Thursday, April 3, 2008

Climbing New Hampshire

Why do humans climb mountains?

Because they're there? To regain a sense of challenge and opportunity for heroism that we've lost in the modern world? To get away from cell phones, email and the non-stop flow of information that is part of our internet culture?

On March 15, 2008, I finished ascending all the New Hampshire peaks over 4000 feet high during winter. Winter hiking/climbing poses some unique challenges such as how to stay warm at the top of Mt. Washington when it's -20F and the wind is blowing 50 mph. How to avoid avalanches. How to stay hydrated when even boiling water freezes over the course of a hike. How to ascend 12 foot snow drifts for 15 miles at a time. And the most dangerous - how to drive from Boston to New Hampshire on ice covered freeways without getting hit by a skidding bus.

Like everything I do, there is method in this madness. I think of alpine climbing as a kind of puzzle - an outdoor version of Sudoku - which cleanses my mind from the concerns of the work week. What gear is needed to stay warm but not too warm, since sweat freezes solid and can rapidly cause hypothermia? What route is safest? What techniques are best to ascend steep ice, deep snow, and tree covered terrain? What pace is best to manage time and energy, ensuring a successful trip? Reaching the summit is optional, but returning to the car is mandatory.

In New Hampshire there are 48 mountains above 4000 feet. Records have been kept for the past 50 years and I'm the 360th person to have completed the winter ascents of all the New Hampshire peaks.

Here's a typical schedule. Pack the night before with just the right amount of gear to be safe. I typically carry about 9 pounds of food, clothing, water and rescue equipment that I've refined over the years. Here's my gear list. I get up at 5am, eat a bowl of oatmeal, and fill a liter bottle with boiling water for drinking on the ascent. I pick up my climbing partner, who is also a physician, and drive to the White Mountains, typically a 2-3 hour commute depending on the mountain destination. All of gear has to be carefully laid out so that when we arrive at the trailhead, clothing layers can be added without losing body warmth and we can rapidly get started with the hike/climb. I generally like to start off a bit chilled so that the initial run up the trail gives me a body temperature that's just right. Along the trail, hats, gloves, and body insulating layers are added or removed as needed to stay just the perfect temperature.

Our typical journeys are 10-20 miles with 4000 feet of vertical gain. Depending on the depth of snow drifts, the ice, and the bushwacking through tree canopies, it can be quite taxing. I typically carry light snowshoes for deep snow and crampons for traversing ice. I wear a boot within a boot (Scarpa Alpha double plastic boots) to keep my feet warm.

Near the summit, the temperatures and the wind are so severe that goggles and facemasks are needed to keep your eyeballs from freezing. We typically summit, stay just a few minutes and then descend. Remember that the summit is only halfway back to the car.

Each year, several people die while winter hiking in the White Mountains. Most are reckless or significantly under prepared. My climbing partner and I are very safe and will not take risks. If we feel avalanche danger is too high or weather conditions are too severe, we will turn around. The good news is that ascending 48 peaks prepares you for a variety of conditions and events. We recently ascended Wildcat A through chest deep snow, hiking straight up the mountain because the trails were completely invisible in this year's heavy snow fall. The last mile took us 4 hours of hard work, with 3 steps backward for every 4 steps forward. At the end of the hike, we were exhausted by the effort. Only later did we find out that we were the first to ascend the mountain the past 30 days due to extreme conditions. I'm glad we did not know that the ascent was impossible before we started!


Unknown said...

This reminds me...years ago I had a friend who did winter hiking and camping and when asked 'why in winter' he replied with out expression, "no bugs". Your description of your winter treks gives broader picture!

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