March 17, 2017
With ice season coming to a close here in the North East. Brent (www.brentdoscher.com) and I made the irresponsible decision to scramble and go for an evening ascent of Pinnacle Gully on Mount Washington. This decision was made in part to the forecast being extremely calm for Mount Washington. Temperatures around zero, but with summit winds forecasted at 25mph which is rare for this part of the world. The night was supposed to be clear. It was a good opportunity to knock this one off the tick list!
I started my morning by being woken up by my 6 month old son at 4:30AM, Then heading in to work to wrap up some loose ends, and then bailing out a little early to begin my nearly 3 hour drive to Pinkham Notch. All the while thinking to myself “What the hell am I doing?”… This is a trend that would continue throughout the night.
I arrived at Pinkham Notch by around 4:45pm to meet Brent. We geared up quickly in the boot room at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. After signing in to the log-book we were on our way setting foot on the Tuckerman Ravine trail by 5pm… Yup, this was a late start for sure. We carried a strong pace on the 1.5 mile stretch of Tuckerman Ravine Trail reaching the intersection of the Huntington Ravine Junction in about 30 minutes. The sunlight started to fade and the reality of what we were doing was starting to set in. The daunting head wall of Huntington Ravine came in to view and offered the first glimpse of the climb we’d be heading for tonight.
Pinnacle Gully is a classic ice climb on Mount Washington. Offering some of the most exposed alpine climbing conditions that can be found on a relatively small peak here in the North East. Pinnacle Gully is a WI3 Grade III ice climb that’s about 500 feet tall. It’s typically climbed in 3-4 pitches depending on when you rope up and what length of rope you use. Reaching the base of the climb is another obstacle as it requires a lengthy slog snow climb on avalanche prone terrain through the ravine floor.
At this point we already needed our headlamps… It was pitch black darkness. When we reached the ravine floor we stationed behind a large boulder for shelter and began to equip ourselves with our technical gear. Harnesses, crampons, and ice tools came out for the initial snow climb up to the base of the gully.
We slogged our way up to the base of Pinnacle Gully in the dark. Continually aiming our headlamps up to try to make sure we were headed in the right direction. Keeping our distance from each other as not to upset the avalanche prone terrain we were walking on.
Finally we reached the base of our targeted climb. Pinnacle gully! I wish I could see it! My headlamp only granted me to view about 30 feet of it at a time. We flaked out the rope, and tied in. Brent placed an ice screw and I tied myself in direct with a sling to belay his lead on the first pitch. Brent asked “Ok, so how are you feeling on a 1-10 scale about this?” I replied with a little apprehension “Uhm… 7?”. He felt similarly we decided we were confident enough to go for it.
Time to Climb
“On Belay!” “Climbing!” our verbal signals were exchanged and Brent started his lead up the first pitch of ice. After the first few swings our level of stoke accelerated and we began to get more comfortable. It was cold! But the wind was so mild it was hard to complain.
I started to lose sight of Brent as my headlamp wasn’t powerful enough to cut through the darkness. I could only hear his ice tools sticking into the ice and the debris of ice flakes and chunks raining down on top of me. Every now and then he’d exclaim “Yeah! Hero Ice!” I was pumped to follow his lead!
Soon he had me on belay and I was climbing. The first pitch was a lot of fun! Despite the apprehension I had about climbing in complete darkness it wasn’t terribly difficult. I focused on my tool placement and form, and soon Brent was yelling down to me from the Belay “Yeah Buddy!” as we could finally see each other again.
We continued the process three times. Brent lead, I followed. We were having tons of fun despite the increasingly cold air. The ice was solid, sticks felt good, and we were happy. At the final belay I climbed past Brent and ran out the rope. We had assumed we were close enough to the top but I ended up climbing another entire rope length before setting up a temporary snow anchor so Brent could climb up to my position.
We finally topped out and needed to make a decision. Hike across the Alpine Garden to Lions Head and out, a route both of us have done several times before. Or search out the “Escape Hatch” another gully in Huntington ravine that a lot of climbers down-climb back to the base. We decided to go for the Escape Hatch as it would save us some time. We ventured around the rim of the ravine trying to use our headlamps to look for a landmark. A large Cairn marks the top of Escape Hatch that’s been known to have an old shovel sticking out of it. Searching in complete darkness was difficult as our headlamps were really only effective for 50 feet or so in front of us. There’s no trail here, we were simply looking for a pile of rocks in the open above treeline alpine area on Mount Washington which is inherently very rocky!
Eventually we located a large Cairn and a snow field below it. This was South Gully, and from our perspective looked tame enough to down climb. We decided to go down here instead of continuing our search for Escape Hatch. South Gully is a 500′ tall WI1 snow and ice climb. Brent went first facing the slope, kicking his way down the steep stiff neve snow and I followed keeping a good distance from him but trying to utilize his foot steps. This down-climb felt like it took forever! Climbing in the dark is a weird thing, I almost felt claustrophobic of the surroundings because everything was so dark.
We eventually reached the base of the ravine by about 12:30AM. Brent went for a victory butt-sled after removing his crampons and we both breathed a sigh of relief that the hard parts were over. Now we just needed to hike the remaining 3 miles out on groomed trails to the Pinkham Notch Visitor center. By the time I reached my car it was nearly 2:30 AM, I wouldn’t get home until 4:30AM! We had seriously underestimated the time this trip would take.
Tonight was an adventure I’ll never forget with a good friend! I’ll probably tell stories about it as an old man and look back at it wondering how I got so crazy. I hope this doesn’t mark the end of the Ice Season for 2017, but if it did at least it was epic.