Category Archives: Northeast

Mt. Washington Winter Lions Head Part II

 

I started moving as soon as possible after the very brief rest. While struggling to put on my heavily insulated mittens I stepped out from the shelter of the refrigerator sized boulder that had been breaking the wind. As soon as I peaked my head out the 90+ mph winds decided that I would be falling instead of standing and I took a bit of a ‘controlled tumble’ down a rock slope to get down to where I needed to be. All this and I was still relatively unharmed. On the way back I learned that I could have just taken an easy step around the boulder and would be on a nice trail but hey it was a white out and I was a bit confused.

Once again I was on my way towards what I thought was the summit. I sorely missed the temporary reprieve from the wind that was mine just a few minutes prior but I felt good nonetheless because the ridge line was marked with the largest cairns I have ever seen. Every fifty odd feet was a six-foot pyramid of beautiful stones marking the way to the summit. I tried to yell to my climbing buddy that we were home free because no matter how white-out it got there was no way we could miss these. Man-o-man was I wrong.

Time became a blur following these mountain angels of cairns. I say this because it was three steps forward, brace for the wind, one step back and then repeat. I was in perfect rhythm with the foul weather until the six foot angels disappeared.

When the cairns disappeared I wasn’t worried but rather very confused on how I lost them. Somehow I managed to find myself in the middle of a forest. I call it a forest because I could see the very top of hundreds of evergreens sticking out of the snow. Figuring that the cairns had started taking a more direct route up the mountain I did what any good mountaineer would do when trying to go to the summit, I went up.

Its hard to say that the weather was deteriorating because it came in waves of varying degrees of ‘badness’. I realize that ‘badness’ is not a word but you get the idea. It was much like having the choice to be hit in the face with a brick or a rock. Either way you are definitely not happy.

I was on my way up and that was a good feeling. I knew that there were no sheer cliffs looming up ahead just waiting to drop an avalanche on me so I felt relatively safe slogging up seemingly endless snow slopes. I say seemingly endless because right about when I was mentally done with this post-holing shit I hit a steep rock outcropping that was both a good and bad.

At this point I was completely blind. My glasses had frozen over and I didn’t dare open my eyes with out them because of the microscopic shards of ice flying through the air just waiting to shred my eyeballs. The rock outcropping was good because it was an indication that I was nearing the top. On the flip side, the rocks would require delicate crampon placements that when you are next to blind becomes a little tricky.

I was off route and I knew it but up was up and getting to the summit was the only way I knew how to get down. So blindly I groped my way up icy blocks on windswept stone. I pawed at anything that look like good handhold and then screeched my crampons along the rock until I found purchase. This was not climbing but this was what I had to do so I did it.

After an enormous amount of effort I did my last dick-jam/hump move and I could stand up relatively straight and begin walking up the slopes.I was now on the summit cone and was walking on rock more often than ice.It felt good to be walking and realizing I was almost to the top.

I never did find a summit marker.After a good thirty minutes of looking in near white-out in -50 degree weather I called the weather observatory the summit and called it a day.I was cold, hungry and thirsty but satisfied that I had battled my way to the summit.A few hero shots later and I began the descent.

What a lot of non-climbers don’t realize is that the summit is only half way up. Coming down the mountain is grueling work that is almost more hazardous.One exhausted plod of a footstep on a loose rock and you are going for a long tumble.

 

 

Mt. Washington Winter Lions Head Route

The divot in my thigh has almost healed and I have yet to write about the climb that nearly took much more than a chunk of my leg.

Mt. Washington is known as the deadliest little mountain in the world. It holds the record for the strongest ground winds on earth. The day I summited the gusts where 97 mph and it was -50 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind-chill. Needless to say the mountain deserves much more respect than its modest altitude implies.

The first day on the Mt. Washington the goal was simple. Get to the top, follow the path of least resistance, tag the summit and safely get down. The most straightforward path to the top is following the well cairned Lion Head Winter Route. On a nice winter weekend the trail is a well-beaten cattle path to the summit.

The day I set out for the summit the weather was definitely not nice and eight inches of dry powder had obscured any semblance of a trail. The classic northeastern foul weather was in full force once I made it to tree line. The wind was an ever-present concern in my mind. I would be leaning heavily into the wind but that was not nearly enough to battle through it. With regular occurrence the air would suddenly become still and I would be off balance. I quickly learned though, when the breeze died, even momentarily, instead of relaxing and standing straight, I needed to brace myself for a monster gust to come crashing into me.

Besides tossing me to and fro, the wind carried extremely fine frozen silt that felt like an industrial strength sandblaster on my already frozen skin. To combat the barrage of ice pellets I covered every patch of flesh that had a remote chance of being exposed to the foulest weather in the world.

I sincerely wished I had a true balaclava because the makeshift neck gaiter I used left a gap between my sunglasses and the gaiter. This allowed the ice to freeze to my face. All too often I would try to blink and realize that my eye lashes where frozen together. In addition I neglected to bring a pair of goggles. This would prove to be a rookie mistake that I will never make again. The value of goggles became apparent as soon as the lenses of glasses froze over with the fog from my breath.

The most technical portion of the winter route is below tree line, which keeps the wind and snow at bay. The snow slope goes 75 degrees vertical for short periods and a second tool is helpful. The section is not particularly dangerous. This route is so popular that the snow is compacted along the route and if you get off route the snow is powdery and acts as bumpers to keep you on trail. It is not unlike a very steep waterslide. The only difference is that instead of ending with a refreshing splash, this slide ends in a dull thud as you crash into a tree.

Once you clear the slightly technical section at the beginning of the route the terrain levels off and I traded my ice ax for trekking poles and prepared myself for a long snow slog which would involve post holing the entire way.

After three hours of toiling in freezing weather and intense gusts I reached the rock outcropping that gives the Lion Head route its name. Exhausted, I found a refrigerator sized boulder to curl up behind and take shelter from the howling wind. I had to take off my gloves to dig through my pack to find a few frozen Snickers and the map. That was a mistake that I would not repeat for the rest of the trip. Within two minutes of having my fingers being exposed to elements they turned a ghastly white and became firm to the touch. I say firm to the touch but that is kind of a lie because I couldn’t really feel that. Instead I tried to squeeze my fingers but saw that they were blocks of wood. I didn’t have the screaming barfies yet but I knew that as soon as I started moving I would.