February 18-23rd, 2010
This is a report of an ice climbing trip taken by Graham Shaw and me in the Huntington Ravine of the White Mountains. An awesome, amazing trip -- a lot of good climbing and some unintended adventures.
The details of preparing for this trip are a little boring; needless to say, Graham and I spent a number of months corresponding about plans, equipment, etc. This effort paid off -- after checking the weather and avalanche danger, we were more than ready to go. I left work around noon and picked up Graham in Manchester, NH. We headed to a cheap motel in North Conway.
After a couple of beers and a burger (and a plate of nachos that had to weigh 10 pounds – we didn’t even dent it), we spent the rest of the night sorting gear, packing packs, and getting ready for an early start. I was pretty pumped up for the hike in and the climbing, and admit to being a little nervous about the weekend. The climbs in the ravine are somewhat committing -- once started on a climb, it is hard to turn around, especially the higher you go. But we were ready for it, as the rest of this report explains.
Friday -- A Warm Up
Graham was up at some ungodly hour. I think we rolled out of the motel around 6 o’clock (after taking the last warm showers we would have for the next 5 days). We grabbed coffee/breakfast on the go, and headed to Pinkham Notch. Pinkham is the starting point for excursions into Huntington – the visitor center has a room where you can make final adjustments to gear and packs, and get ready for the hike up.
The plan was to stay at the Harvard Cabin – a climbers’ haven with a wood stove, common room and sleeping loft. There’s room for 10 climbers, so we wanted to get up early to avoid being shut out. The contingency plan was to stay at the tent sites scattered around the cabin. Luckily, the log book at the visitor’s center showed the cabin wasn’t full so we signed in and hit the trail.
Our packs weighed about 65 pounds (each) and we had another 40 pounds in a sled that I rigged up for the trip (so we had around 170 total pounds of gear). Part of the weight was due to need to bring up climbing gear (harnesses, screws, pickets, rope, etc.). The other part was that we had tentative plans to head into the Great Gulf, so we had stoves, fuel, extra clothing, things we didn’t need if we stayed at the cabin (we eventually ditched the plan to head into the Gulf – the cabin was too cozy, and the climbing too good, to change location).
After an hour and half of slogging up the fire road, hauling the sled (connected to both our packs by a pull rope and carabiners), we ran into the snow ranger who informed us the cabin was about 5 minutes away (good news – I was in a full sweat, one of dozens I would experience over the next 4 days).
futzing around for a bit, and getting the latest avalanche danger ratings
(the rangers provide a daily report at around 7:30 every morning), we
decided to go and climb in North Gully – a nice ice climb rated 3 (which
is just about the range of our climbing abilities).
The climb on North was fun. Graham started by free climbing over the first ice bulge, which made me nervous because a slip at that point would have sent him on a ride to the ravine floor (I yelled at him, which he ignored). He set up an anchor in the ice, and belayed me up (yes, I am a chicken). From there, I climbed to a fixed rappel station about ˝ rope length up. The station was two steel pitons driven into the rock at the right. I re-rigged the rappel with a new sling and carabiner (the old cordage was worn and wasn’t safe). I belayed Graham up.
Even though it was short climb, we decided not to continue – if we headed up, we would either have to keep going (and potentially end up in the dark), or make multiple rappels down. Since we hadn’t practiced making V-threads (and had never rappelled off of one), and we didn’t want to leave a few hundred dollars worth of ice screws behind, we decided to rap off the fixed rappel ring. This got us back to the top of the first ice bulge. There, we set up a quick ice anchor and clipped in. We then each made a V-thread, and Graham rapped off the two threads, backed up by the fixed anchor (which gave us the chance to test the threads without risk). He threw a few pickets in the snow at the base of the ice to belay me (in case the V-threads failed on me), and I disconnect the ice anchor. I then rapped off just the V-threads. Great practice -- they worked perfectly. We descended back down the ravine and headed to the cabin.
How to make a V Thread
I am going to lace this story with “lessons learned.”
First Lesson Learned: When making two V-threads, make sure they are placed far enough apart so that if the ice plates or fails, only one thread will be affected. I put the second one a little too close to the first, in my opinion, and was worried about that issue when I rapped down.
We woke early – 6 a.m. – in order to get a jump on the day. The cabin was packed – gear everywhere, and people rising to cook breakfast and prepare to climb. Not all of the people were climbing in the ravine – some were hiking Washington. But it was busy.
The ranger arrived and gave us the low down on the avalanche danger. Everything was rated moderate to low, which Graham and I decided would be the only acceptable ranges for climbing. Since the danger was highest in the middle of the ravine, we decided to climb Yale Gully (well north of the ravine’s center).
Like Friday, we geared up and headed out. Unlike Friday, we planned to top out and head down Escape Hatch. As things turned out, it was a longer day than planned.
Yale is a spidery looking gully that, at first glance, appears to have a number of exits on top (see picture on right). There are two ice bulges at the base, one called Harvard and one Yale, from the old days of climbing when the schools were rivals (you can see them in the picture if you look just above the trees -- picture on left). We chose the right bulge as a starting point.
Graham lead the first pitch – a nice, long lead over the first ice bulge and then a smaller one above. By the time I reached the anchor he built, my calves were on fire, and I was pretty gassed.
We rested, and I led the next pitch, mostly hardened snow. The climbing was pretty straightforward. We kept going – and didn’t really stop until we hit a level spot where we could take a break. We grabbed some food and water and assessed the weather (windy and socked in – but luckily warm for the Whites). We rested, and got ready for what we thought would be the last push up to the ravine rim.
Somewhere along the route we made a wrong turn. The true route was to the left (south). We headed right (north). As we climbed higher, a rocky cliff loomed. Graham was leading, and got to a point where there was nowhere to go – up, left, right – he was boxed in. He was forced to down climb (not fun). My hip belay was pretty useless (I need to get that one down).
We decided to traverse south, thinking we could simply drop into the correct part of the gully and then head up. We found another chute which also petered out into a narrow chimney. I tried to climb up and over it, but it was filled with deep snow with no place to gain a foot or ax hold. I was forced to climb back down. We were starting to get a little (more like very) desperate – it was after 3 p.m., and we couldn’t climb down before it got dark. It was clear that we would either have to top out soon, or spend the night up high.
We traversed south again. Graham climbed up about 40 feet or so, and found himself boxed in for the second time. He signaled me up. There was no path up and none to the right. I asked him about a small ledge to the left – he had checked it out briefly, but it didn’t look like it led anywhere. I started to head across, and then decided he had already assessed it – so no need taking more risk. Graham said he was going to see if he could get a cell signal. We might need to ask for assistance. Neither of us was keen on that idea (it freaked me out a bit), so I decided to try the left ledge to see if there was a way out.
The traverse across the ledge was a real adrenaline rush – little or no ice, extremely narrow, and rock that sloped away and downhill. It would have been a really bad place to fall. I crawled across, at one point hanging by my ax hooked on a small rock, with the tip of my left crampon on a bare crack. Very scary. I ditched a picket that was impeding my progress and crawled up to a rise in the path. As I reached the crest, the main gully of Yale came into view. Around the corner -- a way to the top of the ravine! Impossible to really describe the feeling of relief. I didn’t have any protection to place, having ditched my only picket, so I straddled a rock (like a saddle) and yanked on the rope to belay Graham up.
As Graham came into sight and earshot, he asked if there was a way out – I think the grin on my face gave away the answer before my thumbs up did. We didn’t celebrate, it was getting late and it was pretty windy (wind on the summit was 73 mph). So I stayed on my belay while Graham continued climbing. The last pitch was scary, because at the top was a vertical step of about six feet that didn’t have any purchase – all rock and scrub on the top. But, we hauled our asses over it and made it to the “summit.”
Then, thinking the ordeal was over, we celebrated.
Second Lesson Learned: Get a mental picture of the route and stick to it. If in doubt, ask people who have climbed it. Route finding on Yale should have been relatively easy (although some climbers later commented that you can get off course up high).
It was getting late – after 4 p.m, and wanted to get down quick. We decide to try and find Escape Hatch even though the visibility was bad (maybe 50-70 feet (?)). I pulled out my GPS, which I preloaded with the tops of the gullies. We were on the Alpine Garden Trail, which even in the fog was easy to follow due to huge cairns. EH was to the southeast, so we started to try and find the gully without losing sight of the cairns.
As we dropped down, my GPS began to fail. It would turn off every 15 to 30 seconds. So Graham pulled his out and we started to track towards EH. But, the directional on his GPS began to swing inconsistently. We found a large cairn that we thought might mark the head of the gully (turns out it did), but we couldn’t see the way down.
After some deliberation, we decided to head south and find the Lion Head trail. The Alpine Garden leads south to that trail, and Graham started heading up to find the cairns. I knew (thought) we could find Lion Head without climbing up, and I was out of gas, so I overruled Graham and told him to follow me south without ascending. On a clear day, or with a look at the map, it would have worked. But I simply grabbed my compass and started south. Really stupid.
The terrain began to slope to the east, and I thought we could follow the arc to the juncture with Lion Head. I was right about the direction, but misjudged the distance, and we fell short (on Monday, we could see that we missed the trail by a few hundred yards).
Bad mistake – totally my mistake. If I had followed Graham, we would have easily found the cairns and the easy way back. Instead, as the sun set and we turned on our headlamps, we dropped into another ravine – the Ravine of the Raymond Cataract. If that sound ominous, it should. Although it starts out as a nice, gentle snow field, it soon narrows into a gorge filled with ledges, cliffs and waterfalls.
Third Lesson Learned: Read the map, idiot. Don’t rely on memory.
Fourth Lesson Learned: When traversing – STAY HIGH. I have learned that lesson before, but ignored it. I was really tired, and so dropping down as we headed towards Lion Head was too easy and sealed our fate. Also, take a look as the (#*$&@ guidebook. Here’s the write-up on descending from the Alpine Garden:
If traveling across the Alpine Garden in poor visibility it's crucial that you stay on the trail. In the past, parties have been known to mistakenly head down into Raymond's Cataract (between Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine). This would put you into an epic bushwhack that you probably would want to avoid.
The ravine narrowed – it was dark, but I could see the walls closing in as I scanned left and right with my headlamp. The brush and trees started to thicken. Soon, we were in full bushwhack mode, crawling in and around the vegetation. We could hear running water, so we pulled out the map and learned where we were.
There was no way out but down. We tried to hug the water, but we were high above the stream bed, and every time we looked down to see if we could simply walk along the water, it was a plunge of 50 feet or more. In the dark, it looked more like a 100. “Spooky” is the only word that describes looking down into the cataract at night. The summer time pictures show the drops we skirted during the night.
We bushwhacked for what seemed like an eternity. It was steep – we stayed roped together even though the rope would hang up in the trees and brush. On one really steep pitch, Graham slipped and slammed into a tree, punching a small hole in his arm and getting his helmet wedged between two small trees [Comic interlude ~ laugh with me as you envision Graham caught in my headlamp beam as he tries to pop his helmet out from between the trees. Still makes me chuckle.]
Okay, back to the story. We stopped to take a break and hydrate. Graham pulled out his cell and, amazingly, got a signal. We were worried about the possibility that someone might send out a rescue party (turns out they don't typically do so until a party is long over due (longer than us)). So I tried to call the two "Dans" (Burchard and McFall) who were our SPOT contacts. No luck. Sitting in the snow, with just our headlamps, I turned to Graham and said that we needed to call one of our wives -- and that if I called Tracy, my climbing days were over. Graham silently agreed, and called Cindy -- trying to explain that we didn't need help, but to contact the ranger and tell him NOT to send out a rescue. Cindy got the message, although she later told us it was a little garbled (I think Graham was suffering from knocking his head against the tree). She spent time time trying to track down a ranger (no luck) and eventually called the sherriff. Long story short -- they weren't looking for us, and wouldn't have been for another two hours or so. The call to Cindy wasn't necessary -- but we appreciated the effort to prevent an unnecessary rescue.
We moved on. The brush was wicked thick, so we finally tried, again, to find the stream. Luckily, at this point we had dropped low enough so that the ground began to level and, nearer to the stream, the brush thinned. We wove through the trees, veering to the east as much as possible. Suddenly, I looked down and saw a snowmobile track. We were on the fire road. As I pulled in the rope, and Graham hiked the last 30 feet, I said to him repeatedly, “we have stories to tell.” But I didn’t tell him I was standing on the road (I wanted him to get the last bit of adventure in).
For the second time in the day, we celebrated our escape. This time it was for real – the cabin was a few minutes up the road. We arrived almost eleven hours after we left -- a long day on the mountain, and a little humbling to say the least.
[The next day, when I told the ranger that we bushwhacked down the Raymond Cataract, his only response was “And you have both legs?” Obviously not a place you want to be in the dark]
Sunday – A Duff Day
After crashing the night before, we decided to take a day off. My shoulder was shot from the Yale climb (and the Raymond bushwhack), and we were both pretty tired. So we had a leisurely breakfast, and decided to climb up to the base of the Yale Gully to look for a quickdraw that I dropped and a glove that Graham dropped (that I retrieved and then managed, somehow, to lose).
It was a nice climb up – we found the draw, but not the glove. Bummer.
We spent the afternoon reading/eating/resting by the woodstove. Pretty cushy.
Probably a good time to mention that we met some “interesting” people at the cabin. One group that, at first glance, seemed to be experienced climbers but, after watching them in the ravine, realized they had done a lot more reading than climbing. Another solo climber who was on a fitness mission – he would run up and down the fire road for exercise, and spent an hour or so in the main cabin doing strength exercises. Kinda weird. But, that’s part of sharing space – you never know who is going to show up.
We planned to climb Central Gully on our last full day.
Monday – A Perfect Climb
We were up early, in time for the 7:00 weather report (it was broadcast, loudly, on the cabin radio every morning – hard to sleep past it). A perfect day – low winds and temps around 20. The rangers gave us good news on the avalanche front, so we geared up and climbed to the ravine.
No one was on Central – in fact, there really wasn’t a lot of climbing activity the whole time we were there. We climbed up (slowly) to the base of Central, and were overtaken by two climbers heading to Pinnacle (they were more experienced and a lot younger).
Central starts with an ice bulge that Graham lead. Longer than I expected, but pretty straightforward (Graham does a great job on lead). He belayed me up, and then I started to lead.
The next pitch – hardened snow – was again a long pitch. We used snow picket for anchors (no ice for the screws, except in a few isolated spots). I put together an anchor, and belayed Graham up.
Fifth Lesson Learned: When picking a spot to anchor, take a look at the fall line (throw a piece if ice uphill and watch it come down). The spot I picked sucked – when Graham started climbing, I got pelted with ice from way up high – some pieces the size of small bricks. Painful – I had to hide behind my pack to keep from getting whacked.
The snow was really consistent – hard, but with enough give to kick a step and easily plant an ax. So we decided to simul-climb: no fixed anchors, just running belays. The leader climbs, places a picket and keeps going. After placing a second picket, the second climber starts, and keeps pace with the leader. The idea is to keep two/three pieces of protection between the leader and second. As the second reaches a piece of protection he removes and carries it up. When the leader runs out of pickets (or screws if there is some ice), he waits/belays the second up. Then the process starts again.
The simul-climb went great – much faster than fixed belays. We topped out early, onto a windless, sunny, warm Alpine Garden.
We took a break, and then decided to head across the Alpine Garden, following the cairns that we saw a few days previous. This time, the route was quite obvious.
Had a nice lunch break when we got to Lion Head, at the edge of Tuckermans Ravine, where we met a group coming from the summit of Washington, with a 9 year old girl in tow.
The trip down was easy – steep in spots, but a cool trail. It dropped to the fire road, which lead back to the cabin. Just in time for a coffee and Baileys.
Spent the night relaxing – packing up some gear, getting ready to head down. The cabin was quiet – at least until about 10:00, when a large group arrived (a leadership school).
Tuesday – Homeward Bound
We got up early, as usual. Graham was acting like a nervous old lady – even though his plane didn’t leave until 5:00 (he wanted to get a good seat). So, we packed up and said our goodbyes to Karen and Dunbar (great hosts).
Pulling the sled downhill turns out to be a whole lot easier than up. It was an easy hike to the car. We dumped all our gear on a table at the visitors center, and sorted it out. I grabbed some quarters, soap and towels, and we each got a semi-hot shower. Nicccce.
After packing up, we hit the road to North Conway. Stopped at the same bar where we started the trip – the Bar of the Giant Nachos. We had a few beers and $1 tacos, and then headed to Manchester.
An uneventful last day. Dropped Graham off, hit a little snow on the way home, but back in Burlington by 6:00.
In summary: a perfect trip, despite the adventure. A complete blast -- Graham is a great climbing partner, and the Whites are an awesome place in the winter.
Although I appreciate Rick taking responsibility for some of our climbing errors, we were and are a team, and it took both of us to get up the mountain and both of us to get down. We relied on each other and watched each other’s backs from start to finish as a good team should. Had I written this report myself I would have most certainly included many of the errors I made. So for the record, any comment in this trip report written as “my fault” or “stupid mistake” should be read as “our team’s learning curve”.
Rick and I met for the first time in Seattle in 2006 during a guided Mt. Rainier expedition seminar, and since that time we have shared a handful of great outdoor adventures. Fortunately we are both on the same page with respect to the level of risk we are willing to take, which luckily for us (and our families) is very conservative. It’s great having someone to share my passion of mountains with and I thank Rick whole heartily. Stay tuned for more great mountain adventures…