As per usual I have the week between Christmas and New Year’s off. This winter has been terrible for ice climbing so far, and by terrible I mean nonexistent outside of Mt. Washington, I hoped I could get some good climbing in during my vacation. The trouble is my two partners, Chris and Boris were planning to be out of town. As a result I trolled NEIce.com for people looking for partners. Luckily I found two, Mike and Kevin. Kevin and I planned for a three day trip during the middle of the week, Tuesday through Thursday. As the days grew closer it seemed that Mt. Washington still harbored the only dependable ice in the northeast.
After picking up Kevin, a college student studying geology in Bozeman, MT, we headed north towards the White Mountains. The weather was good and we inadvertently took the long route through Crawford Notch which wasn’t the worst thing in the world; we were able to see that notch’s climbs first hand. Kevin had been up earlier the week before and climbed Shoestring Gully. The conditions had improved in the 5-6 days he’d been away. A good sign. We arrived in North Conway and after a few errands for food we headed towards Pinkham Notch. The plan was to stay at Harvard Cabin for two nights and climb in Huntington Ravine.
Last year walking up the Tuckerman’s Trail had been just a snow hike, the snow covered almost all of the rocks and made the going pretty easy. This time was very different. There was some snow on much of the road but it was not nearly deep enough to cover the rocks. Many sections of trail were completely iced over and I was glad to have borrowed my Dad’s microspikes.
We arrived at Harvard Cabin around 1:00pm. The cabin is owned by the Harvard Mountaineering Club and is operated by special permission from the US Forestry Service. Thankfully it is smaller and less known than the other place to stay on the east side of Mt. Washington, Hermit Lake. The cabin sleeps 16 and has a wood burning stove, gas range, gas lights, and a nice loft for sleeping. Camping is also permitted there, though for $5 extra dollars you could to stay in the cabin. I visited the cabin on my last ice trip of the 2010-2011 season and was bit turned off by it. Chris and I had stopped in there to take a breather on our way to Pinnacle Gully. Poking our head in the door I saw a cluster-f of people in a dark humid and busy cabin. People were buzzing around the range, sitting at the bench seat table, and gear was everywhere. We got a quick refill on water and quickly stepped outside to escape. …
This time was very different. The cabin was mostly empty we Kevin and I arrived, owing to the mid-week time frame of our trip. There were only a few other poeple there, a father and son team and the caretaker, Rich. There was also a French-Canadian couple but they were gone before that evening. We unpacked our stuff and setup our sleeping pads and bags. I regretted bringing only one sleeping bag for this week and having it be my -20F one; my pack was huge and heavy as a result, well that and my over abundance of gear as usual. After introducing ourselves we suited up for an afternoon trip up the ravine for a little bit of climbing.
The hike up was difficult. My previous trips had been in mid and late winter conditions. Snow filled in almost all of the talus field below the climbs. This made for an easy though steep approach to the gullies. This time was quite different. Our anemic winter had yet to fill in much of anything. Large, ice and snow covered bolders and brush confronted us on the way up to the base of Yale Gully. Without careful footing it would be quite easy to slip and break and arm or leg. From the cabin it took a little less than 2 hours to get to the base of our climb. This was quite disappointing since in March the same approach took around 1:15. The approach sucked up a bunch of potential climbing time. By this time it was about 3:00pm, leaving about 1.5 hours before sunset. Sunset being a relative term since it was overcast. Being my first chance on the ice for the season I asked Kevin for the turn to lead, which he was kind enough to give. Being in Bozeman, MT he’s been climbing ice since November–the lucky bastard.
We set up below what I think is called Harvard Route, just a little lower and to the right of Yale Gully. The pitch looked easy enough to walk off which was our main criterion being that we only had an hour or two before it was dark. The climb probably was about a WI2 in its condition. Speaking of conditions. O’Dells was pretty well formed, most of the ice being on the right. Damnation Gully was in, North Gully was pretty thin. Pinnacle was similar. The biggest problem is the lack of snow connecting the non-ice sections of the climbs.
I brought up half a dozen screws and a few slings. It felt pretty good to take those first swings and get the picks in the ice. Little did I know it would be the only time for the weekend. I headed up and placed a few screws on my way. The lead head was ok, and my technique seemed alright as well. It was only WI2 so who knows. That grade could be done with a mountaineering axe. I got to where I thought I’d run out of rope for a top rope and made a two screw anchor then signaled for Kevin to lower. As he lowered I could see we were going to be a little bit short. About 6 feet from the bottom we ran out of rope, a 70m, and I had to anchor myself in with my axes and an extra screw. Noob mistake, especially since I was directly under the climb and got beaned a few times with ice while Kevin climbed.
All the while, Rich the caretaker had followed us and had been soloing up along side of my route. He got to my anchor and asked to rap off on our rope. Because of us being short he bailed off a little early and just down climbed the remainder. At this point the light was starting to dim and the rain starting to spit. The weather forecasted for rain, snow, and warming over the night. Kevin and I finally got squared away after our noob mistake of coming up short and he headed up. After reaching the anchors he untied and made his way over to the grassy but steep walk off.
On the way down Rich, Kevin and I met two clueless guys heading out as well. We had seen them climbing O’Dells earlier. We never really saw them coming down but only once they had reached the base of the gullies. We met up and Rich asked them about their ascent and decent routes. They were clueless and keep saying they climbed O’Dells but didn’t seem to realize we were interested in their decent. After a couple of exchanges Rich gave up and all five of us keep going. We assumed they came down Central. I had followed Rich’s lead in removing my crampons, while the other three had kept them on. He and I quickly pulled away from the others because of this. Eventually we stopped to wait. Once Kevin caught up we kept going while Rich waited for the other two. He didn’t feel like getting called back into the Ravine for a rescue later that evening I think.
Once back at the cabin, which was warm and toasty from the stove, we cooked up some dinner and talked to the two newcomers, Billy and Brian. Rich, the caretaker, knew Billy from his previous trips to the cabin. Soon Billy and Brian were knocking back some of the many beers they hoofed up the trail. Rich had a couple of friends come to visit and soon everyone was at the table making new friends.
The next day we woke to blustery wind and snow. We got a bit of a late start but around 9:15am Billy, Brian, Kevin, and I all headed up to the Ravine. We planned to climb Pinnacle Gully. On our way up, which was easier than the afternoon before, but still crappy, we saw some of what seemed to be a wet avalanche slide from the night before. I’m not an expert, I’ve only got the knowledge I’ve read from books, but it seemed like a recent slide. The temps had dropped after the rain overnight so the debris we saw was hard balls of snow ranging from softball to football/basketball in size. My thought is that the rain lubricated the snow and a small surface slide occurred and then froze. The debris seemed to point out that the slide came from Pinnacle.
The weather during our approach was pretty consistent; blowing snow and ~25 mph winds. Not ideal. As we got to the base of Pinnacle we took stock of the situation: 11:00am, four climbers, two ropes, 40m and 70m, 50-60 mph winds from the west–meaning Lion’s Head descent would suck, the wind also seemed to be loading dry powdery snow on top of a hard crust because of the rain the night before. All summed up wedecided to back out of the climb. Back to the cabin it was swapping stories of climbs and all sorts of other stuff. Billy provided much of the topics for discussion, party because of his gregarious nature and because of his recent trip to Nepal to climb Ama Dablam (22,349 ft). During the evening we ended up getting a full house as a bunch of French-Canadians joined us.
The weather report on Wednesday for Thursday did not instill a high confidence of climbing; it was predicted to be windy and cold. Thursday morning we all sit in our sleeping bags listening to the Wx report coming through Rich’s radio. Apparently the folks up at MWOBS know what they’re doing as it was spot on. Conditions at 7:00am were -13F and 80-90 mph wind. At least it was sunny.
Kevin and I decided to pack up and just head out. The wind was much more than we wanted to deal with and coupled with the cold it was just too much. After packing we made the trip down from the cabin in a bit more than an hour, or maybe it was 1.5 hours, I don’t remember. The drive back was fine and we didn’t hit much traffic.
For spending three days in the cabin we only got one pitch of ice in which was disappointing. But that’s how things go on Mt. Washington. There will be more trips up before this belated winter is done.
BTW, my second partner, Mike and I never climbed. Weather was predicted to be 35F and rain/sleet in Vermont on Saturday. I didn’t feel like driving three hours each way to stand in the rain.