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Mt. Washington

by: Brandon Behymer

Bryan and myself recently returned from a winter ascent of Mt. Washington (wiki link).  Known for having some of the worst weather in North America and the fastest recorded wind speed ever, the highest peak in New Hampshire’s reputation stands much higher than its actual elevation of 6,288 feet. Having done some winter mountaineering out west prior to this trip, I never thought much of it. How demanding could a mountain under half the elevation of Colorado’s highest peak be?  Fairly demanding it turns out.

We departed Cincinnati at 5:30am on Tuesday, February 6.  Groggy, and excited to be on the road, we started off with a few podcasts in a futile attempt to keep our minds occupied during the ‘too early for conversation’ hours of the morning.  Bryan drove for the first six hours through light snow and fog.  We started calling his wife’s Honda Accord the Magic Carpet since every time one of us looked at the gas gauge, it appeared that it hadn’t moved. And yes, we borrowed his wife’s car because neither of ours will make it confidently out of the tri-state area. I’m curious to find out when the stench of four of the most outrageously smelly feet attached to ankles will finally dissipate to a tolerable level in that Magic Carpet. Sorry Laura…

After paying our tolls through Pennsylvania we passed through a small portion of New York, through Hartford, around Boston, and up into New Hampshire.  Tuesday night was spent in great company at the friend of a friend’s cabin on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. Going over maps and forecasts at the dinner table while exchanging stories reminded me that the feeling of home has a lot to do with the company kept there, and the cabin quickly felt comfortable and warm. The view the following morning was incredible, and I can only imagine the good times had on the lake both winter and summer.  In fact, Wednesday morning a brave soul driving a Chevy Silverado went barreling across the frozen surface of the lake, presumably to an ice fishing shack, at a speed indicative of their lack of confidence in the thickness of the ice.

Bryan and myself were eager to get closer to Mt. Washington and decided that with the impending snow storm, reaching Harvard cabin (Harvard cabin website) early Wednesday afternoon would be the best course of action.  Snow began to fall just as we lost cell phone reception on the drive into the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.  It didn’t stop for the next twelve hours.  Our hosts from the night before accompanied us on the snowshoe hike up to Harvard cabin and then turned back to the vehicles, leaving Bryan and me to enjoy the 14-degree cabin, soaking wet from the steep hike up Huntington Ravine Trail.  We began building the fire promptly at 3:55 joking about how rebellious both of us were being for ‘ignoring’ the sign hung discreetly and directly over the wood burning stove saying that no fire shalt be built prior to 4pm.  The fire gods would punish us immediately for our haste.  The cabin filled rapidly with wood smoke, to the point of me opening the doors, fearing smoke inhalation issues.  Later that evening, a caretaker from the Hermit Lake cabin stopped by to check on the cabin. Upon walking in her only greeting was “Holyshit, you guys have clearly never seen a wood burning stove before”, and then demonstrated how not to kill everyone from asphyxiation overnight.

Five other men joined us in the cabin Wednesday night, two from Atlanta, their guide, and two hardcore skiers from Canada.  Like camp in forty below zero with a smile kind of hardcore.  We had a couple beers and entertained each other with stories of past travels to the hills and some goals we had for future adventures.  I could tell Bryan was getting tired, sitting quietly with a beer in hand is a sure sign of his exhaustion. As for myself, I wasn’t far behind.  Being lulled to sleep by the wind in a 65-degree cabin is not a difficult thing to do.  The guide and his two clients rose at 6am and were out the door by 7.  Bryan and I opted for a later start time to avoid the high winds in the morning forecast. At 10 below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50mph wind, any exposed skin would be frostbitten in 10 minutes.  It feels as if Mother Nature is trying to cut capicola ham from the flesh of your cheeks, under the bottom edge of the sunglass lens, and above the top of the buff protecting your nose and lips.

While the normal winter route isn’t very difficult, little more than a walk up past the Lion’s Head feature and on to the summit cone, the cold and wind are relentless. We left the cabin at 10:30am and snowshoed as far as we could before we put on our crampons. I stopped above Bryan on the slope and repeatedly pushed fresh powdery snow that had accumulated the night before down onto him and his pack.  Only one of us found this lightly entertaining.  Shortly after the crampon comedy we ascended a steep section of trail where both piolet and crampons are required. This section was quite fun and reminded me of how much I enjoyed climbing ice a few years ago in Colorado.  The next bit of trail extends up through the tree line, where the wind really picked up and leads to an outcrop of large rocks supposedly resembling the head of a lion. Neither of us saw the resemblance but the outcrop was impressive in its own right.

From here you can see the summit and exhaust pipes of the weather observatory, the current one taking weather readings every day since 1932.  Mt Washington is the first mountain I’ve summited that the summit looked as far away as it actually was.  No deception here.  2 miles give or take and 2 hours of biting winds and bitter cold.  Honestly it wouldn’t have taken quite as long had it not been for a cleverly placed cairn, on the far corner of a steep snow field that we both failed to see.  Instead we opted to follow two skiers and their skins tracks across the Alpine Gardens, post holing the ENTIRE way, and then up a very steep snow field about 200 meters from the proper route.  Several times along this poor choice of a route we stopped to laugh and take in the discomfort that our lack of observation skills had brought us.  Discomfort would have found us either way. Blaming ourselves only took the attention off the wind cutting our faces and the steepness of the snow field.

We reached the summit at 2:30 Thursday afternoon, and a goal that’s been on my mind for three years had been accomplished.  Both of us were pretty spent by the time we summited.  I had to cajole Bryan the last 400 feet to the top and that was about all that kept me going.  There is a familiar and exotic feeling about being above the clouds, on the highest point in sight in any direction.  Explaining it is difficult.  I tend to get a bit emotional and existential when standing atop a summit.  Why did I come here?  Why would anyone come here?  Is this what an outsiders’ perspective of Earth would look like? It’s so cold. I’m so tired.  My face hurts.

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Starting down is an exercise of patience for me. I want to stay at the top to admire the beauty.  The cold convinces me otherwise.  Knees protest the increased force of gravity.  Crampons pierce the fabric of my softshell pants and I stumble several paces forward, cursing loudly at my own coordination. Attention to detail must be at an elevated level.  My attention descended faster than my feet.

There are two other options to ascend to the summit and both require more technical skills than Bryan or myself currently have; however, after this trip I hope to become confident in those skills to climb the Ravines next winter.

We make it back down to the cabin at 4:30, after two hours of walking and glissading and laughing hysterically from the joy of sledding down the hill on our butts, trying to stop before colliding with an unfortunately placed rock or tree.  Once back inside the safety of the cabin we got the fire roaring and the interior heated up to 70 degrees by the time the second of our three dinners had been devoured (about an hour). I will absolutely have a wood burning stove in the house I build someday.

 

Want another perspective? Check out Louie’s Mt. Washington blog here.

The White Mountains: Mt. Washington

by Louie “Sunshine” Knolle

Greetings and salutations from New England to all of you RRT dudes and dudettes out there in the cybersphere! This is Loubear Sassafras (one of many RRT alums) checking in with some winter adventures that I was able to enjoy this past January and February. The topic for discussion today is Mt. Washington, located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. For those who have not heard of this beast of a mountain, allow me to elucidate the finer details of this wonderful place. Mt. Washington is the highest peak in the northeastern United States at 6,288 feet, Wikipedia even goes so far as to label it the most “prominent” peak in all of the eastern US due to its altitude relative to the land around it. Don’t worry peak purists, Mt. Mitchell is still the highest peak east of the Mississippi, but I digress. Washington is home to some of the worst alpine weather in the world. In 1934 the Mount Washington Observatory observed a recorded wind speed of 231 mph! That’s more than 3 times the minimum for hurricane force wind. The official record low temperature for the summit is -50 degree Fahrenheit and that was without accounting for windchill! There have been wind chills of 140 degrees below zero. Even as I’m writing this my mind is riding the boggle bus. Due to its location, Mt. Washington is at a confluence of many major air streams and weather patterns, hence it’s unpredictability and slightly erratic nature at times.

12778722_10207784457224690_1665729167757751404_oNow if that doesn’t put you in the mood to go and summit this baby, I don’t know what else will. The most popular time for hiking up Washington is during the summer when the weather is slightly less inclement (note the italics.) Even in summer, you can get caught in some snow up top when it is perfectly warm and sunny down in the town of North Conway. It is highly recommended that even for a summer summit attempt, you bring water and windproof hard shell pants and jacket, both a thermal and fleece layer, and it would probably be a good idea to include a light mid layer in your pack, just in case. You can wear shorts and tank tops back in town, but you don’t want to get in a sudden rain storm in 30-40 degree temps mixed with 75+ mph winds. Those are all conditions that can quickly lead to hypothermia if you don’t watch it. However, if you pay close attention to the weather and plan accordingly, it can be quite the amazing hike and so worth the effort. The most popular trail is Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. It is about 4.2 miles to the summit and you can always switch it up by coming down the Lion’s Head route if you’re looking for a little more exposure or a change of scenery. Tuck’s is considered a Class 2 route, so there a few places where you might be required to use your hands for climbing up some rocks, but the moves are simple and you are not at any risk if you take your time and mind your P’s and Q’s. During winter, Tuck’s is usually covered in ice and snow so it is highly recommended you take the Lion’s Head winter trail.

People call these mountains “The Whites” for a reason. They are a giant, snowy wonderland for winter sports enthusiasts. Whether it be cold weather mountaineering, alpine or ice climbing, backcountry or telemark skiing, the Whites has it all. I was recently there on a Wednesday in mid-February and the place was a-hoppin’. Coincidentally enough, most of my experience in the Whites comes during the winter time. As of 2 weeks ago, I have summited Mt. Washington in the winter on 3 separate occasions. My first two summits, in January 2013 and in January of this year were by way of 12819386_1101705653226154_7284161733876819870_othe same route. Starting from Pinkham, we hiked up the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail for almost 2 miles where we hopped off and went up the Lion’s Head Trail. This trail goes around a large rock feature (called the Lion’s Head) and takes you up along a beautiful ridge looking down into Tuckerman’s Ravine. On a clear day you can just make out the weather station on the summit (which is about another mile and a half away.) Both times, we were required to put on crampons before breaking tree line due to snow and ice on the trail. Over the years I have seen some people summiting with just microspikes, but those will not hold up as well in truly gnarly conditions. Also required for this winter hike is a mountaineering axe of some kind, whether it be a true mountain axe, glacier axe, or even an ice tool. It is an invaluable piece of gear for safety reasons, in case you find yourself in a tight spot and need to use it to self-arrest to keep from sliding down a steep, icy slope. Ski goggles are also a great idea teamed up with a balaclava to protect your face.

Once on the summit, there is a very clear summit post and a couple buildings usually covered by lots of snow and ice. People live and work on the summit year round studying the weather since it such an amalgam of weather patterns and one of the most unique climates in the states. During the summer, there is a visitor center open to the public, mostly due to the fact that the Mt. Washington Auto Road allows people to drive their cars to the summit. And I know what you’re thinking: nobody needs to be “that guy” with the bumper sticker claiming they sat on their bum while letting a machine take the fun away from hiking up this wonder. You were born with feet for a reason! In winter however, this road is closed and so is the visitor center. On two of my three summits, the kind people at the observatory left a bay door open for us to huddle inside of away from the dangerous winds. Both times, we came down the same route we had summited by. In summer you have more trail options to do more of a loop to get a change of scenery.

My third and final summit (just a few weeks ago in February) was by far the most exciting to date. My friend Lee and I hiked up Tuckerman’s Ravine as usual, but we took a side trail toward Huntington’s Ravine where usually we would begin the ascent up Lion’s Head. At this juncture, we stayed at the Harvard Cabin (owned and maintained by the Harvard Mounta12805812_10207784457904707_7029352592099974397_nineering Club) where you can pay $15/night for a spot in the loft for your pad and sleeping bag, access to propane burners for cooking, and best of all a wood burning stove that they keep going from 4-10 pm, making this a nice alternative to sleeping out in a tent where it is likely that there will be negative temps overnight. The next morning, we hiked into Huntington’s Ravine where there are numerous technical ice climbing routes that go up the mountain, ranging from 500 to 800 feet in length. Lee and I chose Odell’s Gully which was an easier intermediate route in which we climbed 4 pitches of ice and topped out after several hundred yards of steep snow/rock scrambling. Then we were able to meet up with a trail that took us to the summit after about another mile of hiking. In addition to summiting after climbing up almost 800 feet of solid ice, it was actually a clear day and we could see out from on top of the mountain. On both of my previous trips, it had been cloudy and snowing on us so we weren’t able to see more than 50 feet in front of us at times.

And now come the disclaimers12779201_10207784457744703_743328778429584511_o! I am in no way an expert on this mountain at all! If you decide you want to climb up this mountain, which you totally should because it’s rad as can be, make sure to thoroughly research the paths you are taking, have all the necessary clothing and gear (I wonder where you might be able to get that ;),) and above all watch the weather like a hawk!! The Mt. Washington Observatory has its own website where they update the summit weather forecast daily and it will change on a day to day based on my experience. Don’t forget to talk to people who have hiked it. Almost everyone at the RRT has done it to the best of my knowledge. That’s one of the easiest ways to first start gathering intelligence on the hike. I’ll leave the lecture on calories and hydration to the rest of the team now that they are all Wilderness First Responders too. I’m sure they have a backcountry safety blog in the works or reprising one of the old ones. And if you’re still reading this, I know you are dedicated to informing yourself about the trips you take and the places you go because I have rambled on for far too long now. Happy trails and I hope to bring y’all more tales of the adventures I am having while in New England. Slainte!

 

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