Sometimes the trips that go the worst are the one’s we remember the most.
Type two fun is an intriguing concept. Spend an entire day getting worked; miserable, fearful, shivering, on the brink of sanity. Yet we come home beaming, grinning ear to ear, recounting our epic journey to anyone willing to listen.
Sometimes I think we secretly like the suffering better sometimes. Sure its fun to cruise to the top unhindered, but 20 years from now, what story are you going your grandkids? The time had the perfect weather window and bolted to the top of the Matterhorn in record time, or the time you got pounded on Denali and narrowly escaped disaster after being forced down 500m from the summit? I’d bet on the latter.
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We started the weekend in town. I recruited Russell and Steve to work with Cathedral Mountain Guides at an ice festival event that was being hosted by College Outside. (A company I work for check them out) We had a blast working with local legends like Freddie Wilkinson, Bayard Russell jr., Alexa Siegel, and Erik Eiesle. The weather was perfect that weekend too, sunny, no wind, above average temperatures. There’s something awesome about teaching people how to ice climb. The joy on their faces, the disbelief in their ability, and the outstanding sense of pride they feel when the day is done. We had a stellar time, so moral was high when we decided to head up the rockpile.
On Sunday we woke up with heavy hangovers from the night before, journeyed to breakfast in town and debated trying getting some cragging in before packing up and heading higher. The hangover’s won. We lazily made our way to Pinkham Notch, exploded the contents of the car in the basement prep room and stuffed our packs. By 2pm we started up the now familiar approach, moving with a newfound vigor in anticipation of the adventure ahead of us.
We arrived at Harvard Cabin slightly after 3:15, just in time to watch the last of the weekend visitors pack up their seemingly endless pile of gear into massive packs. Pretty soon the chaos ended, and we were alone in our little cabin in the woods. But of course that didn’t last long either. Rich and Marcia (the cabin caretakers) arrived and in typical fashion, and immediately began poking fun at the fact that we weren’t on skis. We spent the evening the same way we always do, dreaming about climbing, listening to Rich shoot the shit and eventually, by listening to NPR.
The plan for tomorrow was to climb Yale Gully, an objective Steve, Russ and I have all never done despite multiple trips to Huntington Ravine. We packed our bags and discussed the plan for tomorrow. While the weekend had been perfect, our luck was running out. The pleasant streak of weather we’ve had was coming to an end.
We woke early the next morning in time listen to the forecast read over the radio. Partly cloudy skies giving way to afternoon snow flurries. WSW wind shifting NW, building from low 50’s to high 80’s as the day goes on. Fine. We’ve experienced worse, that wasn’t the concern. The concern was the implication on the stability of the snow. Avalanche conditions had been listed as ‘low’ for the past several days, and given this forecast, we knew that was quickly going to change. Just as we were about to leave, Frank Carus, the snow ranger responsible for the morning’s avalanche report radioed the cabin; “Change the bulletin to read 'considerable'”. We took off with a new sense of urgency, reinforced with the confirmation that ideal conditions in the ravine were quickly destabilizing. Time was not our friend today.
The approach flew by. We made quick work of the boulder field and were at the base of Yale Gully by 9:00. The sun was shining and we had and incredible view of the landscape that unfolded below us. Unfortunately, the three of us had no way of taking photos. We were beaming. The weather was perfect, we had the mountain to ourselves, and we were about to start up a stellar line.
Just as we started climbing, the weather began to turn. The sun gave way to light snow and we could feel the wind start to build. We didn’t take much notice. Ice conditions were ideal. We started up the gully with amazingly high spirits, soloing a short ways and then breaking out the ropes soon after. By 10:00 we had pitched out two sections and were making decent progress. Initial assessment of the snow showed development of new wind slab overnight, however nothing disconcerting or unexpected. Yale Gully makes for a particularly good objective when avalanche danger is "higher" in the ravine. Typically, Yale is less impacted by prevailing wind than other aspects, plus Yale’s snowfields can also be easily by avoided if necessary. Even on days listed as having considerable avalanche danger, careful snowpack assessment and route choice can keep you clear of danger.
Despite the less than perfect weather we were having a great day. The climbing was phenomenal, and we were traveling effectively. Spirits were high, and we were feeling optimistic about topping out. That changed very quickly.
I had led the previous pitch, and brought Steve and Russ up on a somewhat marginal anchor consisting of two short screws in thin ice that I managed to discover after digging around in the snow for some time. Already geared to go, I started up through the next section, a long snow field, which we planned to simul-solo until we reached steep ice again. I started up, hugging the right side of the snowfield as best as possible, knowing eventually I would need to cross in order to reconnect with the gully. When I neared the end of the rope Russ and Steve broke down the anchor and began to move up behind me. About the same time, I began to move left across the snowfield. Obvious wind slab had me on edge, and I moved forward cautiously, testing each step. Suddenly, a large crack formed, propagating quickly across the entire snowfield. Luckily, the slab held. With none of us on belay, I don’t want to think about what would have happened if it decided to slide.
I immediately retreated to a sheltered spot on the right side, threw in two quick screws and hip belayed Russ and Steve the rest of the way, fearing the slab would go at any second. We regrouped, realizing we were not going to be able to travel through the snowfield as planned. We were sitting below a 10 foot high band of rock, unable to tell exactly what terrain lay directly above, knowing only that it was some degree of rock and mixed ice/snow. We reasoned that from a higher position on the rock above us we would be protected from unstable snow and could evaluate a path through the gully that was logical. Russell led us up through an obvious weakness, and we reached a stance beneath a large boulder. Still to far from the gully proper to determine if we could reconnect, Russ took off on another rock pitch, this time traversing to the left to gain better visibility. All the while conditions were getting quite bad. We had wasted and hour already and were starting to get further behind schedule. As Russ was leading his rock pitch, Steve and I were taking a real beating. It was quite cold; the wind was pounding us relentlessly. The graupel, still falling, was accumulating in dangerous quantities. Steve, who set his ice tools down in a small runnel of snow next to our belay, watched as they became completely buried in a matter of minutes. Not knowing exactly how much terrain was above us, we knew it was time to bail. It was clear that the graupel will cause the avalanche danger to sky rocket and we didn’t feel comfortable pushing onward. We knew we could continue on the rock, but given the current pace, and the prospect of a long traverse of the Alpine Garden, we decided to bail. After an hour long lead, Russ finally called that he was off belay. After several hopeless shouts we finally managed to communicate that he should rappel, and that we were going home.
Another half hour later and Russell finally appeared from the abyss above. Steve and I broke down our anchor and Russ got ready to pull the ropes. We were going to down climb a short band of easy snow to a horn, which we would sling and use for our next rappel. We packed up and started to pull the ropes.
They were stuck.
It took us about 10 minutes to pull the cord, which was snagged up on the rocky, uneven terrain above us. Unknown to us at the time, the rubbing had destroyed the rope, adding 7 full blown core shots in a 30 meter section. Due to the harsh conditions and the sheer amount of ice that had accumulated on the rope, we were oblivious to the damage.
After we finally freed the cord, we moved to our next anchor, and started our decent. Four (five for Russ) rappels later we were back at the base of the gully. We traversed skiers left to avoid potentially avy prone danger from above, and quickly scurried back to Harvard Cabin, defeated and exhausted.
We walked in to find Rich and Marcia having a late lunch. “How far ya get?” Rich asked. We told the story. “Bummer” he replied, “skiing’s good".
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It took me a while to figure out what it was about this day that was so standout for me. We got worked, brain freeze because your eyebrows were frozen kind of worked. Despite everything however, it felt good to be on the mountain that day. We deserved to be on the mountain that day.
Steve, Russ and I climb well together. We’d been to the ravine before, and the three of us had been working on getting stronger all ice season. Russ and I took our AIARE I together a few weeks before, and for once it felt like I had every tool in the tool box. We didn't doubt our decisions that day. We knew what to do, where to go, what to look for, and when to get the hell out of there. That’s exactly what we we did. It felt to good to execute. It felt good to be ready for everything the mountain could throw at us that day. Best of all, it felt good knowing we gave it everything we possibly could.
I’ve failed on alpine climbs before. I’ve turned around in Huntington Ravine more times than I’ve topped out. The difference is that every time I’ve turned around, it has been because of doubt or poor planning; I ran out of time, I was unsure of the the avy danger, or I didn’t know if I could lead the next pitch. When we turned around in Yale that day, we turned around because there was no way in hell the mountain was letting us top out. We did everything right, prepared in every way possible and were confident in all our choices.
For once, it was the mountain who made the final decision.
Above is a photo that I found on the Mt. Washington Avalanche Center page. It was taken several weeks before our climb, but it gives a pretty realistic overview of the conditions we experienced. Shown in red is the route we took. In orange is the intended line. The "X's" represent belays, and the crack that appeared in the snowfield is shown. Russ's high point is shown, as well as the final anchor that Steve and I were at before we decided to bail. Because of perspective, it appears that we were only a pitch or so from the top. In reality there is quite a bit more.