Seemed appropriate. This place has a reputation for having the worst weather on the planet, so might as well go check it out when the weather is at its worst.
As if that handicap wasn’t enough, I also didn’t have crampons.
But regardless of these circumstances, there I was-with hiking companions Aaron, Zack and Nick-at the Pinkham Notch parking lot at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning in January.
We geared up: three sweaters (one on my back, two in my pack), two layers of polypro, a hooded gore-tex shell, polypro pants, gore-tex pants, boots, gaiters, wool gloves, scarf, shades, wool hat, climbing axe and (in lieu of crampons) borrowed “Yak Trax.”
The first part of the trail from the Pinkham Notch parking lot is like a 10-foot wide blue circle ski resort trail: groomed, moderate pitch, packed powder. We made nice conversation as we climbed for about an hour up to the junction of Lions Head Trail and Tuckerman’s.
We took the fork to the right and headed up the Lion’s Head Trail. No more groomers! The ice axe began to come in handy almost immediately, as the trail become a mixture of ice and snow and steepened up nicely. Breaking a hike down in your mind into little 10 to 20 foot obstacles is a great way to keep the adventure fun, and there are plenty of little climbing adventures on this section of the trail.
We continued on until we were ten minutes below the tree line, stopping at clearing to hydrate, eat and void our bladders. It was here that I put on my remaining two sweaters, and watched as Aaron and Zack donned their crampons.
Like me, Nick did not have crampons; he did, however, bring two consumer-grade pairs of ice-walking traction aids, the Yak Trax and some generic pair. He let me borrow the Yak Trax, and up toward the tree-line we ventured.
Ascending up above treeline, I felt the familiar, yet not common sensation one gets when they are venturing into a unique, wild place. A dense fog appeared and disappeared, masking and then revealing the rocky, frozen ridgeline upon which we would travel. Also coming in and out of view, down to the left, was Tuckerman’s Ravine; a huge basin with apparently no bottom.
Onward and upward! We kept at it. The wind licked our faces; we began to check each others’ exposed skin for signs of frostbite. Footing was not terribly difficult, but the cold and the wind provided ever-present reminders to focus with each step – an injury here is a problem.
After a moderate stretch through a rocky expanse, a hulking headwall loomed in the distance: Lion’s Head. Aaron warned that the wind would intensify once we crested this feature, and he was certainly right. We huddled in shelter behind a boulder just at the top of Lion’s Head and discussed our options. Both Nick and I were already having a bit of trouble with our inappropriate traction aids, and the visibility was not great. The temperature was around zero Fahrenheit, and the wind chill did not help matters.
We decided to keep going, for now, making the commitment to play it by ear and turn back as soon as things seemed to increase a notch in difficulty. Beyond Lion’s Head the terrain remained rocky until the trail met the base of the last steep push before the summit, where it turned into strictly wind-packed snow. It was here that Nick’s generic traction aids finally quit for good.
Tiny white pockmarks appeared on our faces, signifying the beginning stages of frostbite. Each step up was a chore, especially sans crampons, as I had to plant into the snow to gain traction. The fog was now more present than not and one quarter mile from the summit we decided to call it an ascent.
In younger days, I would have felt disappointment in getting so close to the summit, only to turn around. But on this day, there was not even a moment’s second-guess. Clearly the right decision, I actually felt pride to be part of a group smart enough to make the safe call.
Besides, we still had to get down! I gave Nick one half of the pair of Yak Trax and we made our descent. The classic “slide on your rear end” maneuver came in very handy (using the climbing axe as a brake).
As did the offers of Zack and Aaron to brace off their implanted ice axes as steps. This method was especially helpful once we got below tree line to the steep, irregular sections. Also helpful was carving footholds out of the snow.
By 3:30 p.m. we were back at the car. Had we pushed the final quarter mile to the summit, it would have been dark by the time we finished, which would not have been fun.
In the winter, it’s all about getting outside, feeling a connection with earth’s wild places and then getting back home safe. Check, check, check. Next time, I’m bringing crampons.