Mount Washington Climb
June 26, 2011
Coordinator: Fritz Capell
"Not difficult," the prospectus said, "excellent for first-timers." For some reason "18-hour epic" was left out.
The first group of four - myself, Duane, Rayna, and Chris - started out from the trailhead at 6am, with two ropes. Getting a large group up Mt. Washington is always a challenge due to the bottleneck at the summit block, so to mitigate that, we had split the group into two. Victor, who graciously served as Assistant on this one, brought the second group - Michael, Joe, Katherine, and George - starting at 8am. The plan was that we would already have the anchors and ropes set up, and be through the bottleneck, before they arrived. I think it was a good strategy, which might well have worked.
Normally the procedure is to follow the PCT south to a cairn, from which you turn left/east and ascend on the summit trail up to the North Ridge. Usually that works pretty well, but this year it was useless because there was so much snow that the trail was completely impossible to follow. When it's all snow, you can follow the tracks. When there's no snow, you can follow the trail. But when it's half snow and half not, the two paths just seem to diverge all on their own. We tried for the first hour or so, and then gave up on the PCT.
Instead we tracked generally to the south, taking altitude when we could, and veering to the east if there were obstructions or the undergrowth got too dense. It worked out pretty well, bringing us up through the northern tailings of the ridge. It actually seemed clearer in that direction than coming up the west wide of the ridge, except that on the west side you usually have a trail. By about 9am, we were up on the ridge, in the usual place that the summit trail intersects.
The next challenge was tracking up the ridge. In summer conditions, it's just walking through mixed scree and rock and a few brush tangles. In springier conditions, there is usually snow on the east side that provides easier passage. This year, there was snow, but it was undulated in huge waves, some of which were nearly too steep to ascend. We scraped our way up with the help of poles and shared ice axes; having created the gear list several months ago, I had only listed them as "optional" at the last minute. Fortunately, several of us had brought them, and I had a spare technical tool in case there were ice challenges on the summit block.
About 11am we reached what I call the nose, the end of the steepest uphill walking, and the start of negotiating around gendarmes, which are usually not too much of a challenge. Today, they were a problem, because the traverses around them were steep and icy snowfields, sliding away into potentially deadly tumbles.
I set an anchor on the first one, belayed across, and then set an anchor on the other side for a fixed line. At first we left the line there for Victor's team - we were in radio contact, and they were still about two hours behind, but catching up while we dealt with the protection. But when we saw the next challenge, we knew we were going to need all our rope, so we left only the anchors.
The next gendarme sat in a snow-well, and we were able to climb around the base, behind a big wall of snow. But then we had to scramble out and along a sketchy snow face around a corner to... who knows what, we couldn't see it. I climbed up around the well looking for another way along the sharp ridge, where there was about a six-foot snow catwalk, with serious exposure on either side. It was so short, you could almost just dive for it, but... not quite. We set the anchor down below, and belayed out onto the face, finding a big rock and setting up another fixed line.
The last gendarme we were able to get through without setting a line, but just barely, by crossing high and then scrambling down along the rock where there were some handholds. We were down to one rope, and we knew we'd need at least one, and probably two for the summit block. I was also running short of webbing, having left two anchors below, and tying the last rope directly around the rock so that I could have two webbings for the summit.
About that time we heard from Victor that he had to turn back with some of his team, sending Michael and George ahead to catch up with us.
We roped the bottom section of the summit block as usual, with the usual troubles throwing the rope down against the wind. We developed a pretty good strategy, tying Chris in about halfway down the face to help with the rope.
After that first pitch, there is usually a couloir around to the east that offers safe passage, but it was full of snow and impassable. So we had to tackle a little exposed pitch, setting another anchor and belaying from above. By that time, Michael and George had arrived with the other rope and some more webbings from Victor, so we had all the pro we could need.
The rest of the summit block is tricky but not seriously exposed, so we were able to negotiate using only spotters, and by 4:30p six of us were standing on the summit. It was beautiful and calm up there, and we had a spectacular view of Three Finger Jack and Jefferson to the north, and the Sisters and Broken Top to the south - all remarkably white and snowy for this time of year.
We scrambled down using a combination of downclimbing and rappelling, with secondary belays as necessary. The main hazard there is kicking rocks down on your friends, which I had harangued the team plenty about, and they were admirably careful. The only rocks that were knocked down were triggered by me pulling the rope down from the anchors.
By the time we got down off the summit block, it was already starting to get dark. We were prepared to walk in darkness, but no way did we want to be picking down the ridge, over those snow waves, with the constant threat of sliding 1000 feet off the east face of the ridge. From above it looked like we might be able to descend on one of the faces that we had traversed under the gendarmes, but it was far too steep and icy. So we tracked the ridge down to the treeline, where it was a little shallower, and then used our last bits of daylight to plunge-step down off the ridge into the valley below, between the North and West ridges.
From there, the only remaining challenge was the three-hour walk through the snow, in the dark. We had no choice but to guide mostly by GPS, first following a track I had laid from journeys before, then relying on a waypoint Chris had set at the trailhead. We arrived back at the cars just after midnight.
I'm not sure how many times I've been up that mountain, but this one was definitely the longest, most complicated, and most adventurous! Usually we're up and down in twelve hours - this time it was eighteen, mostly due to all the snow, and the additional required protection. Everybody was exhausted, and fortunately we had a couple of brave souls who still had the energy to drive home. I have to thank Duane for getting me safe home - after the week I had, I slept the whole way, and no way could I have safely driven.
Another awesome SAC climb! Congratulations to Michael and Rayna for their very first summits! And for nearly everyone else, their first trip up Washington! Thanks everybody for climbing safely and carefully! And special thanks to Victor for serving as Assistant, taking the role of turning back and missing out on the summit.
Climb safe, and I hope to climb with you all again soon!
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