Mount Adams Winter Ascent - Day 1

“…in the winter, Mount Washington has weather as bad as any in Alaska … Snow-and-ice climbing on Mount Washington can be a survival exercise…”

—Chris Jones, in Climbing in North America (published by the University of California Press, Berkeley, 1976)

 

I began mountaineering two years ago, when I endeavored to climb the mountain known for having “the worst weather in the world”, Mount Washington, in Winter.  I had conjured up the idea as a sort of testing ground for my cold weather gear that was newly-purchased at the time to see me through taller, more technical mountains in the future.  Indeed it has.

It was my intention to return to the area to tackle a few of the other "New Hampshire 48” as a commemoration of the endeavor that started them all.

So it was my intention to return to the area to tackle a few of the other "New Hampshire 48” as a commemoration of the endeavor that started them all.  It turned out that there was an option to do just that during the holiday season this year with Shanna Irving, and so we began planning the adventure.  Advised early on by the locals that December weather in the Whites was a crapshoot, we had to come up with a flexible plan that involved being open to traveling in rain, slush, or snow in boots, crampons, or snowshoes as the situation called.  More flexibility meant more gear so to try to minimize the amount we would have to carry, we planned a few mini-adventures for our four day trip starting in Lincoln, New Hampshire:

  • Mount Adams via Lowe’s Path (Day 1 to Grey Knob Cabin, Day 2 summit and return)

  • Lafayette Loop from Franconia State Park

  • Mount Monroe via Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail

This would allow us to carry only what food/gear we needed for the day and keep our options flexible in terms of what we hoped to do and when.  We would be joined for part of it by Andreas Frese, a local Northeasterner from a hiking group of which Shanna and I were both members, for some part of it depending on how the weather played out.

Our first order of business upon arrival was to pick up some mountaineering boots for Shanna, who did not own her own pair.  Thankfully the local climbing store, International Mountain Equipment (IME) In North Conway, NH, rented out equipment to those ill-equipped but interested in braving the heights of the Whites.  As the weather was welcoming the day of our arrival, we met Andreas at IME.  Shanna seemed to have a little trouble fitting her Asolo rental boots comfortably, but we reckoned we would just lace them a bit more loosely to accommodate for the imperfect fit and went on our way. This would later prove to be a mistake.

Even I was slipping on the layer of ice covering the ground and thinly dusted with snow--for her it was the high diving board when she just signed up for swim lessons.

Our goal for Day 1 was to make it to Grey Knob Cabin, a remote hiker's cabin on the side of Mount Adams managed among others by the Randolph Mountain Club (RMC) and tended permanently by a volunteer who is responsible for upkeep, safety, hospitality, the wood-burning stove, and the collection of payments from those staying through.  It is nestled in the woods just below the tree line at 4370ft elevation, 3000ft above the Lowe's Path trailhead that began our ascent.  The going was initially slow, given that Shanna had no experience hiking in snow or on ice and that the worst of which covered the trail due to a recent snowfall followed by a melt/refreeze cycle shortly thereafter.  Even I was slipping on the layer of ice covering the ground and thinly dusted with snow--for her it was the high diving board when she just signed up for swim lessons.

Over the next two hours we continued up the steepest stretch of Lowe's Path toward Grey Knob because the plan for retreat--heading back to the trailhead--would be more difficult than pressing on.

Andreas, native to the parts, was exceedingly patient with us Southerners.  What we became aware of after a photo break at the Log Cabin, another RMC building about 1100ft shy of Grey Knob, was that the poor fit of Shanna's boots were causing her shin-bang.  Having never had it myself, I had no suggestions on how to fix it other than to re-lace her boots differently.  It was at this point that Andreas, who did not intend to stay overnight at Grey Knob, had to turn back to reach the trailhead before dark, so we said our farewells.  Shanna and I were to continue on, but we didn't realize what awaited us.

In cold-weather environments such as the one we were in, nightfall means extreme, sunless cold and poor trail-following conditions. For the ill-prepared, these can be equally fatal.

There are often mountaineering decisions made primarily around timing. Many times, this stands to benefit the group because overrunning time in the mountains can translate into increasingly dangerous conditions. Overrunning a morning ascent cutoff on glaciated mountains can mean a dodging bone-splitting rocks and body-crushing seracs as the day’s heat melts the ice that bound them to the mountain. In cold-weather environments such as the one we were in, nightfall means extreme, sunless cold and poor trail-following conditions. For the ill-prepared, these can be equally fatal.

 

For want of a nail the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe the horse was lost;
For want of a horse the message was lost;
For want of a message the battle was lost;
For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost—
All for the want of a horse-shoe nail.

—Unattributed

 

Remember when I said that hurrying through boot fitting at IME would be prove to be a mistake? Rushing Shanna’s boot fit stood to be our very own ‘horse-shoe nail’, as it cost us more time than we saved by speeding through it. Despite having re-laced her boots, Shanna's shin-bang became agonizing to the point of tears.  Over the next two hours we continued up the steepest stretch of Lowe's Path toward Grey Knob because the plan for retreat--heading back to the trailhead--would be more difficult than pressing on.  The 1000 feet of altitude gain over a half mile (~40% grade) took us twice as long as it otherwise would have.  After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached the edge of the tree line and shortly thereafter Grey Knob.  

It meant shelter from the wind.  It meant a sleeping bag on a mattress.  It meant the presence of other people.  It meant dinner.

It meant shelter from the wind.  It meant a sleeping bag on a mattress.  It meant the presence of other people.  It meant dinner.  But most importantly, it meant Shanna escaping the torture of her boots into some dry socks and comfortable camp shoes.  We barely stayed awake while eating, and established a plan for the morning to not only experiment with solutions to the shin-bang issue that plagued Shanna but also make some gear repairs necessary for continuing on—it was discovered that my new crampons that Shanna would be borrowing were falling apart out of the box due to the locking mechanism that kept them together failing out of the box. Summit day of Mount Adams the stakes would be much higher, and we could not afford losing another ‘nail’. The sleep was welcome, and after having only managed three hours of it the night prior, long.