For Christmas this year, my husband gave me a three day accelerated mountaineering class with the EMS Climbing School in North Conway. I know that is not a typical Christmas present, such as jewelry or clothes, but it was something he knew I’d be interested in. The three day class included introductory ice climbing, self-arrest techniques and a possible (weather and classmate pending) summit of Mt. Washington.
The first day I arrived at EMS at 8:30a to meet the guide and classmates for the weekend, plus to pick up gear. All of the gear is included in the price of the class, so the mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axes, climbing harnesses, helmets, ropes, etc. was all fitted and ready to travel. We then headed off to some easy sections of ice at Cathedral Ledge for our first lessons. The first thing we practiced was efficient walking techniques and use of the mountaineering ice axe. Then we got to the ice climbing on low to moderate angle ice. I did not exactly expect this from the written class description, but I was willing to try it. It does take some effort and coordination, but with a few slips and some determination, I made it up to the top of the ropes. We also learned how to belay another person, so we took turns climbing and belaying each other. We then moved over to some ice that was more vertical, to get a feeling of a higher angle. This ice had been climbed quite a bit this season, so it was easier to figure out where to put the ice axes and the feet. It still wasn’t easy by any means, but with some courage and effort we all made it to the top. The hardest parts for me was figuring out the best placement for my hands and feet as I was smaller than my classmates and the descending. I don’t like the feeling of just leaning out and backing down the ice blindly, even if I have a harness and am roped in. I got better with it as the day wore on, but mentally it was difficult for me.
Day two brought more ice climbing, this time in Crawford Notch at Willey’s Slide. We did a multiple pitch climb, with everyone climbing up to the same point, the ropes being reset, and climbing up again. This day wasn’t so bad, but I had major issues with the crampons. One was very loose and would pop off my boot at the worst possible moments. On the last pitch, we were to traverse a section of deep snow over ice off to the left into the woods so that we could unrope and hike down a parallel trail. The crampon came off right as I was trying to get a good purchase on the ice to start across, meanwhile, I didn’t have enough slack in the rope to bend down and get the crampon back on correctly. Our guide said to just use the one crampon, but that didn’t give me enough traction, plus the snow was thigh deep. I was getting very frustrated, so the guide came out, got the crampon back on, sorted out the ropes and then I followed him over to the woods. I wasn’t happy with the whole situation, I felt I could have done better and was a bit disappointed in myself and was the low point for me of the weekend. At the same time, I realized you can’t predict an equipment failure and the whole thing could have been worse, as the snow could have avalanched onto my two waiting classmates. Oh, and to add insult to injury, the crampon on the other boot was so tight that I couldn’t get it off by myself. When I wore them the next day, I ended up using my hiking pole as a lever to get it off the boot. We also got in a little self-arrest practice at the end of the day, which was fun, but I think I need a little more work to master some of the positions.
For day three, I felt like I was heading in more familiar territory, a hike of Washington. Although I’d never ascended via Lion’s Head, I’d hike the other trails before. Even with the snow falling, the weather seemed to be in our favor, as the wind speeds were light (less than 20mph) and temperatures in the 20’s. We met at EMS and soon were headed toward Pinkham Notch to start the hike up Tuckerman Ravine Trail. From there we took a right on the fire road to the start of the Lion’s Head Winter Route. Armed with crampons and mountaineering ice axes, we started up the steep section and it was really steep. To me, it was like Wildcat Ridge Trail between Lost Pond and Wildcat E, but with snow and ice and thankfully, quite a bit shorter. Past that, we came to treeline and could see Lion’s Head in the distance and the trail leading to it. There was almost no wind to speak of, but we were in the clouds, with about a half mile of visibility. If it would have been very windy, visibility and windchill would have been a concern. It was also at this point that my left crampon popped off again. I had expected it to happen at some time, so I wasn’t surprised or upset. We all knew the drill, while I put the crampon back on, my classmates took a break.
We stopped again Lion’s Head for a break and from here we got an easier section of trail, traversing just on the edge of the Alpine Garden before hiking up toward a junction with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, part way up the summit cone. Up until this point, I was doing fine, slow but steady because I knew it was going to be a tough hike. We turned right and headed for the summit, and it was in this section I struggled the most. I knew where we were, I knew what was left to accomplish, but it was hard. Maybe the two previous days workout, plus little sleep the night before was catching up with me. Like any other hike, one foot in front of the other made progress and soon I could see the signs at the edge of the parking lot. In a few more minutes we were in the shelter of the entryway of the Sherman Adams Building at the top. We were a little behind schedule, so with a quick break and some summit photos, we started the descent.
We did pretty well on the descent, the major challenge being footing on the summit cone rocks, some of which were buried in snow and some not. Those that were half-buried were the most concerning as catching a crampon point could mean a rough tumble. The whole group made it safely back to Lion’s Head, then treeline, and then it was time for what one classmate called “the chutes of death”. There is one short, really steep section that has very small footholds and root handholds, which is best descended facing into the slope. Many groups bring a rope for this section to assist with the descent. I wasn’t looking forward to it, either. I ascended it easily, but going down backward, not being able to see my next step was very scary for me. Having less reach than my classmates didn’t help in a few tricky spots, either. Between the roots, the rope and verbal cues from the guide, I made it down. The rest of the way out was an easy walk downhill, and with the summit and steeps behind us, we could enjoy the beauty of the trail. I even made a quick stop at Crystal Cascade to see how it looked in winter.
The whole weekend was quite an experience, and I am very grateful for the blessings of an excellent guide, safety, and a nice weather day on Mt. Washington. The class was fun, but demanding both physically and mentally; there were moment of confidence and moments I was terrified. While I already had respect for those who are true mountaineers and tackle the big peaks, this class gave me a better understanding of the amount of work and dedication mountaineering takes. Would I ever take more classes and pursue the sport further? I’m not sure. For right now, I’m quite happy here in New Hampshire, shuffling my way up a trail on my snowshoes, just out to have fun and enjoy the beauty of winter we’ve been blessed with.