The Presidentials 5-4-04

Snow sifted down through the screen mesh in the tent. Outside, the wind howled past the rock we were huddled against. There isn’t much forgiveness for being slow in the mountains. As we lay shivering in our sleeping bags, I contemplated on what brought me here in there first place.

My friend Steve and I had already climbed Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire but we wanted more. The “deadliest small mountain in the world,” the place where the highest wind speed on earth was recorded, just wasn’t enough for us. We wanted more. Steve and I decided to do the entire range of mountains that just happened to include Washington as the high point.

We made our preparations and planned with maps. We bought food and fixed up our gear. This was going to be the ultimate winter mountaineering adventure. We planned on doing the range from north to south so with that in mind, I parked my truck at the southern end of the range. We hitch-hiked up to a point along the trail and had our last home cooked meal before setting out into the wilderness.

We got on the trail just after dark and started immediately upwards following moose tracks by moonlight and the shallow beams from our headlamps. A few miles farther on, we decided we were close enough to get a good head start for tomorrow and set up our tent.

The next morning was beautiful. The bright sunlight was brilliant against the snow in the fresh mountain air. After hiking for several hours we came to a great gulf and saw that our way was “blocked” by a wall of ice and snow 400 feet high. Two hours later we stood at the top, tired but satisfied. Now we were on the ridge and immediately our attention focused on Mt. Madison, our closest objective. We were on the top in less than an hour. After high-fives and the obligatory topless photo, we were leaping pell-mell down the trail because our next mountain was less than 2 miles away and we could almost taste another summit.

Exhilarated from the summit rush we moved quickly across the frozen ice field of Mt. Adams. As we were hiking, I could hear the little ice crystals break away from the snow-pack and go clinking down 3,000 ft. towards the valley below. Then it happened. The weather changed in an instant. Where it was sunny and calm two minutes before, it became dark and blustery. Snow started whipping across the face of Mt. Adams, just trying to pry us loose from our precarious purchase of our crampons stuck in the ice.

We had a hurried discussion over the wind and decided our best bet was to make for the boulder field half way up Mt. Adams. We got there 30 minutes later and choose a rock about the size of a normal family couch for our tent site. The slope was so steep that we had to chop a platform next to it just to make room for the tent. It was also pure ice so that if you didn’t have a firm grip with your crampons, you would take the easy way down the mountain. All 4,000 feet of it.

So with our camp somewhere around 5,500 feet elevation, and the wind at 50 mph, we had ourselves as nice a dinner as one can have, huddled in a tent plastered against a rock by freezing wind and snow. That night came to define the trip for me. While it sounds awful and frightening, it was an amazing experience that can now be looked back on with fondness and pride. One mountain down, ten to go.

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