Mt. Washington via Lion Head
First Attempt

February 6, 2000

Leaders: Matt Reagan and Pat Brown
Climbers: Rob Jagnow, Paul Rozelle, Simon Karecki, Ben Ingram, and Sunil Tankha

Each year, tradition dictates that the MIT Outing Club end Winter School with an assault on Mt. Washington - New England's tallest peak, boasting "the world's worst weather." To insure that all climbers are prepared, it is the one expedition that is offered by invitation only.

A wild buffalo, sighted near the trail.

From the very beginning, little things started to go wrong for our small crew of seven. After a leisurely drive to the White Mountains in Central New Hampshire, we hiked the short quarter mile from the parking area to the MIT Outing Club cabin at Intervale. Unfortunately no one had checked to see if the cabin would be occupied - And it was - By the MIT women physicists, who were particularly emphatic about the fact that they had arranged for exclusive use of the cabin for the entire weekend. It seems to me that they would welcome seven rugged men into their spacious abode, but they apparently saw things a little differently. To quote their trip report:
After a lovely pasta dinner, and successfully defending our territory from buff men and women bearing ice axes and crampons, we turned in for a nice, long night of sleep that had nothing to do with 4AM alpine starts.
Paul, Simon, Ben and Matt were unprepared for sleeping in subzero temperatures, so the four of them returned to North Conway in search of a cheap hotel room. The rest of us joined Hector, Dave and Crissy, who had also been shunned by the physicists, for a restful evening in the unheated yurt, 100 feet from the cabin. The yurt proved remarkably warm with six bodies to heat it, and everyone slept quite soundly. The stillness of the night was interrupted only once, by the nearby skittering of some small nocturnal creature.

We woke at 4am to the sound of multiple alarms and wasted no time in getting to the cars. As we drove toward Pinkham Notch, howling winds kicked up violent eddies of snow as a preface to what we might expect at the summit. The eastern sky offered a breathtaking view of densely clustered stars; but the western sky was obscured by the ominous cloud that perpetually looms over the summit of Mt. Washington.

We arrived at the parking lot at 5am, just seconds after our hotel counterparts. After a thorough equipment check in the comfort of the heated visitor's center, we started up the Tuckerman Ravine trail at 6.

The group made excellent time, pausing only occasionally to strip off layers of clothing or to grab a quick swig of water. We were the first up the mountain, as evidenced by the pristine layer of snow that had accumulated overnight. When we reached the Lion Head winter detour, we stopped to prepare for the steep 1500-foot ascent to the alpine garden. We clipped into our crampons, strapped on our ice axes, and made sure that the full winter wardrobe would be quickly accessibly when we reached the ridge. Even in the shelter of the mountain, we were already experiencing sustained wind speeds near 30mph, so we were anticipating harsh conditions in the alpine zone. As Matt so eloquently put it, "This is where the ass-kicking begins."

In the alpine garden.

A strong gust of wind brings visibility near zero as we approach the ridge.
With our rapid ascent, we soon found ourselves engulfed by the dense cloud that had churned above us all morning. Deep powder covered the steep slope, forcing us to probe carefully for secure handholds and footholds. As we poked out above treeline, we were immediately thrashed by the howling winds. A jumbled rockpile provided minimal shelter as we climbed into our full winter gear before the short push to the ridge. After a quick check to make sure that no skin was left exposed, we stepped back out into the lion's den.

The rule of thumb is that a windspeed (in miles per hour) of half your weight (in pounds) can knock you off your feet, so we were already struggling with hurricane-force gusts near 75mph. Visibility was often reduced to no more than twenty feet as we would crouch and wait for the gale to subside. At 10am, the ridge finally came into sight only a few meters ahead of us.

*WHAM* As Matt took his final steps toward the ridge, he took the full force of the wind, spinning him around and hurling him face-first onto the rocks. The two hikers behind him were also thrown to the ground by the snarling blast of air. Pat and I struggled to the top, leaning steeply into the brutal winds, but we were also overtaken by a sudden blast that knocked us to the ground. We retreated from the ridge, staggering awkwardly along the icy rocks. It was quite clear that we wouldn't be reaching the summit today, with a mile and a half or ridge traversal standing between us and the peak. The observations from the Mt. Washington observatory validated our decision:

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
We discovered later that the windspeeds wouldn't fall below 80mph all day.

The butt-glissade down Lion's Head
Anxious to escape the snarling winds, we made good time on our descent back to treeline, and exceptional time on our descent from Lion's Head. Starting from the top of the ridge, we took a long, fast 1500-foot glissade down the treacherously steep trail. I took up the rear of the group, so by the time I started my butt-glissade, a well-formed bobsled run had been carved into the deep powder, offering a ride that rivals anything at Disneyland.

On the route back, we took a short detour to the Hermit Lake shelters. The anemometer mounted inside the ranger station verified that even in the shelter of the mountain, sustained windspeeds hovered around 30mph with gusts up to 70. We packed into the small cabin to seek refuge the winds and to fuel up with a leisurely lunch.

As we started back down the mountain, we soon escaped the shadow of Mt. Washington's perpetual cloud. The sun energized us, prompting an unscheduled detour where the Tuckermann Ravine Trail meets the Sherburne Ski Trail. The steep, broad slope of the Sherburne is commonly used for practicing self-arrest skills. Fortunately, the ice axe practice group was kind enough to share the slope for some high-speed body-sledding. Matt and I soon discovered the merits of REI's basic nylon pants, which win hands-down in both speed and distance when pulled over the parka in proper geek form. Even the slick plastic tarp had trouble competing.

Hanging on for dear life.
Having exhausted every possible sledding technique, the instinct for fun ultimately yielded to the call of Elvio's Pizzaria. We descended the last few hundred feet to Pinkham Notch and made ourselves minimally presentable before dashing off for our requisite evening meal at everyone's favorite Italian restaurant. Matt, Paul and Simon watched in grotesque amazement as Pat, Ben, Sunil and I made quick work of two Elvio's Sicilians - Each a substantial meal for five.

Recounting the events of the day, we all agreed that we preferred seeing Washington at its worst to summitting without resistance in fair weather. This time, Washington wins. But have no doubt, I'll be back for more - And someday, when Washington has its defenses down, I'll make it to the top.