Ascent of Mount Washington on 2014-07-12

Climber: Samuel Hahn

Date:Saturday, July 12, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Washington
    Location:USA-New Hampshire
    Elevation:6288 ft / 1916 m

Ascent Trip Report

Any trip into the mountains, no matter where on Planet Earth, can go wrong for any number of reasons. Weather, injury, late starts, etc. are just the first that come to mind, but rarely does a single question uttered before the start of a journey serve as such an inauspicious harbinger. The question, an immediate red flag telling me that I needed to check this hiker's gear and substitute my own for those of items of his which would by nature slow him and the entire group down, came from one of the more inexperienced members on a team attempting a 2-day Presidential Traverse. Kyle, an old college buddy but generally inexperienced hiker, casually asked me as we were loading up my Fiesta for the long drive to the Whites, "My backpack doesn't have a lumbar strap. Is that a big deal?," a question I answered with an equall casual dismissal. Kyle was a strong runner and stronger athlete on the soccer field, how could a simple strap slow him down? But I was wrong and would eventually learn a few valuable lessons in the process, if nothing else. The trip would test my skills as a leader in the mountains and push two members of the group to their physical limits, but one would never have guessed that at the onset, as the journey had such an auspicious beginining.

Granted, Kyle, and I would encounter traffic on our way to Conway, NH, but that was to be expected. That we would make it to the Granite State only 2 hours later than the original GPS prediction on a summer weekend was the truly serendipitous part. We were greeted by the other members of the group, Chris, Nick Jr. and Nick Sr. upon arriving and were grateful to see a pasta dinner waiting for us. After several plates of suprisingly good cooking from guys not too far removed from college days of ramen and inepensive pizzas, we all turned in for a few hours of sleep before a pre-sunrise breakfast and drive to the trailhead. My alarm came earlier than expected--nine hours of nearly continuous driving proved more fatiguing than I thought it would be--but the prospect of setting forth on a hike six months in the making provided immediate energy. I wolfed down a hasty meal of yogurt, blueberries and granola, and the group did an even hastier gear check, with a few of the more experienced hikers expressing their worries over Kyle's woefully inappropriate backpack. I cringed inwardly and felt a flush of nervousness, but quickly squelched it as being out of my hands. 45 minutes later, with two cars stationed at beginning (Valley Way) and ending (Webster Cliffs) trailheads, respectively, the group was finally ready to begin the trek at 8:30 AM.

Like any popular trail in the White Mountains, Valley Way was excellently blazed and well-traveled, making route-finding issues from the trailhead to treeline non-existent. Kyle was almost completely worked after 3000' of gain and Nick Sr. had soaked through his t-shirt and shorts within a 2 hours of hiking, but spirits were high as we entered the alpine zone for our first major rest of the day at Madison Spring Hut. There, we ate a substantial snack, downed liters of water that we would eventually refill in the hut and made our first impromptu decision of the day, to hike Mount Madison.

The mountain looked so approachable from the col, and because Nick Sr. was tired but not completely worked and therefore wanted to rest at the hut before our push to the group's resting place for Day 1, Lakes of the Clouds Hut, the remaining members and I ditched our packs and quickly scrambled to the summit of our first 4000' peak of the journey. The views were unrivaled (save a cloud of hungry blackflies), the wind mild, and our spirits lifted as we took in the full magnitude of our hike from this rocky perch. And although it was nearly 12 PM, we all felt confident that we'd make it to Lakes by 6 for the hot meal promised by the AMC.

Unfortunately, that feeling of assurance would not last, as Kyle began to fatigue quicker than I expected, requiring frequent breaks and moving at a steadily slowing pace. Chris and I did our best to motivate him into continual forward motion, but it was clear that we'd have to sacrifice at least the summit of Mount Jefferson in order to arrive at Lakes on time. This reality was discouraging to say the least-especially when we passed the junction for the Jefferson summit side trail--but Chris and I remained resolute about bagging Mount Washington before day's end. Unfortunately, as we made our way across the talus brick road of the Gulf Trail to Washington's col, it was evident that Nick Sr. and Kyle did not have the strength to join us. So, at just after 5 PM, Nick Jr., Chris and I parted ways with our exhausted counterparts and sprang upwards to the roof of New England.

It was disappointing that we wouldn't share this summit as a group, but the three of us had little time to think of anything else besides where to place our next steps on the abrasive and sometimes loose rock pile that is Washington above treeline. It felt good, almost primal, like our early ancestors must have chasing after game, to finally stretch our legs and hike as fast as our lungs could would allow as we made our way the airy prize above. Chris would race ahead of us, proving to Nick Jr. and me why he really was one of the strongest cyclists on Drexel University's team, but we'd arrive within minutes of one another. After a quick summit group photo, we careened down the trail to Lakes at a recklessly fast pace, nearly crashing into the other two members of our group as we entered the hut a few minutes shy of 6 PM. Tired but supremely happy, we settled down for a hot dinner and a bottle of whiskey to share later that evening as we soaked our feet in the hut's namesake under a gently setting sun.

Having slept deeply and longer than the night previous, the group was better rested and stronger to start the tail end of our journey. More than that, we had all grown wiser as hikers, each one becoming more familiar with his own limits. The remaining peaks on the traverse would involve milder climbs over terrain made less daunting now that we all had a more intimate understanding of its challenges. Still, only Chris and I had any desire to summit nearby Mount Monroe, and would out in less than 15 minutes from leaving the hut. The rest of the day was largely uneventful, and as a group we'd eventually summit Mount Eisenhower, Mount Pierce, Mount Jackson and Mount Webster under increasing cloud cover. Thankfully, the rain would hold off until we dipped below treeline after the Webster Cliffs, and while everyone in the group was tired, we were grateful to suffer through the downpour on gentler terrain. The broad-leafed maples did their best to shield us from the storm's worst, and we found ourselves on the road about a mile and a half from the first car around 4:30 PM. Winded to the deepest corners of our lungs and sore to the bones of our feet, we nonetheless traveled that last segment of road on buoyant steps. All of us had grown closer as friends, having shared a sight and experience unrivaled not only on the East Coast, but in all of the lower 48, and had emerged largely unscathed. The weekend had proved incomparable even if we had fallen short of our original goal, and we would leave New Hampshire with a trove of stories to take with us long after we would be too old and feeble to hike. And when it comes to time spent in the mountains, one can hardly ask for anything more.

2 days of hiking
19 hours total
~10,000 feet of gain
~24 miles
Summary Total Data
    Grade/Class:Class 1, Class 2 in
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles, Hut Camp

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