Ice Climbing Mount Washington
Last weekend I tried ice climbing at Mount Washington, New Hampshire for the first time with two buddy’s of mine, Kris and Dylan. Both are strong indoor and outdoor climbers in both ice, trad, and sport. Vermont Rock recently recognized them for adding several climbs to the New England area, including “The Schistine Chapel” (5.11c) and “Skeleton Crack” (5.9) at Bone Mountain. We all had an interest in climbing and hiking Washington so we teamed up to take it on. I decided to take my old 1980 Nikon F20 film camera along for the adventure too.
I’ve been climbing indoors for years. It was only last spring at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky did I start lead climbing outside. I’ve always dreamed of being like the climbers you see in magazines, but I’ve been climbing inside for so long that I’ve developed a bit of a fear from climbing outside the comforts and safety I’m accustomed to in the rock gyms(i.e the top ropes and short distances between clips for lead climbing, the familiarity of the textures of the rocks and walls). To say the least, I’m still getting used to being comfortable climbing outside, but I’m determined to do it because rock climbing is the one sport I genuinely love. I think I’m getting there slowly but surely. It helps having friends around you that can offer motivation and assurance.
Our plan was to hike up to the Harvard Hut and check in with the AMC staff about the trail conditions. We had our hearts set on climbing Pinkham’s Notch then hike the last few miles to the summit where we’d snowboard or ski down Tuckerman’s Ravine. Honestly, conditions couldn’t have been better, which is a rarity for this mountain. The sun was shining, temperatures were in the upper 20’s, there was hardly any wind, and there hadn’t been any excessive snow fall in the past few days. Except, the staff at the hut told us there had been reports of damming on a lot of climbs, including Pinkham’s. This meant climbers were getting soaked from melting ice. Not a good scenario to be in once above the treeline in the gusty winds.
Just the week before 32 year old Kate Matrosova, an experienced hiker, died attempting to complete the Presidential Traverse alone in some of the worst weather ever seen at the whites. Although our conditions that day were no where near as brutal as they were the week before, we were all humble to the potential risks involved in the decisions that we would make. Read Kate’s story here.
As we all got our second wind at the hut I was really feeling the weight of my pack. The thought of climbing up with the snowboard and riding down seemed bad-ass up until that point. I didn’t have the greatest set up to hold my board either so it seemed WAY heavier than it really was. I worried that I’d be too exhausted to hold my own climbing, especially since it acted more like a sail at this point. So…I ditched my board at the hut. I was really bummed, but even my buds agreed that this was probably for the best. The plan for after our summit would be to rendez-vous at the hut where we’d all ride down together.
We changed our plans a bit.
Instead of heading to Pinkham’s we decided to climb Odell’s bulges to avoid getting wet. We made our way up the steep trails in Huntington’s Ravine. Here I was really thrown into mountaineering as I put crampons on for the first time. I had an idea of how and how not to use them from watching tutorial videos back when I was planning to do the Presidential Traverse in January. Honestly, the mountaineering boots were more awkward to hike in than anything.
Approaching the base of Odell’s icy bulges I stared with excitement and anxiety. I had no idea what ice climbing felt like and was pretty nervous that I’d either hurt myself in some embarrassing fashion or not be able to do it. I watched Dylan as he lead the first pitch, placing ice screws every 10 feet or so. Once he reached the top of the pitch he anchored in and readied himself to begin belaying. Kris and I would be climbing on a 2-1 belaying setup, which basically means that him and I would be top roping the same time, on the same rope, while Dylan belayed us both. Kris began tying into the middle of the rope when he looked at me and said, “Ok, when the rope is taught at your end, that’s when you can start climbing.”
Once Kris got up about a 3rd of the way I started climbing. I plunged my ice axes into the ice for the first time and shattered the wall of ice making two huge holes. Kris told me that I’d know when I had gotten a secure hold on the axes because they felt a certain way when they went in. I plunged my right ax again a few times until it stuck in place. “Ok, that one’s good.” I did the same with the other, awkwardly missing and sometimes jabbing the ice at an awkward angle. “Ok, now the feet.” I climbed up most of the way up the bulged and fell almost all the way down. “Damn I have to start over….”, I thought. I started getting a bad case of the “screaming banshees” in my fingers. They hurt so bad I had to sit and rub my fingers for a good five minutes once I got over the first bulge.
Everything was so new and awkward. I did everything I knew you weren’t suppose to do with your body when you first climb. I tried to hold all my weight with my arms at first instead of my legs. I didn’t keep my body close to the wall of ice, and I wore myself out pretty quickly. About half way up I had to just sit on the rope and breath for a solid minute. There were another set of climbers just to the left of us. I sparked up a conversation with them while we were both climbing by each other to calm my nerves. I know I’m a dork.
Once we began the second pitch I had a better feeling for the arm and footwork. It went by much easier. I’ve always been used to using the friction of rock or an edge to put my foot on but here I couldn’t do that. I mean, yes, you try to use natural edges in the ice when you can but for the most part I was jabbing my crampons into the wall of ice. It’d be just the blades of your crampons holding you to the ice. I’d put weight on my legs every time thinking, “Well I hope this is secure.”
The climb was four pitches all together. Ice climbing was awesome, but I was glad to be able to stand on two feet again! We realized that this would be the last time we could take advantage of the natural shelter the ravine gave us from the wind. We scarfed some gorp and water down, collected our gear, suited up, and made our way up to toward the summit. The wind grew stronger and stronger as we came out of the ravine. I felt like I was walking through a wind tunnel. All I could hear was the sound of wind rushing past my ears.
As we emerged from the ravine we came upon a large flat barren area just before the infamous Alpine Zone, where the risk for avalanches are at their worst due to the steepness of the terrain. They say you should spend as little time here as possible, but the snow was quite solid and there hadn’t been any new snowfall in the recent past. So we took our time. We sat against a rock and had another short picnic. The wind howled at 50 mph the entire time, but we were well insulated and the sunshine really helped cut the windchill. Dylan discovered I had M&M’s in my gorp and became my best friend for a bit. Once we were satisfied and hydrated we set out to trek through the steep alpine zone up to the summit. We decided to ditch our packs here at the rocks and just trek up with our crampons and axes.
Dylan and Kris wanted to head in a straight line up to the summit. I followed off to the side with them but took my own route for the most part. It was far to steep to head in a straight line for too long without your legs burning out. I remembered my time trekking in Nepal. The foot trails were often made in the pattern of a “Z” to cut down on the steepness and potential for rest breaks. It had been some time and then I heard my name being called. I looked down and saw Kris and Dylan laying on the ground. I sat and waited for them to climb up and we took another breather. Up until now they had both been kicking my butt as I struggled to keep up. the 5’2″ struggle was in fact real.
After we gained our strength we pushed for the summit. The top was crystal clear and the weather observatory towered loomed over us covered in a thick layer of ice. Several other skiers and riders had hiked up the other trails and were waiting for their chance to get their picture taken with the summit sign.
I felt indifferent about the view at the top and didn’t really understand why. We were so high above everything that all the other peaks looked so small. In Vermont you could look at the other peaks and the same went for when I was in Nepal. Still, it was incredibly beautiful at the top especially on this bluebird day. We walked around a bit and began making our way down.
Here I got a lesson in glissading 101. I wish I had a gopro for this, because it was awesome. It was hard to get at first. I didn’t really want to go to fast because there were rocks at the bottom, but basically you slide down a steep trail and use your axes as a rotor to steer and slow you down. My climbing harness kept catching once in a while so it was difficult to get a smooth slide going, but when I did it was fun. It did scare my a bit though so there were definitely times that I walked down instead.
The riding didn’t quite goes as planned as we ended up missing Tuckerman’s and went down another trail at Huntington’s. Kris and Dylan road down in survival mode and I hiked and glissaded. I met up with Kris at the bottom of the trail and we waited for Dylan but he ended up passing us. We decided to just head to the hut where we had all agreed to meet up if we got separated. Turned out that all of us, about the same time, had to hike through waist deep snow. At this point in the trip we were definitely at the end of our energy levels. I helped carry Kris’ board at some point so he could get some relief in his legs. We finally came to a packed trail head and couldn’t have been happier. Kris strapped his board on and headed for the hut. I took my crampons off and hiked the rest of the way to the hut.
As we entered the hut the staff gave us a heart warming “welcome back” as we had completed our adventure. We sat next to the wood stove talking to one of the AMC staff members about our experience as he continued chopping wood. The hut had come alive at the late hour with the arrival of several other hikers returning from their journeys. It was great to be around people that shared the same interests that we did.
I decided to get a head start on riding down since they were a lot faster than I was. I haven’t really ridden much in the woods or narrow un-groomed paths. I struggled a bit and maybe I was a bit grumpy from the the exhaustion at that point. The path was narrow, steep, and uneven with long stretches of flat at times. It was also nighttime and my head lamp wasn’t the brightest. I decided I’d just meet them at the car and hike down with my board. But after a while the full moon had risen above the trees and brightened the path. It also wasn’t so steep and uneven. I took a few minutes to switch out the batteries in my head lamp and tried again. This time the riding was much better. I clipped the sides of the trail a few times going pretty fast and wiped out a good 4 times, but I once I got into the rhythm of the fast hard carving it was a lot of fun. The guys had a similar experience but we all made it down safe and sound.