Thursday, September 2, 2010

-Trip Report- Mt. Washington: A Tale of Two Seasons (March 20-21, 2010)

You fickle old bitch!
Mt. Washington is a fickle old bitch.  The jet stream that flows around her crown can one day bring a gorgeous Bermuda high, and the next bring the cold punishing winds of an Alberta Clipper.  Given her geography she puts you right in the front seat for the ride.  Timed right, she can bring you unbelievable spring corn skiing.  Timed wrong she can punish you with a frozen nightmare of icy chutes and wicked winds.

Such was the case on a weekend trip this past March.   Two days and two completely different seasons.

Buffalo Pretzels are Awesome
Saturday dawned a little too early for me.  My stomach hadn't finished its battle with the shot of Jameson, mini donuts and half bag of buffalo flavored pretzel bites that had somehow found their way past my best defenses the night before.  Truth be told it was really the pretzels that didn't want to go easily.  My internal battle was compounded by the "I'm Awesome" song still ringing in my ears from our foray out into the local pub the night before.  I was most definitely, not awesome.  At least not yet.

Gered and I stopped into the Pinkham Notch Center with the hundreds of others that had already arrived for the spectacular weather.  Even at 8am the lots were full, and so we parked with the growing line of cars on the side of Route 16.

After quickly packing our bags, getting a refill on water, and dutifully signing the register in the basement of the Visitor's Center, we set out on the trail for the Gulf of Slides.  We had decided to boot pack our way up the trail, but after 100 yards of post holing, we realized that it was already too warm.  So we dug out our skins, covered the bottom of our skis,  and proceeded to glide our way up the trail.

I had chosen to ride Whitesnake for the day.  I wanted to see how they handled the long trek into the Gulf, as well as the tight turns that awaited us in the ravines above.  The skins that had come with Whitesnake were strap on skins, which I had already learned, needed to be exceedingly tight, in order to keep them from sliding sideways and off of the skis.  I also quickly learned, that when wet, the skins became more elastic, so it was necessary to tighten them several times. 

The temperatures were already well above 60 degrees, and we stripped down to our t-shirts and opened every vent on our pants.  Gered and I trudged up together for the first mile or so, and then we spotted a group up ahead of us.

This is where Gered's phobia kicked in.  You see, Gered has a fear of people's backs.  He absolutely cannot look at someone's back.  This is what makes him a good tri-athlete.  As soon as we saw their backs, Gered put on the jets, and in minutes I found myself huffing and puffing my way up the trail by myself.  I was left to battle my own demons.  My buffalo flavored demons.

As I passed the group ahead of us, they confirmed Gered had blown by.  And sure enough, just as I rounded a corner, the head of their group was stopped, and not even ten feet from them (ahead of them, of course) Gered had stopped as well.

Right about where we stopped, we caught our first glimpses of the Gulf of Slides.  Not visible from the Pinkham Notch Visitor's Center they now towered above us.  As we continued upward, we began to see wide snowfields that descended and divided into narrow lanes of snow, tucked neatly between unskiable rock and cliff.   Eventually a whole hemisphere of skiing opened up above us.  From left to right, small colouirs and large gullys reached down the mountain toward us.  As we crossed the first of the runouts, you could sense the raw power of the avalanches that had thundered down only weeks before. They had filled the gully beneath our skis with snow, and pushed further down the mountain, leaving shattered trees in their wake.

In a deceptively safe looking glen of young fir trees, I spotted the first of the emergency aid caches, and I was reminded that at that very spot two skiers had been killed by an avalanche about ten years earlier.  We stopped nearby, in the sun, dropped our bags, and I finally felt like eating my first pop-tart.  The open spot where we were resting was part of the run-out field of an exceptionally large gully running all the way to the summit ridge.  Along with the number of others who were already in the Gulf, we decided to ski this gully first.
A great spot to eat Pop-Tarts.

I learned later that there had been over a thousand people in Tuckerman's that day, while we were joined in Gulf of Slides by a few dozen.   We didn't feel alone, but as my friend Brian likes to say, the place didn't feel "crowdy".

We bootpacked up the steep trail  toward the summit ridge.  There had been enough people before us that there were well defined steps, however it was becoming warm enough that occasionally the steps would disintegrate under my weight, and I would need to find some new spot to plant my foot.  After a solid half hour to an hour of work, we found ourselves on the ridge looking down into the colouir.  Obviously the wind had blown most of the snow off this plateau and down into the gully before us, as the thin layer of snow had already succumbed to the sun.  Open patches of alpine lichens and shrubs basked in the sun among infrequent drifts of snow.

As a group of UVM students obliviously trampled the exposed alpine vegetation around us, we cut out a platform in the snow and put our skis on.  I dove into my run, and managed a few jump turns until I went for my first tumble.  The extreme angle of the slope made it difficult to keep my balance.  Each little jump sent me airborne for what seemed like an eternity before I touched down again.  I quickly built up speed, and to stop myself on a couple of occasions I leaned into the hill and simply "sat" on my hip.  The soft heavy snow made it difficult to turn.  The extended length of Whitesnake made it nearly impossible.

For the most part the snow was loose corn snow, however I hit a patch on the left of the gully that felt more like mashed potatoes.  This made it almost impossible to turn, as my thin skis dove deep under the snow.  I had clearly chosen the wrong skis.  Rudy, with a wider sidecut, and shorter length would have been a better choice.  I managed to put together a few solid turns at the bottom of the run and Gered and I retreated after one run down the mountain.

The next day, we were joined by Brad, our friend from Lebanon.  On or arrival at the Pinkham Notch Center, we were greeted by a seemingly different mountain.  Brilliant blue skies and sun had been replaced by gray overcast.  It was colder than the day before, but still warm enough to rain.  Fortunately, it was holding off for the moment.

For our trip into Tuckerman's I decided against using Whitesnake again, and instead brought Rudy along.  We all started up the trail with our skis on our backs, but after clearing the few steep sections at the beginning, Gered and Brad donned their skis and skins.  I would have preferred to wear mine as well, however I had left Rudy's skins in the car, and had to bareboot it to the top.  The advantage of using skins was two fold.  You don't have to lift your leg while you move forward (less effort) and most bindings come with a climbing bar, which angles your foot to take pressure off your calf muscles.  We made it to Hojo's just in time to see Tuckerman's disappear into a a wall of clouds above us.  We donned some warmer layers and headed up the trail to the bowl.  The weather in the bowl was about as far removed from the day before as it could possibly get.  Strong winds pelted us with ice as we looked up toward the top of the ravine that appeared and disappeared in the clouds and drifting snow.

Where skiers had carved grooves into the soft snow the day before, there were now hard-as-concrete curbs, ruts, and slabs.  We gathered behind a boulder, shielding ourselves from the wind, and considered our options.  After a pop-tart and another layer of clothes, we headed up toward left gully.  We climbed about half way, and it was clear that the surface of the snow was pretty unforgiving.  Any falls, and we would likely slide several hundred feet out of control.  We decided to stop, strapped on the skis, and headed down to the ravine floor.

Now, I've never skied on concrete, nor have I wondered what it might feel like to ski the front of a dam, but I now think I have a pretty good idea of what it would be like.  Between the wind, and the sound of my skis scraping over the surface of the snow, I couldn't hear myself think.  We finished our runs, and headed back down toward Hojo's.  When we arrived at the Little Headwall, (which is really a waterfall covered by snow and ice), we could see that large patches of water had opened up, especially at the bottom.  A fall on the Little Headwall could have sent us tumbling into icy water, so we opted to keep going further right and toward the lower snowfields.  We found a few good turns there,  down the Sherburne, and ultimately back to the parking lot.

The weekend was a good lesson in how quickly and dramatically he conditions can change on Mt. Washington. A lesson worth remembering during any season on the mountain.

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