Friday, March 8, 2013

Into the White 3/7/13

Working title: "The blind leading the blind"

Peak: Mt. Madison

Trails: Valley Way, Osgood Trail, Gulfside, bushwhack

Mileage/time: ~9.6 miles, ~4600 feet of gain, book time of 7:05, actual time of 8:10

What started out as an attempt at a single day Presidential traverse, turned into one of the single most puckering experiences of my short hiking career. Now I've had my share of mishaps and follies, many of which were avoidable with more experience... such as nearly descending the Tuckerman Ravine headwall in February, with moderate avalanche danger, or bushwhacking off the ridge north of Middle Carter after I took a fall trying to find the North Carter Trail. Lessons learned, and I'm eternally thankful that none of those experiences resulted in anything more than a bruised ego.

Let's rewind to Wednesday, when the final planning took place. I questioned the forecast, which at the time called for cloud shrouded summits, temperatures in the teens, and 30+ mph winds from the east. My concerns were soon allayed, as Mike had everything in place, some contacts on the summit of Mt. Washington, and even a "ground crew" in the form of our mutual friend Samantha! I made the mistake of taking a nap in the morning (working nights will do that to you), so when it came time to go back to sleep at 6pm to wake up by 11:30pm, my body was not willing. Even so, I pulled it together, made the drive, and met up with Mike just after 2am at the Webster Jackson trailhead. I piled my things in Mike's truck, and we set off for Appalachia.

We spoke of many things on the ride, as it had been a couple of weeks since we hiked together, and it was good to catch up. Sooner than later, we arrived at the Appalachia lot, where one lonely vehicle was residing, keeping the giant snowbanks company. Gearing up, ready for anything, we set off up Valley Way at approximately 3:10am. I had a first hand report from the 5th, from our mutual friend Wayne, that he had tried a traverse, and turned around after Adams because of the visibility. On the climb, I mentally prepared myself for that eventuality.

The winds, accompanied by some new snow, had blanketed the trail, and though a trough was visible at times, we ended up breaking trail the whole way, through 2-4 inches of fairly dense powder. The sky lightened as we neared the col, and we broke treeline not long after stowing our headlamps. The clouds were low indeed, with some trees visible below, and white visible above.

The ubiquitous danger sign
We sought shelter near Madison Spring Hut, as the winds out of the east were raking across the Madison/Adams col, directly in our faces as we crested the ridge. Layering up and having some food grounded me, and made me ready for the challenge that lay ahead. I can't remember exactly when it happened, whether it was before, during, or after the break, but at one of those points, my glasses froze over. I've had relatively good luck so far this winter, though this situation has me seriously considering contacts. So, for all intents and purposes, I was blind going up Madison. I followed Mike closely, trying not to make a wrong step, and trying to make sense of my surroundings. Mike said he could see cairn to cairn ahead of us, but I couldn't tell they were cairns until I was right on top of them, everything looked the same, white.

After what seemed like an eternity to me, we reached the summit of Madison, and experienced the brunt of winters full fury, a stark blast out of the white, unforgiving and unrelenting.

Mike levitating on Madison
The summit was so inhospitable, we took pictures and descended the way we came. Back to the meager shelter that the hut outbuilding provided, we regrouped, and made our way towards Adams. Mike had compass bearings to follow, and off we went. Both of us know this area well, but as soon as the hut disappeared into the white, I became increasingly disoriented. We only found one cairn along the Gulfside (I say we, but rather Mike), then it became a bushwhack. As we climbed, slabbing uphill towards the Airline junction below Adams, the fog became thicker, the slope in front of us melding with the fog and white sky above. It appeared as though the clouds were thinning, which made visibility decrease exponentially, to the point I could no longer tell what was in front of me, everything, and I mean everything, was white. My eyelashes began to ice up as well, threatening to freeze my eyelids shut.

Mike turned to me, and I quote, "I'm calling it". It was 9:06am. There were no complaints from me, as not only could I not see, neither could he. For all our determination, it would have been foolhardy to continue. We lamented on our descent, that we did not dig deeper to at least get Adams, but there you have it. Somewhat able to follow our tracks, we descended back to the col, where I was finally able to de-ice my glasses. Both of us were covered head to toe in rime ice, with the exception of any exposed skin.

Dejected though we were, spirits were still high. We started back down Valley Way, and were soon cruising along our broken snowshoe track. The sun made a fleeting appearance, and I cursed it for all it was worth. Then the Donovan song, "The Sun is a Very Magic Fellow" popped into my head. Especially the line "the wind is a very fickle fellow". Not a mile from the trailhead, we ran into a guy named Micah (spelling?), carrying a huge pack. We chatted with him for a bit, he's a frequent visitor to the Presidential Range, getting up to the area several times a week. Wishing him luck, we ran into a couple of other guys heading for Adams, and we warned them of the whiteout they might soon encounter.

Back down to the lot, and back along the roads to Crawford Notch. During the drive, it appeared that the clouds parted around Adams, and I swore I could see the peak. More curses.

Food was necessary, and I needed a beer to cry in, so we ended up stopping at the Scarecrow Pub in Intervale. Conveniently, it's right across the parking lot from Ragged Mountain Equipment, which meant I needed to check out the consignment shop! Long story short, Mike walked out with a bunch of climbing gear that he needed, and a backcountry cross country ski setup. I ended up walking out with a new pair of AT ski boots, and plans to stop by on Saturday with my skis to see about skins.

The day, while not accomplishing our stated goal, was a fantastic one, and one I will not soon forget. Thanks to Mike for all the logistical planning, to Samantha for being our ground support crew, and to the Mount Washington Observatory for providing up to the second weather information!

1 comment:

  1. A great entry. Sounds intense up there and I am glad to read that you did the right thing instead of reading an article about two missing/frozen hikers. You guys are ridiculously tough, peak or no peak. Kudos!