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.

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