I was beat. I looked at my watch and saw it was nearly 2:30pm. We’d been hiking uphill, fighting the cold and the wind and the blowing snow since 8am.
I remember reading about accidents on mountains in books and news articles. It usually wasn’t one mistake or bad decision that gets you in trouble, but rather a series of them. I had told Dave before he took off to go looking for the trail again that I didn’t want to keep compounding our situation by making more bad decisions. We’d already gone off trail and gotten lost in a white out in our rush to get down the mountain, we didn’t need to make the situation even worse.
As I stood there in the waist deep snow watching Dave attempt to traverse across the mountain in an attempt to find the trail we’d lost, I thought back to how the day had progressed up to this point…
We’d gotten a late start. We’d set all of our gear our the night before. Thinking back, we should have packed up the bags the night before, and only left our clothes out to be put on. Although we got up at 5:45, by the time we got cleaned up, ate breakfast and got all dressed and packed out, it was already 7am. For some reason, everything seemed to take forever.
At the trailhead, we discovered that in our rush to pack that morning, we’d forgotten two important things: Dave’s mittens and our trail map. Since we were already running late, we decided to make due with what we had brought with us.
Dave would wear his liner gloves and my Marmot technical gloves. Along with some hand warmers, it should be enough to keep his hands warm. And since we we’d already studied the route and saw that it only required two different trails, we decided to forgo to map. Besides, we were told there would be so many people (including guides) on the mountain that day, we could easy follow someone else or ask directions.
We double-checked the items we did end up bringing with us and loaded them into my backpack:
- Down jackets
- Ski goggles
- hand warmers
- food (granola bars and shot blocks – 2 of each for both of us)
- 2 nalgene bottles full of water in insulators
- Mountaineering axes
- Balaclavas and extra hats
This in addition to the clothes I was wearing which included my Arc’teryx base layer, my Patagonia fleece, my REI shell pants, my Arc’teryx Alpha shell jacket, wool hat, wool expedition socks, Vasque mountaineering boots and my Mountain Hardware Masherbrum mittens (Dave had a similar setup, minus the mittens).
We signed into the guestbook at the visitor center, did one last check of what we had and set off onto the could trail.
On the way up the first part of the route, on the Tuckerman Ravine trail, we saw numerous other hikers out that morning. Most people we talked to, like us, were planning to head to the summit that day. By the time we got to the start of the Lion Head trail, we were surrounded by no less than 20 other hikers doing the same thing.
This was a common place to stop for most people to pause, put on crampons, adjust packs and set off for the more treacherous part of the hike/climb to come. We stopped to do the same and get a quick bite to eat and drink.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was barely 9am. We were making great time! The sun was even coming out! What a great day this was turning out to be!
After we threw on our crampons and started off on the Lionhead trail we noticed the terrain almost immediately got steeper and more difficult. Within 15 minutes we were going nearly vertical up an extremely steep trail that was a lot of fun. I had actually wondered earlier if I was even going to need my ice axe for any part of this climb.
By about 11am we reached the top of the Lionhead trail and though the sun was still out we could see a weather system moving in. Our pace had also slowed considerably.
“Weird” I thought to myself. ”It’s supposed to be nice up here today. Hopefully it just passes us by”
The wind had picked up quite a bit and by the time we got to the lip of the Tuckerman Ravine it felt like we were in a hurricane. Though I could still see the summit off in the distance, visibility was dropping.
By noon, as we trudged slowly up a massive boulder field, I look upwards and saw that the summit was no longer visible. We should still make out the trail with the kearns and marker wands, but our destination was now obscured.
This is the first time that I felt a little something inside of me. I don’t know if it was dread or what, but I quickly wrote it off. I mean, we came here looking for the bad weather experience, right? And as the wind continued to howl I knew we had found it. In spades.
Every step was getting tougher. It wasn’t just the hike up that was wearing me down. The sub zero temps made my lungs burn and the wind punished me, even when I stood still. We were in the middle of a full on assault, and we kept hiking into it.
By 1:30pm I noticed an object in the near distance that looked man made. It was a railing, covered in sideways icicles. I walked a few more feet and saw a building. We had made it to the top.
After about 20 minutes of walking around, checking stuff out and taking a couple of pictures next to the summit sign, we were ready to get down. The wind, gusting up to 80mph, was merciless and we were both really getting tired. We weren’t getting cold yet, but we knew the longer we stood still the colder we’d get. Plus, the idea of heading down quickly and getting some beer and pizza sounded really good.
So down we went. Quick. Too quick. The conditions on the mountain had continued to deteriorate and we were now in a full on whiteout. I could barely make out Dave’s bright green jacket 20ft in front of me. We just kept heading straight down the field of rocks and boulders until we stopped in the middle of a snow field. This didn’t look familiar.
We turned east and walked through the snow for a few minutes, looking for some evidence of the trail. We couldn’t have missed it by that much, right? And where were the other hikers? Had the weather turned all them around?
We stopped again. No luck. Nothing looked familiar and we couldn’t see any major landmarks. We turned around and saw that our tracks were almost completely washed away by the blowing wind and and snow.
I looked at Dave and I saw in his eyes a reflection of my own panic. The weather was deterioating further and every minute that ticked by brought us closer to sunset.
Sunset would be very bad. Like, never get off the mountain kind of bad.
We talked for a minute or two, and discussed the situation. No use in panicking, we agreed. It was only going to make things worse. Though we were both really worn out, we decided to head back up the mountain a little bit and try to see if we could find a trail or some kind of landmark. And after about 10 minutes, we saw what looked like a sign post sticking up! We rushed over to it and brushed the snow off
“<- TUCKERMAN RAVINE TRAIL ->”
OK, that helped, but not much. We were on a trail, but which part? Part of the Tuckerman Ravine trail leads up to the summit, which is not where we wanted to go. The other side gets closed after heavy snow fall due to avalanche danger. Somewhere along the trail was a turn off that would take us safely down the mountain. But where? Had we gone too far? Not far enough? We were already in really deep snow and completely worn out.
Choosing the wrong direction could either put us in an avalanche zone with a 1500 drop off or send us trudging back up the mountain while it got dark.
Dave started walking. ”I think the trail’s this way” and headed back up the mountain.
I gave him 30 minutes. If he didn’t find it by then, we’d have to make another decision about what we were going to do.
I looked around and tried to think of what our other options were:
-We could try to work our way down the Tuckerman Ravine. It was dangerous, but people have done it before.
We could also work our way back up to the summit and start our decent all over again. We’d be tired, but it would give us a good chance of getting back on track, if we could get back up there and down before dark.
-That last option, one I didn’t want to think about, was digging a whole and in the snow and bivouacking down until the weather broke. I knew it would get really cold that night, but it would be better than falling down the Tuckerman Ravine in the dark.
Then I started to think of my wife, at home. Probably watching TV on our couch. I was supposed to call her this evening when I got off the mountain. She was already worried about me. If I didn’t call her tonight, she’d be a complete mess. I hate it when she worries about me. Imagine how upset she’d be if…
I stopped myself. No way that’s happening tonight. I could not stay up here tonight. We’d HAVE to find a way down, no matter what. Even if we had to hike all the way back up to the top 5 times and crawl down at midnight, we were not going to be stranded here!
I had worked my way into quite a pep talk! Just then I remembered. I had downloaded a copy of the map on my iPhone to study. I had brought my phone with me, just in case of an emergency. I didn’t get service, but I had a copy of that map still on here. I pulled out my phone and with my liner gloves, I was able to scroll and zoom to the part of the map were on.
I looked around to try to and orient myself to a landmark with little luck. I thought we were right above the Tuckerman Ravine, but I couldn’t be sure. And just then, the weather lifted for a few moments and, off in the distance, I could make out the unmistakable shape of the Lionhead.
We couldn’t be that far off course! Dave had to be headed in the right direction. I started walking towards him. I was ready to grab Dave, shake him and yell “we’re going to live! We’ll make it off….” What was he waving his arms like that for?
I heard him yell ”I found the trail! Its right here. We were only off by about 100ft!”.
Oh right. Well, nevermind the speech. I guess we’ll just walk down then.
And sure enough, the trail was right there. And just as we got there the weather broke for a few more moments and I could see the rock formations on the Lionhead directly ahead in the distance. We walked down slowly and got back down to the tree line. The weather, which had been pounding the summit finally eased.
The setting sun came back out again to greet us as we quickly walked the lower half of the trail and finally dropped below the mountains just as we reached the trailhead and car.
We unloaded the gear into the rental car, turned the heater up to full blast and drank a bottle of slushy water I’d left behind.
“What’d you think?” I asked Dave.
“That was not as easy as I thought it would be.”
“Ready for a beer?”
“Dear god yes. Let’s go”
As we set off down the road to head back to down, we both got quiet in our thoughts. I thought about calling my wife and how good it would be to hear her voice. I thought about how different the whole experience was from I pictured it. But mostly I thought about all the stories I’ve read of people who have died on mountains and how real it all seemed to me now.
Now to our credit, we did stop making bad decisions at a critical juncture. Though we were only a 100ft or so off-course, we could have easily made the situation far worse if we had continued to make bad decisions. I stopped our descent, Dave made the sacrifice of heading back up and because of the that we were able to find our way back on-course after losing about an hour or so of time.
But I saw firsthand how easy a serious of seemingly small errors can compound and snowball into disaster. Coupled with a lack of humility, we were actually pretty lucky to have made it off as easy as we did.
Mountains, especially ones as fierce as Mount Washington, demand your respect. It doesn’t matter how fancy your shell is, or how good of shape you’re in or how shiny your new crampons are. If you don’t respect that mountain, it can punish you. Sometimes with severe consequences.
This time, we walked away with a free lesson.