Saranac Lake – North Country Community College student Noah Timmons spent the winter break climbing the highest mountain in the Northeastern United States.
Timmons hails from Delaware and is a first-year student in the college’s Wilderness Recreation Leadership program.
He provided the following account of his two-day guided expedition to the top of the rugged, 6,288-foot peak, which is known for its brutal and extreme weather conditions.
My trip to Mount Washington started 586 miles away in my hometown of Dagsboro, Delaware. When I woke up Friday the 12th of January at 3:15 a.m. still recovering from the flu and a respiratory infection, I wondered if I should have canceled my trip. I decided I wouldn’t allow even the flu to keep me from climbing one of the most extraordinaire mountains in the east, so I took a quick shower, gathered my gear and started out for my exciting adventure. It was rainy and unusually warm the whole drive up to New Hampshire. When I arrived in the town of North Conway, around 3 p.m., I was already hearing of flash floods and the news of a recent rescue of a woman who had been trapped on Mount Washington just earlier in the week.
On Saturday the 13th, I walked into International Mountain Equipment and met my two guides and my other fellow climbers. There were eight people in total (counting the guides). We did a quick gear shakedown and went over the climbing tools we were using: double plastic mountaineering boots, harness, crampons, micro spikes, ice axe, helmet, gaiters, multiple gloves, and buffs (a combination bandana, scarf and hat). After sorting through the gear we went out on a day climb. The name of the area where we practice ice climbing has slipped my mind, but it was a nice day to warm up and get to know the guides and the other climbers a bit better.
The morning of the 14th, all of the climbers gathered again that at the IME shop in North Conway. We did a final gear shakedown and packed our food then were off on a 30 minute ride to the trailhead at Pinkham Notch (elev. 2,200 ft.). We started our hike around 9 a.m. The forecast for the day was a high temp of 20 degrees and a low of -4. After hiking just a short distance the guides had us cut through the woods to the John Sherburne Ski Trail where we used our ice axes to practice self-arresting on a steep, icy slope. Feeling comfortable self-arresting, we then continued on with our hike up the mountain.
We eventually reached the Harvard Cabin (elev. 3,500 ft.) where we would camp for the night. We set up the tents on the ice-crusted snow, which made it difficult to find level ground for the tents. Breaking through the ice with our ice axes, then shoveling out the snow to make a level area was a process. We had the camp set up by noon, so the group decided to hike over to Huntington Ravine. The trail would around a creek with ruffled, two-foot deep gaps in the snow where you could see the flowing water underneath the icy surface. Our guides made a comment that the conditions reminded them of glacier traversing. When we reached the base of Huntington Ravine (elev. 4,100 ft.) we stood in the shadows of high rock formations all around us, such a remarkable sight and yet a reminder of how serious the terrain was and what we would be facing the next day.
After returning to the campsite we fetched water, cooked food and went to bed around eight o’clock. It was a very uncomfortable night. I struggled to fall asleep, then woke up around 1:45 a.m. As I laid awake in the tent, I could feel snow falling on my face; the humidity from our breath had built up and had frozen on the inner walls of the tent. I eventually decided to venture out of my tent around 3:30 a.m. I put my boots and gaiters back on and took a quick walk to warm up. Everyone else was up by 4:00 a.m. We cooked our breakfast and heated the water we were carrying that day so that it wouldn’t freeze on our way up the mountain.
We reached the winter route of the Lion’s Head Trail at 6:30 a.m. At about 3,500 feet in elevation, this would be the start of the climb. The trail was steep and icy as we made our way up. We broke tree line as the sun was coming up. Finally reaching Lion’s Head (elev. 5,000 ft.) we could see down into Tuckerman’s Ravine. We noticed at the bottom of the ravine there were remnants of an avalanche that had happened just two days before — another reminder of the dangers of this mountain. While resting on Lion’s Head and looking up at the summit, I couldn’t help but think of the nearly 150 people who have died trying to climb Mount Washington.
The day was warming up now that it was mid-morning. It was a blue-sky day with hardly any wind. Our guides pointed out how the Atlantic Ocean was visible on the other side of mountain. The ocean was a thin silver line was sandwiched between the sky and dark-colored earth.
We continued our climb up Mount Washington, passing the Alpine Garden (elev. 5,300 ft.). The guides surprised us by rerouting our ascent up a steep snowfield that was off the main trail. The snowfield was only half a mile from the summit but was still 1,000 feet below it. Needless to say, it was a steep climb. The exposure on the snowfield wasn’t comfortable. I was happy when we finally reached a rocky outcropping above the snowfield.
At this point, the weather station was finally in view. After making a final summit push, we reached the top of Mount Washington at 11:34 a.m. The skies were blue and the winds were calm. I am truly lucky to have had such a great experience being able to stand not only where you could see to the ocean and into Canada, but to stand where wind speeds have been clock at over 230 mph. It’s a place that isn’t always such a gracious host to its visitors like myself.
It’s always sobering having to leave a mountain summit. I knew leaving this summit would be extra hard because of its beauty. Right before descending, one of the guides came over to me and started naming off the mountains in the distance. He started with peaks in the Northeast and worked his way west. Knowing I attend college in the Adirondacks, he pointed to a very distant mountain. Numerous other mountains stood in front of it, and I could tell it was very far away because of the haze surrounding it. Surprisingly, my guide informed me that the mountain in the distance was Whiteface Mountain. This brought me comfort and reminded me that I would be returning to the Adirondacks shortly and my adventures would continue.
Descending Mount Washington was easy and fast, yet extremely cold so we hustled our way back to camp by about 4 p.m., quickly broke everything down, then took off back down to Pinkham Notch. The total distance we had hiked was about 10 miles. This was truly an amazing experience and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.