What was it like to climb Mount Washington? I’ll quote the White Mountain guide:
“To a person unused to mountain trails or in less than excellent physical condition, this unrelenting uphill grind can be grueling and intensely discouraging. If you are not an experienced hiker or a trained athlete, you will almost certainly enjoy the ascent of Mount Washington a great deal more if you build up to it with easier climbs in areas with less exposure to potentially severe weather.”
At 6,288 feet, Mt. Washington is the tallest mountain in the North East
The route we took was about four miles each way, but in those four miles we gained about 4,400 vertical feet of elevation…1,000 feet for every mile we climbed! Since I’m not trying to win a Pulitzer Prize for writing, I’ll simply say the climb was hard as F*** and it pushed me to my physical limits.
Since I had never climbed before, I had no idea of what to expect. About two days before leaving for New Hampshire I got really anxious and a bit frightened and thought of telling everyone I had become sick and could not go. However once I make my mind up to do something I always go through with it so I packed my gear and left for New Hampshire.
I flew from Philadelphia to Manchester airport in New Hampshire. I picked up my rental car at Manchester airport and began the two and a half hour drive north to Jackson New Hampshire where my guide Mark Synnott has his climbing school. As I began to drive through the White Mountains which is the chain of mountains Mount Washington is in, the enormity of what I was about to do hit me…those mountains were covered in snow and HUGE. I’m mean really big. The White Mountains make the mountains of the Delaware water gap look like hills.
I pulled into the parking lot of the “climbers bunk house” at Mark’s climbing school. The bunk house is like a bungalow where climbers can stay while they are taking lessons from Mark or climbing in the White Mountains. The bunk house was really comfortable with kitchen, bathroom, four beds and a large front sitting room. This would be home for the next three days. I was psyched.
In the bunk house trying to figure out how to put crampons on my mountaineering boots, sort of like a soldier trying to figure out how to load his rifle before a fire fight!
I had spoken with Mark before I left and he told me to go into the equipment room when I got to the bunk house to get a pair of mountaineering boots and crampons. I was so excited that before I even unpacked or took off my jacket I began trying on mountaineering boots and crampons.
Many cultures have rites of passage boys must go through before they become a man. Once I had the mountaineering boots with crampons on and was walking around the parking lot with them I knew I had become a man!
After I ate dinner I began to assemble my gear and pack for the climb the following day. Mark told me he’d be at the bunk house at 7:15 A.M so I wanted to be ready to go. I had all the stuff I thought I’d need for a day on the mountain. I was mega prepared. In my pack I had a roll of duck tape (to make a splint or tape my broken leg together), a thermos of tea, multi tool, large bag of almonds, two peanut butter sandwiches, 2.5 liters of water, bottle of Ibuprofen, head lamp, shaker bottle of Gamma Labs pre workout supplement and an extra pair of socks.
My clothing consisted of a snow mobile suit, ice fishing gloves, balaclava, two hats, glove liners, extra socks and layer upon layer of clothing. I knew that Mark would be very impressed with my preparation for my winter ascent of MT. Washington!
I woke up Monday the day of our climb at 5 a.m. to go over once again all of the gear and clothing I’d need for the climb. I laid it all out neatly in the front sitting room so Mark could check it out when he got there.
As promised Mark arrived at about 7:15. He’s over 6’ tall and very fit looking with just the faintest hint of grey in his hair. He was wearing a pair of old khaki pants, hiking sneakers and a fleece pullover. Mark is a very accomplished climber and has done some amazing climbs all over the world. I introduced myself and we began the gear check.
The first thing he did was pick up my full pack which must have weighed around 30-35 pounds. He lifted the pack put it back down and told me to open it. Squatting in front of my pack he began tearing out all of my gear and equipment. He formed two piles. To his left was the “not taking this crap pile” and to his right was the “we are taking this stuff pile.”
Like a clothing and gear Nazi Mark proceeded to pull unneeded stuff from the pack. He looked at my giant ass ice fishing gloves and asked me if we we’re going to MT. Everest? The gloves were tossed into the “not taking this crap pile.” My balaclava…nope, pull over hat…nope, ice parka and bibs…nope (he asked me if we were going snow mobiling with that suit)…multi tool…nope, my precious duct tape…nope, he opened my large bag of almonds and poured out a handful to keep and the rest were tossed into the “not taking this crap pile”…scarf…nope…shaker bottle…nope, several mid layers of clothing…nope, nope and nope. He picked up the bottle of Ibuprofen shook it to hear how many pills were in the bottle (full of course), asked me how many did I need? Before I could answer he opened the bottle and took out exactly four pills which I was allowed to keep, the rest…nope. He let me keep my thermos bottle of tea and told me that my 2.5 liter bottle of water was way too much but I was allowed to keep it. He checked my head lamp which I was allowed to keep but not the 6 spare AAA batteries, into the not taking this crap pile they went. He then made me take off several layers of clothing. I was left wearing synthetic long johns (top and bottom), polyester track pants and one mid layer on my upper body and a hat. Not much clothing to climb the mountain “with the world’s worst weather!”
Looking at my beloved MOLLE pack he told me that packs like that are designed to be tuff not light. I was then given a light weight hiking pack with the top removed to further reduce weight. He gave me a light weight pair of gloves and a trekking pole. Looking at my mid sole Columbia hiking boots he muttered “hmmmm I don’t know about those” and out the door we went. No mountaineering boots, no crampons and about 85% less gear then I originally packed.
We hopped into his car and drove the ten miles to the Pinkham Notch visitor center which is at the base of the mountain. At the visitor center there is a gear shop that sells hiking and climbing equipment. Mark bought two pairs of “micro spikes” which are like mini crampons that you pull onto the bottom of your hiking boots. We left the gear shop and walked out the door to the trail head that would lead us up the mountain.
So began my climb. Following Mark I went off into the unknown, an entirely new experience…I was going to climb the biggest mountain in the North East.
The trail starts gently. It meanders through a heavily wooded section with many switch backs and fairly easy ground to “hike” on. Rather quickly though the trail begins to incline steeply and becomes more narrow and rugged.
The weather was perfect. When this picture was taken the sun was quite hot and I took my hat off. Notice the "micro spikes" on my hiking boots.
Mark was very talkative at this point, he seemed interested in learning about me and we spoke at length about my diet, martial arts and mountain climbing. We traded our “worst student” stories which were quite funny. Initially I was thinking o.k. this is not too bad we are doing a really strenuous fitness hike. Things changed drastically when we left the main trail (Tuckerman Ravine trail) and made a right onto Lions Head trail, that’s when things quickly became very challenging.
Lions Head trail has a large outcropping of rocks about midway up the trail which resembles the head of a lion, hence “lions head”. The trail is very rocky and very steep. It is this trail which really began to test me and push me physically as we were really gaining elevation at this point.
At about 4,000 feet we broke tree line (the point which trees can no longer grow because of harsh conditions). Around then is when I thought my heart was “exploding”. I know the symptoms of a heart attack and had none of those. I was walking at a steady pace up a very steep incline and my heart rate had to be around 150-160 BPM. I would have checked my heart rate with my blood oxygen meter but it was back in the bunk house in the “not taking this crap pile”. For me 150 BPM is very high even during very strenuous exercise so I was becoming a bit alarmed. I put my left hand over my heart and could feel it pounding like a trip hammer in an iron forge, boom, boom, boom, boom. I thought damn I’m really going to die up here on this mountain. I actually thought of asking Mark if we could stop but it’s not my nature to complain, plus I did not want to disappoint or look weak in front of him so I kept going. Eventually my heart rate settled down and I felt much better.
The vistas at this point were simply breath taking. I could see across valleys and ravines to the tops of other mountains. The sky was a beautiful light blue with barely any clouds. It was very cold and windy, but since we were keeping such a relentless and steady pace I always had a slight sweat going and although I always felt cool I was never cold.
At this point I began to steadily lose ground to Mark which I could not understand because I was feeling very good. The harder and faster I climbed the more ground I lost to him. I began to focus on Marks feet and saw that he was moving at a very steady methodical pace and there was absolutely no wasted movement in his footwork as he continually climbed up Lions Head trail.
Mark stopped and waited for me to catch up to him and said to me, “Jim I want you to step in right behind me and do exactly what I do, step where I step”. It was after about 15 minutes of watching and copying Marks footwork that it finally clicked in my mind. Like a good boxer Marks footwork was flawless. His body movement was smooth and purposeful as he slowly but methodically ascended the mountain trail. Every step had purpose and moved him forward. His feet were never parallel with each other; he never stepped on top of a rock or lost his balance because of a misplaced step. In martial arts we call it “economy of motion”. I teach it to my students all of the time when I show them how to get the most effect with minimum effort when punching.
If Mark and I had been fighters fighting each other, he would have been the smooth technical fighter with perfect form and technique landing all of his punches and I would be the hard swinging sloppy fighter expending lots of energy for very little return.
I could clearly see a connection between how Mark was climbing and movement in martial arts. It’s really quite simple, efficient body movement is the same regardless if you are a mountaineer, fighter or ballerina.
I really began to concentrate on my footwork at this point. As I climbed I began to focus on the weight distribution on my feet, my knee hip and shoulder movement, and my breathing.
Climbing towards the summit.
I continued to follow Mark and tried to copy his body movement. He was not walking up the mountain, he was gliding. It really was amazing to watch how he “slithered” up the slope.
By this time I could see the summit way off in the distance. I asked Mark how far it was because it was so hard for me to judge distance because of the sheer size of the mountain. He told me we had about another hour left. I was feeling quite good at this point. My heart rate had dropped because I was moving more efficiently. I really focused on the trail and did not look up at the summit. It was the same routine step after step. I would look at the trail, ascertain the best places for foot placement, step forward and repeat the process. It was very similar to what we call “the state of no mind in the martial arts.” I did not focus on the burning of my quads or how tired I was or the sheer mass of the mountain, I focused on moving forward up the trail. I was in a meditative state, there was no separation between thought and movement (I had become the tea pot). I knew at this moment when I had made the mental connection with what I was doing (climbing) I could have climbed forever. I understood the “Tao” of the mountain.
After about five hours of continual climbing we reached the summit at 6,288 feet. With the wind chill the weather was close to zero with winds of around 40 mph. I really did not feel that cold because I had been moving constantly up a very steep grade for hours and still had a nice light sweat going.
Standing at the top of the highest mountain in the north east!
We stayed at the summit for about 20 minutes. I drank some tea and ate a peanut butter and chia seed sandwich. Mark was nice enough to take pictures of the climb and summit and I’ve included some of them in this story.
In some regards the down climb is more difficult than the ascent. You use different muscles and climbing down a “decline” is much harder than climbing up an incline. Eighty percent of climbing accidents occur on the down climb because climbers may be tired from the ascent; they may not be as focused as they were in pushing for the summit. A typical nightmare scenario on a Mt. Washington down climb would be to twist your ankle, not be able to walk and get stuck in -20 degree below weather.
Mark was setting a steady trail grinding pace as we descended the mountain. The foot work was a bit tricky almost like a scramble between large stones and rocks which cover the trail. We made it to the trail head in about 2.5 hours without incident.
When we got to the base of the trail Mark said to me “Jim I don’t think that was very challenging for you.” The fact was it was very challenging. It was the most difficult physical/mental task I had ever done. I just did not complain. My goal was to climb a mountain and that is what I did regardless of physical pain or discomfort.
My training really paid off. At the bottom I felt incredible; I told Mark that if we had more daylight I’d like to go up and down again! There is a saying in sports that goes “proper preparation prevents poor performance. I put the training time in and my reward was a successful winter summit of Mt. Washington.
I’m really glad I had Mark as my guide. Not just for safety reasons (a guide can keep you from dying) but for the steady pace that Mark set both on the ascent and descent. We made it up and back in about 7 hours. I would never have pushed myself that hard if I had been solo plus I would have been carrying too much weight and wearing unneeded clothing. I would have been down climbing in the dark and that would have been very dangerous as I could have become lost or fallen and become injured. When you become injured in other sports you can leave the game, in mountaineering an injury or even a tiny mistake can precipitate catastrophic consequences up to and including death.
I finished my climb with much different thoughts about mountaineering than when I started. The climb that I did in mountaineering parlance is called a “walk up”. A walk up is a non technical climb, there is no rope work or rock or ice climbing involved. Just because a climb is a walk up does not mean it’s easy or safe. In some regards Mt. Everest is a “walk up”. Walk ups can be very difficult and challenging but there is not a high level of skill required to do them.
I realized that I had proven that I was in peak physical condition and mentally very tough…but so is a mule. I want to learn how to be a technical climber which is ironic because before the climb I did not want to be a technical climber. I just wanted to grind out mountains. It reminds me of when I first started Brasilian Jiu Jitsu. I wanted to be big and strong and not have to rely on technique.
The beauty and artistry in any sport lies in the execution of technique. After talking with Mark at the end of the climb I realized that being a technical climber is what I want to be, more specifically an alpine climber. I’ll be going back up to Mark in the next couple of months to take his “introduction to mountaineering course so I can learn cramponing techniques, rope work, self arresting methods how to belay, how to use an ice ax, all of the requisite skills I’ll need for alpine climbing.
Once I have the basics down I want to return to Mt. Washington and do a solo technical climb. When I feel that my mountaineering techniques are adequate I’ll climb 14,400’ Mt. Rainier and after that who knows, maybe the tallest mountain in North America 20,320’ Mt. Denali.
I’m in no hurry I’m willing to pay my dues. Like mountaineering I started Brasilian Jiu Jitsu late (40 years old), it took me ten years of solid training to make black belt. I’m 50 years old now and with ten years of solid climbing I might be climbing the second tallest mountain in the world by the time I’m 60….K-2!
Set your goals high. Be prepared, believe in yourself and never F****** ever quit. I’ll see you at the summit~Jim Wing