WHITE MOUNTAINS CLIMBING TRIP 2020
In my experience, there are few ways to facilitate meaningful relationships on planet earth as effective as time spent in the mountains. As we venture outside our comfort zones, the vulnerable situations we find ourselves in challenge us to rely on our peers for support and foster emotional transparency, regardless of how guarded we may typically be. To manufacture these situations in a controlled environment is precisely the goal of our annual fall climbing trip to the White Mountains. While things were slightly different from years past with covid precautions, we managed to squeeze out four days of climbing on some of the Northeast’s most impressive cliffs, and an exciting overnight trip up the Northeast’s tallest peak, Mount Washington.
On day one, the team loaded the van spreading out so that no two people had to sit next to each other. The Journey’s soundtrack included Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, and of course Fergie. As we arrived at Cathedral Ledge, we were greeted by seemingly half of New England’s population. Fortunately for us, most of these were hikers and we were able to find some space on the Thin Air Face that was unoccupied where we reviewed the basics of belaying a partner.
When we tie into a climbing rope, we are quite literally trusting our belayer with our life. This is a serious undertaking and can only be mastered through time and practice. We manage this risk through an extended “ground school” and through the use of “backup belayers”. The team let the seriousness sink in as we practiced before attempting the real deal. Once we were comfortable with our proficiency, we rounded out the afternoon with a few climbs. The bridge of trust was being built. The next day, we would embark on an adventure up Whitehorse Ledge, Cathedral’s next door neighbor.
Whitehorse Ledge is a massive granite slab that due to its size, requires climbers to break their ascents up into increments or “pitches”. This is an added challenge from toprope climbing. Because multi pitch climbing requires us to break into smaller teams, we brought along Keith Moon from Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. Keith is an AMGA Alpine Guide and Rock Instructor and has worked with our program extensively over the years. He spent the morning with us explaining the nuance of multi pitch climbing- and describing different rappel techniques and applications to winter ski mountaineering- before we blasted off around midday.
I would take a group of 3 up “standard route” and Keith would take a group of 3 up a combination of “Beginners Route” and “Slabs Direct” where we would converge at a large ledge aptly named “Lunch Ledge” and begin our descent. Whitehorse provides an incredible training ground for multi pitch climbing with plenty of moderate climbs to learn the ropes and get a feel for the systems required to tackle larger objectives. When both groups touched back down on the ground, the team was invigorated, a stark contrast to the trepidation felt in the morning.
On day 3 we were able to move at a slower pace. We would be toprope climbing at a single pitch crag called “Lost Horizon”. This did not necessitate the same efficiency that a day of multi pitch climbing might. Here we were able to challenge our movement skills with climbs reaching up to 5.10 in difficulty. This was the first day of our trip where we experienced the joy and frustration of unlocking a puzzling climbing sequence. Part of the day was also spent reviewing the basics of anchor building using traditional climbing gear. We packed up around 4:00pm and prepared for our final day of climbing, up Cathedral Ledge.
Keith was back with us for day 4 and he met us bright and early the next morning. Cathedral is a steep and imposing cliff and with the “Thin Air Face” closed midweek for trail work, options for moderate routes were limited. We decided at the cars that the best option for both groups would be a link up of routes called “Funhouse” and “Upper Refuse”. These are personal favorites of mine and I was psyched to share these routes with the team. Funhouse follows a steep corner system into a long hand crack that leads to a large ledge about halfway up the cliff. The most challenging sequence on the route is the first 20 feet. Upper Refuse picks up from there following a ramp feature with great rest ledges high above the valley floor. The final pitch involves climbing over a fence that keeps tourists back from the edge where an audience is usually waiting. Both teams regrouped at the picnic tables by the van where Patrick was waiting with burgers and hot dogs. We shared stories from the day and lamented the end to our climbing. The next day we would begin our overnight on Mount Washington.
Mount Washington, or Agiocochook as it was formerly known, is the tallest peak in the Northeast United States and the home to world renowned harsh weather. In 1934, the summit observatory recorded wind speeds of 231 miles per hour. Morning day 5 was spent organizing gear and packing bags. Packing a bag to walk with for miles, and live out of for days in a harsh environment is an art not to be taken lightly. We stressed the ABCD’s of packing which stand for Accessibility, Balance, Compression, and Dry. Upon conclusion, we drove to Pinkham Notch around midday and began our hike up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail shortly after.
The Tuckerman Ravine trail is a wide trail that gradually climbs about 1800’ in just over 2 miles to the Hermit Lake Shelters and “Hojo’s”, where thousands gather on spring weekends to engage in the merriment of Tuckerman Ravine corn skiing. Upon arriving, we were met with a beautiful and daunting view of the many ski lines we have skied in the past and may ski in the future with the program. As evening approached we ate dinner, played cards, and went to sleep over the backdrop of howling winds. Our weather forecast for our hopeful summit day was a tossup between a range of conditions from stormy to cloudy with a clearing trend. The next day I’d say we experienced all of the above.
In the morning, the alpine zone was in the clouds. We began up the boot spur trail with every intention of turning around if conditions dictated but with the hope of clearing weather. As we approached the presidential ridgeline, we were still socked in to the point of only seeing a few cairns in front of us. Despite the inclement conditions, spirits remained high and all members of the team voted to continue on from our established potential turnaround point. We trekked on to the summit where we encountered crowds who had driven up the auto road. We waited in line to take a picture and began our descent without dawdling due to the heavy winds and still no views beyond about 50 feet or so. Our celebration would begin upon the clouds clearing as we descended. With our first view of our surroundings since the morning, we took a lunch break and relished in our accomplishment. It was smooth sailing from there on out, and the relief of parted clouds and beautiful views helped us to forget about our tired legs.
Sadly the next morning, we would head back down to civilization, but not before watching the sunrise from the Tuckerman Ravine talus. We woke up in the darkness around 5am or so when we began our short hike up to the boulders. We each found our own comfortable perch and sat quietly for a short time before signs of light appeared over the horizon of the Carter Range across the highway miles below. Few words were spoken as the light gradually began to shine on browning leaves across the mountainside. In my experience, moments like these never lose their magic.
This trip was the culmination of our first month of dryland training, and is the foundation of trips to come. Personally, I couldn’t have been happier with how the team evolved from a group of apprehensive but capable individuals to a finely tuned machine of parts whose potential is beginning to be realized. With future travel uncertain as we navigate a dystopian covid world, one thing I am sure of is that this group will be able to overcome whatever challenges and appreciate whatever environments may await.
**Written by Owen McAndrew, Backcountry Coach**