Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, and Reinhold Messner. These are people that I will never be compared to. They have braved countless unclimbed peaks in the harshest of weather and have are pillars of the mountaineering community. Myself, I went on a little mountaineering trip to the White Mountains over the weekend of January 30-31st and could barely keep up with the rest of my team. The experience removed all fantasies that I might one day be able to climb high peaks.
While I have a good amount of rock climbing experience and some backpacking experience, I’ve never done any mountaineering even though it combines skills from both. I’ve been reading about it in Freedom of the Hills and was happy to see that the CT Chapter of the AMC would be holding an Intro to Mountaineering Weekend. After filling the last available spot a mere week and a half before the trip I started checking the Mt. Washington weather. While the weather a week out was mild, only in the mid-20’s the weather predicted for the trip would be cold.
The gear list was pretty exhaustive. Luckily I had most of the backpacking gear. I only lacked adequate snowshoes, ice axe, warm enough sleeping bag, mountaineering boots, and crampons. My buddy, Chris, thankfully let me borrow everything that remained except the boots and crampons. Those last items I had to rent from EMS.
My day Friday, January 29th, was hectic. I went into work early so I could work a full day before heading up to West Hartford for three stops, first at EMS for the boots and crampons, then to REI for mittens, and finally to Chrystal’s house for some miscellaneous items. After all that I met Mark Spain, a climber I met at a trip to the Gunks in June 2009. More than a few hours later we arrived in Twin Mountain, NH at the Profile Deluxe Motel. Here I met the other members of the team. Mark Sondeen, Aaron Dornback, and Brian Clark. Sondeen I had met before at another AMC outing, but Aaron and Brian were new. Luckily because of some cancellations we had two hotel rooms for the five of us. Well I should say we really had the entire motel. There were no other cars in the small parking lot.
Saturday morning we walked down the road to a small restaurant that I think I’ve eaten at a couple of times before on the way to Rangeley. Here we had some hearty breakfast and filled our water bottles with hot water and headed to the trailhead.
We parked at Lowe’s Store and were immediately blasted by the cold temps we would see for the entire weekend. Gearing up from the car we had -11° F with a +15 mph wind. This wind was only with us for the short walk from the store to the trailhead were it was blocked by the trees. Opting to leave the snowshoes in the car we found that walking was relatively easy on the packed trail.
We were hiking with mountaineering boots. These boots are also called double boots. The hard plastic outer shell is similar to a ski boot except the ankle can articulate forward and back. Inside is an insulated bootie. The stiff sole of the boot allows for two ascending techniques for steep sections of trail. The first is called the German technique. This is most similar to standard walking where you have your toes pointed forward. The idea is to keep your foot flat against the snow’s surface to gain the most traction. Inevitably you end up kicking in your toe in really steep sections. This leads to some calf fatigue after a while. To prevent this, the French technique can be used. In this method the toes are pointed at an angle to the trail and you side step over your uphill foot. I found this to be the easiest and least tiring.
After 2.4 miles of easy to moderate climbing the trail started to get steeper. At this point we took the opportunity to take our packs off at a small log cabin and strap on our crampons. Being the first time I’ve used crampons they took a couple minutes to get used to. They aren’t really all that difficult you just have to remember that “you have knives on your feet,” as Sondeen put it. I was able to get away with only cutting 1 quarter sized hole in my snowpants.
From the log cabin we continued another 1.7 miles to Perch Path where we’d spend the night. This last section of trail really hit me hard. I hadn’t been drinking enough water and started developing some cramps in my quads. This and my ill fitting pack really slowed me down. The first day we did 4.1 miles and 3,000 ft of climbing.
The Perch is situated on a steep northwestern side of the mountain at about 4,400 ft. This spot afforded us no wind, but also no sun. The temperature throughout the day hadn’t really changed a whole lot, remaining in the -10° F ish range. Making camp in the winter is actually a lot of fun. The 3-5 ft of snow at this elevation allowed us to dig a nice “mudroom” in front of our tents to make it more comfortable to get into and out of the tents. For the kitchen we were able to make a counter so we didn’t have to crouch down.
A dinner of mac and cheese with tuna and some chili mac warmed our bellies along with cheese and pepperoni appetizers. Staying warm in camp wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Throughout the day we continually adjusted our layers to make sure we didn’t sweat. It is surprising how few clothes you need to keep warm when doing strenuous hiking. While moving I had only a long underwear shirt, another light long sleeve shirt, and my softshell. In camp however we all started loading up on layers to keep some of that heat we generated on the trail.
After hot drinks and dinner we started boiling up water for our water bottles. While I’m not a big fan of hot liquids or food in plastic containers I have to make exceptions. Perhaps the most important trick I put to use over the weekend was tossing the nalgenes full of boiling water into the sleeping bags, tightly closed of course! These heat sources stayed very warm for hours. This was one of the two times the entire weekend my feet were warm.
Once morning rolled around we got up and made a little oatmeal to help us get moving. The decision was made that we would leave camp set up, taking only clothes, food and water with us up to the summit of Mt. Jefferson. This was key for me. With a drastically lighter pack I felt much better for our summit segment.
Hiking higher along Randolph Path we approached the tree line. Though the day was relatively clear with only some light summit fog, it was still very cold, -10° F. Without the trees to shelter us we were at the mercy of the wind. To mitigate the windchill we suited up for windy weather with our hard shells. After taking a few more sips of water and some chocolate to eat we headed out.
It is hard to describe the experience above the treeline in the wind. Sondeen later estimated the wind at 50-60 mph and -10° F, making for about -45° F windchill. The snow on the summit is hard and doesn’t blow around much. However the visibility was difficult for me because my goggles froze over fairly quickly. This left me almost blind. I had to pull them up and look through a small slit which only allowed me to see the ground directly in front of me. To see my teammates hiking I needed to crane my neck up. Even following them was difficult because the snow was so hard. Crampons left only small dents in the snow which were hard to follow given my visibility level. To make matters worse my feet were very cold again.
About halfway between the treeline and the summit we were able to duck out of the wind behind a boulder. This allowed me to snap a few shots. The summit fog and wind created conditions for rime ice. For those who don’t know, rime ice is formed when water vapor hits a cold object and freezes. This occurs into the wind and can create some amazing formations.
Despite the conditions, my literal cold feet, and limited visibility, the trip to the summit was breathtaking. It is a different planet up there. One where we were only meant to spend a short time. If someone were to get injured up there, especially if alone, would mean dire circumstances. This is probably why it was such a rush to be there. After making the summit of Mt. Jefferson Brian took a couple pictures. I tried to do the same, but the temps and wind temporarily rendered my batteries useless. Next time I’ll have to keep them warm for the summit push. 2.2 miles and 1,300 ft of hiking from the Perch set us on the summit.
Returning to camp we packed up headed back down. Once again below the treeline the temps rose to 5 F and the lack of wind made it very comfortable. Well at least it seemed like it at the time. While I was relatively comfortable with the summit hike, the trip down was another story. For the first time ever my knees started bothering me. I think it must have been my inexperience with crampons and my low level of fitness right now. Once again the ill fitting pack kicked in for the last couple miles. I really, really need to get fitted again by a qualified individual.
This experience taught me a bunch of things. The winter camping and mountaineering techniques were great to practice. I enjoyed the self-arrest session on our way down from the summit. I also learned how painful hiking can be. Usually I’m not the slowest in the pack. This particular trip I was. A humbling experience for sure.
The first few days after this trip I was uninterested in embarking on something like this again. As with all things, time and beer have healed those wounds. I won’t be able to do another one of these trips this year, but I might be able to do another winter camping trip before the weather gets “nice” again. However I realized I need a few more clothing purchases before heading out in similar temps again. First is a nicer hardshell. Mine’s just old and too big. Second, and more importantly is some insulating pants for camp. Some camp booties would also be a good idea. There is an REI sale this weekend. Perhaps I can find some good deals…