September 13, 2007

Sam Summits Mt Washington!

This all started the day before, when Bob, Joy, Kim & I drive to the "summit road" to take a 4WD-powered trip to the top of New Hampshire's highest and most deadly peak. Yes, many have died on this mountain, ue to it's fierce weather, and record breaking winds. (The mountain records hurricane force winds 104 days of the year!)

I guess we were lucky to be turned back because of the "too wide" truck, with the kayak rack on top. We learned today that peak winds yesterday were 87mph, and the top was in the clouds all day. Our money for the use of the road ($47) would have been a waste, and we may have been stuck up there most of the day (no driving when winds are above 75). On top of that there was a 2-hour stretch of hail up there!

We stopped and talked with the trail volunteer at Pinkham Notch (the most popular launch spot for climbing the mountain) commented that tomorrow might be "one of the best" chances for making the summit without dealing with sever weather. We had gone there with no intention of hiking this mountain, but as the afternoon and evening wore on, I just couldn't bear the thought of missing this opportunity.

The 4.1 mile, 4300+ ft climb to the summit through Tuckerman Ravine is fairly strenuous, especially the last two miles. The volunteer was not quite honest about the top two steep sections, they turned out to be harder than described. The "fear factor" was complecated by the fact that a hiker had been missing since Sunday afternoon (4 days) and there was a search on for him. They also had 10 rescues within the past week, but the weather had been very bad.
So, I set out from Pinkham at 9:15am with nice weather, no wind and sunshine. I loaded the backpack with a full 100oz of Hydralite, some snacks, a little emergency food, and several layers of all-weather clothes.
Kim decided to walk a little ways up the trail with me. Fortunately, the first few hundred yards provided a rare treat. A large female moose greeted us head on at a bridge over a small creek. We stood there, looking at each other for a few moments. It was obvious she wanted to cross, so we got over to the side, but her aprehension won out, and she turned away after a few moments. Ok for us, this is only the second moose we've seen on the entire trip. A good luck kiss, and I was off up the mountain.

The first couple of miles up the trail reminded me of the Smokies, except for the large rocks that made the path somewhat cumbersome. The forest canopy shielded any view of what might be expected ahead, or how awfully far it was up to the top! (probably a good thing)

Within the first mile, I was down to a tee shirt, and had my pants legs rolled up. The temp was in the fifties, but the rate of vertical ascent made sure one stayed pretty warm.

I could hear the search and rescue Blackhawk helicopter circling ahead, a stark reminder of how unforgiving this mountain could be. The emergency flare that I always carry in my backpack made the swirling sound more tollerable, knowing that if I got into trouble, help was just overhead. I reached Hermit Lake shelter on schedule (about 10:45am) and got a first glimpse of what I thought was the summit (it really didn't look too far away!). Only to learn a bit later that it was "Lion's Head" and wasn't "nearly there".

Just past the lean-too shelter, was the Hermit manned station, which was buzzing with activity due to the good weather today and the fact that it was serving as the search & rescue party HQ.
I spoke briefly to the ranger that had last seen the missing hiker on Sunday afternoon. He indicated that they had pretty much given up hope of finding him alive. The other hikers on the trail from this point forward adder a sense of security (in numbers I guess), and were nice enough to take some of the pictures along the way.

Glancing around the far side of the building, I got my first view of the ravine, wow! What a long, long way up. I could just see a tall waterfall in the distance. One of the hikers who had done it before comented that we would reach it, cross over the top of the waterfall, then still "have a ways to go". She also pointed out that it was much farther & higher than Lion's Head to summit.
As I started out from Hermits the ravine disappeared making things look easier. The fall colors, coupled with some bright sunshine made the day seem very pleasant and warm.

The climb up the ravine steepened quickly and became very rocky. Hiking poles were more dangerous than helpful, the hands were needed on the rocks as much as the feet. The steepness was not really apparent until I took my first rest stop, sat, turned around, and looked down...much steeper than any roof I'd been on!

The volunteer had emphasized how "much easier" it would be after climbing the "Tuck headwall", so that helped to keep me going. Finally reaching the top of this "headwall" another surprise was there for those who "love heights". There was a stretch a couple of hundred yards across the top (above the waterfall) that was less steep, but skirted a sheer dropoff of several hundred feet. Needlesss to say, I was hugging that mountain!

Another eight of a mile and I'd really have it made...BUT, the several below started to holler something about "put your layers on now", so I stopped to get the experienced advice. We were a few hundred feet under the ridgeline at the top of the Ravine, where clouds & fog were whisping by swiftly. They explained that the ridge, and above marked the end of the treeline, and complete exposure to the west winds (where the mountain,s harshest weather & wind come from). So, even though very hot & sweaty (despite the fact that my jacket thermometer was showing about 45, I put my heavy parka shell over a capalon base layer, and got my gloves and hood out and ready. I also was able to finally reach Kim on my cellphone (I was amazed it was only noon, it felt like I had been climbing all day!) only to hear the bad news that I probably would not be able to get a shuttle down, and that the winds and weather at the top were pretty rough. (she had taken a shuttle tour to the top earlier).

Cresting the ridge brought bitter winds of 20-30mph, which my hands verified almost immediately. The wool gloves felt pretty nice. Interestingly, my baseball cap seemed to be doing a good job on the head.

As I turned the trail (which had really disappeared, now marked only by faded remnants of yellow blazes every 50 ft or so, and very large cairns evry couple of hundred) and looked upward, the fog and clouds broke just long enough to see a long, long very rocky climb ahead, with no sign of the summit yet (the signpost officially said .6 mile).

Although there were quite a few climbers, it soon became obvious that everyone was on there own. The rocks (and boulders) were large, jagged, with many crevices to grab and twist an ankle or wrist. Now in thinner air at over 5000ft, and watching where each foot and hand were placed carefully, the climb slowed considerably. What looked like the top edge poped in view only occaisionally, as the fog and clouds continued to stream by up there. With only a few hundred feet to go, I looked at my watch, thought about how long it would be to climb back down, and remembered Kim's warning about "no shuttle". But, I had come this far, and would not be denied the sweetness of being able to say "I done it"!

And finally, someone standing upright, arms extended, he had made it! A couple of hundred feet and I too reached the road marking the summit parking lot, only to learn once again that the journey was not yet over. A couple of flights of man-made steps, a short climb over a few rocks, and whala! paydirt...the summit sign & survey marker!
Walking over to see this sign noting the record winds recorded here, I noticed large chains holding the serviccs building down, yes over the years it had been blown away three times!
While waiting in front of the for feedback about a possible shuttle just in front of the building, everyone was shocked when for only about 30 seconds the entire valley below cleared. Fortunately I had my camera in hand and was able to get this great panoramic (4 wide angle shots merged together)! This was the Tuckerman side that I had just climbed.
Oh, and yes, I did get to ride the shuttle bus back down.... what a day!