Climbing Mt. Washington Solo

“The mountains are calling me
and I must go.”
          –John Muir

4:54 a.m.  Heading south on I-95 out of Brunswick, Maine towards Portland.

6:08 a.m.  Driving west on 302 in the direction of North Conway, New Hampshire

6:52 a.m.  Pulling off of 16 north into the parking area at Pinkham Notch, a base camp of sorts for winter climbing of Mt. Washington.

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Reputed to be one of the world’s biggest little mountains, Mt. Washington reaches just over 6000 feet into the sky above.  Its weathermaking abilities are why it receives the respect of being a “big” mountain.  The world’s fastest recorded windspeed was clocked here at over 200 mph.  Winter temps easily drop to -40 degrees Fahrenheit without wind chill being calculated in.  Blowing snow and ice, and tens of feet of snow and inches of ice leave some to suggest that the mountain is characteristic of latitudes much farther to the north.

          ************

I signed in at the register and stepped out from the trailhead at 7:21 a.m.  Insulated plastic boots were keeping my feet warm, and layers of synthetic fabrics kept my body at a comfortable temperature.  The air was crisp.  Light was coming to the forest.  The air temp was 15 degrees.

I kept a brisk pace up the switchbacks, familiar with this section of the trail after last year’s failed attempt to summit.  I met fellow climbers along the way, but opted to not stop, so as to not break my pace.

In just under an hour, I turned right off of Tuckerman’s Trail to make the quick connection to the Lion’s Head winter route.

Before entering the narrow trail in the tree cover, I strapped on my crampons and pulled my ice axe from the loops on my rucksack.  A few gulps of water and I was on my  way.

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It is a hotly debated topic in the world of outdoor adventure as to whether it is responsible or not to go into the wilderness alone.  I am not going to provide a debate here. 

That being said, on this trip, I went alone.

While it may seem insensitive and foolhardy, especially considering that I am married, I contend that going alone is necessary for me.  I am well-conditioned, experienced, and for the most part, well-prepared.  I am comfortable in the wilds and much prefer it to urban areas.

I thirst for solitude.  Yet, I am fearful in knowing that I, and I alone, am completely responsible for my safety when I do go solo.  However, it is this fear that demands that I keep a clear head, use excellent, precise judgement, not be hasty or macho, and, most especially in the mountains, requires and commands me to be humble.

                   ************

The terrain up Lion’s Head called for use of the axe.  A short, vertical section of the trail put a taste of uncertainty in my mouth.  I swung the axe hard to plant it deep into the snow/ice above my head.  Pulling on the axe, the placement felt solid.  Right foot kicked into the snow.  Crampons grabbed hold.  Left foot.  Again, good.  I then stood on the points of the crampons sticking in the snow.  Another swing of the axe.  Again, solid.  Step. Kick. Step. Kick. Swing.  Step. Step.  Clear.  The most technical section of the trail was traversed.

I proceeded above treeline and made way over Lion’s Head. The winds seemed calm, maybe gusting to only 30 mph.  Overall, I was feeling great.

The ridge trail skirted Tuckerman’s Ravine and continued to the southwest side of the mountain. A river of rippled dirty ice carpeted the trail.  I imagined walking on a glacier would be similar.

A half mile of steep mountainous terrain layed between me and the mountain. It was rocky and icey. The summit was covered in a frozen cloud.

                      ************

Pushing oneself physically to the point of mental doubt as to whether or not you are capable of carrying out the activity is something that excites me.  For, it is at that point of seemingly physical limitation that mental strength can carry you through. 

Be it climbing a mountain, the death of an intimate friend, a mother trying to save a child, we can understand that as physical human beings and psychological human beings, when we are able to find and discover the merging point of the two, we are able to create the third dimension of human beings:  our souls.  It is there, and comprehension of that entity, that makes us uniquely human.

                  ************

I ended up summiting just after 10:30 that morning.  It was not much of a big deal.  I was tired, and wanted immediatley to get back down safely, make the drive back to Brunswick and give my wife a long embrace.

I would be remiss if I did not tell you that the frozen cloud that was shielding the summit from below had lifted by the time I got up there.  A patch of blue sky emerged and I could see for miles.

At the bottom of a valley I could see a silvery yellow river cutting its way through the darker mountains. 

Had the sky not cleared, I would not have seen it.

I am glad that I did see it. 

It made me smile.

(written 28 December 2003)

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