Thursday, March 01, 2007

Midnight Assault on Mount Washingon

Its midnight and we're sitting in the Den at Bates College grabbing a bite to eat. The are four of us around a small table, listening to what seems like half the college tell us we're crazy. One member of our group has already dropped out, and one of the two leaders is contemplating doing the same. Finally, after over an hour of instruction and warnings, we decide to go for it. While loading up my small Honda with tons of gear, I started to get really excited and thought to myself, "Tonight, I'm going to have the hike of my life."

Our goal was Mt Washington, the highest peak in the eastern United States standing at 6,288 ft above sea level. Most of our party had hiked this landmark before, but none of us had accomplished the feat in the winter or at night. We had been planning this trip for over a month and chose to ascend the auto road mainly because it is the safest and most traveled winter route. Mt Washington is known for its fast-changing weather and very high wind speeds. In fact, the highest wind speed ever recorded took place at its summit and had a velocity of 231 mph! Because of its reputation and grandeur we knew we had to be extra cautious.

We arrived the base at 2:30 am, extra excited and mentally ready for what lay ahead. The temperature at the was -2° F when we got out of the car, which as a result of our excitement, felt surprisingly warm. Out came the headlamps and we started putting on layer upon layer of clothing. The beginning of the climb wasn't too steep, but after 10 minutes we had to ditch a few layers to keep from sweating. It was an overcast night with a waning moon so the headlamps had to stay on to light the way for quite a while.

Around 5 we started seeing some light illuminating the partly cloudy sky from over the mountains. As we hiked on, the headlamps were put away, and an incredible reddish glow began to materialize. It was just at this time that we reached the treeline, providing for some spectacular views. We stopped behind a rock face to grab a bite to eat and toss on our extra clothing and crampons. Turning the corner and heading directly up the mountain, we all felt fully prepared for the cold and wind that lay ahead.

As soon as we were above the treeline the gusts started up and we praised ourselves for bringing thick face warmers and ski goggles. The next few miles were directly into the wind, which at that point was gusting to around 30 miles an hour. By then, the temperature had dropped to about -5° F and our water began to freeze. The shelter of a rock was used to block the wind as we transferred our water bottles from our packs, to inside our jackets where our body heat would keep them warm. After eating a bunch more food to keep the calorie count up, we started heading back up again.

The road leveled out for a while and started to switchback such that we had our backs to the wind. This was a much thanked turn of events as we were able to clean our ski goggles which were beginning to ice up from the moisture in our breath. Before we knew it, however, the road turned and headed directly into the wind again.

After another hour or so of hiking several members of our party began to become fatigued. The road straightened out directly into the wind and we kept on moving at a crawl of a pace. The winds at this time were up around 50 mph with gusts in the high 60's. We traveled another few hundred meters before we saw a huge cloud come flying directly at us. Within minutes we were engulfed and the visibility began to steadily decrease. As a group, we made the decision to abandon any hope of summiting and head back down before the weather got any worse. From our calculations afterwords, we had reached a little over 6000 ft and were about a quarter mile from the summit.

Even without the opportunity to summit it was an incredible trip. Seeing the sunrise over the White Mountains from above treeline was an amazing experience and one that I'll remember for quite a while.




Blogger sam said...

Go Bates!

I actually gave a shout-out to the Bates Outing Club in my latest blog entry on wilderness and technology. I'd love your comments!

3/01/2007 10:01 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your Mt. Washington Trip. Mt. Washington is NOT the highest peak in the east. That distinction belongs to Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 feet above sea level. It is located in North Carolina with a significant noumber of other peaks above the 6,000 foot mark.

3/06/2007 9:22 AM


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