Sunday, March 21, 2010

March on Mt. Washington

Mt. Washington, as seen from Jennings Peak
Mt. Washington possesses an imaginative hold over me, and to be honest, I'm not really sure why. It's not a particularly interesting looking mountain, nor is it particularly high. Its fauna resembles little of that of the California coastal range or the Sierra Nevada, the two mountain playgrounds with which I grew up, and its weather can be brutally miserable--far more miserable than a mountain of its size should dictate. And yet, I find myself often daydreaming about Mt. Washington when I imagine new trips and hikes to undertake. Maybe the legend of Tyler Hamilton's multiple victories in the Mt. Washington Hill Climb has something to do with this, or the fact that the mountain stands in one of my favorite states. Either way, when NCT and I began casting about for a quick early spring trip, a winter summit of Mt. Washington immediately came to mind.

As I've previously noted, after driving north from New York City through the Connecticut River Valley and cutting east on NH RT-25, we woke up bright and early in Plymouth, NH, on Saturday morning and headed to the Sandwich Range. This chain of smaller peaks lies just south of Waterville Valley, and from its summits one can see both Western Maine as well as Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Washington. One purpose of this trip was to familiarize ourselves with crampons and ice axes--neither of which I've used in the past--and so NCT and I strapped on our winter climbing boots and walked across a tiny snow bridge before hiking up Jennings and Noon Peaks. As a first-time crampon wearer, I approached the icy trail gingerly (regular hiking habits die hard), and it wasn't until I started stomping each foot into the packed snow that I began to appreciate the sheer awesomeness that is the crampon. NCT articulated the experience best--"I feel like a spider", he commented at one point, while hanging from a vertical section of trail--and while we duck-walked up the mountain, I started humming "Spider Pig" under my breath. This resulted in the same outcome that my singing of The Sound of Music repertoire did in the Alps, and after NCT thus made it clear that he would no longer tolerate "Spider Pig", I switched to "Walk like a Duck" (sung to the tune of The Four Seasons's "Walk like a Man"). As a result, we then each did our own thing for a little while, and rendezvoused just before the summit of Jennings Peak.
Western Maine
The winds on Jennings Peak, which is about half the height of Mt. Washington, were very strong, and I began to worry about our summit attempt on the latter the next day. As luck would have it, a winter storm was scheduled to hit the Eastern Seaboard within the next twelve hours, and a successful summit began to look unlikely. Still, we rose at 4:45 the next morning and decided to hike as high as we could. As we drove north along the Pemigawasset River, the mountains alongside I-93 began to shape; when the sun rose, Cannon Mountain immediately loomed into view. Rain had been falling for about an hour by the time we reached the Ammonnoosuc Ravine trail head, and the winds in just the parking lot felt as strong as they had the day before on the top of Jennings. We didn't say much as we strapped on snowshoes and placed our crampons inside our packs.

An avalanche two weeks before had stripped one side of the ravine completely bare, and given the deep snow pack, we hiked up the opposite side of the gully from the traditional trail. Once we began climbing above Gem Pond (about two miles from the trail head), the rain turned into ice pellets, and given the strength of the wind, the pellets felt like shards of glass when they struck our faces. Still, the beauty of the trail and the snow-covered birch trees was undeniable, and I couldn't help but marvel at how wonderfully different snowshoeing up the mountain felt from summer hiking. When we reached the treeline just below the ridge and the Lake of the Clouds hut, we stopped to strap on our ski goggles, face masks, and extra layers. I took a deep breath, and we emerged above the trees and into the full force of 60mph sustained winds. The world became entirely white; the wind-whipped snow pack beneath my feet, the swirling ice and snow blowing around us, and the occasional, jarring appearance of a krummholz were all that I could see. I felt as though I were walking on the moon, and given how little I could hear, smell, feel, or actually see (given the goggles, wind, head layers, mittens, etc.), I don't think I've ever experienced such sensory dissociation. It was incredible.

The makeshift Ammonoosuc trail, just below Gem Pond
The wind impeded any real progress, and two gusts of 80mph almost knocked me over and nearly resulted in the loss of my poles. Given the wind's strength, we decided to turn around before we reached the ridge and gusts of even greater force; descending into those winds, however, proved even more difficult. We would start to glissade on our snowshoes when the wind would literally push us into stumbling or slipping; at one point I wondered if it would be faster to crawl down. That said, once we reached the treeline we were able to commence full-on glissading, and we essentially "skied" our way back to Gem Pond. At certain points the trail even resembled an icy luge track, and an inadvertent fall (which I still wish I could have seen given how hard NCT was laughing) turned me into a human bullet. I think I might have descended those forty feet 100 times faster than I ascended them.

By the time we returned to the trail head, at which point the snow/ice had transformed back into rain, NCT and I looked like two human icees. Everything was soaked and coated with a slushy frost; I pulled a wet ball of Cliff bar out of my pocket and contemplated using it for a prank, but ultimately decided that it was too disgusting even for that. We unsuccessfully tried to dry ourselves with the car heater before driving to the Crawford Notch Lodge for bowls of steaming chili and mugs of hot chocolate. We sat in front of a huge fireplace and stared catatonically at the fire while we devoured our food. After several minutes of silence, I looked at NCT, and he stared back at me. "I'm really, really cold", I said. "And I think my feet are wet".

Birches on Mt. Washington
Fortunately, our motel room possessed a powerful heater, and by the following morning everything was dry, including my feet. On our drive to Hanover for breakfast, during the course of which our exhausted bodies demanded Dunkin' Donut holes and maple candy, we discussed our first winter mountaineering attempt. Well, we tried to. I found that my tired body and apparently addled brain were unable to string coherent sentences together, and NCT kept stopping mid-sentence to stare out the window. As a result, the jury's still out. A summit attempt on Rainier? I'm on the fence, but I think I remember NCT saying he'd be up for it. Attempting membership in the Winter Forty-Sixters? Very tempting. And a return to Mt. Washington? Absolutely.

1 comment:

  1. C! This is excellent. I had no idea you liked Mt. Washington so much! My grandmother has a place up in Maine right at the foothill--we should go up sometime and explore. Miss you and happy early easter.

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