All photos/art by Joe Lentini
VIDEO: Mt. Washington in Winter
You don’t stay strangers when you pack together on a blue-sky morning in the cold cabin of a snow tractor rumbling up the eight-mile-long Mount Washington Auto Road at six miles per hour.
In places, the tractor has to break through 20-foot-high snow slabs, its enormous treads rolling over the mounds. Riding the snow tractor is not unlike being on a small boat in a storm-tossed sea.
Seven of us–four men, three women–have signed on for a Mount Washington Observatory “EduTrip,” an expedition during which guests bunk and eat with weather observers in the most singular mountain environment in the world. We’ve come from Canada, Pennsylvania, Maine, and New Hampshire, packs stuffed with cold-weather gear. Crampons and ice axes are stacked in a corner of the tractor’s cabin.
The few hundred people who reach the wind-pummeled winter summit find a beautiful, perilous place where storms sweep through with little warning and temperatures drop swiftly, as though you’ve left one country for another in the blink of an eye. Some visitors ignore the peril, treating a winter climb as though it’s a jaunt. Too many of them end up with their names on a memorial wall in the Sherman Adams Summit Building, among the 140 who have died in the Presidentials, most of them on Mount Washington.
This EduTrip is called “Winter Mountaineering Essentials,” a chance to learn how to move about safely on icy slopes and how to save our lives if we don’t. Our leader is Joe Lentini; his assistant is Susan Beane, from the observatory staff office in North Conway. Joe is 55 years old, and for much of his life he’s been climbing and guiding within sight of Mount Washington. Coming here with Joe Lentini to learn about winter mountaineering is like taking hitting lessons with Ted Williams in his prime.
On this morning, the higher we climb the deeper winter closes in. About eight hours earlier, the observers had clocked a wind gust of 104 mph. The day before it had been 113. But now the wind has subsided to a modest 50 or 60 mph. “A good trip is not beautiful weather,” Joe reminds us. “That’s not normal.”
Joe tells a snow-tractor story while our driver, Gus, steers the beast upward. It happened, Joe says, maybe 20 years ago. On that day, a driver was taking two inexperienced visitors to the summit. About six miles along, a whiteout engulfed the road, and the tractor hit something hard. The driver climbed out of the tractor to investigate, being careful to keep a hand on his machine. Suddenly the wind knocked him away. No matter which way he groped, he could not find his way back. His only chance was to fight his way down. Hours passed. All the passengers knew was that their driver had left them, not to be seen again. All they heard was a terrifying wind; all they saw was the blinding white.
To get away from it all, come here. There’s no it here, except the wind, ice, and snow. Everything wears a coat of rime, as if torn from a frozen planet. Then there’s the startling warmth of coming indoors into the observatory, where now you smell hot soup, homemade rolls, and coffee brewing. The observers, interns, staff scientists, and Marty the cat share spare quarters, where obsessive monitoring of weather has been a mission since 1932. They’re young, and nearly always a bit tired, since they work 12-hours shifts eight days straight.
They live in this building, but they live for what happens outside. The weather room is packed with computers, instruments, and charts. They’re a world onto themselves, every day hoping a great storm will stop by and make every hourly venture outside to check this or that device a battle of will against wind. For fun they challenge one another to see which of them can walk around the icy observatory tower in a 100 mph blast without touching a rail or toppling over. They call it the Century Club. On the tower the wind punches your breath away. It’s dangerous–irresistible to any observer, intern, or staffer who knows the lore and legends of all the men and women who have lived here before them.
We learn the rules right away. “Nobody leaves without checking with me. Nobody goes out alone,” Joe says. If we go outside, we must never lose sight of each other. We sleep with all outdoor gear within reach. If there’s an emergency and we have to scramble outside with the wind chill at minus 50 degrees, there’s no time to say, Oops, no mittens. Water is scarce; no showers. The air is so dry people get dehydrated, so we have to drink a lot of liquids. Joe urges us to go to the tower to see the sunset, and to wake at 5:30 for sunrise. Many days and nights you see nothing but fog, but when it clears, Joe promises, it’s like nothing we can imagine.
Joe readies us to feel the mountain under our feet. Washington is not a forgiving mountain, so we need to strap crampons on our boots and know how to use an ice axe. Joe grabs our attention.
“It was April,” he says. “Two men hiked up here on a windy day. It was the iciest I’ve ever seen. It was scary being up here, hard to get your crampons into the surface. These two guys made it to the top and were standing in the parking lot. And they relaxed and put their ice axes down. And a gust of wind hit them. They went over on their backs. One guy went maybe 200 feet and hit a rock and broke his femur. The other guy went more than a mile. And that’s why I went up there, to bring his body down. It could have happened to anyone. So when you walk out here, always have your ice axe in your hand.”
Walking with crampons on hard snow and slick rocks, you become aware of every step: lift foot, put foot down, lift other foot. Aware of every breath. We wear hoods over our hats, and goggles over our hoods. Our faces are covered with balaclavas. We’re thickly layered from top to bottom. It’s a strange feeling to be so cocooned in the bitter cold. Joe guides us to a moderate slope above the Lakes of the Clouds. Just beyond, the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine is lovely in the rare sun.
We’re here to learn “self-arrest”: a technique of stopping a fall that can make the difference between living and not. We climb to the crest of the slope, lie on our bellies, heads to the rise, and, well, let go. We slide, wanting speed, then push down with our body weight on the edge of the axe until we stop. Climb back. Lie on our backs, let go, flip ourselves over. Stop. Climb back. Then head first, a position to give pause, then flip ourselves over, all the while lifting our legs off the ground lest a crampon dig in, and perhaps snap an ankle. One of us doesn’t stop until he barrels into Joe, standing like a crossing guard where the slope levels off. In 1994, a woman in her early twenties climbed not far from here with friends; they made themselves into human sleds, until the laughter ended, when in a sudden and growing mist, she shot past the headwall and into a deep crevasse. Her name is on the wall at the Sherman Adams Summit Building.
Joe’s pack weighs 24 pounds. He tells us that these 24 pounds will let him survive any conditions on Earth. On the side of the pack he carries a short-handled, steel-bladed shovel. It weighs next to nothing; hardware stores carry them for $10. We trek across the ridge until we come to hard pack. We dig what looks like a grave–just deep enough and long enough to hold one of us. If we’re ever caught in a storm, if it’s 20 below and blowing 80, this hole can provide just enough warmth away from the wind to give rescuers time to find us. We take turns crawling inside. When I slide under the lip of the cave, it’s as claustrophobic as an MRI tube. “It’s not the Ritz,” Joe says, “but it’ll keep you alive.”
The night is clear, the stars startlingly so, but in the morning clouds sweep through and descend, and snow starts. Joe’s happy; bad weather has joined his trip. We start walking down the Auto Road. Once I’m blown nearly off it. When I look up, the group seems to have walked through a hidden white door. I know I’m fine. I’m standing on the Auto Road; Joe is just ahead. But still…
In time, we hear the snow tractor rumbling toward us from the top, where it had gone earlier to take supplies. Nobody wants to get in.
For another visit to Mount Washington, listen to Jud Hale’s description in Jud’s New England Journal.
For more information on the observatory’s 2009 EduTrips, go to: mountwashington.org
Daytrips to above treeline on Mt. Washington (4.5-mile mark on the Auto Road) are available via SnowCoach van: greatglentrails.com