Mount Monroe Winter Ascent
Beneath the Wind
The day before had been lovely, a day of rest and cuddling and watching Ghostbusters with new friends at the Notch Hostel. We even went thrifting and checked out a local restaurant and bar! It was a necessary far cry from the two days before that: days that, for me, were an exercise in mind over body and an emotional mess of an experience.
We had summited Mount Adams, but the first day up I felt like I was breaking my own shin bones with every step. Day 2’s descent took about three times longer than I expected, especially with untied boots (my shins couldn’t take the pressure) and the exhaustion of the day before weighing on me. The summit wasn’t awe-inspiring. It was an ugly view, really; the top was a rock pile, and beyond the snow fields, everything was just brown and rocky all around us. The snow fields we came through were lovely, though, and there were many beautiful copses of greenery along the way. And I was happy to have made it to the top despite the god-awful shin bang.
Imagine mixing the worst hurricane ever with -20F temperatures, snow, ice, and fatal exposures. Yeah, terror.
So our lazy day of modernity at the Notch Hostel was hard-earned, and it replenished my adventurous spirit. Still, I was stuck somewhere between my being proud of my Adams summit and my terror of what was to come: a one-day ascent and descent of Mount Monroe, a place whose neighboring summit has literally been cited as having the worst weather in the world. IN THE WORLD. The winds on neighboring Mount Washington have been measured at well over 200 mph, and the buildings atop it are literally chained to the ground. Imagine mixing the worst hurricane ever with -20F temperatures, snow, ice, and fatal exposures. Yeah, terror.
I wasn’t ready for those winds. Having felt the winds at the summit of Adams bite through my layers and burn my skin two days before, I was afraid of what Monroe had to offer. I decided, though, not to focus on that, and instead to meditate on my victorious survival of the whipping Mount Adams gave me.
From the start, Mount Monroe was far more beautiful than Adams had been. We hiked alongside a river, its surrounding greenery blanketed in snow. The sounds of the flowing river pushing itself down the mountainside and through the valley where we began immediately reminded me how much and why I love hiking.
The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail snow was untraveled, so Josh had to break trail the entire way. Funnily enough, two men waited in the parking lot for us to go first so they could hike our broken trail. Every time we took a break and they passed us a little, they would thank us for breaking trail and assert that they would take it from there. Before long, though, they would stop again and let us move ahead. Josh calmly shrugged and talked about how that just meant he would get stronger but they would not. How lucky I am to hike with such an amazing guy.
Georgia mountain trails tend to meander more, but the Presidential Range trails, it seems, are all about the summit endgame.
The trail was steep. Like Adams, Monroe is a relentless UP. Georgia mountain trails tend to meander more, but the Presidential Range trails, it seems, are all about the summit endgame. We were high-stepping and kicking our own steps into the snow almost the entire way, paralleling and several times crossing the cascading and increasingly frozen Ammonoosuc River. The cascading falls were incredibly beautiful but nerve-wracking during our multiple traverses; there were several sections with fatal exposures that we crossed, me to the tune of Joshua repeating “Trust the crampons!” and “Step strong!”
His encouragement through those terrifying waterfall crossings and through what was to come are what got me through. Later in the hike, when the winds literally pinned me to the ground, trusting Josh to guide me is why I survived to tell the tale of that wild, wild afternoon.
Along the way up to the terrible winds that awaited us were lovely frozen pools, one that our trail moochers didn’t mind stepping ahead of us to take our picture by. Then, that relentless UP again, this time sharper and without break. The pictures really don’t show how steep the trail actually is. Shame.
My uninitiated mind and body did not want to stop for long - it was getting colder with every idle second.
A few hours after we began our adventure up into the crazy weather that awaited us, we arrived at a wanted shelter, the AMC Lake of the Clouds Hut, all its doors locked. We ducked behind it to put on our heavy layers. My uninitiated mind and body did not want to stop for long - it was getting colder with every idle second. Josh had a better idea of what lay beyond the hut, though, so he knew I’d need some protein and water before we continued the climb.
It was a cold one. I wore literally ALL of my gear, plus Josh's goggles and Alaskan parka, the one he wore on the worst days of his self-guided Denali (Mount McKinley) trip.
The frigid winds couldn't break through my layered, well-researched clothing, but they could grab that huge parka and treat it like they might treat an irritating kite that some kid keeps swooping in their way.
The frigid winds couldn't break through my layered, well-researched (thanks Josh!) clothing, but they could grab that huge parka and treat it like they might treat an irritating kite that some kid keeps swooping in their way. Before I could even stab my trekking pole into the ice at my feet, those winds pushed it out from under me and nearly ripped it from my triple-gloved hands.
I fell to my knees once, twice, then three times and began to hyperventilate into my borrowed goggles and double face shield; the roaring winds and my own terror of being blown down the icy cascading waterfall beneath me pinned me to the ground. There I was: a few hundred feet from the summit; a few hundred feet from the wildest, most difficult physical accomplishment (short of childbirth, but that was medicated!) of my life. I had to get up.
He encouraged me lovingly then reminded me in no uncertain terms that, if I did not move from that spot, I would die in it.
I have to credit Josh for getting me moving. He encouraged me lovingly then reminded me in no uncertain terms that, if I did not move from that spot, I would die in it. I got to my feet, and together we locked arms and leaned into the 90mph winds, trusting one another and our crampons to keep us from slipping down the many hundreds of feet of cascading rock and icefall.
Visibility decreased the higher we ascended; towards the summit, it became difficult to find the cairns winding their way up the steep, snow-covered path. Another group of climbers--two couples and a dog, each of which seems to have been more experienced in climbing through the snow and winds than I am--ascended as I had my panic attack, and as they came back down, encouraged us further. Just a few more steps, and I could have Mount Monroe successfully accomplished.
When we finally reached the summit, I could see nothing but the cairn telling us we’d done it. We snapped a picture quickly, then got the hell out of there.
The way down from the summit to the respite-ready hut was even more treacherous than the ascent. I slipped down quite a few sections and more than once lost my way. Josh later told me that I was acting like a drunk date he had to help to a waiting Uber! I was so disoriented from the fear and the low visibility that I was worthless at navigation, even with his directions to guide me. When we made it back to relative safety of the hut, I fell to my frozen knees once again, but this time in exhausted gratitude that my body and spirit had--with not a little help--gotten through the challenge. I, a Georgia girl who had rarely even seen snow, had summited one of the most difficult of the White Mountains two days after breaking down on its Presidential brother Adams. So this mix of intense relief, shock at where my body had just taken me and survived, and wonder at God’s creation is why people mountaineer. Less than 1% of people, but people nonetheless!
When we made it back to relative safety of the hut, I fell to my frozen knees once again, but this time in exhausted gratitude that my body and spirit had--with not a little help--gotten through the challenge.
Then for the fun part: once we again passed the you-better-layer-up Lake of the Clouds hut on our descent and got away from the waterfall crossings, we got to have some fun. Again, the trail was so crazy steep and the snow so super deep that it made ascent difficult; descent, though, was a glorious downhill slide! Every step took us down five to seven feet, and I definitely enjoyed that part. After a few miles of it, though, my knees weren’t as happy to slide perpetually down a mountainside as I was, and I had to be extra careful not to twist them wrong.
When we made it to the car, the sun had set, and our parking lot matched the icy cascades above. Thank God for our accidental, dirt-cheap rental of a Range Rover (that’s another - awesome - story). That Rover’s 4-wheel drive soon got us back to the unfrozen roads below and a few hours later, to the comfort of sweet Sandy’s AirBNB, where a hot meal and the most comfortable of beds would cap off this exciting day in the best, and decidedly most needed, of ways.
Shanna Irving is a guest blogger here. She is also a mother, a lover, a teacher, and in all things an adventurer. Her recent adventures have taken her backpacking and hiking throughout the US, and this year will begin her international adventuring with a trip to the glaciers and ice caves of Iceland and to the mountains and plains of South Africa. Writing about it all, too, is an adventure in itself.