The plan for this weekend had long been to bring Carly, Ben, and Tom up to New Hampshire where Chris and I would give them some ice climbing time. We had the whole thing planned out, where and when we would go, rent gear from IME, lodging etc. A nagging feeling that this winter just wouldn’t turn around was with me and so I never made the reservations for any of it. It turned out my feeling was justified because as the weekend approached the temps were predicted to be well into the 50’s and there was rain. Follow that up with a little cool down on Friday and lots of sun and warm temps for Saturday and Sunday and you have a recipe for some unspectacular beginner ice climbing conditions. My main concern being the safety of the ice in steeper terrain that I wanted to top rope on. So at last minute we got a consensus from the noobs and decided to cancel. Unfortunately we probably can’t reschedule as the warm temps seem to be here to stay.
Plan B! Chris and I had been looking to get up to Harvard Cabin for a while; bad weather had canceled our plans twice before. Though the lower elevations were going to be rainy and warm leading up to the weekend there was a little more hope that things would be colder in Huntington Ravine. After the decision about Beginner Climbing Weekend, it was an easy choice for just Chris and I to travel up to NH. We even took an vacation day so we could get into Harvard Cabin on Thursday night. …
As per usual it was bunch of little things that caused us to roll into Pinkham Notch at 9:30, despite leaving work at 3pm. First off, indecision about where to park my car. I decided against parking at the usual spot off of Rt. 34 because of slightly shady locale. No big deal, we just met at my house, 15 minutes burned there. Next up while transferring the gear from my car into Chris’ I hear Chris say, “Something smells like alcohol.” Uh oh. On closer inspection I notice a little wet spot in my trunk which smells particularly like 12 year Glenfiddich. The water bottle I packed it in has an easy drink top that has a button on it. When pressed the liquid comes out. I must have packed the bag so tightly and laid it on its side that all the scotch dripped out. It got a number of the things in my bag wet including some of the climbing gear as well as my sleeping bag. Given the weight of my pack already I didn’t feel like swapping to a larger, heavier sleeping bag and since we were going to be sleeping in a heated cabin I decided to air it out on the ride up. Luckily the 60 degree weather on Thursday let us get everything dry in about an hour. Turns out an alcohol damp down sleeping bag will dry out much quicker than one damp from water ;-). Another 15 minutes burned. Oh but now I’m out of booze for the cabin, right? Well no of course I would have to replace the bottle that I lost before we could go anywhere. Yup, another 15 minutes burned.
The ride up was largely uneventful other than missing the exit for the Putney Co-op for dinner. Well uneventful until we pulled off
of I-91 towards Randolph on Rt. 302. Chris’ TDI Golf was low on fuel, very low so we figured we’d get some at the next station. Unfortunately finding diesel fuel at 7:30 on a Thursday is difficult in rural New Hampshire. We finally had to ask and went back to I-91 to find a truck stop just to the left of the highway where we had gone right. Chris’ car is a thirsty little sun of a gun as the picture shows ;-).
Continuing on the rain joined us in increasing volume, the wall of a cold front which would drop the temps about 20 degrees was also advancing on us. We just hoped that we could reach the cabin with little rain and none of the cold front.
Arriving in Pinkham Notch the rain picked up into a steady drizzle/light rain. Chris strapped on his splitboard and I my skis for a wet trip up to Harvard Cabin. The temps were in the low 50’s and it was dark. We didn’t use headlamps as we could see fine without them because of the snow on the trail. We quickly overheated in our shells and decided to remove them. These were quickly wet through from either the rain or our sweat. The going was a little rough because of the saturated snow and bumpy. Getting close to the cabin we could tell the wind picked up and it started to get cooler–hopefully we’d make it to the cabin before the front came through. After about 1 hour and 40 minutes from the base we got to the cabin which was quiet, everyone already being asleep at 11:30pm. After getting all my stuff ready for bed I quickly took a piss outside and saw that the front had indeed arrived and it was now snowing. This should make things interesting tomorrow.
We got up with the sound of the weather being delivered over the radio to Rich the caretaker. Temps on the summit were in the teens and they had gotten a few inches of snow. The winds were gusting to the 80’s as well. Given the conditions no one in the cabin was in a rush to get out early. We all lounged around waiting for the snow report to come in which was a little later than normal because of IT issues. As expected the avy danger was increased from Low in some sections of Huntington to all Moderate. Chris and I decided to scale back our plan of 4 gullies in a day to half that. We’d ascend Damnation (WI3) and decent Diagonal (WI2). Eating up and gearing up we packed it up to the base of the ravine.
The last time I was in the ravine between Christmas and New Year’s there was little snow and even the hike from the cabin was much more difficult and annoying than it should be to say nothing of the horrid conditions on the boulder field at the base of the ravine. This time however it was pretty well filled in and we got up to the base of the ravine and saw the awesome alpine sights that are Huntington–or we would have if the clouds hadn’t obscured everything. Conditions were low visibility with the clouds and snow. It sure felt like winter conditions. Balaclava, hood, and goggles were donned before even leaving the base of the ravine.
Our approach up to Damnation was careful, we traveled individually through sections of suspect snow and avoided putting ourselves in too much risk. The beginning of North Gully looked particularly fun in the bulge-y conditions that it was in. We kept left and went up Damnation for a little ways and started up the ice. I don’t remember a ton from the climb other than it was lots of fun. Most of the ice was near the bottom but it had some snow and ice mixed together. Nearing the top after 4-5 pitches, some of which simul-climbed, we were presented with two options: 1) left which had a rockier ice finish, or 2) right which was all snow. I couldn’t remember which was the “right” route so we headed towards the funner looking ice stuff. This proved to be perhaps the crux of the route but it was fun. Chris got dinged with some ice that I started to kick loose on my way up but that he finished off on his way up. It made for a good picture though.
Conditions at the top were good and wintery. I wouldn’t say “full on” but they were 13/16ths on. I’d only climbed Pinnacle Gully (WI3+) to this point in the ravine and I would say that Damnation rivals it pretty well. Not at technically difficult but very fun and the gully runs all the way to the top and spits you out onto the Alpine Garden. Pinnacle has a bit of a slog for a ways after getting through the climbing portion. We racked the gear and ropes and headed over towards Diagonal, which I still hadn’t ever seen before, the clouds kept us from seeing it on our way up Damnation. After a few minutes across the lip of a ravine we spied a very large cairn which I assumed must be at the top of Central. We headed downwards and a little north of that cairn. After just a few moments we saw Diagonal a proceeded down. Again we ran into some loose snow and slight wind slab. We moved through here with caution and were able to stick to older harder snow most of the time. An avy beacon and probe are definitely on my list of gear to get soon. After getting down to the base of the ravine we headed back to the warmth of the cabin for some food and drinks.
As expected the cabin was nice and toasty and we quickly warmed our fingers and toes as well as our bellies. We started to devise our plan for the next day which was expected to be lighter winds, clear, and much warmer. We figured that the conditions would be good enough for us to do our four gullies so we planned for up Yale, down Central, up Odell’s and down South.
Saturday morning we just caught the snow report before leaving. Everything was remaining at moderate because of the lingering snow from the previous day, coming in somewhere around 5-6 inches total since Thursday night/Friday morning. Thankfully the weather was nice and clear, but still a little cold as we skied up to the base of the ravine. We had no plans to ski down anything but we wanted to see how skinning up would be and skiing back on the fire road. We were the second ones up Yale, we could tell a solo climber had gone a head of us from his tracks. Yale is in a large bowl and is primarily E to ESE facing–perfect for collecting and reflecting the sun. We pitched out the first pitch of the gully and then began to simul climb from there. Much of the route is snow with some ice thrown in. At one point near the top we short roped a bulge. I’ve been working on getting more proficient with my simul climbing and short roping as they are necessary skills to move quickly in the mountains and I think I’m picking them up well. Only practice will make things more efficient.
The very top of the gully had warmed sufficiently when we got there to ball up our crampons and make things annoying. Slog, slog, slog. Whack snow buildup from feet and then repeat. Eventually we got to the top and the winds picked up and the temp dropped significantly, from 30 F on my backpack thermometer to 10 F. We quickly moved off to Central so we could get out of the wind. On the way down Central we practiced some short roping techniques. Going down is a little different in that the stronger climber doesn’t lead, they stay uphill. This allows them to see and arrest slips by the downhill climber before they get out of control. Getting down Central took a little extra time this way and it is pretty steep so careful footwork is required.
Finishing up Central we headed right across the base of Pinnacle to the start of Odell’s. After getting sight of Odell’s we both realized that it starts much higher up than we expected. Some nice steep snow for cramponing finally got us to the base of the ice. There are three distinct paths, left, center and right, increasing in difficulty as you go right. We decided to take the right path, but the route of least resistance on the hardest face. I quickly lead up the ice and topped it out after just a little more than half a rope length. I tied off to a little tree and Chris came up after me. Since the snow looked pretty manageable he decided to do the next pitch which we simul climbed before he could reach a decent anchor. From there we did another pitch of simul climbing to get to the top. This was also a tough time because of the soft snow. I didn’t find Odell’s all that pleasant and I don’t think I would make it an objective in the future. Perhaps as part of a multi gully day, but not by itself.
The plan to descend South Gully was difficult to do at first since we could find it. We started heading to the right after a little debate because we were cold and tired. We could go down Central which wasn’t too far and we knew what we were in for, or we could find South and do that. I convinced Chris to forge ahead and finish with South. After thinking the other two top outs to Odell’s were South I finally just kept walking until I saw a small cairn and assumed that must mark the top of South, which it did. The beginning of South is pretty steep and definitely had some pockets of loose snow/slabs. We again went into short roping mode and threaded our way down from safe snow to safe snow on skiers right, Chris placing some tree-slung pro along the way.
Finally we go to the bottom of the gully and saw our skis which we had stashed just off the ravine approach trail. We made a beeline for these orange beacons and were soon on our way out. I was yet again reminded that I am not a strong skier an had to take my time on the fire road.
Saturday night the cabin filled up. The previous two nights it was open but Saturday it was chalk full. Frenchies and normal people all crowded in making dinner and chatting things up. I got to see Brian from my last cabin visit, who was up with two friends to do Central the next day. The cabin is a great place to meet lots of fun climbers and swap stories of climbs, be they rock or ice.
Sunday we lost an hour due to the time change but gained daylight in the afternoon. Chris and I started to feel a little fatigue from the previous two days so we decided we’d do the first pitch of North Gully (WI3) since it looked really good and rap off. From there we might do the first pitch of Pinnacle if we felt like it. We tromped up to the ravine once again in warm clearweather. We leapfrogged a party of three also headed up to North. Once there they were good enough to let us go first so I scrambled up to the fixed pins as quickly as I could. The first pitch is really fun because of the bulges. There was plenty of ice and it was building in some spots. We rapped down and decided that we were pretty tuckered and decided to head back to the cabin and then out.
Obviously 1/2 the reason for skinning up to the cabin is to ski out. This should be a pretty easy, fun, and quick way down right? Perhaps for someone who has skiing abilities. I on the other hand haven’t skied much in about 15 years so I had some major difficulties on the way down. Once we finally got to the Sherburn Ski trail it quickly because apparent that in order to not hurt myself I would have to take it pretty easy on the way down. I figured this out because within about 100 yards of trying to ski on the mash potato snow that was on the trail I took a digger, lost a ski, and couldn’t get up because of the 60 lb pack I was carrying. Hmm. I guess I’m no ski mountaineer. After 40 minutes we finally got to the bottom, Chris patiently staying within earshot in case I took another fall. Next season I’m going to have to but some time in at a resort and with a pack to up my skiing skills.
Writing this about a week after the trip it is definitely looking like this was the last ice trip of the season. It was a couple weeks earlier than last year. It was still a productive year, but I wasn’t able to reach my goal of leading Dracula (WI4+) by the end of the season. That climb is still up but who knows for how long, and I haven’t been able to do enough WI4s to convince myself that I could lead Dracula safely. Ah well, next year I guess.
Total Elevation Gain/Loss
Approx. 8050ft/8050ft over three days. Saturday included about 3100 ft of this. While the numbers are huge, remember that these are on slopes anywhere between 30-80 degrees.