Mount Washington & the Southern Presidentials (March 1996)
"Thirty-Six Hours on the Rockpile"
First off, let me say that this is not a story that I am proud of. I have debated long and hard whether or not to share the details of this debacle with anyone. The trip I made into the Presidentials that March of 1996 was a study in stupidity and arrogance; one that nearly cost me my life. As it turned out it was a real turning point in my life with regards to how I respected the mountains that I loved so much.
In the winter of 1996 I was a second-year Meteorology student at Plymouth State College (now University) in Plymouth, New Hampshire. I had moved to New Hampshire from my home state of Michigan to “get away” someplace new. Not long after I arrived I set out on a group hike organized by the college recreation department. I didn’t sign up for the mountain scenery mind you; I figured it might be a good way to meet some girls. Go figure. Needless to say I returned from the hike as single as when I left but the mountains had cast their spell on me…I was in love. From that day forward most of my free time was spent planning my next trips out into the White Mountains (as my grades reflected). Over the next 18 months I had climbed most of the major peaks in northern New Hampshire, including the big guy…Washington. I had in fact climbed George three times up to that point. I had climbed it in sun, wind, and rain. In fact, one particular trip found me clinging to a ledge amongst a foggy drizzle halfway up Huntington Ravine listening to a rockslide tumbling somewhere down a nearby cliff. In all my trips into the mountains never had I encountered any serious threats to my life. I felt pretty confident that I had this mountaineering thing figured out…never mind those signs at tree line warning of impending doom above tree line even in the summer. The only thing I hadn’t done was an overnight trip in the winter. So as winter was fading in early 1996 I convinced two of my closest buddies, Chris and Dave, to forgo trips to warmer climes on Spring Break and instead accompany me on a leisurely three day Presidential Traverse…
The plan was a simple one. We would begin our trek at the base of Mt. Eisenhower and follow the Edmands Path up to the ridge. From there we would have the option of making the quick jaunt up to the summit of Eisenhower before continuing north along the ridge. The plan was to leisurely follow the ridge, enjoying the serene wintertime beauty, passing over Franklin and Monroe before setting up camp for the night near Lake of the Clouds Hut. After a cozy night we would continue north along the ridge visiting Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. We would enjoy another comfortable night, this time near Madison Spring Hut, talking about all the beauty we’d seen and how easily we had accomplished our Winter Presidential Traverse. The following morning we would head down on well-rested legs to our awaiting car at Appalachia. Seemed simple enough…
Preparation is a relative term. Last week I “prepared” to go hiking at Pictured Rocks by setting my backpack in the hallway for the next morning. Preparation for a wintertime Presidential Traverse takes a different kind of planning. The correct food, clothing, and shelter are of utmost priority. Unfortunately I had none of these things. I assumed I could get by with my leather Nike ACG boots I used in the summer time. Who needs $300 boots when you can throw on an extra pair of wool socks and a $1 boot warmer from the local gas station? Polypropylene? Wind Gear? Head Protection? Crampons? No, no, no and no. I was a college kid on a budget. Wal-Mart long johns were my choice undergarment against the winter chill. My outer layer consisted of the snowmobile outfit I had brought down from Michigan along with a cotton-based balaclava for my head. Looking back at pictures of myself I just grimace, it wasn't pretty. My gear wasn’t of any better quality. The one thing we knew we would need was shelter. I volunteered the use of the backpacking tent I had bought the summer before. As with most of my other gear the tent was a Wal-Mart special, hardly suitable for a breezy late September day on the shore of Lake Michigan, but I failed to reveal this piece of info to my two unsuspecting partners. I was convinced I had seen the worst of Mt. Washington and that I (and the tent) could handle it. The one thing we didn’t skimp on was food. Nothing but the finest freeze-dried EMS cuisine would be on the menu for our trip. The three of us went over and picked out our favorite dishes for the two nights we would be spending on the ridge. Two nights, that’s it, we didn’t even consider the possibility of spending any more above treeline. Food…check. Shelter…check. Clothing…check. We were ready to go.
The morning of the big day dawned bright and sunny in Plymouth, New Hampshire. I distinctly remember enjoying the view across the valley of Mt. Prospect glittering in the morning sun. I made sure to stop by the computer lab and check the forecast on that handy new thing called the “internet.” The forecast called for mostly sunny skies today with, and this is key, “a flurry or two” tonight clearing by morning and sunny the following day. Perfect. We loaded the cars and headed north on I-93. We immediately noticed something. The sky was mostly sunny, except for the thick clouds hanging over the peaks to the north. As we passed through Franconia Notch the scene above us was ominous. The cloud deck was around 3000’ and it was snowing...hard. No matter, we were confident in the forecast. Most winter mornings in the White Mountains begin with morning clouds which tend to burn off or at least thin by afternoon. In reality we were just seeing what we wanted to see. These were, in fact, more than just “morning clouds” but that’s 20/20 hindsight talking. We made the trip up to the Appalachia Parking area and left the return vehicle in a haze of lightly falling snow. We then made the roundabout down to Crawford Notch and made our way up the snowy Mt. Clinton Road to the trailhead. I don’t remember what my thoughts were setting out, but I do know it was snowing. Not heavily, mind you, but more snow than should be falling from “mostly sunny” skies. Also, I remember being impressed at the high-performance gear that my friend Dave had brought along on the hike…mountaineering boots, crampons, gaiters, and a plethora of windproof and waterproof garments. He must have spent hundreds on that…how ridiculous!
We started our way up the Edmands Path and it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was going to be a more serious undertaking than I had expected. The Edmands Path reaches the ridge in a bit over 3 miles. Less than halfway up I was already becoming quite winded and was taking frequent breaks. No doubt I was overheating and my layers of cotton-blend clothing were kindly releasing that heat out into the wind. As we climbed the snow became steadier. We kept looking upwards hoping to see some glimpse of blue sky that might signal clearing. There were no breaks, just a dark grey blanket. As treeline approached we began to hear the wind. It was a constant drone above our heads as we continued upwards. As we entered the alpine zone that same wind hit us full force. It took my breath away. What had been an exhausting hike so far became unbearable as I fought to catch my breath in the chill air. All conversation ended at treeline as well. Words hollered into the wind were instantly carried off into the void. Thoughts had to be shouted from one person to another from no more than arms length. After an eternity, it seemed, we reached the Crawford Path below Mt. Eisenhower. We had our first collective doubts about completing this hike upon reaching the col. The wind was relentless and we had taken much longer to reach the ridge than we had planned. As I sat and inserted the first pair of hand warmers into my gloves I glanced up and saw something that made my heart leap. I could see Mt. Franklin! Chris and Dave saw it also. It was going to clear after all! Almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind the clouds once again enveloped the ridge. No matter, the seed of hope had been planted. On that fleeting break in the clouds we made the decision to continue on. Within minutes of leaving the sky again descended on us and the winds began to howl with increasing rage. Land and sky blended into one. I had read numerous books stating that storms above treeline can be so blinding as to hide your own hand in front of your face. The AMC guidebook in my pack warned that if one could not see from one cairn to the next then you should turn back. Cairns? There were no cairns in this soup. If we happened to stumble upon a cairn it was by luck. We followed the ridge north keeping rising land to our left as we knew we were traveling the east side of the ridge. By this time I was shivering uncontrollably. The cold was seeping into every pore. The wind found its way through every stitch, every seam. Though I didn’t realize it, hypothermia already had its icy grip on me. Like my surroundings my mind started to enter a fog. I don’t know how long we traveled that ridge but it seemed an eternity.
***At this point my memory of the hike on the first day ends. I was very much mobile and lucent yet but for the life of me I can’t remember the simplest detail. Just the swirling void. The following was explained to me later by Chris and Dave.***
At some point Chris had become concerned that following the edge of the ridge was unwise as the strong winds would likely form large cornices along its edges. He was aware we would be passing the steep ledges of Oakes Gulf at some point and didn’t want one of us taking that one fatal misstep. He had forgotten his compass and inquired if Dave or I had one. Dave responded no but I responded I had one and handed him the compass/whistle/thermometer that was attached to my pack. Needless to say he wasn’t impressed. He told me later he found north on it, tapped it with his fingers, and was immediately presented with an entirely different bearing for north. It was time for another plan. Apparently, at that time, we argued a bit about the direction we should follow to Lake of the Clouds. According to Dave and Chris at some point I became very agitated with them as I was sure which direction we should head. Normally my sense of direction is very good, I pride myself on it, and Chris and Dave both knew this. This time, however, I was swearing at them convinced we should head directly back the way we had just come! I was completely disoriented although I didn’t realize it. This concerned Chris and Dave and they promptly decided to head uphill, away from the ravines, so we could more closely follow the ridgeline towards the shelter of the hut. They were convinced it was not far off. Don t Fall Asleep!!! Don't Fall Asleep! As we set off again Chris inquired how I was feeling. I told him “Great, I’m actually quite warm, the shivering has stopped.” Chris told me that my response scared the hell out of him. We had been exposed to the relentless wind for hours, there was no reason I should suddenly be “warm”. I do remember his response…”Keep Moving”. Lucky for me Chris knew the symptoms of hypothermia. He told Dave we needed to find shelter and quick. As we ascended the ridge I became exhausted. I frequently requested to stop for a minute. “Keep Moving!” “Get Up!” “Keep F---ing Climbing!” I don’t remember the climb but I vividly remember those instructions. Upon gaining the ridge Chris decided to scout out a sheltered place to pitch the tent. I layed down between some sheltering rocks and informed Chris and Dave I was just going to rest "a bit." Unknown to me Chris had told Dave not to let me fall asleep “or he’s going to die.” I didn’t find out until years later that at that point Chris didn’t have high hopes for getting me out of there alive. Chris quickly decided on a small nearby ledge for the tent. “It wasn’t a perfect spot but it had to work,” he later told me. Dave and Chris dug the tent out of my pack. They attached the poles and lifted the tent. As they did one of the three poles split. The other two would have to make due. Keep in mind neither of them realized this tent was a Wal-Mart special. I revealed that little secret to Dave a couple years later and he responded, shocked…”If I had known that I would have just taken my chances out in the storm!” We quickly piled in and fired up the stove. Chris and Dave went about cooking up a gourmet Beef Stew dinner as I sat shivering (a good sign) in the corner. Before long we had a delicious bubbling pot of stew in front of us.
“Who’s got the bowls?” Chris asked. Dave and I responded with blank stares. “Spoons?” Again, no response. “You have got to be sh--ing me!” It was like salt on a wound. No matter, we passed the pot around and scooped the stew with our fingertips. Before long we were laughing. What else could you do? Please Hold!!! Hope it Holds! The night was an uneasy one. The good news is I remember it, so my condition must have been improving. The bad news is; I remember it. The wind outside was relentless. At some point in the night the direction of the wind shifted and began to hit the tent directly. The noise was deafening. We were held to the ground by nothing more than our weight. Every so often a large gust would pick up the leading edge of the tent a couple of inches, hold it for a second, and then release it with a “whump”. At any moment I was sure we would be tossed from our ledge into thin air. So the night passed. Every time the tent lifted I would snap awake. The only other thing I remember was Dave kneeling over me stating he had to pee but didn’t want to go outside and I was lying with my head to the doorway. I was warm for once, and I wasn’t moving. I tucked my head into my bag and told him, “Just go, man.” The storm howled on…
I awoke with my head tucked into my sleeping bag and noticed something different. It was quiet. Too quiet. I stuck my head out of my sleeping bag and a shower of snow crystals fell onto my face. I wiped them off and noticed…light! Real light…sunshine! Chris and Dave both woke up about the same time and we were surprised to see about an inch of snow coating everything inside. The wind must have somehow forced the snow right through the seams of the tent! I grabbed the two blocks of frozen leather that were my boots and gingerly forced my tender feet into them. Dave and I climbed out and what we saw stunned us. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Directly across from us the brilliant snow-blasted summit of Mt. Washington glistened against a cobalt blue sky. Frosted mountain peaks stretched out seemingly forever. It was so clear; the image sticks with me vividly to this day. I was in awe. Most shockingly, setting in the col below us, not a mile away, was Lake of the Clouds Hut. It was so close now...the night before it might as well been on the moon. Amazing. Home on Mt. Monroe... Atop Mt. Monroe We found to our surprise that we had pitched camp just below the summit rocks of Mt. Monroe. The tent had done surprisingly well. The winds that had threatened to launch us off the mountain had eventually deposited a four foot wall of snow around us providing us a measure of protection. As beautiful as this was we had a choice to make. The day before had taken its toll, especially on me. It quickly became clear the traverse wasn’t going to happen. So the question asked was do we head directly back from here or should we head on over to Washington and try to salvage some dignity from the trip. The choice was easy. After going through what we’d just been through we weren’t going to let such a perfect day pass without summiting Washington. We gathered up our gear. Most of my outerwear was little more than blocks of ice. It wasn’t long after we started moving that I started loosing feeling in my extremities again. The quick jaunt down to Lakes took at most twenty minutes. A few hikers who had spent the night at Lakes greeted us with looks of wonder. A few stated they couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for us “up there” the night before. We shrugged it off, trying to sound a bit bad-ass, stating that, “yeah, it was a bit breezy.”
Crossing the snowfields below Washington was a bitch, I won’t mince words. The summit of Washington looks tantalizingly close as you ascend from Lakes Hut. I don’t know why but it just doesn’t look like the 1000’ of vertical that it really is. Wading through thigh-deep snow brought back all the exhaustion of the previous day. Before long I was lagging far behind Dave and Chris. Strange enough it seemed that all that “high-tech” equipment Dave had was actually helping. Of the three of us, Dave had not once complained of the cold. I have to admit, his comfort was pissing me off a bit. The higher we climbed the farther it seemed to the summit. Instead following the Crawford Path on its lazy circle up the summit we decided to shave off a few step and head straight up. I almost didn’t make it. The thing is, because Washington has such a broad summit the buildings and towers at the top are hidden from sight almost until you reach the top. This doesn’t give you any point of reference to gauge your progress from. I would approach one ledge, convinced this had to be the top only to find another ledge looming above me as I climbed over. In my extremely exhausted and increasingly numb state this was maddening. I shared a few choice words with George, believe you me. Mt. Washington Summit Hero Shot By the time I finally reached the summit Dave and Chris were wandering around taking in the sights. The summit was amazing. I had only visited in warmer months and this was shockingly different. I felt like I had arrived at some remote arctic outpost. I didn’t wander around much however. I managed to drag myself up to the top for my hero shot but you can tell from the photo I feel more like puking. The wind returned at the summit and we retreated to the shelter of the summer entryway for lunch. Again we shared finger-fulls of lukewarm spaghetti, trying to warm up and store some energy for the trek down. I had a hard time forcing anything down. I was starving but at the same time eating made me queasy. I was thrilled I made it to the top of Washington but I was ready to get down.
We had decided to follow the cog railway tracks down as it was an easy landmark to follow and a fairly direct route to treeline. Once reaching the Marshfield Station at the bottom we would follow the Mt. Clinton Road back to the car. With the motivation of finally escaping the constant freezing wind I caught a second wind and found myself leading the group for the first time the whole trip. It was strange following the tracks. What a different place Washington is in the summer! Whatever adrenaline I had was used up by the time I reached the stretch of tracks known as “Jacob’s Ladder.” Jacob’s Ladder is steep, damn steep. The slope here reaches a suicidal 37 degrees. I was starting to wish I had picked up those crampons at EMS. I was forced to use my ice axe to gingerly side-step down the slope. Dave and Chris, with the use of their crampons, waited for me at the bottom. Nearing the Halfway Hut... Nearing the Halfway Hut At the bottom of Jacob’s Ladder I collapsed. Exhaustion, malnutrition, and exposure were taking their toll. Luckily, tree line was blessedly close. Halfway up Mt. Washington, right at treeline, is the Cog Railway’s “halfway hut.” It’s a stopping point for trains going up and down the mountain in the summer and its bright red walls beckoned me. I continued on like a man possessed. All I could think about was getting out of the wind. By now I had lost most of the sensation in my hands and feet. I really needed shelter. After what seemed an eternity, I stumbled into the hut and collapsed. Dave and Chris soon followed at which point I excused myself and had myself a good vomit out back. Collapsing back onto the floor of the hut Dave asked me how the view was out back…he received a one-finger response.
Actually, after the break and the puke, I felt much better. It made all the difference to be back in the trees. Our collective mood brightened and I hardly noticed the stinging sensation in my hands. We passed a couple snowboarders on their way up as we descended. As we neared Marshfield Station the sky started to cloud up again. It was actually good to see. It made us more comfortable in our decision to retreat downward. I personally don’t think I could have made it through another night like the previous one. No surprise, the parking lot at Marshfield was empty, save the truck the snowboarders had arrived in. Suddenly the quick jaunt down the road back to the car didn’t seem to be too quick to me, but there wasn’t anything to do but put one sore foot in front of another. Thankfully we hadn’t gone a mile before those snowboarders came by and kindly offered us a ride. Less than an hour later we were stuffing ourselves with pizza and breadsticks at the Pizza Hut in Gorham. It was good to be alive.
Hopefully this little confessional doesn’t get me kicked out of the collective hiking community for my stupidity. If there was a list of rules on what not to do on a winter hike in the Presi’s I would probably have broken them all. I was very, very, very lucky to have escaped with my life. The more I retell the story the more I realize this to be true. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking of my friends Chris and Dave that first night, I most certainly now would be a statistic. I had done dozens of hikes in the White Mountains before setting out on that trip, but I had never really respected the mountains for what they were. I had been caught in dangerous situations before this one but none was as immediately life threatening. I had learned a hard lesson. For starters I realized that setting out in the gear I had...in the dead of winter...was no better than those retarded sandal-clad tourists in the summer. Since then I tend to not skimp as much when it comes to gear. The next year I returned to the White Mountains for a winter trip with higher quality substitutes for the cotton underwear and leather boots and I had a wonderful experience. Of course all the finest equipment in the world can’t help you through certain situations and that is the other mistake we made. When we hit treeline and that wind struck us for the first time we should known immediately it was time to turn back. Respect. It all boils down to that one word. Having the correct gear, being meticulous in your planning (aka, spoons and a compass), and using your own good common sense are all forms of respect you must pay to enjoy the mountains. Don't fool yourself into thinking you've ever tamed those mountains you love so much. You're taking your life in your hands if you do.
Edmunds Path Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 44.248935, -71.391638