November 12, 2005.
12.5 mi | 10 h
Ammo > Lakes Hut > Monroe > Washington > Gulfside > Clay > Jewell
At 3:30 am I woke up in my tent to my cell phone alarm and packed up my stuff. Today I would join a crew of 5 others on a wintery ascent of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.
We hit the trail just after 5 am and started marching uphill by headlamp. Giggy set an ambitious pace up the Ammo. I tried my best to keep up but I was feeling the weight of my pack and the warmth of my too-many-layers so I quickly dropped back in the group.
My Camelback water hose froze at the trailhead so I was already dehydrated. When I stopped for a water break, two of the slower hikers caught up to me and said they were going to bail. I continued, bringing up the rear, as the team whittled down to four.
The sun rose, illuminating the snow-covered landscape. It was breathtaking. I clambered around all the downed trees on the trail as the snow started turning to ice. When I caught up to the rest of my team, they were stopping to put crampons on. I did the same. They felt pretty easy to walk on, so I adjusted to wearing them right away.
I followed right behind one of my teammates, who was keeping a nice pace and taking frequent breaks. We occasionally caught glances of the summit rising up ahead of us. As we climbed higher and higher the ice covered much of the ground, including streams flowing with cold water. I chose my steps wisely, stepping right in the tracks of the people in front of me. This was all new to me!
The hike up to the Lakes Hut was very windy, foreshadowing what was to come. I met up with Giggy and Chip, who were resting at the Hut out of the wind, while we waited for Chris to catch up. Here I really started feeling the heat of the sun on my face.
When Chris arrived, we adjusted our layers and I added a balaclava to shield my face from the sun and wind. We dropped packs, grabbed ice axes and headed up to Monroe. The wind tore at us as we walked. Chip showed me how to use the ice axe and I watched as he and Giggy climbed ahead, trying to emulate their movements. The axe was helpful in bracing myself against the wind and the crampons made walking on the ice possible.
I thought back to when I hiked up Monroe earlier this summer. It was easy. This, no, this was a new mountain. The snow and ice partially covered up the rocks underneath, making for tricky footing. This was a whole new world, like nothing I’d ever seen before. At the summit, Chip said “we can see the ocean from here!” The sky was crystal clear. While I had my doubts at the start of this hike, I was now determined to do whatever it took to make it to Washington.
We charged back down hill to the hut to grab our gear and head to the next summit. We gazed towards Mt. Washington and headed in that general direction. No trails were necessary up here. We chose to walk on the nicest, cleanest snowfields we could find in order to avoid the ice and running water on the trail.
Of course, we’d barely left the hut when my left foot punched through the icy snow layer right into calf-deep water.
After a minute of dizzying worry and indecision, I retreated back to the hut to deal with this potentially dangerous situation. As quickly as I could, I ripped off my crampon, boot and two sock layers. I grabbed a spare sock to use as a towel and dug through my bag for a thick, wool replacement sock to cover the exposed foot. Giggy gave me a plastic bag to put between my wet boot and the wool sock, which actually kept my foot dry for the rest of the trip!
Okay, back en route to Washington. Slow and steady, we trudged up the path of least resistance to Mt. Washington. As the pitch of the mountainside began to get steeper, Chris decided to bail. And then there were three.
Giggy wanted to spice things up a bit, so he elected to take us up a thirty degree-ish snowfield. This felt like the most dangerous part of the day. I watched carefully as Chip and Giggy made their way up the snowfield in a switchback-type pattern. They seemed to take a lot of care in choosing their steps wisely and taking their time. I remembered a story I’d read in Deep Survival about how an injured ice climbers traversed difficult sections of a hike by “sticking to the pattern.” That’s exactly what I did. I made sure I had good contact with two points before moving a third: plant ice axe. step 1. step 2. plant ice axe…
Adding this mental challenge to this already physically challenging endeavor was stretching my limits.
But, I felt immensely proud. I looked down at all the vast expanse below me. Oops. That made me nervous. I lost the pattern. I made a few bad steps. Giggy turned around to check on me and I quickly got my wits back and fell into my pattern again. There’s no room for messing up here. I needed to focus.
Slowly, we all conquered that bit. Occasional wind gusts would throw me off balance or freeze my eyeballs. The Observatory that day recorded peak gusts at 99 mph and average wind speeds at 40 mph. We certainly felt that at the summit!
Alas, even today we’d have to vie for a spot at the summit. Two guys had just come up Tuckerman Ravine. After a quick photo we headed off to the Gulfside Trail. We took a short break for food as the wind died down and then walked towards Clay.
Looking down into the Great Gulf was awesome. There were gorgeous views in all directions. The ridge between Washington and Jefferson had three distinct bumps on it, and none of us were sure which one, exactly, was Clay. We’d deal with that minor detail later.
The short slog up to Clay felt tough because I’d already been through so much today. We fumbled through deep, powdery snow banks and scrambled awkwardly over rocks. At last we tagged the nondescript summit and backtracked to the Jewell Trail.
The descent was not the welcome break I’d anticipated. Fluffy snow covered the icy rocks. We still wore crampons but they felt ridiculous. It was like rock-hopping in high heels. I was amazed that no one twisted an ankle. Partway down we encountered a group of 6 hikers heading up, none of whom looked prepared for today’s conditions. It was a late time to be going up, some of them looked freezing cold, and one of them had an infant on his back!! We tried talking sense into them but they kept going. CRAZY.
Soon we removed our crampons and suddenly the hike became much easier. We flew down the trail in a hurry. The last mile, however, seemed to drag on forever. The terrain flattened out, there were a ton of trees down and Chip kept stopping to identify animal tracks. Let’s just get out!
We returned to the parking lot exactly ten hours after we began. Exhausted and exhilarated, I threw down my pack and searched frantically for a change of clothes. I had an ice cold Pepsi and the guys each downed a beer. What a day.
My first real winter experience was a success!