Saturday 13 February 2016

A roadside sign flashed up: "Extreme Low Temperatures. Be Prepared." It was Friday afternoon and Brian and I were on our way north to Lincoln NH for our winter weekend playing with ice axes and crampons, and then hopefully with our new found skills on day two we'd take a swing at summiting Mt Washington. But I hadn't even got as far as balmy Concord Massachusetts to pick Brian up before this first warning appeared.

By Saturday morning, when what was left of the crew assembled in the hotel breakfast room, the craziness of the plan was really beginning to sink in. Five folks had bailed from the team during the previous week. All other teams had bailed completely. That left our guide (and photographer) Jim Gagne, Brian (far right) and me (second from left), and a pair of women, perhaps in their thirties. They turned out to be Nadia Persaud (on the left) and Patricia Alcivar (Patty to us, or apparently, "Boom Boom" to her friends in the boxing community) third from left. Both marathon runners, Patty was Nadia's fitness coach. The moment we learned this, BG and I switched from worrying about these two (New York) city chicks to a much more realistic concern about how we were going to be able to keep up with these two animals. I'm wearing my squash court glasses, on the grounds that they'd be easier to find if they left my face, and would be more tolerent of being crammed behind ski googles. Right on both counts.

Comfortingly, Jim's bio included the fact that he had done this trip literally hundreds of times before, and further claimed that he had climbed "The Seven Summits." Less comforting, he assured us that typically even Antarctica was warmer than the predictions for the next couple of days, and he should know. Nevertheless, he was game if we were, and provided "the temperature is above -50, AND the wind is less than 70mph" he would be able to teach us how to deal with it. "Why 70mph? What happens if it is more than that?" "Easy" says Jim. "Rule of thumb: take your weight, halve it, that's the maximum wind speed you can keep your feet on the ground." He looked pointedly at the ladies. "I'd start to worry above 70." Already it was difficult to imagine Jim worrying about anything, ever.

Jim recommended that we attempt the summit on Saturday, the “warmer” and “calmer” of the two days, and learn our skills on the way up. Agreed. Whatever you think is best is the right decision for us too, Jim. Next, Jim and a buddy he'd brought along (presumably if we'd have been a full complement he would have joined the party for the day) carefully went through all the clothes each of had brought. For some reason he was not happy with my bottom half: long underwear, thick cycling pants, rain/windproof pants, and so before we set off he found another fleecy pair that he attached to the outside of my pack. He also found poles for one of the ladies.

After all the discussion, and the inspection, and the trips back to our rooms to collect things we had forgotten, it was close to 9am before we got outside, which of course is exactly why one normally leaves the summit attempt for the following day. It was 10 am by the time we had driven to the cog railway station and everyone was suited up ready to go. But oh my god what a breathtakingly spectacular day. Brilliant blue, at least at first, and no one, absolutely no one else on the mountain.

Jim broke trail all the way up. I revelled in not having to worry about navigation. Jim was clearly not worried about it either even though there were many times when the snow left few if any clues. What he WAS extremely concerned about was our temperature, and we constantly stopped to discuss it, and he would help someone adjust something. He was just as worried about us getting too hot as he was about us getting too cold. For the first couple of hours we were mostly taking stuff off. "If you sweat you will get wet. if you get wet you will get cold. If you are cold AND wet, the wet could freeze. If the wet freezes you will die." Fortunately we were in the bar before he delivered the unabridged version of this speech, but it certainly explained why he was SO meticulous about it.

An hour or more in, we finally got to a lovely little spot with a frozen waterfall and pool, but more importantly where the gradient suddenly changed from 15 degrees to 50. Crampon time. But first, fat-boy jacket time. The puffy jacket that I'd finally broken down and bought just a week earlier after finding a web site that described it using words like "essential" and "life-saving." It has to be big enough to go over ALL your other layers. It was startling to discover how quickly we started to cool off as soon as we stopped, and equally startling (and fabulous) to discover how easy it was to just pull the fat-boy out of the top of one's pack and throw it on, instantly providing a cocoon of warmth.

It took a while to clear our boots, learn a little about the crampons, and finally get them attached to everyone's boots. Finally, pee'ed, hydrated, and fat-boys' stuffed back in our packs, we took our first steps in the crampons. Fab-u-lous. Well, fabulous for everyone except Nadia. The less she trusted the crampons, the more she slid and tended to sit down to stabilize herself. But of course the more she did that, the harder it was for the crampons to be effective. It was as if she’d never walked off-pavement before. Jim thought it might partly be because these mountaineering crampons may not have been the right pair for her (she needed something heavier) and certainly she did better with the ice crampons he brought for her the following day, but meanwhile I felt bad for her because she made heavy weather of the ascent while the rest of us revelled in the traction.

It was so cold the snow squeeked with every step. Jim: "like walking on styrofoam." It was so cold it changed the texture of our coats and gloves. Normally soft and pliable, they had become hard and stiff. BG speculated something might even crack. I was reminded of a day when my brother had hung wet washing on a line, and it was so cold that when the wind blew his shirt off the line, the now frozen sleeve snapped off. As we squeeked along, Jim showed us how he was testing for avalanche danger by using his stick to poke the snow surface. If it tended to sheer off in plates, that was a bad sign. He showed us how it was indeed sheering off in plates. "This is one of the reasons I prefer this side of the mountain. The snow tends to blow off this side and settle on the other side. We are in little danger here because the snow is not deep. Over there it is a different story ..."

I love snow, but personally I prefer my ice in a martini shaker, or at least at a distance, like the spectacular walls in the shot below, but there were many places where we had to cross it, and several where we had to stamp in and climb it, though these sections were mercifully short. In general the crampons were great, providing tremendous assurance underfoot. In fact several times BG and I wondered out loud why Jim was so anxious for us NOT to be wearing them.

Jim warned us to take care not to get our boots wet in the running water as we crossed several streams that were somehow still flowing. "You will not get wet until and unless you are up to your shins, but the ice can cause problems." When we went to attach our crampons, we discovered that he should have said "WILL cause problems.". It looked like water, but it behaved more like honey. The moment one lifted one's boot back out into the air, a great lump of honey-water instantly froze to the boot. Sometimes it was bad enough to make you limp, but always it was bad enought that it would have to be chipped off before a crampon could be fitted.

So with Jim dragging Nadia up the hard sections, we made slow but steady progress uphill. After a couple of hours the trees started to get noticable shorter, and finally some three and a half hours after leaving the cars, we stopped to add several layers, and then broke the tree line. Holy sh*t, it was like walking into the liquor store's beer cooler in shorts. Before long we rounded an outcrop of rock and the back of the Lakes of the Clouds hut was right there in front of us.

So here we are "sheltering" in the front of the Lakes in the Clouds hut. Generally this spot is one of my favorite places on the planet, a well-earned reward and oasis after a long day's hike. Today it was still a well-earned reward, and a great place to be, but an oasis it was not. The windows were all boarded up, and the door was all but obscured behind the snow drifts. Mt Munro is towering up to the left. Mt Washington therefore is directly behind the camera ...

... and though partially in view, its summit is obscured. If it looks cold, that's because it is. Jim led us all the way around to the back of the hut where by some miracle he was able to open a door into a room under the ground floor. At first it looked like an old bunk house. Though the floor was earth, and the almost windowless walls were stone, the dim light leaking through the one small window revealed three or four bunks. Jim assured up it was better thought of as a morgue than a bunk house. He'd returned here with a VERY tired crew at midnight one night, and still he'd only allowed them to rest for a while and then they pushed on to their camp site an hour down the mountain rather than spending the rest of the night in the shelter. "In here it is still -20 farenheit, in our tents after making some soup, it would be close to freezing, or even a little above."

So we did the same. Rested a little, ate and drank a little, and then "put on everything you've got." It was 2pm, -40 with the wind chill (centigrade AND Fahrenheit) and 30-40mph winds. That's at the hut. Jim estimated 10 degrees colder, and 10 miles per hour faster at the top. Still within our limits, though only just. We agreed that we’d had enough fun, and it was time to turn around.

It was unbelievable how much colder it was going down than it had been coming up. It was the same weather! The only thing that had changed was turning into the wind instead of it being behind us, and going downhill instead of up. Back in the bar, when I suggested that if we'd instead decided to go for the summit, we'd have lasted about 100 yards in the headwind and then changed our minds, Jim replied "I was going to give you 50."

At this point I (third from left above) was wearing neck scarf, balaclava, ski mask, skull cap, fleece hat, ski goggles, ski jacket hood and fat-boy jacket hood, long underwear, two shirts, fleece sweater, down nano jacket, ski jacket fleece and shell, and the fat-boy jacket (eight layers), the three pant layers I described earlier, gloves, handwarmers, and mittens. As you can see, and no surprise, everyone else was much the same. BG (on the right) and Patty (on the left) are about to cover up their noses because Jim noticed that after 30 seconds they'd already started to develop the tell-tale white spot of frost nip, the cold equivalent of sun burn. In a moderately successful attempt to minimise fogging up, I had taken my glasses off, so I only had the goggles to contend with.

On the way down, we learned more about why you keep putting crampons on and off. Wikipedia defines glissade as "the act of descending a steep snow- or scree-covered slope via a controlled slide on one's feet or buttocks [ ... ] and may be used to expedite a descent, or simply for the thrill." It goes on to say "Glissading involves higher risks of injuries than other forms of descending." Jim only mentioned the fun part, though he estimated it could have saved us as much as half an hour on our descent.

Anyway, "to perform a sitting glissade one sits down and slides on the slope usually holding on to an ice axe in a self-arrest position, especially when the run-out of the slope is in question." In my humble opinion, the run-out is ALWAYS in question. Plus we didn't have the ice axes that we would have had if we'd spent the first day practicing like we were supposed to. So Jim had us form a train, with him at the front, and each of us between the legs of the person behind. Glissading worked great, the train less so. Several times the rear wagons detached from the front ones, and once the run-out for the caboose took it right through the now standing front end, bowling it over like nine-pins.

But back to the crampons. If you attempt glissades while wearing crampons, there is a very real danger that one or other of the crampons will do its job and grab on. Twists, strains and tears are extremely common, and at a minimum it inevitably turns the glissader around so the decent is now backwards, at which point the run-out is entirely in the hands of Murphy and gravity, an extemely dangerous pairing. So this was one very good reason to remove one's crampons. The other reason I assume we minimised crampon use was the same protective instincts that walkers have for their boots, so you never wear them when there is a chance that you will blunt them on exposed rock. Jim sharpened his multiple times per season.

If Nadia had gotten to grips with the crampons we would have made the hut earlier, and with the whole crew firing on all cylinders, I believe we would absolutely have taken a swing at the last leg, even with our late start. Jim says coming home using the headlamps would have been fun. Really. As it was, we got back to the rail station right at night fall. As a team-player to my bones, it was perhaps even more satisfying to have played some small part in helping Nadia get as far as she did and getting the team back down again safely than it would have been if we'd just breezed to the summit and back. (Who am I kidding? Jim did ALL the work, we just provided moral support.)

So we failed. Sort of. Ever the salesman, Jim repeated multiple times that while we might not have summitted, what we had nevertheless achieved was huge. I for one completely agree and I have zero regrets. Being out on a weekend when EVERYBODY else chickened out, (a team of Rangers turned back on Sunday) to have Washington all to ourselves, to have Jim more or less to ourselves, to have such an unbelievably glorious day, picture postcard winter views all the way up and down, and a couple of chicks along for the ride, was priceless. We can summit any time. This was an experience we’ll never have an opportunity to repeat.