Leaders: Matt Reagan and Pat Brown
Climbers: Paul Rozelle, Simon Karecki, Ben Ingram, Robert Jagnow, and Sunil Tankha
Every winter school is supposed to end with an assault on New England's highest (and nastiest) peak. This year, I somehow got roped into leading it.
After delegating group recruiting, selection, and evaluation to Pat (while I dealt with pressing matters such as work and skiing), I geared up Saturday morning and headed out under the ominous shadow of an approaching cold front.
Our Saturday night was more eventful than originally planned--after a required dinner stop at Woodstock Station (always worth the detour), we found out that IAP/Winter School was technically over and that Intervale had returned to social use. Some scrambling was in order, but we eventually figured out who had winter camping gear and who was willing to put up some cash for a cheap motel room. By next morning, the two halves of the group ended up hitting 16 north within seconds of each other, and after an hour of changing, random fidding with gear, and chatting with Hector's Huntington Ravine Ice Climbing Team we started up the Tuckerman Ravine trail at 6am.
The overall weather looked excellent. The sky above was clear and the morning sun was beginning to glow behind the Wildcat range. A dark mass hovered over our goal, however, and occasional flurries under an otherwise clear sky indicated some serious wind-scouring going on above treeline. We chugged up to the Huntington Fire Road at a respectable pace, located the Lion Head winter detour, and geared up with crampons and ice axes for the climbing portion of the day.
The Lion Head winter route follows an old eroded trail up the eastern edge of the Lion Head buttress. It climbs steeply, with minimal switchbacks and a few sections that require clever route selection or careful use of front points and an ice axe. Deep powder, probably blown in the previous day, covered the steep slope, and I found myself wading knee-deep in unconsolidated snow as we front-pointed upward. We moved carefully but quickly, and reached treeline and the top of the summer route by 9am.
We dressed up in our above-treeline best, and continued the climb through scrub and rock toward the Lion Head itself, a rocky pile that marks the edge of the flat, treeless, and exposed Alpine Garden. Unpredictable gusts of wind, probably in the 25-35 mph range, kept things interesting, but overall the climb was more tedious than difficult. A few crampon and goggle problems dogged the group, but everyone seemed warm, strong, and well-motivated.
Then we arrived at the Lion Head itself at 5100'. After a quick water and snack break, I lead the group around the north side of the rockpile and ventured onto the edge of the Alpine Garden.*Smack!*
Three steps beyond the shelter of the rocks, a blast of wind smacked me hard, pushing my goggles up, spinning me around 90 degrees, and dropping me face down onto bare rock. The two hikers behind me dropped too, and we held on for dear life as the initial gust organized itself into a steady stream of hurricane-force wind. I gestured wildly to the people still in the sheltered zone--trying to indicate that it was time to back off--while a roaring river of air buffeted my oversized pack in a concerted effort to roll me off the mountain. We crawled back to the shelter of the buttress to reorganize. The folks at the tail end of the party, wondering what could possibly have caused all of our flailing around, stepped out to try it themselves. Watching our 180lb co-leader get airborne convinced everyone that progress beyond this point was unrealistic.
It was exactly 10am. Here's what the summit observatory recorded:
Conditions at KMWN on 2/6/2000 at 9:51 AM EST (14:51 GMT) Weather: Freezing fog Temp: -12 F (-25 C) Wind chill: -60 F Humidity: 100% Dewpoint: -12 F (-25 C) Visibility: 0.062 mi Wind: W 102 mph gusting to 120
If a windspeed of 1/2 your body weight in pounds is enough to knock you down, then it's clear that our group was done for the day.
We retreated hastly to treeline, warning a few overly-optimistic passersby about the wonderful weather on the Alpine Garden. Once in the shelter of the scrub, we ditched our frozen goggles and iced masks, removed crampons, and set off on a powder-filled glissade back down the Lion Head trail. A few crotch-busters forced us to proceed with care, but a fine ride was had by all.
Back on the Tuck's trail, we decided to make the half-mile detour up to Hermit Lake to check out the conditions. At Hojo's, conditions were still quite windy, but blue sky and sunlight peeked out around the plume of snow blowing off the higher elevations. We ran into a large contingent of backcountry skiers, all of whom certainly got excellent powder skiing on the Sherburne. We huddled inside the cabin for an overly leisurely lunch, then headed back toward Pinkham Notch. Clear views toward the sunlit Wildcat Ski Area mocked us, but a quick glance over our shoulders reminded us of the severity of the storm higher on the mountain.
We made one detour along the way. The Tuck's trail makes contact with the Sherburne at the last steep drop on the ski trail, and this is a great place to practice self-arrest before heading higher. We'd had enough ice axe use, however, and figured that body-sledding would be more fun. Enough people had been practicing self-arrest to make a few nice packed-out troughs, and we took full advantage of them. Pat experimented with a polyethylene tarp, but the real winner was REI nylon pants ($20) pulled up *over* one's shell. New butt-sliding speed records were set, and much powder was inhaled. We also witnessed something truly extreme as two hikers ripped up the Sherburne on "Lazer Luge"(tm) sleds, getting amazing speed and still making all the turns. (Note: MITOC needs to buy some Lazer Luges(tm) for the rental shop) We returned to Pinkham by 2pm, noting in the climbers' log that the other MITOC group had returned at 9am (demoralized and utterly defeated, one would suppose).
We finished the day with an early dinner at Elvio's. Extreme Buttsliding was followed by Extreme Eating, as four hikers attempted to consume two (2) Elvio's Sicilian pizzas. The scene was appalling and fascinating at the same time.
Let's try this again later in the month!