This is a very different mountain from when I stood atop her last year. Unbeknownst to me, I had experienced the exception to the rule, and not the rule itself. Last year, we summitted in sunshine, wind guts of 20mph, and roughly 20-30 degree temperatures. Visibility was for miles, and spirits were high as the 13 of us all made it to the top. This time, it was a different animal.
We awoke at 2:30am, packs ready. After getting dressed, downing some water, and grabbing a bite to eat, we checked out of the hotel and drove to the base of the mountain; Pinkham Notch visitor’s center. From there we made last minute checks, had a bathroom break, then the four of us began our climb. It was just after 4:30 in the morning.
The first part of the trail is easy; a winding road of ice and snow through the forest. It was dark while we were on it, but that made us move more quickly. We were anxious to get to the real climbing. After a mile and a half, we donned our crampons, ate a snack, and added a layer of clothing. From here we entered deeper into the forest, and at a steeper slope. The hike turned to a climb as we navigated upward through the icy terrain.
Mid-way through the first part, the sun came up and with the light we were high enough to catch glimpses of the surrounding peaks. Magnificent. We took some pictures and continued upward. Eventually we hit the edge of tree-line. We paused for another breather, drank and ate, added clothes – this time a windproof shell to layers, and kept moving. The temperature had cut in half from the base by this point: 25 to just 13 degrees. The winds were also slicing through the tops of the trees and we knew they would only escalate once we broke the tree-line.
From tree-line we moved upward, passing cairns (piles of rock indicating the path upward), climbing among beds of rocks, and sheets of ice. The winds whipped around us, gusting upwards of 70mph. There were many moments when we paused from ascending just to let the wind die…but it didn’t. We continued upward past the last cairn. From here our trajectory changed. We modified our angle of climbing to hit a ridge, rather than bearing directly north to the summit. This directional move should have made our climb easier. However, we were off in our plot change and ended up traversing farther out than we wanted to.
Around this time, our fourth climber was having a hard time ascending, and decided he wasn’t going to make it up. After a quick huddle in exposure, our third climber decided to help him down, compromising his summit as well. Both climbers did an amazing job, and I have no doubt that the fourth would have made it to the top, but the top is only halfway in mountaineering. The third showed tremendous discipline in leaving his summit attempt to help a friend. Safety first, always.
After parting ways, we continued climbing up, fighting barreling winds. Visibility had decreased, in part due to the snow whipping around us, but also because our goggles had covered with ice. Eventually we gave up wearing them, and tightened our balaclavas and hoods to minimize any exposed skin. We climbed and climbed for what felt like hours, but was only another 30 or 40 minutes, each step forward a struggle against the elements. At one point, we paused to adjust our bearings, unsure of where the most efficient route to the summit was. With visibility low, it was hard to tell where anything was beyond 50ft. We came to the conclusion that straight up was the best way, and once we hit a ridge we would reevaluate our position. As we approached the ridge, we saw two wooden poles…the summit! We struggled through the last few steps but made it to the lower marker. From there we walked up with ease to the summit post. We took photos at the marker and then stopped in the garage within the observatory atop to rest and eat. We had made it to the top, but this was only the halfway mark. We still had to get down.