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Winter in October, brought to you by Mt. Washington


ctoulmin
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Winter in October, brought to you by Mt. Washington

The coffee at 5:45 that Saturday morning resembled dish water and failed in its job. I had slept poorly, trying to stave off the early signs of a bad cold on a day that I needed all the energy I could muster. My 17-year-old son Henry told me that I had snored all night long and as a result he also got little shuteye.

It was October 17, 2015, and for two years Henry had begged me to climb the fabled Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Hiking a mountain that days earlier was the coldest place in the continental U.S. was not appealing, especially when the weather three hours south in metro Boston had been in the balmy 60’s for several weeks. In fact, I’d been putting this trip off – and dreading it – for too long. Years ago, I had hiked the mountain twice in February with friends, using rented equipment from EMS along with their expert guide.  We summited once and I told myself never again, especially in winter. This time was different with me as the responsible one. It was time to face the Washington 6.jpgmountain.

With an elevation of 6,288, Mt. Washington is the highest peak in the Northeast and the eighth most dangerous mountain in the world, according to GearJunkie. No wonder, with the highest recorded surface winds on earth of 231 mph. We were guaranteed to experience some of that force today.

After leaving our 1750’s-era bed and breakfast (sans the breakfast) in North Conway, NH, we began hunting for sandwiches to accompany our other snacks for the hike. As I sipped my bland Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, we came upon a small country store with wraps. Perfect, except that they were in huge plastic containers that got crushed when stuffed into our compact packs. Sustenance was crucial so we made it work, sort of.

Our goal was to start hiking by 7 am, and reach the summit. We pulled into the Pinkham Notch welcome center and signed in so the rangers knew we were official hikers. Two inches of snow had fallen at 4,000 feet the night before, and another 2-3 were expected during the day. Winds were gusting to 60 mph, and the temperature was 20 degrees at the summit. Wind chill was somewhere south of zero. This is October? Ugh.

“Do you think reaching the summit is doable today?” I asked one of the wardens, hoping that she would advise against it and we could hike for an hour and call it a day.

“If you’re careful, yes. But the weather is very fluid up there,” she said.

“Do you mean fog and snow IMG_1630.JPGand wind?”

“Yep, all of it.” Great, I thought.

“OK… and if all goes well, how long do you estimate it will take to reach the summit?”

She hesitated, looking us over and said slowly, “Well, that’s tough to say, but generally it should take about four hours, give or take.”

We purchased a map and put boots on the Tuckerman’s Ravine trail at 7:15 am. Frozen mist and temperatures in the mid-30’s confirmed that we did not overthink our clothes. We had planned our gear very thoughtfully for this day, making sure there was not a stitch of cotton touching our skin. When wet cotton sticks to the skin it slowly reduces body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia and in some cases, death, especially on this mountain. According to appalachiantrials.com, more than 130 people have died on Washington since 1849, with many cases resulting from poor judgement, inadequate equipment, and bravado.

Our several layers were designed to be stripped off when we got too wet or overheated. Our boots were standard good-quality hiking shoes with no crampons. We were dressed ready to hit the ski slopes in very cold conditions.

The Ravine trail is the most popular of the bunch that web their way up the mountain. Its 4.2 mile trek to the summit is a gradual incline the first few miles; wide and not too steep. But rocks the size of recycle bins that litter the trail can be hazardous.

Just off the trail about 15 minutes in, a beautiful waterfall called Crystal Cascade provided a nice diversion from what lay ahead.

We decided to take the Lions Head trail that splits off the Ravine trail about .3 miles from the Hermit Lake Shelters. Lions Head traverses steep and narrow up the right side of the ravine, and is the less treacherous option Washington 1.jpgto the top of the ravine.

At this point I was taking many breaks, and couldn’t keep up with Henry who is a third my age. I kept hearing, “c’mon dad!” As a rower, he’s in top shape and could probably run up stretches of the trail. I reminded him several times that most dads I know would rather be swinging a club than step foot on this mountain.

 Off came the layers. One of my four was drenched and I wondered if that was normal. I still had three on and started unzipping to ventilate.

Our first fellow hiker of the day appeared about half-way up Lions Head. A French Canadian, he was decked out with state-of-the-art hiking gear including professional hiking boots and crampons, along with hiking poles strapped to his pack. He looked like a fit guy out for a little stroll up a hill. We exchanged small talk while I stuffed my soaked layer into my bulging pack, trying to prevent my large sandwich container from falling out. He wished us luck and headed into the clouds above.

As we neared the top of Tuckerman’s Ravine, we came upon a young couple with a Chocolate Lab.  Almost more remarkable than a dog this far up in these conditions – 25 degrees and gusting close to 50 – was seeing a guy with shorts on. We said a brief hello as we passed. The shorts might have done them in, as they never appeared again.

The ridge top was the first glimpse of the lunar landscape that would dominate the rest of the hike; increasing winds, limited visibility to about 100 yards and the start of the infamous rocky floor with about 3 inches of fresh snow blanketing, and hiding, hundreds of small crevices. At that point, we both thought separately about turning back. But two years of hope and hype and being iWashington 2.jpgn the present moment won out.

About 200 yards from the top, we saw our Canadian friend on the way down through the fog and asked how much farther.

“You’re almost there, only about 10 more minutes,” he responded.

“Anyone up there?” “Nope,” he said, as he disappeared.

Cresting the top where the trail head meets the bottom parking lot was surreal. No cars anywhere, no humans, no life. Because of the snow, the seven-mile-long access road was closed, which was unusual for October. An eerie feeling swept over me, knowing that we were truly alone atop the highest peak in the Northeast. It resembled pictures I’ve seen of the Antarctic. I looked at my phone; it was 10:45 am – we made it up in 3.5 hours.

I wanted to stay together, but Henry was a kid in a candy store, bounding around and soaking it in. I lost him for a few minutes, calling out his name against the fierce wind before his blue shape came into view.

We were starving and found a shallow doorway in one of the maWashington 8.jpgny old outbuildings to grab lunch. The ironic “sorry closed” sign on the door partially covered in snow gave us a laugh.

After a 10-minute lunch, we cruised around a bit more, and came upon a large building that looked like a welcome center. A beefy pickup parked outside covered in snow came into view. Maybe we weren’t alone. We entered the building and found Tom. He was sitting in a chair near the entrance; dry, warm and looking comfortable, drinking coffee and smoking a butt. I envied him, for a second.

“Hi, we just hiked up. What crazy weather out there,” I said.

“Yep,” replied Tom. “Glad I took the truck.” I smiled.

“What is this place,” asked Henry.

“It’s the Sherman Adams Visitor Center, but we’re closed now,” said Tom, who said he manages maintenance projects for the clump of buildings on the summit.

“You can walk around and use the bathroom if you want,” he said, ending the sentence with a long drag.

We both used the men’s room and tried to dry our gloves with the blow drier. I wanted to get down by mid-afternoon and wasn’t sure about traversing the rocky minefield again. Tom said we could walk down the 7-mile access road but it would take longer, and it just seemed too pedestrian. We were refuWashington 5.jpgeled from lunch and the soreness was manageable so we headed for the trail.

As we exited the visitor center, two more intrepid souls came in to warm up. While these guys looked in shape and had the right gear, they were the start of the dribble of people we saw on the trail below who had no business being there.

We were doing double takes as one by one we passed people in jeans, sneakers, sweats, and no packs or visible water. And, with sunset coming at exactly 5:59 pm I was wondering how long they would be hiking. There was no bravado here, just ignorance. Doubtful that anyone we saw was able to summit.

The last high-profile hiking death in the area was an experienced backpacker from New York who lost her way in February, 2015 while hiking the Presidential Range. She was found frozen in an exposed area of a ridgeline. Even those who know the dangers and are properly equipped can succumb to the extreme elements out here.

Our legs were Gumby-ish and feet nearly un-walkable as we saw Pinkham Notch appear through the fog and mist. We signed ourselves off the mountain and logged our time down as three hours.

“Wow, you guys made great time today,” said thWashington 9.jpge warden. “How was it up there?

“A little tough going and cold, but what an amazing experience,” responded Henry.

I asked her if the mountain had ever been closed to hikers due to weather. She said no, but when the conditions get bad enough, the rescue crews that brave the notorious conditions to save lives will not go out. Hikers are truly at their own risk.

The drive back to Boston was almost ethereal. We limped into a pub for a large burger to gain back the thousands of calories burned, and for me a few local craft brews. While New Hampshire is known for the White Mountains, its craft beer movement has been gaining notoriety in recent years and is giving Vermont a run for its money.

Knowing we’d just accomplished a feat that most of the population would never attempt was supremely gratifying.

“So dad, let’s plan on doing this again next year,” said Henry with a smirk on his face.Washington 10.jpg

“Uh, yeah, ok. Let me get back to you on that…”

 

Edited by ctoulmin
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