January 15, 2000
Pat, Dave, Rob, Scott, Phil, Ken, & Jonah
Nine choices - Each a different way to freeze to death. Technically, we were also offered the choice to stay home in our nice heated rooms, but noone really considers that option seriously. That's pretty much how it goes every Wednesday at the MIT Outing Club Winter School.
On Friday, our team of seven spent the night at the Intervale cabin, owned by the outing club. When the propane lamps finally dimmed shortly past midnight, I could see Orion, perfectly framed in the southern window. As the night wore on past 1:30, his graceful dance westward served as a constant reminder of the rapidly approaching 4am wakeup hour.
After two and a half hours of sleep, I woke to the quiet beeping of a watch alarm. The seven hikers in our group quietly gathered our gear and snuck out of the cabin, careful not to wake those who had opted for a more reasonable 5:30am wakeup. We drove to a nearby visitor's center, where we sliped on layer after layer of warm clothing and checked that each hiker had all necessary emergency gear. Even though we expected to return before nightfall, I volunteered to carry extra water and a sleeping bag in case of an emergency. The 40-pound pack was perhaps excessive, but we wanted to be perpared for any unanticipated problems.
At 6:15, we finally arrived at the trailhead. The thermometer on my jacket zipper read minus 5, but this may have been optimistic. As the warm, moist air from my breath condensed on my eyelashes, tiny ice crystals formed; each time I blinked, my upper and lower eyelashes would freeze together, giving a disconceriting feeling of stickiness each time my eyes reopened. The cold temperatures kept us moving, forcing us to make record time on the 3.8-mile ascent to the Carter Notch Hut, one of the many cabins operated year-round by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
The ascent to the peak was only 1.2 miles, but the 1700-foot climb offered steep terrain. I led the first part of the ascent, occasionaly using my ice axe to chop steps into the icy slopes. At times the wind howled so bitterly that we could not hear each if we were separated by more than a few feet. Other hikers had ascended the peak, but the drifting snow often obscured any signs of previous passage.
Shortly before noon, we reached Carter Dome, delighted to discover mere 20 mph winds, rather than the 80 mph gusts that had been anticipated. We spent only a short time on the dome, hoping for better views its more exposed neighbor, Mt. Height. We quickly descended the north side of the dome, making a relatively easy traverse to Mt. Hight. Once again, I broke trail part of the way, hindered at times by deep snow drifts.
As anticipated, Mt. Hight offered stunning views of Mt. Washington and the surrounding peaks. However, 40-mph winds limited our westward gazes to no more than a few seconds before we would have to turn away to thaw. At wind chills of -25, exposed skin can freeze in 60 seconds; in these conditions, with wind chills approaching -80, we had to be careful to cover every bit of skin. I slipped my goggles off for a few seconds to take a some photos, but we soon had our fill of the bitter cold and opted to head down to a less exposed area.
We rapidly descended to Zeta Pass, frequently glissading through the deep powder. On the 4-mile trek back to the cars, we stopped only occasionally to refuel with high-energy foods or to adjust our packs. Unfortunatley, not all foods perform equally well in the bitter cold. Hopefully, my reviews will be appreciated for your next arctic trek.
Clif Bars - Rock Hard below -5F.We reached the cars at 3:10, making a record-time round trip of less than 9 hours for a trip is listed in the guidebooks as being 10 hours and 20 minutes in summer conditions! Tired and hungry, we dragged ourselves to Elvio's, a little pizza shop in North Conway. We inhaled a couple of pizzas and returned to Intervale shortly after 6pm. Most of the cabin guests chatted until 10pm that evening, but at least two from our hike weren't able to maintain consciousness past 9. We slept in the next morning, surprised to find a good seven inches of new snow on the ground when we woke at 9.
After clearing off the cars and ramming our way through the snowplow drifts that obscured the parking area exit, we managed a safe but slow trip back to Boston. And so we survive to endure yet another weekend of bone-chilling New England winter expeditions.