by Brandon Sisino
For two weeks I had been keeping the Mount Washington Observatory weather page open, refreshing the page countless times throughout the day, hopeful the weather forecast for the summit would change. After all, they say if you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait 15 minutes. Sure enough, the old saying was right, and after an hour the weather had changed and new max wind speed recorded was 95 MPH.
The plan was to drive from State College to Boston in one night. Once in Boston, we’d stay with friends and all drive up to the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s center the next morning, hike up to the Hermit Lake shelters, spend the night, and then go for a summit attempt in the morning. We left State College around 10pm, putting us in Boston around 5am. 4 hours later, we were up and packing our things to leave for the Notch. Tired as we were, the adventure was underway and our excitement was high.
Shortly after heading out, the partly cloudy skies turned grey and the snow on the side of the roads was taller than most cars. We arrived in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and it was still officially winter here. We jumped out of the car at the Pinkham Notch parking lot and threw on the layers while gathering up our stuff. If you’ve never been to the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center, the lower floor is setup so you can pack all your stuff out of the elements. Large tables, chairs, and restrooms offer the last bit of piece-of-mind before setting out into the cold.
Before long we were each in our own little world placing one foot in front of the other on our way up the Tuckerman Ravine trail. With night soon settling, the wind was picking up and our headlamps were coming out. The wind was ruffling the trees and picking up the dancing snow so gently that the light from our headlamps caused the night air to sparkle. When the wind eased up, the still cold air would capture your exhale in a personal fog, only to be replaced by the glistening snow flakes in the air. A moment felt frozen in time.
The wind began to pick up the higher we climbed, and the temperatures dropped, causing fatigue to set in. We found ourselves on the other side of a nearby group of trees and decided to setup camp. Our snowshoes were used to dig into the snow, giving us a chance to lower the tent below the general snow line. We made a mild form of a snow wall on the side facing the wind to try to block of its effects. Digging down into the snow, we were able to lower the tent a foot or two and create a flat base to begin pitching our shelter. When I pulled the tent out of my pack, the wind immediately caused it to become a kite. Piling some gear on the tent (sharp objects removed to prevent any punctures), we went to work digging and burying anchors for the guy lines to attach to. Utilizing a few nearby trees we were able to let go of the tent and finally finish setting up for the night. I built a welcome mat of snow and called it home.
I had eaten a granola bar on the way up, and at this point was properly hungry, so we headed over to a lean-to where the rest of our friends had started cooking. The sound of freeze-dried food bags and MSR XGK camping stoves getting ready for takeoff was a welcomed thought. Despite the freezing cold temps, we had high hopes: gado-gado pasta and chocolate pudding for dessert (if we could stay up long enough). Turned out the gado gado was perfect and after sitting still for so long around the stove we were getting cold. With our stomachs full, it was time for bed; the pudding would have to wait.
We had fallen asleep to the sound of wind ripping around our tent, but were startled early in the morning, not by the approaching storm, but by the calm before it. It was around 5am when I awoke. My tent mate was sleeping in while I grabbed a few pictures and enjoyed the still air. It was clear at this moment, and if we were going to summit now was the time to leave. The weather forecast was calling for snow and high winds by mid-morning, so we had a short window to take advantage of. I wandered over to the group sleeping in the lean-to, and they were all sound asleep. Reluctant to awaken my group of friends before the sun even came up, I headed back to our camp for a few more pictures and started melting snow.
We would eventually make some oatmeal for breakfast and begin the process of breaking camp. We started discussing the prospects of reaching the summit, and expectations were all over the map. Even still, we decided to give it a go.
Early in the morning we had walked up to Tuckerman’s Ravine to check out the avalanche rating for some of the routes in the ravine. We were confident there were no other alternatives for the day, so we decided to give the Lion’s Head winter route a try. Ice axes and crampons were out; we began our accent. The trail was steep and snow covered, but our crampons provided good bite as our eyes focused up the trail.
After about 20 minutes of climbing, we came upon a guided group tour. We had some decision making to do. Either push past this group of 30 or so climbers on a narrow and steep section of the trail, or wait and allow the group to ascend at their own pace. We looked at each other, gazed up the trail that was now a long snake of brightly colored Gore-Tex slowly moving forward, and discussed the very real possibility of turning around.
I expected to be more disappointed. After all, we drove all this way, hiked so far, but now we were throwing in the towel. Sometimes the right decision is also the hard one. As we turned to head back down, the guide working at the tail end of the tour group said to us, “That’s the best decision I’ve heard all day.” The summit conditions were turning sour and waiting in a queue while our sweat turned to ice wasn’t what we were looking for.
We knew we missed our window early this morning, but we weren’t going to let that ruin a day outside. As we headed down we found the open road and were broke trail through a winter wonderland.
We ended up hiking for a few more hours, making our way towards Huntington Ravine. The trail was full of light, fluffy snow, but occasionally we would punch through the firmer trail pack and sink to nearly our waists in snow. The only thing I could do was laugh and giggle. Here I was, a 30 year-old man, and I still love playing in the snow.
Once we returned to the cars and began our journey home, I noticed just how much a short amount of time in the woods could do for a group of people. Before this trip, I hadn’t seen most of these guys in quite some time, but just a little bit of time had really made me feel as if we had never been apart. The jokes and jabs were flying as we enjoyed our dinner. I would dare say that no experience can stick a small group of people together better than suffering along side one another.