Thursday, February 25, 2016

Summiting Mt. Washington


I love mountains. 
I love looking up at them; I love looking down from their summits.
I love smelling them.
I love climbing them, and I love that the higher I get, the lonelier it gets, and the happier I am.
I love hiking with people who enjoy the mountains as much as I do and share their Clif Bars.

Mt. Washington stands only 6,288 feet high, but don't let that fool you. The highest recorded wind speed (excluding tropical cyclones) was recorded at Mt. Washington - a whopping 231 mph! How do you even measure that!?!?


Anyways - Mt. Washington has a lovely auto-road so that cars can drive to the observatory at the summit in the summer and admire all the chumps who hiked up. Summer hikers have a dandy time enjoying the views and scoffing at those lazy people in their vehicles.

But we were attempting Mt. Washington in winter.

"Are you going to get a bumper sticker like all the cars that drive up Mt. Washington on the road?" asked a co-worker when I excitedly exclaimed that we were climbing Mt. Washington.
OK, lad-ee, the road is closed in the winter, temperatures plummet even at the base of the mountain, the winds create near-zero visibility in the winter, and people DIE. This is no pansy walk!
Instead, I laughed and said, "No. That's only in the summer."

Bart, Mikal, Zack, and I scheduled our summit Mt. Washington in mid-February. Email chains started, with Zack laying out all the risks of the mountain, Bart boasting about his previous three summits, and Mikal and I basically acting like bobbleheads. Yay!


My twin sister's boyfriend Jim and his climbing buddies tagged onto the trek - and just like that, we added three doctors to the climbing crew. So - in case any of us stabbed ourselves/another with an ice axe, the MDs could save the day!

Week before: We checked the forecast hourly, but Mt. Washington's weather is so volatile, that it ranged from -90* (no joke!) to 25*. How could we even prepare for that wide of a weather swing? The summit also doesn't forecast past more than 36 hours, so we were left playing the game of worst case/best case scenario.

Day before - Friday, Feb 19: Bart, Mikal and I flew into Manchester, NH. Delayed flight led to 5 beers at the airport bar, and by 11pm, we arrived at our hotel in North Conway with Zack. I highly recommend the place I booked - Merrill Farm Inn: we had a family suite with 3 queen beds, and the hotel had a great breakfast AND cookie hour (basically, my version of Happy Hour)!


We debated whether to attempt Mt. Washington on Satr or Sunday. The weather was forecasted to be warmer and less windy (only 75mph winds, yay!) on Sunday, but the weather on Satr wasn't too bad either: forecasted high of 20* with a low of -10*, and winds up to 90mph. We decided to attempt the summit on Satr, with Sunday as a fall-back in case we weren't able to summit.

Summit Day - Satr, Feb 20: The climbing crew started at Pinkham's Notch, a bit later than intended because it had snowed the night before and created slower traffic, and we had to stop at IME for some rental gear. 10:22am takeoff time.

10:22am: start time at Pinkham Notch 
The climb starts gradually, but it's a steady up-and-up, and with the snowfall from the night before, there were some slippery sections. No ice axes or crampons out yet; this was winter hiking at its most leisurely. About 10 minutes into the hike, I shed two layers and was starting to work up a sweat.

Jim, Barry, and Martin ascending - easy going so far! 
We reconvened as a group at the base of Lion's Head - see the emergency shelter? That's where you'll want to stop, put on your crampons, get a little fuel in you, take a couple of happy pics, and then turn towards the woods and start the REAL ascent.

Barry, aka Bazzo, eating pizza at the base of Lion's Head.

Getting crampons on and ice axes out at the base of Lion's Head.

One last pic with smiles! 
 About 200 meters past the base of Lion's Head, we reached what's nicknamed the "Hillary Step". This is the most difficult pitch of the entire climb, and there was a bit of a traffic jam. We waited as a group was descending, per mountain etiquette, and finally got our turn! Bazzo, by far the most experienced of the seven of us, fixed his rope and we each took our turn tackling the Hilary Step.

Jim on the Hilary Step - ice axe and crampons critical here! 
 At this point, Mikal's crampon broke. Yep, singular. One crampon broke. Luckily, Bart had an extra pair of 6-point crampons, so Mikal quickly put them on.

Bart and Zack waiting at the Hillary Step 

Mikal before the crampon fiasco

Bazzo climbing after the Hillary Step 

Past the Hillary Step, the climbing was really steep - I relied on my ice axe to help me on this bitch of a section. Up and up we climbed, and a knot began to grow in my neck from staring down at the ice. Hiking with crampons and an ice axe creates strain; and with my laser-focus on each step and putting all my weight on my ice axe as I climbed up, my shoulders were screaming in pain.

No pain, no gain. Up I climbed.

Skies looking good here! 
Near the treeline, the views were gorgeous. Check out those skies - it deceivingly appears like the perfect day!

Jim climbing up past Lion's Head 

Bart and Mikal waiting for me to catch up

Mountaineering men 

Zack climbing up to Lion's Head 

Right below the exposed bank of Mt Washington, where winds whipped our faces 
The climb was steady, and all of us commented on how warm we felt. Up until Lion's Head, the climb is protected from the infamous winds of Mt. Washington. We gazed out at gorgeous views of Wildcat Mountain and climbed steadily.

The last sight of our crew - Zack sitting down, Jim and Martin climbing, and Barry just behind the curve 
Mikal's back-up crampon failed, but he jerry-rigged it so that it (kind of) stayed on.

The only reason our enthusiasm was squashed as we progressed steadily up is the number of groups we saw coming down the mountain. All of the groups had turned back, citing that the winds were tornado-like and the conditions wouldn't allow anyone to summit. Everyone was turning back, and we kept going in the other direction. But Bart, Mikal, and I felt strong, and none of us wanted to end the day without bagging this peak, so we marched on.

Bart, Mikal, and I reached Split Rock, a truck-sized boulder with a gap in the middle that you squeeze through, and regrouped. There was only one final push to the top! I looked back to catch the rest of our group, but couldn't see anyone. Oops. We had made a group agreement that the faster group wouldn't wait for others to catch up past Lion's Head, since we had a turnaround time of 2pm summit. Upward and onward the Three Musketeers went.

Bart and Mikal grew a bit annoyed as I proclaimed "This is so beautiful!" every 100 meters. I kept whipping out my camera to take pictures, and finally Bart proclaimed no more pics - it was crucial that we made the summit by 2pm. I made Bart take a picture of me, as proof that I was there.

I made Bart take a picture of me - the only one of me on the mountain.
We reached a sign that indicated that we were just 0.7 miles below the summit, and we each got an extra surge of adrenaline. The wind was really picking up now, and we were losing visibility by the minute. We agreed to stay within 10 feet of each other so that our entire 3-person party was visible to each other the rest of the way up.

About a half-mile below the summit, we came across a group rapidly descending. We asked if they made it to the summit, expecting them to say no, but they proudly proclaimed that they had summited! They were the only people that we met along the trail that day who summited - it was possible! Let's get this, guys!

The knots in my neck grew intolerable, but the wind was so strong that I continued to put all my weight on my ice axe as we climbed. Everything in my shoulders was screaming to stand up and stretch it out, and the only reason I wasn't in complete misery is that I was warm. Yep, in 90mph winds, standing near the top of Mt. Washington, I was happily warm! Thank you, REI gear!

We reached the summit, and Bart, Mikal and I danced around for a bit. I was so happy! I must admit that I had under-estimated this mountain - it had given me a good kick in the ass, but we had climbed our way to the top! I whipped out my camera for a summit pic, but the battery was frozen and my camera wouldn't turn on. I put the battery in my armpit, trying to warm it up for just one pic (a trick I learned in the Himalayas), but it was dead. Dammit! No summit pic!

The Descent: Bart, Mikal, and I began our descent. We took the wrong route down, which sucked, so we ended up climbing back up to the summit in order to find the cairns again. haha. Not.

Descending was tough, since our visibility was severely limited and the winds had picked up speed in the last hour. Once we reached Split Rock, we were in the clear zone - visibility improved, we were protected from the winds, and I wasn't stabbing my ice axe into the side of the mountain to keep from getting blown over.

From Lion's Head to the Hillary Step, you can basically sled down on your butt - which is what we did. This was the highlight of my day and by far the fastest way to get down!

Hillary Step was tricky to descend, but a guide for another group offered us his rope, and we gladly took him up on the offer.

Bart descending the Hillary Step
At 5:30pm, we reached Pinkham's Notch, soaked from the rain that hit us just below treeline, happy and satisfied. Zack, Jim, Barry, and Martin were waiting for us at the Visitor's Center, and they all breathed a sigh of relief when we walked through - apparently, they were quite worried that we wouldn't make it down before sunset. They had turned around at Split Rock, after losing sight of us and seeing the winds swirl to create almost no visibility.

We did a play-by-play of our climb, which in hindsight sounds boring but in the moment, is all you want to talk and hear about!

Hot showers, followed by pizza and beers that evening. We also taught Mikal how to play Dominion, which is basically the greatest board game ever.

Pizza, Beers, and Dominion
While researching Mt. Washington in the winter, we realized there weren't many non-guided climbing blogs out there - so to anyone attempting this crazy climb in the winter, here's what I would suggest bringing to Mt. Washington:

Gear to Pack: 
Long Underwear
Ski pants
Wool socks (1 pair)
Goretex Hiking Boots (or plastic mountaineering boots)

12-point crampons
ice axe
ski goggles
neoprene face mask
beanie
wool hat or ski hat
sunglasses
chapstick (I didn't bring any and my lips were peeling at the end)

Base Layer (top)
Fleece
HeatGear top
Softshell (water and wind resistant)
Down Jacket

Liner gloves
Down gloves or mittens

Backpack
Backpack Cover
Headlamp
Camera - bring an extra camera battery that you keep insulated and warm!
Phone
Carabiner
At least 1 L water (I only drank about 4 oz the entire climb)
At least 2 Clif bars (I only ate one bar the entire climb; it's too cold to eat)

And don't forget the most important thing: 
Great Climbing Partners! 

Recovery Day - Sunday, Feb 21: We went cross-country skiing in Jackson. I swear I'm not the most uncoordinated person, but I was so slooowwwww on those skis! What a blast of a weekend in snow-covered mountains, though! 

Cross-country skiing at Jackson

The short Asian who everyone had to wait for 
White Mountains photo album here

Next mountain trip planned: Glacier National Park in May with Megan Patterson, my best friend from the Peace Corps!





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