's Day dear.
The Descent and The Moral of the Story
Although we had other objectives for the following day we all decided to leave the mountain and spend a few days ice climbing at Frankenstein Cliff. The descent was a blast as we all rode our sleds down the Tuckerman Ravine trail almost to the bottom. Allan bruised his tail bone when his cheap Wally World sled broke after hitting a chuck of ice and he had to walk the rest of the way down in shame. Sue was a little nervous this time as the additional weight of her alpine gear increased her speed exponentially. And Randall used the infamous head-first method until he came to an abrupt halt in a little ditch and I laughed my ass off!
What's the moral of the story? We left a little late, misjudged how icy the climb was and how long it would take. We brought 3-LED lamps on a technical climb when a combo light would have been much more useful. But we were prepared with our thick jackets, warm mitts and could have slept out on the mountain if need be. We didn't panic and learned a lot from our experience. It reminds me of a saying in Mark Twight's book Extreme Alpinism:
"Good judgement is the result of experience, while an "experience" is the result of poor judgement".
Couldn't have said it better myself.