The Coldest Place

Winter climb
Mt Washington

"Coldest place on earth" was the pronouncement of the North Face representative who happened to be in the equipment store as I was comparing windproof shells, in preparation for our winter climb of Mt Washington - the highest winds ever recorded anywhere (231 mph) occurred on Mt. Washington. The day we reached the summit (Dec. 29, 1987) the maximum wind speed was 110 mph with a windchill of -107 F. The next day the wind reached 143 mph with windchills in the vicinity of -200 F.

Preparing to climb Mt. Washington, located in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, one need not be concerned about long-duration expeditions, the problems of high altitudes (Mt. Washington is only 6,288 feet high), or technical climbs. (Though routes involving technical climbs - rock in summer, ice in winter - abound.) Rather, one prepares for a walk in extremely harsh winds and over terrain conditioned by a combination of extreme cold and high winds. The winter scene above treeline is very much that of a cold, windy moonscape with rime-covered rocks and ice-crusted snow.

As we were going to be in the general area over the Christmas holidays, my son Jeff and I decided to try a winter ascent of Mt. Washington. He is a Cornell student (upstate New York) and I'm in Tulsa, so we had to organize, and coordinate long distance. Though I've done a lot of "conventional" hiking, I was not up on the latest equipment for cold conditions. Coordinating with Jeff on matters such as the merits of VBLs and the fine points of wool vs. polarplus was a lot of fun.

The day before our climb was crystal clear, sunny, and relatively warm and windless - an ideal summit day if you were trying to catch a lull in the maelstrom. But we were pretty sure those good conditions wouldn't last. The low snow conditions did, however, tempt us to leave our snowshoes behind. In a burst of confidence, we also decided to further lighten our loads by leaving behind the tent and one of our two stoves. To survive a possible (though we thought unlikely) overnight bivouac, we had along windproof (e.g. Gore-tex) sleeping bags good to about -20 F and plenty of calories.

The good conditions didn't last. When we hit the trail at a little after 6 AM a light snow was falling. The weather front that had delivered Tulsa's worst-ever ice storm a couple days earlier was passing through the White Mountains. It turned out not to be a severe storm at Mt. Washington, but it did limit visibility and started the wind on an upward swing.

We reached Tuckerman Ravine just as it was getting light, and stopped for a snack and to make hot tea before ascending the Lion Head trail to treeline. It was the first and last hot tea of the trip. To our two layers - a wicking underwear beneath a layer of polarplus - we added a windshell, and delivered ourselves above the trees to the not so tender mercies of the Mt. Washington winds.

The conditions weren't so severe as to distract us from enjoying the "view". Fine powder snow was swirling everywhere, but not so thick as to entirely block out the sun. From the Lion Head rock formation on the rim of the ravine, high above treeline, the majestic bulk of the Boott Spur prominence loomed out of the mist across Tuckerman, seemingly lifeless and magnetically forbidding. Three days later we would climb to the top of Boott Spur, battling very strong winds, and look down on the Lion Head.

The trail from Lion Head proceeds along the Tuckerman rim to the head of the ravine, and then heads straight to the summit on the gentlest slope of the summit cone. But we opted for the steeper east ridge of the summit cone, which begins not far from the Lion Head. This was the hardest part, mainly because of the thick icy crust. For long stretches the crust would not break through, requiring self-arrest maneuvers (dig in your ice axe and the toes of your boots or crampons for all you're worth) in the case of a slip. Jeff didn't slip at all - I slipped once and, no doubt awkwardly, managed an easy self-arrest.

Cresting the summit we were hit with the wind, and wobbled over to the summit registry. On the way, the lee of the weather station buildings gave brief respite from the wind. Everything was covered with rime ice, grotesque horizontal icicles pointing into the wind.

I let my guard down while taking pictures, and shortly Jeff noticed frostbite on my nose. Sure enough, the nose was numb, so back on went the neoprene face mask and balaclava. After that, I was a bit paranoid that I not refreeze it and cause permanent damage.

We took the "normal" (least steep) route down the summit cone without incident. At the base of the cone, two feet of slithering, mesmerizing spindrift obscured the "trail" and invited a bushwhack toward the Lion Head. And that's when we fell into the spruce traps.

On the shelf between the base of the summit cone and the rim of Tuckerman Ravine grow some scrub spruce. These are typically about three feet high, with just their tips sticking above the smooth ice crust and hiding dead air space below. Bushwhackers break through the crust and find themselves waist deep in scrub, with spindrift swirling neck high. Sort of neat, you think, and not too bad a place to bivouac if you have to spend the night above treeline.

But as it was only 1 PM, we weren't ready to spend the night. The spruce traps didn't relinquish us easily, however, as the ice crust kept breaking off (rather like breaking through thin ice on a pond, then trying to crawl out). I finally spread out as far as possible over the ice crust, and gently rolled out, pack and all.

At the Lion Head we found a place sheltered somewhat from the wind to stop and have a snack, and discovered that our water was frozen. Fortunately we also had a tea mixture which was only partially frozen, so lunch was peanut butter crackers and iced tea slush. On the subsequent hike up Boott Spur, we used insulated jackets on our water bottles, and filled them with hot tea mixture. (Ahhh, highly recommended.)

Back at Pinkham Notch before 3 PM, we congratulated ourselves on a well-done trek, and on being appropriately prepared and equipped. The major preparation snafus were the frozen water, easily fixed wIth insulated water bottle jackets, and steamed/frozen glasses (no known solution yet).

Frostbitten toes had been my biggest concern but cold feet (of either variety) turned out not to be a problem at all. We both wore double boots, Jeff the new light plastic variety and I the old heavy leather ones. Outside our VBL (vapor barrier liner) socks, Jeff wore neoprene socks and I wore heavy wool socks. Both systems performed extremely well. The secret to warm feet: properly fitting double boots and VBL socks.

We experimented some with handwear. Or at least I did; Jeff stuck with insulated Gore-tex ice climbing gloves. I found pile mittens with Gore-tex overmitts to be the warmest, but also the least convenient for doing useful things such as taking a picture, adjusting the pit-zips, etc. Gore-tex gloves over wool/poly liners were much more convenient and almost as warm. Fingers tended to get cold when the outer (windproof) layer was removed, but warmed right up again after we started moving. The secret to warm hands: a pile or wool inner layer covered by a windproof, waterproof outer layer, and keep moving.

Gore-tex not only performed beautifully on our hands, but in our parkas as well. Jeff had a Gore-tex parka insulated with thinsulate, and I had a Gore-tex shell with pit-zips (armpit zippers). The Gore-tex stopped the wind absolutely cold, and was always comfortable. Stopping the wind, of course, was the crucial thing; the other features were useful, but of secondary importance.

With the wind stopped, we found we didn't need as much insulation underneath the shell as we had expected. I had two more layers to add over the polarplus, but didn't use either, even on the summit. (If we had stayed on top longer, though, I would have added another layer.) For our Boott Spur hike, I took only one extra layer, and didn't use it there either.

Below treeline the snow in the trees and on the trail was picture postcard pretty (even though there wasn't much of it). But it was the blustery moonscape above treeline that we found particularly appealing. You can experience spindrift, the rime, and (yes, even) the wind. You can see the hulk of Boott Spur and the boulder-strewn summit cone in one fell swoop. And at the same time your gaze can encompass the glacier gash that is Tuckerman Ravine, with its near vertical sides and its guardians, Lion Head and Boott Spur.

The ravines (there are others in the area, in addition to Tuckerman) deserve exploring. These are glacier-cut formations, about a mile and a half across and about 2000 feet deep, similar in shape to western cirques. The lower portion of the ravine is clothed mostly in spruce and the ravine walls above treeline are a mosaic of exposed rock and (in winter) ice falls. From the rim, as the eye (even sans frozen glasses) caresses the opposite wall of the ravine, one cannot keep from imagining "now there's a neat route ... ".

And then there's that high frozen route, completely above and around the head of the ravine, from Boott Spur to the summit. I've always liked exposed ridges, and this one's a beaut. Inviting me back for a longer, a bit different, a bit more dangerous, and a bit more exciting climb to the summit of Mt. Washington.

This was the first state highpoint of our subsequent 50 highpoints project. At the time we had not conceived of that project; only later, after we had climbed a couple more state highpoints did we decide to try for them all. And that was well before we heard of the highpointers club and the community of other folks tackling the state highpoints.

As it turns out, I had turned 50 the summer before we climbed Mt Washington; (much) later I realized that if I could succeed on all fifty I could do them all over the age of fifty. Only after that had been accomplished did I find out that I am the first person on record to climb all fifty over the age of fifty - 50/50#1. -jlw