Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mount Washington Winter Climb

With cyclocross season over, I've been looking for other ways to keep myself fit. So I signed up for a winter Mt. Washington trip with a group of my co-workers. I've done quite a bit of hiking, snowshoeing, and climbing while living in Washington, but I hadn't had an opportunity to climb, "The Home of the World's Worst Weather." since moving to New England. At 6,288 feet, it doesn't sound that strenuous to someone who is used to the Cascades, but as I've experienced on other hikes in the White Mountains, the trails are quite tough since they literally shoot straight up the side of the mountains. Couple that with some pretty gnarly weather, and you have a pretty good workout.

On Friday 1/20, all 8 of us crammed into a Chris's minivan topped with 2 cargo boxes, and made our way up to Pinkham Notch. We made a quick stop at Subway for dinner, our group wiping the place out of meatballs, before pulling off at a parking area to set up camp for the night. I was immediately struck by the cold, with the temperature hovering around -5 F my nostril hairs froze. I was struck even more by being able to actually see the stars. Living in the city, with all the background light, can really make you forget how amazing the night sky can look.

We stomped down the snow, and quickly got the tents set up, and crawled into our sleeping bags. I shared my tent with Dr. Dan, Margaret, and Susan. We joked a bit about the cold, and what people were or were not wearing in their sleeping bags, before people started to fall asleep. I think Susan was the hands down winner at falling asleep the fastest, or is just narcoleptic. She was out 10 seconds after she finished a sentence. I on the other hand was having a hard time falling asleep, not really because of the cold, but more in anticipation of the climb in the morning. Eating the Subway 6 inch BLT right before bed probably didn't help, but I can never fault bacon for anything.

It's getting cold in here, time to put on all our clothes.L to R: Dr. Dan, Susan, Margaret, Me. Photo: Micah Chu

When we woke up a little after 5am on Saturday, the exterior of my sleeping bag was covered in a rime frost around the hood. I had slept pretty fitfully through the night, but the cold air woke me up pretty quickly. We  shook the frost out of the tents, quickly packed up, and drove to the Pinkham Notch visitor center. They have a great gear room under the lodge for people to suit up in out of the weather. Chris and I set up our stoves outside in the predawn cold, to heat up some water for whoever needed it. Everyone fueled up with something to eat. I opted for some of the amazing scones that Margaret had baked. It took about an hour before everyone was ready to go, and then we started up the Tuckerman Ravine trail. The first mile and a half  was a steady climb up packed cat track. This validated our decision the day before to leave our snowshoes. We saw a number of people skinning up to ski the ravines, including a pair of ladies with skirts over their ski pants. It didn't take too long before I started to form some icestachicles.

At the base of the Lion's head trail, we all put on our crampons, pulled out the ice axes, and had a quick snack. The trail was very steep going until we reached treeline, with at least on near vertical section. There weren't many other climbers on the trail, but even so things soon got backed up through the vertical section. I was happy that the weather in the trees was exceptionally mild, with the temps at around 10 degrees, with almost no wind, and just a light snow. When we finally broke treeline, we took another quick break out of the wind before starting the ascent. Chris shared his winter climbing energy snack of choice with us, which turned out to be Sour Patch Kids. Once everyone had a chance to get hydrated, we started up into the windblown section above treeline. The trail was much icier, making the crampons and ice axes a must. Just a week and a half before our trip, an inexperienced climber died, when he slipped and fell 800 feet down into the ravine.

Our group heading up the Lion's Head Trail.  Photo: Micah Chu

By this point we were moving pretty slow trying to keep our group of varying skill and fitness levels together.     We had all agreed that we would either reach the summit as a group, or go back down together if someone couldn't make it. This did make it challenging to maintain a good body temperature as the speediest of our group had to spend a lot of time just standing around as we waited. Overall though, folks were very encouraging of the other members. Chris was really key to keeping everyone motivated, and moving. While we were waiting at one point, Bill took a fun little video. I'm sure that "the Abel" will be the next dance craze to sweep the nation.

As we continued up the trail, the temperature was steadily dropping, and the winds were really starting to pick up. With the threat of frostbite looming, we stopped in the shelter of a large rock outcropping and broke out the goggles and balaclavas. I looked a little like a Darth Vader/Ninja/Cyborg in my full get up. 

Don't fail me again, Admiral. Photo: Dan Rozelle.
Even as well covered up as I appear. I still managed to end up with a small patch on my cheek exposed, and suffered some "mild" frostbite. This is definitely not an environment that you want to have to relieve yourself in.

The trail was being covered quickly in snow drifts. Without the cairns and occasional route flags, it would have been difficult to navigate at all. I was really taken with the unusual ice formations on the rocks, caused by the extreme weather. I'd never seen anything like them before. They were like small breaking waves, frozen mid crash.

Windblown ice sculptures. Photo: Dr. Dan Rozelle

Time was not on our side as we neared the summit. The cutoff/turnaround time we had decided upon was quickly approaching due to our slow pace. With a final push, and some extra encouragement, we were able to finally get everyone up to the summit. We reached the observatory right as the worst weather of the day was blowing through. The winds were steady at 40 MPH, gusting to 50 MPH, with a temperature of -5 F. This gave us a windchill of roughly -36F. Needless to say, we did not want to stick around very long. We got our group photo, and Chris got to fly his kite at the summit, which was a pretty cool sight to behold.
Chris doing some extreme kite flying.

Left to Right: Back Row; Chris, Bill , Margaret, Micah. Middle Row; Me, Dr. Dan, Jimmy.  Laying Down, Being Sassy; Susan

On the descent, about 300 yards below the summit, I slipped and fell when my crampon broke. I was in total disbelief that they had failed, since they were practically new. All manner of curses directed at the manufacturer were flying through my head, as I tried to repair them. Chris saw that I had stopped, and rushed over to help me. While the others continued down, he quickly worked out a way to secure them to my boot, using some spare straps, and we were on our way again. We quickly caught the others, but Jimmy was having some bad cramping issues. Chris, Micah, Margaret, and I stayed with him, and sent the others onward to get out of the weather since Susan was in danger of getting frostbitten feet. With the daylight fading quickly, I was getting concerned that we wouldn't get him down through the more technical sections on the route before dark. I gave him some Cytomax, to try and get some electrolytes into him, which seemed to help. It was still excruciatingly slow as we made our way down. My cx instincts were making me want to push the pace, but we had to get Jimmy down the hill safely. The near vertical section was pretty scary in the gloom of dusk. I was especially proud of Margaret, who conquered her fears and made it down without any help, aside from some coaching. This was after we had to wait to descend, because a woman in another group couldn't handle it, and had to be lowered down by rope.

Once we reached the bottom we had to pull out the headlamps, to make it back to the Tuckerman Ravine trail. Once we reached the cat track, I ran ahead to let the others know that we were okay, since we were probably a full hour behind at this point. Sure enough, once I reached the lodge, Susan, Dan, and Bill had been waiting around for us for about an hour. The others came in about 15 minutes behind me. At this point everyone was exhausted after spending almost 11 hours on the mountain. I'd really like to do this trip again soon with a smaller group, and see if we could do it in a more reasonable 4.5 hours. We quickly packed the van, and hit the road. We stopped at several places to try and eat, but every one had a long wait. So we settled for Burger King, where I was met by the most epic soda fountain ever. It had over a hundred differ flavor combinations, which to my sleep deprived, frostbitten brain, was a little overwhelming. So much so, that I ended up drinking a quart of cherry Mello Yello.

Post Climb Observations:
The Good:
-Chris. He drove, encouraged us all, kept the group's spirits up, helped fix my crampon, flew a kite on the summit, and got everyone safely down the mountain.
-My friends Susan, Margaret, Micah, Bill, and Dan for making what many would have considered a disastrous trip a good experience.
-Cherry Mello Yello

The Bad:
-Frostbite on the cheek. (Not that bad, almost healed already)
-Broken crampon. Camp USA, you will be hearing from me soon.
-Too much Cherry Mello Yello

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Bitter Cold Showdown

This was such a fun race, and a great way for people to try out cyclocross in a low pressure enviroment.  Andy and Ernest did a great job organizing this "bandit" race, although I've never heard of a bandit race course looking this good. I showed up early on Sunday, to help with the setup, not really knowing what to expect. Andy was already there putting in stakes, and gave Ernest and I the basic rundown of the course. Andy entrusted me with his course map, and we went to work. Having helped to set up several courses, I was surprised at how fast we were able to make it come together. By the end, we had a pretty technical little course, with some off cambers, a set of stairs, two ride ups, barriers, and another forced dismount. So much fun crammed into a small course! There was also the unique feature of two "shortcuts", which would allow people to skip one of the ride ups/run ups by eating a stale munchkin, or doing a random physical task. This added another fun element to the course, and made it friendlier for first time racers.

This was also very unique in that it was a relay style race, complete with batons. The "rules" stated that you couldn't place them in jersey pockets, which led to some interesting ways to carry the batons. Also, if you dropped one during transitions, you had to wait 5 seconds before continuing. There were 8 teams of 4 or 5 people, which was a pretty big turnout. The 3 teams who rode the most laps would move on to the finals. I rode with the Hup team of Chip, Parke, Ernest, and Cosmo. This was my first race as a Hupster, so Chip let me borrow his vest. 

Andy Huff gotz batonz.  Photo: Roger Cadman

I was happy that Ernest was finally going to get a chance to do a race. It was also really cool that Cosmo made it all the way up from CT to ride with Ernest, and coach him on the course. 

We did a Le Mans start for the race, to add to the general level of shenanigans. Chip took a nice little video of it. Everyone was cheering, or heckling in a friendly manner for the entire race. Several times during the race, the police rolled by slowly watching us, but never bothered us. I had to cut out before the finals, because of work, but I heard that they were just as fun. I'm really looking forward to another version of this in August!

Check it out! Tiffany Remy took some great shots of the race, which can be found here. Nick also made a really slick movie using some his Go-Pro footage, spliced with Tiffany's photos.