Sunday, January 25, 2009

Valerie's Climb

Valerie wants to climb New Hampshire's Mount Washington in winter. She's my younger daughter (23) and a fine athlete, although not really climber. I think she has fastened on this goal because it's hard. Mount Washington is only 6288 feet tall, but it is renowned for fierce winds, low temps and terrible storms. This morning I checked the web site for the summit weather station; the conditions are typical: temperature -11 F., wind 60 mph from the west, wind chill -47 F. Atypically, it is one of those rare days when the summit is not socked in with freezing fog.

In a rash moment, I told Valerie I would do the climb with her. I climbed to the summit (these days I guess I am supposed to say I "summited") several times in the '60s, but have not been up there since. As I thought about this little adventure, I began to wonder if I have the strength and stamina to make it up. After all, in 1968 when I was last up there, I could run a mile in 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Yesterday I was happy to finish a three mile run with a burst of 12 minute pace.

I decided a test was in order. Last week, while in NH for ice climbing lessons (see below), I took a day to see how I would do on the mountain. I got my gear together, including my mountaineering ice ax, crampons, warm clothes, balaclava, etc., etc. and set out up the Tuckerman Ravine trail from the AMC Pinkham Notch camp. My sister had considered going with me. But she, poor thing, still has to work for a living, so I wound up going solo. My plan was to hike up the relatively easy Tuckerman trail and then follow the Lions Head winter trail up to tree line at about 4500 feet. I figured that by timing how long it took me to climb to tree line, I could tell if I move fast enough to make the summit and back in a 10 or 11 hour day.

The day was sunny and bright, with the summit predicted to have a high temperature of 6 F., wind at 60 miles an hour, and wind chill -20 to -30 F. A decent day. I started at 9 a.m. and walked slowly up the Tuck trail, stopping occasionally to sip hot Gatorade from my sock enshrouded water bottle. The only other person I saw all day was a hiker who started about a minute before me; he soon disappeared up the trail. By 10:30 a.m. I was at the junction with the Lions Head trail, where I took a short snack break. So far so good.

I followed the Lions Head trail through the woods. In short order it got quite steep. This being the winter Lions Head trail (the summer tail is deemed too prone to avalanches for safe winter use) it has no switchbacks angling across the slope. No. It just goes up! I used the pied a plat or "flat footing" technique I had learned in my ice climbing lessons until the trail got really steep. Then I switched to single-ax front-point technique, which got me nicely through the steepest parts. In reasonably good time I was at tree line, where the wind started to pick up and the light snow left by a recent storm, to blow horizontally. I felt pretty good, so I decided to go on a little farther to see what conditions on the bare, rocky slopes were like. The temperature was probably about 10 F. and the wind blowing at 20-30 mph. I soon pulled my balaclava over my face to protect against frostbite, but felt no need of either my down jacket or wind pants.

After a little less than an hour of slow climbing through drifting snow, I reached a spot about 5000 feet above sea level from which I could see up to the tops of towers on the summit, and down into the magnificent Tuckerman Ravine. I thought about going farther up, but decided it was not a very smart idea to go solo too far above tree line. I checked my watch -- it was 12:30 p.m. -- and headed down.

I glisaded most of the way down the Lion Head Trail, down-climbing only the steepest parts. As I neared the bottom on the Tuckerman Trail, I saw a cute little Pine Martin bounding along in front of me. He was only the second mammal I had seen all day (the first being the hiker who left me in the dust).

The time was 2 p.m. when I arrived at the Pinkham notch camp. The climb from Pinkham at an elevation of 2030 feet to 5000 feet and back had taken me 5 hours, leaving me 6 hours out of an 11 hour climbing day to do the top 1200 feet up and down. The last 1200 feet are without doubt the hardest and slowest, due to the thinner air at 5-6000 feet, much worse footing in drifted snow, and the cold and high wind. But, based on handling the first 3000 feet in 5 hours, I think I can make the rest in less than the remaining 6 hours of my 11 hour day, providing Valerie and I can find a day with decent weather.

I called her and told her the trip is on. We are planning to try the climb in mid-February, after the North Conway Ice Fest I am going to attend. I'll report.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Hating Ice for Fun

When as a teenager I was first expressing an interest in climbing (circa 1963) my mother produced from somewhere a thick tomb on mountaineering technique written in about 1890 by an Englishman named, I think, Geoffrey Young. I don’t remember much about the book except that it had a tan cover, recommended wearing hobnail boots, and inveighed strongly against ever using a foothold on rock or ice unless that hold is bigger than your foot is wide. This principle, of course, made climbing rock of any difficulty at all impossible and mandated the cutting of big steps in snow and ice.

It is amazing how humans can create “rules” that limit their ability to achieve. For many years, the insuperable four-minute-mile barrier held back distance runners.

Rock climbers abandoned the requirement that every foothold be at least 3-4 inches wide early in the 20th century as they began the exploration of the limits of human ability that has given us the 5.15 climbs done by today’s hard kids. But on ice the story was different. The belief in the necessity for cutting nice big steps persisted until almost 1970. Only in the late 1960s did Yvon Chouinard import front point technique into North America from Europe. Jim McCarthy of Gunks rock fame brought that technique East by leading the first front point, no-steps-cut ice ascent of Pinnacle Gully on Mount Washington in 1970, the year I graduated from college.

My few adventures into ice climbing in my first climbing life all took place in the 1960s and involved cutting lots of steps with my 3 foot long, wooden shafted ice ax. It was hard work that involved overheating and freezing at virtually the same time. It made rock climbing seem like a paradise. I stayed away from ice as much as possible.

Since I got back into rock climbing two and a half years ago, ice climbing has reared its ugly head from time to time. I see pictures of cool looking routes in glossy mags and the American Alpine Journal. My Gunks partner Carolyn is a devoted ice climber and occasionally has suggested I try it. My brother in law Dan is not a climber but lives in New Hampshire and loves winter sports. He has mentioned giving ice climbing a try. He even owns a pair of ancient axes.

Last winter I barely dodged the bullet. I succumbed to Dan’s entreaties and agreed to schedule a one-day Introduction to Ice Climbing class for the two of us with International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway, N.H. Imagine my relief when I called and learned all the classes in our time-window were already full. Another winter without ice climbing, sweet.
This winter, though, something strange happened. Maybe it was Carolyn’s enthusiasm or the pretty pics in the magazines. The idea of trying some ice climbing started making clandestine appearances in my head. I didn’t think I would like it, but felt I should give it a try. They say that a good definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting to get a different result. But maybe insanity also consists of deciding to try a difficult, potentially dangerous sport because you think you won’t like it.

In any event, I decided to try ice. I bought a book with a bright red cover. A whole chapter is devoted to staying warm in sub zero temperatures by wearing very little insulating clothing. Swell. I told Dan I would schedule two days of lessons for us. I called Carolyn and asked her if she would take me out and show me how it is done. I was insane.

On Sunday, January 4th, as the weather babblers on TV and Radio were heralding the arrival of a record setting cold snap, I packed my cold weather gear and crampons (I had gotten them for my aborted trip to the Tetons) and headed for New Paltz. Next day was bright, blue and cold. With rented ice axes (these days everyone calls them “tools”) I met up with Carolyn and her friend Lee. We headed for an area called the playground. At least the name sounded non-threatening. I was a bit disappointed to learn that Lee had climbed ice half a dozen times before. I had hoped that he was also a beginner.

As we stood under the 30 foot high ice cliff, I realized I was feeling what novices must feel about rock climbing. I was looking up at the smooth, shiny, seemingly steep ice and wondering, “How in the Hell does anyone climb that.” Even more to the point, I was wondering how I would climb it.

Carolyn was great. She talked me through each step of the process from what to wear to when to put on my crampons and how to swing my axes, respecting my ego and tender feelings by casting her advice in the form of “What I [Carolyn] do is X,” so I would not feel she was lecturing to me. Watching her and Lee climb the cliff was a bit encouraging. I began to see how the techniques might work for me. My turn came and I stepped up to the ice and began, just as Carolyn had instructed: reach up and drive the pick of one ax into the ice, test it, step up 6-8” at a time on the front points of my crampons making sure to form a stable triangle with the ax and crampons, step up again until my arm holding ax is in a bent, locked off position, reach up and place the other ax, and repeat the process. After a couple of ax placements, I realized I was actually climbing the ice. Then, I looked up and couldn’t see any good holds above me. Oh, oh! But wait. I don’t need holds. I can make them. So I worked on, soon reaching the anchor at the top. I think I screamed with excitement. I felt like screaming anyway. I had actually climbed a short easy ice cliff!

And you know what? It was fun. I’m not sure what makes it fun, but it is. Maybe it’s the motion itself; swinging the axes and kicking in the front points on the crampons is so different from rock climbing. The sense of climbing something that looks so completely un-climbable is cool. Then there is the beauty: the ice sparkled in the sun and stood out like a jeweled castle against the blue sky. As Lee and I watched Carolyn climbing, it occurred to me that she looked just like those picture in the AAJ of alpinists high on big mountains. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to be at a belay half way up a big climb and watching Carolyn leading the crux so we could follow her to the top.” And I actually meant it. Don’t ask why I thought that would be great, but I did.

So I dropped my thoughts of trying to get back the money I had paid EMS for the ice lessons Dan and I were scheduled to take later in the week and headed Ezzie, the faithful mini-van, to NH. Despite temps hovering around zero F., the lessons were excellent. We stayed remarkably warm; we learned a lot; Dan got hooked. On the second day, we climbed two Grade WI3s called Thresher and Goofer’s. The latter is one pitch about 180 feet long. I was surprised at how long I could stand on my front points without coming apart.

Yesterday I bought axes (I mean “ice tools”) and signed up for three clinics at the North Conway Ice Fest in early February. Tomorrow Dan, my sister Cassie and I are going back to Cathedral to top-rope some ice. I am, most definitely, insane.