This year we are going on two winter mountaineering trips: to the Shenandoah Mountains in late January and Mt. Washington in northern New Hampshire in mid February.
Both trips are open to any students in the upper school. However, students should take note that Mt. Washington is expected to be a challenging, “varsity mountaineering level” ascent.
The Shenandoah trip will be led by Mr. Stefan Syski and Fr. Stephen Wyble ’07.
The Mt. Washington expedition will be led by Mr. Eric Heil and Fr. Christopher Pollard
See below for the itineraries and gear requirements for both trips.
Climbing Mount Washington in the winter is one of the most challenging bucket list items on the planet. In January, the average monthly temperature is 4 degrees Fahrenheit with 46 mph winds. Temperatures regularly drop below zero and sustained 80-100 mph wind gusts are not at all unusual.
All hikers must be prepared for a windchill of down to –30°F. Near and on the summit, you will need to be prepared for winds above hurricane force OR temperatures as low as 0°F. Be prepared for single-digit temperatures at night, no wind (we will be sheltered completely from the wind). General rule: No Cotton
From this point we will be staying together as a group. If one person has to turn around, we all will.
For the safety of every hiker, each hiker is required to carry the equipment listed in bold print. Hikers are encouraged to bring along the pieces of gear in plain print.
Keep in mind that all hikers must be prepared for temperatures as cold as +10°F (not including wind chill factor, which could make it feel colder)
There may be changes made to the gear list & itinerary if there is a significant (8 in+) amount of snow on the ground, or if there is rain in the forecast. General principle: No Cotton.
Mt. Washington Mountaineering Expedition, President’s day weekend, February 2016
On the evening of Thursday, February 16th, five Heights Students, Mr. Heil, and Fr. Christopher Pollard embarked on a challenging adventure. None of us had ever done anything like this before, everyone except Fr. Pollard, the pastor of St. John the Beloved in McLean VA, who with his experience hiking Mt. Washington 5 times during earlier winters planned to guide us up Mt. Washington, the highest mountain in New England, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We drove through the night to New Hampshire with a stop for Mass and Breakfast in the morning.
Mt. Washington at first sight was completely white, rising above all the surrounding mountains of the presidential range, covered in many feet of snow from a series of blizzards that had fallen over the week. After passing through North Conway to eat lunch and pick up rental equipment, we drove further north to Pinkham Notch, where we packed up our gear for the following two days. We put on layers for the cold and mountaineering boots, and set out for the base camp. The hike to Tuckerman Ravine was quite manageable with all our gear and Fr. Pollard’s gear sled. Near the base of the ravine sat the Hermit Lake shelters, one of which we took as our home for the next few days. It sheltered us from the wind and rain, and as it could hold up to eight people, we had it to ourselves.
After waking up Saturday morning, Fr. Pollard celebrated mass at one end of the little hut. Everyone had slept more or less comfortably, and that morning it was only 20° F, mild for an altitude of 4,400 feet in Northern New Hampshire at that time of the year. Since we had arrived at the hut when it was already dark, it wasn’t until after mass that we had a good sight of our surroundings, and what a beautiful place it was! Our hut was half surrounded by the outreaching sides of Mt. Washington, the middle of which made the Tuckerman Ravine. Up here there was roughly four feet of snow. After a leisurely breakfast of pan fried bacon and hot drinks and snacks, we set out to the base of the trail to the summit to see how far we could go. Fr. Pollard showed us how to put on our crampons, metal spikes that attach to the bottom of mountaineering boots for traction on steep and icy slopes, and, more importantly, how to self-arrest, an essential safety technique to stop oneself using an ice axe if you are sliding down the steep slope out of control. It turned out to be good practice for the next day. We familiarized ourselves with the technical section of the Lion’s head trail, a near vertical part where crampons and ice axe were essential. Because of the long day before, we had started late on the trail up the mountain so we only hiked the first part before heading back to the hut to have dinner. Each had some of their own food, but everyone had some Pasta alla Norcina, a northern Italian-style sausage cream pasta dish that was ideally suited for our alpine kitchen. After dinner we trudged a couple minutes through the snow to a small snowed over pond whee we sat on the top rail of a mostly submerged split rail fence to pray the rosary as the last of the sun’s light faded, shining through wisps of snow being blown at the top of the ridge. We went to bed early that night to rise early Sunday morning to reach the summit.
We woke up at 5:30, Fr. Pollard said mass, we had a quick breakfast, packed snacks into our pockets and filled our insulated water bottles with stove-warmed water. (All of our water, of course, was melted snow.) Our bags were light as we only were carrying what was absolutely necessary for summiting the mountain. On stepping outside, facing east away from the mountain, the sky was clear, but the mountain was clouded a lenticular cloud, one that hovers on the mountain obscuring the ridge of the ravine and everything around it from us. The rising sun cast a golden light onto the cloud making everything around us tinted golden-yellow. We weren’t sure that we would make it to the top, but leaving early would increase our chance of making it to the top as we would have more time before the turn-around time that had been set. Fr. Pollard called us into the shelter one last time before we headed out to explain the layout of the way to the summit that we were to take, and we all agreed to stay together the whole way with Mr. Heil. We set out again to the base of the Lion’s head trail, put on our crampons, and ice axes in hand we ascended the trail up to the Lion’s head. At the tree line we put all our layers on and made sure that every bit of our skin was covered from the wind. After a few snacks, we continued and the wind started to blow harder. The trail flattened out for a while after we passed the treeline but our views of surrounding mountains became obscured by clouds, and the wind got stronger and stronger. When the trail started ascending steeply again, we followed the trail by little green flags, which otherwise was nothing but footprints in the snow. In the alpine zone around the summit, there must have been at least five feet of snow. The visibility became low enough that we had some difficulty seeing each flag but we eventually found the Tuckerman Ravine trail where we turned right. At that point the wind was gutsing at hurricane force. We followed the Tuckerman ravine trail to the summit. When we reached the summit we hurriedly found the summit post and then promptly began heading back down again. While we were at the summit we could barely hear each other yell in gusts of wind well over hurricane force, and the wind chill was -15° fahrenheit. Nevertheless it was the most comfortable we had been all along because we had been moving for hours and were well prepared for the cold wind and snow.
Now we needed to return safely down the mountain. On our way down we passed by almost a hundred mountaineers, one group of which Fr. Pollard was following. He was making his way up the mountain as we were heading down. Eventually the wind abated and the visibility improved, and by the time we were at Lion’s head it had mostly abated. There, as we were consuming the rest of our snacks and stowing away some of our layers, Fr. Pollard appeared out of nowhere. He had decided to turn around after we passed him and follow us down. At his suggestion, we all glissaded down the trail for its remainder above the treeline, where one sits on the snow and slides down, using the crampons and ice axe for control. We had made great timing; it was not yet 4 in the afternoon by the time we reached the hut. We had a leisurely dinner with pan-fried bacon, hot drinks and chocolate, as we talked over the day in good cheer now that we had successfully summited Mt. Washington and safely gotten down.
The next day we had mass in the hut, followed by a breakfast of leftovers including snacks, hot chocolate, coffee, and most importantly, the bacon. The clouds were similar to last morning but closer to the mountain as we packed our stuff, loaded the gear sled, and hiked down back to the van at Pinkham Notch. After quickly packing the gear, we headed back down to the Heights, with a stop on the way to drop off rental gear and to eat lunch at Cracker Barrel. Although it was sad to leave, we were all marvelling at the memories of the weekend, especially from the previous day. As soon as on the car ride back, we began talking about going back, in fact, exactly one year later. Our plan will be similar, but even greater, we hope, than this one. To the Heights!