2012 was my “break out” year for fitness. In the summer of 2011 I was a fat slovenly mess. By December of 2011 I had lost about 50 pounds. By the summer of 2012 I was in the fitness “zone”. I was down about 60 pounds and was working out about 5-10 times per week. Following is the story of the fitness activity that pushed me to my physical and mental limits.
Mount Washington deep winter solo attempt:
Yep I’m in the S***
My first mountaineering experience was December of 2011. I summited Mt. Washington (the tallest mountain in the North East) with a guide. It was hard but nothing out of the ordinary as far as suffering. However only two months later in late February of 2012 I made a solo attempt of Mt. Washington. That solo attempt was the hardest most frightening thing I’ve ever done. The winds at the base of the summit cone were gusting up to 95 miles per hour and the air temperature was negative 50 degrees! The month before my summit attempt a climber fell 600′ to his death. In march the month after my solo attempt a hiker fell into a crevasse and died. The point is that at any time of the year Mt. Washington can be dangerous. In the deep winter it can be very dangerous. I had exactly four weeks of climbing experience when I tried my solo attempt.
Mt. Washington is not an incredibly tall mountain at 6,248 feet, but it’s a very steep mountain. The trail to the summit is only about 4 miles long but in that four miles you gain nearly 4,000 feet of vertical elevation. That means that every mile you hike you are 1,000 feet higher. The weather on Mt. Washington is notoriously unpredictable as well. I’ve been to the mountain 3 times (December, February and May) and each time the weather was very different. The morning of my summit attempt the winds were gusting to 120 miles per hour! By 9 a.m. when I started the climb the winds had “settled” down to around 95 mph. FYI 95 mph winds are equal to a force 2 hurricane. Yes, I tried to climb that mountain by myself in a force II hurricane!
I had never worn a pair of crampons in my life or used an ice ax for that matter before my solo attempt. Don’t get me wrong, I had done significant amounts of research about mountaineering, so I had a very strong theoretical knowledge of mountain climbing. All the theory in the world was no substitution for practical experience as I would soon find out. In retrospect the most dangerous thing I had going against me was my lack of mountaineering experience combined with raw enthuasiasm. I made the following mistakes:
- I wore way too much clothing. What was I to think? I heard the air temperature was -50. How would you dress for weather that cold? Probably the same way that I did with multiple layers of clothing. I had no idea at the time but I was sweating profusely under all of those layers. When the climb was over and I was back in my hotel room, every single layer of clothing I had worn was wringing wet with sweat. In that sweat I had lost very crucial electrolytes but more on that later.
- I carried too much in my pack. I had stuff in my pack I thought I’d need but would not use. I thought that since I was climbing solo I’d bring enough gear and clothing to sleep on the mountain if necessary, more on that issue later as well.
Within 20 minutes of starting the climb I was already getting tired. I was hiking up a mountain trail covered in snow, wearing crampons, carrying a mountaineering pack with way too much gear in it. The wind was so strong the trees were bending and making weird creaking sounds. I actually thought that a tree was going to fall and crush me. In the winter time the main trail (Tuckerman’s) going to the summit is closed because of “avalanche danger”. You have to climb a trail and I use the term loosely, called Lion’s Head Winter Route. LHWR is an incredibly steep trail that goes right up the side of the mountain. It’s not very technical climbing at all but it’s very hard physically. Many times it’s so steep that you can reach straight ahead and touch the trail in front of your face. In many spots on the trail I had to use my ice ax to continue the climb up the trail. Climbing up that trail was like climbing up a ladder covered in snow, wearing layers of winter cloths, carrying a big ass pack. It was very taxing physically to say the least. What I had no idea of at the time is that I was sweating profusely very early in the climb.
Climbing LHWR was physically demanding but since I was in the lee of the mountain the wind and cold were not a factor. That
Click this image to see the video I shot at the base of LHWR.
was soon about to change. I was making very good time and was on schedule to summit at between noon and one o’clock pm. Very good time indeed considering the climbing conditions and my 9 am. start time. Just before I broke tree line (4,400 feet, 2,000 feet below the summit) I felt great physically, I was in the Zone! I had started the climb full of trepidation but just before I broke tree line I knew I was going to summit! Fate has a strange sense of irony…
As I crested tree line everything changed! I went from climbing a steep and balmy winter mountain trail and thinking I was the second coming of Reinhold Messner to realizing that I was in over my head and was light years away from being a world class mountaineer! When I broke tree line I felt as though “Scotty” and beamed me to a Jupiterian moon, I was in hell. The winds were blowing at 95 mph. The snow was hitting my face so hard it felt like my face was being sand blasted. Something as simple as taking off my pack in those conditions was extremely difficult. Want to get a drink of water in negative 50 degree air temperature and 95 mph winds? Good luck with that. First off, you have to secure your gloves somewhere to keep them from blowing away into the atmosphere. No gloves in -50 equals frost bitten hands! Just getting a drink of water took me 10 minutes and was incredibly difficult. At one point I was within 100 feet from the spot where Scott Powers had fallen to his death the month before. The wind was strong, nearly strong enough to blow me off my feet. There was very little snow at Lions Head, I was afraid that if I was blown off my feet and began to slide toward the 600′ drop from the head wall, that I’d not be able to self arrest with my ice ax and save myself.
I had climbed about 300 yards past Lions Head when my legs began to fail me. I’m not talking about the kind of failure you get in the gym when you can’t get that last rep. I’m talking about failing at the cellular level. I could actually feel pain deep in the muscle fibers of my legs. In the distance I could see the summit cone and the summit at the top. The wind was absolutely shrieking. The only sound I could hear was my own breathing. It was like I was in outer space. I could see a few climbers making the final push up to the summit and the climbing looked very difficult. I stood frozen in place and thought to myself “I think I can make it to the summit just on plain toughness, but what happens if I summit? Will I be able to down climb?” I felt so tired and weak, watching those climbers make the final ascent to the summit broke my spirit. I turned around within sight of the summit and began the down climb. (Click here to see a video I shot after I aborted the summit attempt. Beleive it or not there were many teams of climbers pushing for the summit that day. Most of them turned around. I shot this after I had down climbed about 200 or 300 yards, but was still above treeline.)
The down climb was even worse. I had to climb down a deeply snow covered mountain “trail”. At one section of the trail I slipped and rapidly began sliding down hill. The section I was sliding down ended with a 15′ drop to the next section below. What happened next is right out of a movie. As I began the slide I figured no big deal, I’ll just use my ice ax to self arrest. However as I began to dig the pick end of the ax into the snow, the ice ax was ripped from my hand (I was not using the leash). I watched helplessly as I slid away from the ax. What started as a “fun” slide down the trail quickly turned scary as I began to accelerate rapidly and could see the 15′ drop off rapidly approaching. I rolled to my back and lifted my feet so my crampons would not dig into the snow and break my legs or ankles. I was sliding to the edge of the drop off at warp speed. At the very edge of the drop off there was a small tree, maybe the diameter of a can of Pepsi. I jammed my left boot into the tree to stop my forward progress. I was moving so fast however that even though I had jammed my left foot into the tree I shot out into the open air above the drop off. As I whipped past the tree into space I reached out with my gloved left hand and grabbed the tree. It was the perfect size for me to totally get my hand around. Once I grabbed the tree my momentum shot me counter clock wise around the tree back onto the trail! The whole thing from losing the ice ax to whipping around the tree took only a matter of seconds. Granted if I had gone over the edge and fallen it was only a 15′ drop, but that could have been an ugly fall resulting in a broken limb(s) to a fractured skull. There is no way I could have gotten off of the mountain without help If I had been busted up from the fall.
The down climb became easier when I got back onto Tuckerman’s trail. It took me about 2.5 hours to finish the down climb. I estimate that I sweat off about 15 pounds of fluid and with it precious electrolytes. That was the reason my legs failed me close to the summit. I had sweat off so much I had lost most of my electrolytes. On my next solo summit attempt I’m going to climb “cold” meaning I’m going to wear way less clothing and let my sweat vent into the air. I’ll carry much less with me and have more confidence in myself to make the summit and get back down without having to bivouac on the mountain. Even with the extra cloths I had in my pack there is no way I could have toughed it out and slept on the mountain because my base layers were soaking wet. I would have gotten hypothermia. Scott Powers died in January because for some reason he was down climbing in the dark, wandered off the trail then fell down the 600′ headwall to his death. My plan was to sleep on the trail if I ran out of daylight. Down climbing the mountain in the dark is very dangerous.
I am nearly 52 years old and with the exception of the birth of my two children the greatest memory I have is standing on the mountain above tree line, caught in the fury and tempest of that incredibly intense weather and thinking, “wow most people only see stuff like this on T.V. and here I am living it”. Thanks to God for giving me that incredible experience.
My personal mantra is:
“I will NOT be defined by what people think I should be. I will NOT be defined by limitations or conventions. I will NEVER ask others to do what I will NOT. In “my world” there is nothing I can’t conceive or achieve. To be the man, you gotta beat the man…WOOOOOOOOO!