Mt. Washington – the summit climb, that wasn’t

The 18F today in Eatontown as I write this on a chilly Saturday morning seems a far cry from couple days back, when the winds that hit my face as I stepped out of my doors was more a peck on the cheek than a harsher winter windchill taking a crack at my skull having gotten through my tropical skin. It must have been about 60F then. March is the time when winter and spring play tug of, until winter gives up.

Having slept on a clear warm night, I woke up to this yesterday. It was a commendable effort to fake-bloom the otherwise naked trees with flowery white flakes. A day behind my glassed window with a bottle of chardonnay might not be a bad idea, but there is someone, somewhere out there, on the mountains, battling the pricking ominous winds, while I was getting ready for work.


Winter hike has been a fantasy since a summer day in the Adirondocks when a fellow hiker Raj was sharing an anecdote about a woman and her boys who were lost up there on Mt.Marcy on a winter hike, to be rescued, only after the ruthless cold mountain ate a few of their fingers. I was up there on Mt.Washington summit on three different occasions, climbed up via the Tuckerman ravine trail on a summer, the Huntington ravine on another summer again, we drove up on a road trip for the autumn hues and it was finally time for the real game, the winter hike. Till date there have been 150 recorded casualties on the mountain. Details and circumstances of all the deaths, along with this wonderful quote is up there at the observatory –

With that in mind, determined to not be another statistic, our guide Sam from International mountain climbing school, NH, spared no effort in suiting us up. Inadvertently we ended up picking one of the worse weekends to attempt this. It was about 4F already with winds around 30 mph in the Pinkham Notch trail head. None of us have been in temperatures that low before. Word is that, the summit is experiencing winds in the range of 70-100mph with temperature well below zero on the fahrenheit scale and that our chances of making to the summit aren’t that great. We were gonna start with just the base layer and the over base fleece layer, usually while within the tree line body gets warmed up enough and the fleece does a good job of trapping the heat in. Looking at the winds, Sam changed his mind and advised us to put the wind-proof layer on too. We were gonna start in the Tuckerman ravine trail and continue onto the lion’s head trail.

It’s very essential that you don’t let the steepness of the trail break you during the first hour, before your heart is warmed up enough for a tough long kickass day, most of the weariness is more mental than physical – one of those things that mountains teach you. About 30 minutes into the hike Bhadra wasn’t feeling great and was slowing down. Unfortunately none of us have been doing much cardio and it started to show. With frequent breaks and a quick burst of energy from the bars we kept on, as the cold breeze started cracking our face. I did not have it in me to operate the go pro given the conditions, I could use every bit of energy that I can muster up. I’m glad Sebastian managed a few clips to relive the day.

By the time we reached the diversion to take on the lion’s head trail, it must have been about 2 or 3 hours, if I have to ballpark. Sam wasn’t really happy with our pace. Once we took a right to leave the Tuckerman’s, about less than a quarter mile ahead is when the trail gets really steep. We had our longest break so far here, equipping our boots with the ice cramptons, to add more traction for climbing up the steep icy terrain. Sam warned us that this is going to be a hard climb and if anyone isn’t feeling up to it, this is the time to give up. Beyond this point if any one of us gives up, the entire group has to give up, as he cannot just let one person climb down alone.

Up we go. This turned out to be the most fun climb, pulling ourselves up with a hiking pole and an ice axe. Sebastian started feeling numb in the extremities of his feet. We climbed up ahead with some stretching tricks Sam taught us to keep the blood flow unhindered. I saw this old man by the trail, sitting all snugged up on the slope, leaning on to a tree, with an ice axe in one hand and a can of beer in the other, looking back down at the vast expanse of frozen earth. Why haven’t anyone told me you can drink beer on the trail?

About an hour later may be, we were out of the tree line exposed to the raw, gritty, force of nature. Time for more gears and a short break – from now on we cannot risk exposing any part of the skin to frostbite. With the neoprene face mask and ski goggles, we were all set to take it on. The views of the snow covered ravines, under a clear blue sky and a shining bright sun were stellar and breathtaking (literally). It wasn’t easy to breath with the heavy winds and the face mask on. I had to use my mouth as well to take in as much air as I can. Lokes was hit harder with his goggles fogging up, reducing visibility. The breaks were becoming more frequent. We were kind of also split up at this point with Sebastian and I surging up ahead on hopes of covering more ground, leaving Sam with Lokes and Bhadra a little back down the slope on the trail. I stopped to take a bite of my granola bar. I never realized before how hard it can be to eat, while you’re running short of breath. For a few minutes it took to chew down the bite, I had to gasp hard for air. The last time I gasped so hard for air was few years back in Ladakh. The snot I couldn’t hold it in froze in a matter of few seconds that I had to wipe the white dust off my face often. Sam ran up to us quickly pointing us our next landmark, the lion’s head, asking us to settle down there and grab something to eat while he would usher up Lokes and Bhadra.

Needless to say, we were starving. I tried to snuggle behind a rock at the lion’s head hoping in vain to avoid the winds, while I remove my mittens to eat my peanut butter sandwich and chew down on the semi frozen water. Half way through the sandwich my hands started to get numb that I had to put the mittens back on and wait for the blood flow back to warm them up. By the time I finished the sandwich, Lokes and Bhadra were there too. It was 2 PM by then. That was our turnaround time. We should give up the summit dream and climb back down to make it before it gets dark.

As we started our descent towards the tree line after the lunch break, Lokes whom I would usually count on to be fitter among us, presumably due to short of breath seemed to have lost his balancing capabilities so much that Sam had to tether him with a rope tied to his body while getting us down. Sebastian’s numb feet were getting worse and now Bhadra started to get numb too. Though I didn’t experience any of the cold symptoms, my knees were shaking and legs started to cramp giving in to the stress of the descent. There we were, descending towards the Pinkham notch, worn and broken down hard, disappointed at the summit climb that wasn’t, hoping to be back under a heated roof soon.

I looked back up longingly at the mountain looming over us, standing tall, majestic and spectacular, having beaten us fair and square. It was quite an underestimated summit attempt at one of the harshest and the tallest peaks of the north east on one of her coldest days when she is at her strongest. May be coming back down in one shape and not have become just another statistical data on the first attempt counts as success. I’ll have to hit the gym harder, toughen up my heart, strengthen my legs, climb up on few of her less harsher siblings may be.

I’ll be back again some winter day, stronger and fitter, to take on the beautiful beast. And she’ll be mine. Some day!

Here’s a nice compilation from Sebastian –

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