Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Training for Spaining – Part 1 – Venturing Above the Tree line

Recent Weather Reports for the Summit of Mount Washington, NH, USA:

28 Nov 09
Weather: Blowing Snow, Freezing Fog
Temperature: 18°F (-8°C)
Wind: NW 100 mph (161km/h)
Visibility: 25 feet (8m)
Ground Conditions: 13" of snow/ice/rime w/ deeper drifts (33cm)

29 Nov 09:
Weather: Blowing Snow, Freezing Fog
Temperature: 12°F (-11°C)
Wind: NW 75 mph (121km/h)
Visibility: 75 feet (23m)
Ground Conditions: 10" of snow/ice/rime w/ deeper drifts (25cm)

Figure 1: Alex and Dan

Dan and I decided that climbing Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, would be good training for our upcoming trip to the Pyrenees. It is renowned for having the worst weather in the world, is truly an alpine climb and is only 7 hours from Kingston. So, last week we decided that this past weekend would be the best time for us to do it. Conditions on the mountain were not looking to be in our favour, but we figured we would go for it anyway. We spent the Thursday night prior sorting gear, packing and loading Dan’s car (an ’89 Honda Civic Hatchback). The next day, I tried to get as much school work done, as I could, and ran some last minute errands. Dan worked hard trying to get out of work as early as he could. Around 1530, Dan called and said he would be picking me up shortly, so I grabbed my gear and got ready to go. We made a few stops on our way to Dan’s house, tying up some loose ends. Once at Dan’s, he searched his house for his backpack, while his mom came out and made sure that I knew how many people had died climbing Mount Washington and that if we got into trouble to make sure we were aware that Dan had an aunt in New Hampshire. I told her everything would be fine, but I don’t think she believed me. Dan got back in the car and we took off.

The first several hours of the drive were uneventful. It was raining and we made our way towards Montreal. We had a Mountain Equipment Co-op stop planned in the itinerary. We had recently decided we would need snowshoes in Europe, so we were planning on getting some. While we were at MEC, we each got a new pair of snowshoes (MSR Denali’s). I also bought a new headlamp and Dan purchased some new socks and cordage. From there, we headed toward the border. About 20km before we hit the border, it started snowing. When I say “it started snowing”, I mean we were surrounded by a white-out condition blizzard. We slowly rolled into the border crossing. All the border guard seemed interested in were our snowshoes, but we couldn’t help him, since we hadn’t even unwrapped them yet. As it was snowing so hard, we decided to pull into the first Vermont rest stop for the night. We bivied on the concrete slab in front of the entrance, since it was well protected from the storm. After a few minutes of gear sorting, so we would be ready to go the next day, we went to sleep. Luckily, our sleep went uninterrupted (I guess the Vermont state troopers had better things to do).

Figure 2: Bivy in Vermont

Figure 3: More bivying in Vermont

The next morning, we packed up and headed to New Hampshire. The ride was quiet until we turned onto the back country road that would lead us to the trailhead. It was icy, muddy and covered in snow. I had to drag logs out of the way so we could pass and Dan had trouble keeping us from sliding out of control. Dan did a superb job driving us through most of the road until we came to a sharper turn than we had previously encountered and began sliding towards a dirt mound on my side. We impacted with a jolt and bounced back into the road. Stopping the car, we got out and inspected the car for damage. Other than a little mud it was fine – HOORAY! The trip continued. Getting back in the car, we slowly made our way to the asphalt ahead. This patch of road took us to the Pinkham Notch Trailhead, which was a lavish visitors centre, kitchen and lodge – complete with a packing room, showers, bathrooms, drying racks and everything anyone ever wishes they had when hiking.

Figure 4: Pinkham B road, before we crashed.

Figure 5: The sign marking the trailhead area.

We signed into the register and took off up the Tuckerman Ravine trail and made our way towards our goal of climbing the Central Gully route. After a few hours of following beaten trails, blazing our own through deep powder and quite a bit of walking, we were close to the base of the actual climb. Unfortunately, at this point in the day, my foot slipped off a rock as we were crossing a stream and got utterly soaked. I stripped my boot and socks off, borrowed one of Dan’s socks, wrapped my foot in the dry bag for the camera and shoved it back in the wet boot. We probably could have continued, but made the decision to bail. I think that this was a good choice. Even though it might have been OK, there was an equally good chance that it would not have turned out OK and we would be the next dumb, unprepared, yahoos who froze their feet off on a little mountain in the North Eastern United States. Plus, I kind of depend on my feet for a lot of things. The descent was quick and painless. Upon arriving back at the trailhead, we stripped down, dried out and ate some hamburgers. After a bit of break, we moved back up the hill. This time, we were totally kitted out for an overnight stay on the mountain. Our plan was to spend the night at a mountain hut and then push for the summit the next morning. The move to the hut was an easy one, even with our larger packs (obviously training works!). The night in the hut was pretty funny. We moved into a hut that already had six other guys in it, mostly speaking Quebecois French. We made some of our pre-packaged meals on the stove and sat down to eat. It was then that I realised these people were soldiers. They were talking about flying a Herc into Cold Lake. So, I joined the conversation as best I could and we talked a bit. It is a small world and always hilarious who you might run into. Soon, we went to sleep, getting ready for an early morning the next day.

Figure 5: Taking a break on Mount Washington.

That early morning we planned on turned into a 0730 wake up. This was much later than anticipated, but OK. We suited up, in what turned out to be damp clothing, due to all the condensation from so many warm bodies in an enclosed hut. Once we were ready to go, we put our little packs on and began moving along the Lion Head trail towards the summit. After a couple of miles of bushwacking we hit the tree line. This is when the views started to get spectacular, but the conditions and climbing started to get more brutal. The wind picked up, it got cold and the ground turned from deep powder to broken rock. We made our way up to the Lion Head and moved across a ridgeline towards the base of the real climbing. This ridge had extreme winds! Dan almost lost a mitt, but I managed to chase it down. We both put our hoods up and kept moving. Following the cairns (piles of rocks that mark the route) was easy at this point. As we continued up the mountain, it became more and more difficult to spot the next cairn, until we couldn’t see any more. This is where we decided to just head straight up the mountain. So, we started front-pointing our way up 50 degree crusty snow – which was a ton of fun. Eventually, we made it to the summit. It was very, very, very, windy and cold up there. We huddled behind an observatory building, snapped some pictures, ate a granola bar and left as soon as we could. The descent went quickly and eventually we were back in the tree line. We met a bunch of groups moving up towards the summit. They all asked for advice on how to best approach the summit and we gave the best we could. Along the way, we grabbed our gear from the hut, stripped down to our base layers and booked it for the car. We dropped our gear in the car, heated up a couple of cans of soup and took off. The drive home was very uneventful. We mostly just talked about what we had done, what we had learned and what we need to work on for our upcoming trip.

Figure 7: Front-pointing our way to the summit.

Figure 8: Us near the summit.

Figure 9: The long way down.

Figure 10: Long...

All in all, it was an excellent adventure; the alpine-style atmosphere of Mount Washington is intoxicating. I can’t wait to go back there in a couple of weeks and am definitely excited to head to the Pyrenees in a few weeks!

Lessons Learned:

-Going down proves faster than going up.
-Always carry spare socks and gore-tex socks (I should have already known this and hope Sgt Gillis isn’t reading this)
-Forget about the upper body – work those quads and calves!
-Slow and steady wins the race. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Other sayings that imply moving slowly is better than moving too fast.
-Lots of people in one mountain hut = lots of condensation.

Figure 11: Huntington Ravine, Mount Washington

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