It all started 3 years ago. After nearly 15 years of casual summer hiking in the Catskills and Adirondacks mountains of New York, Vivek and I decided it was time to do some real mountaineering. The difference being that mountaineering requires technical equipment like crampons, ice axe, rope, harness, and typically a seasoned mountaineer as a guide. In New England, the presidential mountains of New Hampshire offer plenty of challenging winter mountaineering opportunities, but none comes close to what Mount Washington offers.
On a typical winter day, Mount Washington offers all the challenges of a big mountain (except for altitude and crevasse crossing) – rapidly changing summit conditions, negative Fahrenheit temperatures and high winds, avalanche risk, deep snow/ ice along the trail and whiteout blizzard-like conditions above treeline, making it an excellent training ground for anyone aspiring to scale high peaks or just be initiated into basic mountaineering skills. Mount Washington is my initiation and inspiration into mountaineering.
The winter ascent via the Lion Head Trail is considered non-technical (does not require rope or harness) but requires mountaineering boots, crampons and ice axe. For beginners (I consider myself as a beginner), I strongly recommend using a professional guide who will essentially guide you all along the way demonstrating on how to step with the crampons on steep sections using the french technique, international technique, the proper way to hold and use the ice axe etc. From my experience of prior two failed summit attempts with out of town guides and large groups, for this third attempt, we chose to attempt it as a small private group of 4 and work with International Mountain Equipment (IME), a local company since 1974 out of North Conway. Our guide Chris was phenomenal – the day before the hike, he started us off at IME with a gear check and ensured we were sufficiently prepared for the adventure. During the hike he illustrated the proper climbing techniques at the various junctions. Beyond being just a guide to us, he was also looking out for other hikers who may be going in harms way to guide them as necessary. We felt very safe with Chris!
We started our ascent at 8 AM from Pinkam Notch. The base temperature was around 30F while the summit conditions forecast was -5F to 5F with windchill. About half way up, all of us enjoyed the steep sections of the climb, some sections as steep as 70 degrees up! It is amazing how the right technique with the right tools makes these climbs so much fun. Once above tree line , the winds weren’t as bad as predicted except for occasional gusts and we even got to see the sun peeking from behind the moving clouds. The temperatures progressively dropped and the winds picked up as we crossed the lion’s head into the Alpine garden – a broad plateau with low-growing alpine plants, carved beautifully by snow and wind.
The trail goes close to the top of Tuckerman’s ravine offering excellent views of the ridge beyond the ravine. We saw several skiers walking up the ravine while others were getting prepared to ski down the steep ravine. The next point for a quick drink and snack was split rock – this was also a key decision point for the group to decide to push forward or turn back. It is only another 30 – 45 minutes from here to the summit, but with heavy snow blowing on our face with blustery winds, visibility was poor. We decided to push on and Chris urged us to stay close together. Chris kept clearing the blasting snow off the cairns on the way up – so we can hopefully see them on our way back to help us stay on trail. We hit the summit by 2 PM (March 29, 2013) and the winds were much stronger now making it much harder to keep balance.
We slowly staggered towards the summit sign, clicked a few quick photos and thanked each other and Chris for this wonderful day. It was three years in the making – but, even the first attempt changed my perspective which led to many other adventures, including initiating others into embarking on the mountain path.
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