Looking north from Mt. Washington to the summits of Mts' Jefferson, Adams & Madison

 

The Presidents in Winter: 1993


In the quickly growing dusk of evening, I’m treated to the awesome sight of my tent floating free in the wind, one hundred feet above the snow covered ridge. The suddenness of the event has left me paralyzed, utterly helpless. The strong slap of wind tore the newly erected tent from my hands and within seconds lifted it high overhead. Then came the immediate realization of a night lying curled in the snow, without shelter, exposed to the severe winter cold and high winds. It will be a night of great discomfort at best, of pure survival at worst.

It’s Sunday, March 7, 1993, and my precarious perch is high on Mount Madison of the Presidential Range, New Hampshire. My first day out on a solo attempt of the Winter Traverse of the Presidents. What a great start. Not only will I have to abandon the adventure, I’ll be damn lucky to see out the night.

I watch the tent’s graceful movements in the wind, almost with detachment. It dances like a huge boxkite, still directly overhead, and I expect it to move away rapidly at any moment. It rolls and twists in the currents of air, then with great speed slides to my right and slams back to earth, tangling in the branches of the small scrubby trees.

My immobility changes to sudden movement, crashing through the trees and snow towards the shelter I’d given up for lost. But I’m moving as in a nightmare, unable to make any headway. The tent is flapping violently in the gusts of wind, threatening to come free...I’m not going to make it. Oh God, give me strength! The nightmare is real: I’m sinking waist deep in the soft powder snow, my snowshoes removed before erecting the tent.

I must use the snowshoes, I must find my head lamp and I must secure the other equipment before going after the tent. Quick, quick. But be smart, be careful, don’t jeopardize your survival even more by a hasty dash into the gloom of evening and blowing snow. The adrenalin rush is taking effect. I do what has to be done and move off on snowshoes toward the tent - but it’s gone! Blown away during the few minutes of preparation. I quickly determine a few prominent features to mark the campsite location and mush across the slope to where the tent last lay. But where the hell is it now? Which way to search—up, down, or traverse the hillside? Does it really make any difference? It’s probably half a mile away by now! I choose down. It’s the easiest, and a rise in the slope below obscures the view.

I move down fifty yards—and bingo! It’s actually there, hanging up in the trees again, twenty yards further on. I run, stumble and slide—and pounce. Got it! Hard to believe. Now let’s get this unruly critter back to the campsite, wherever that is! It’s almost dark. I clip on the headlamp and start back up the slope with the tent flapping madly in the wind. I should collapse it again, but don’t dare. The very reason I lost it was the difficulty of solo assembly in such conditions. So I drag, yank and pull this out-of-control monster through the trees and snow, sobbing with exertion and frustration. A snowshoe comes loose, I trip and fall into two feet of soft snow. Shit, shit, shit! There’s a metallic crack, easily audible over the screaming wind, as one of the high-stress tent poles gives way. Drat and double drat.

Return to Top of Column

Finally, I’m back at the tentsite I’d so laboriously carved into the snow bank. Tie this bloody thing down: ice axe one end, a two foot snow stake the other. Dark now, but I must check the damage. The pole has broken at a join and it hangs together by jamming. The bug screen on the roof of the tent is torn—but who cares?

Normally, living in tents on mountains in these conditions ( I’ve done it more than once ), I rest badly, kept awake by the buffeting wind and concern that the tent will not last out the hours of darkness. I know tonight will be different. Just having a tent is a bloody miracle. The ‘Mountain Gods’ have smiled down kindly in response to my stupidity. I’m one lucky climber...for the moment at least.

Out of the wind and blowing snow. I’m back in the Human Race. A tribe of one, seeking shelter from a very hostile world. Fire is the next priority. Out with my trusty gasoline stove...never let me down, even on the high Arctic slopes of Denali. But now, it refuses to burn at full pressure. I’m on full survival alert again. I must have fluid—cold will do, but preferably hot—and only the stove can melt the snow to produce the necessary.

The temperature has dropped to 10 above zero. Into the sleeping bag and work on the stove. Repair kit out, reading glasses on...but they keep fogging up. And now my head lamp goes dim and quits. Great—What a trip! First things first. Glasses and new batteries inside my vest to warm up. Replace the batteries in the head lamp by feel...don’t get them mixed. Then: Glasses on, lamp working again and attend to the stove repair. A simple fix. The pump assembly has frozen with the cold. Free it up, grease the plunger diaphragm with a slice of salami and reassemble. It’s works just fine. Wonderful—I’m back with the living again!

The hot drinks and dehydrated dinner are wonderful. A great meal after such a miserable day. And now to rest. Tomorrow can’t be half as bad as today?

Same general location, same week but a different day. Climbing in a total whiteout. No footprints, no shadows and only the occasional glimpse of black rocks floating in the void. The visibility sucks! I’m feeling my way between one stone cairn and the next, angling up along the northern flank of Mount Adams. The stone trail markers, although commendably large, are covered with wind-impacted snow and not easy to see.

This is fun: the surface snow is too soft for crampons, but too icy beneath for the safe use of snowshoes. I finally settle for crampons. I’d rather wade through knee deep snow than risk sliding down some unseen ice slope. The crampon spikes keep catching on hidden rocks, threatening to tip me and my seventy pound pack over in a floundering heap. It happens, each event requiring a tremendous effort to get rightside-up again. The large cairn at Thunderbolt Junction looms into view. I’m making progress but the visibility has deteriorated to where it’s impossible to see the next trail marker from the last.

  • In 1985, our Presidential Traverse group on the summit of Mt Madison In 1985, our Presidential Traverse group on the summit of Mt Madison
  • Looking south from the summit of Mt Madison to the summit of Mt Washington Looking south from the summit of Mt Madison to the summit of Mt Washington
  • In 1985, our Traverse group at the Thunderbolt Junction cairn In 1985, our Traverse group at the Thunderbolt Junction cairn
  • Looking north over the Cog Railway to the summits of Mts' Jefferson, Adams & Madison Looking north over the Cog Railway to the summits of Mts' Jefferson, Adams & Madison
  • Looking north along Crawford Path to Mt Washington.  Mts' Eisenhower & Monroe between. Looking north along Crawford Path to Mt Washington. Mts' Eisenhower & Monroe between.
  • Skiing at Wildcat with Mt Washington, Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head in the background. Skiing at Wildcat with Mt Washington, Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head in the background.
  • A T-shirt logo commemorating the Group's 25th Presidential Traverse in 2001 A T-shirt logo commemorating the Group's 25th Presidential Traverse in 2001
  • 2005 Traverse group at Nearledge Inn ... in North Conway.  Some faces from 1985! 2005 Traverse group at Nearledge Inn ... in North Conway. Some faces from 1985!
  • 2005 Traverse group at Thunderbolt Junction cairn 2005 Traverse group at Thunderbolt Junction cairn
  • 2005 Traverse group somewhere near Mt Jefferson 2005 Traverse group somewhere near Mt Jefferson
  • 2005 Traverse group ... on the Crawford Path in the rain. 2005 Traverse group ... on the Crawford Path in the rain.
  • 2005 Traverse group ... on the Crawford Path in the rain. 2005 Traverse group ... on the Crawford Path in the rain.
{image.index} / {image.total}

I should get the compass out and get a feel for direction, but I’ve been here before—three times in Summer. It sure looks different now. Find a place out of the howling gale. That’s the ticket. But where? I can only see fifty feet at the most. I leave the line of the trail at right angles, climb up a slope, drop the pack ( including the compass ) and continue straight up to a ridge line. I look back downslope as the pack disappears in the void. That’s OK, I know where it is.

Here’s a deep snow bank protected by rocks on the other side of the ridge line. This will have to do. I’ll dig in well. Back the way I came. Wonderful, there’s my pack. No problem, Peter, you’ve got this landscape scoped. I return to the chosen spot, staggering under the weight of a snow covered pack. What’s this? I dimly see bigger rocks further on down the opposite slope. Even better—a well protected enclave of rock and drifted snow. Some digging will be required but the effort will be worth it: a harbor from the relentless wind and blowing snow.

 

It’s 3 p.m.. Plenty of daylight left to make a bombproof shelter, unlike the evening below Madison. And so it begins. One to two hours of battling the snow, wind and tent. I make a temporary repair on the fractured pole. Another small step in the game of survival. One thing fixed, another broken, the iceaxe shaft snow shovel proves incompatible with my large axe. I’ve left the more suitable ice tool behind as a compromise on weight. The shovel fitting bends out of shape and I’m reduced to using the damn thing like a tiny tot’s sand spade. These conditions are sure taking a toll on my equipment and well-being.

At last. It’s still daylight and I’m inside a firmly fixed shelter. Dry clothes on, inside the sleeping bag, with the stove burning hot and true. Ah! This is good living. The only remaining doubt is how the heck I’ll find my way back to the trail if the visibility remains as bad. Oh well, it must be clear tomorrow—no sweat, a cakewalk! In the worst case I’ll run a few compass bearings—not that I really know where to start from. Never mind, let’s worry about that in the morning.

In the meantime, I’ll lie back and relax—warm, dry, well fed—and reflect on the reasons for being on this crazy venture. I’d invited up to five others to join me on a Winter Traverse of the Presidential Range, generally toted as The Greatest Adventure in the Northeast United States. For one reason or another, each possible starter became no-shows: George had leg problems, Emil won a top contract, Leigh went skiing in Switzerland, John had his arm in a sling from shoveling snow and Glenn chose Colorado instead. So here I am, solo climbing again. I had the time off, and nothing would deter me from going for it. Until now, of course. I’ve serious doubts of even reaching Mount Washington in these conditions, another 4 miles along the main ridge. I can handle the deep powder snow, the broken equipment and even the gale force winds, but 50-foot visibility is altogether something else. There are too many unseen rock faces to step over.

As evening approaches, the wind abates somewhat and large snow flakes begin falling. With a start, I awake from a doze to the sound of voices. Good grief...there’s other crazies out here! I quickly stick my head out the tent flap, but see nothing except falling snow. It sounds like they’re digging in at the first location I’d selected for myself. Their voices indicate an organization of purpose, battling the elements to get their tent sheltered from the wind and securely tied down. Since they’re OK, I’ll not make my presence known. See you in the morning, guys. I’m snug and warm, and have no intention of venturing out until tomorrow, self contained inside the tent, with pee bottle, stove, and plenty of snow to convert into hot liquid.

I sleep well, only faintly aware of the reduction in wind strength and the patter of heavy snow falling throughout the night. It’s morning, but dark in the tent from layers of snow against the walls. Some digging is required to clear the doorway, only to find the visibility little changed from yesterday. But what a dramatic difference in the landscape! At least 18 inches of fresh snow has fallen during the night, and the whiteout situation is extreme. This really is a setback. Some serious decisions need to be made within the next few hours. Do I sit out another day up here, or retrace my route down past Madison to Randolph and the rental car? Perhaps even the latter choice will be difficult to execute safely in these appalling conditions. One thing is certain: if the snow keeps falling, it may not be possible to move at all for many days. Better to bail out now before it’s too late.

Return to Top of Column

I’ll start by having a leisurely and substantial breakfast. Never know when I’ll get the opportunity to eat the next hot meal. Pull the compass out, see which way, degreewise, that I need to intercept the trail from the campsite. That’s odd. The damn compass must be on the fritz, perhaps too close to crampons or iceaxe. Why the hell is it showing the tent alignment 180 degrees from where I know it is? Well, maybe a look outside will clear up the mystery. The visibility is still terrible, but I can see the vague outlines of rock cairns, not far from the tent. What the ding dong are they doing in that direction? And what trail is this that I’m camped by? Just then, through a slight clearing of the swirling mists, I see what can only be the large cairn of Thunderbolt Junction—in reverse direction, and considerably closer from where I thought I’d camped. My God! I walked in a complete circle yesterday afternoon before setting up camp!

I’m totally floored by this revelation. How the hell did I ever find my all-important pack again, in the midst of such confusion? Another gift from the ‘Mountain Gods’. It’s definitely time to get off this rock while I’m still ahead. I can’t afford anymore mistakes; for sure, it’ll be the death of me.

There’s a temporary improvement in the visibility and once again I’m stunned. The other climbers’ tent comes into view, high on an open snow slope, nowhere near the location I thought them to be. Time to say hello, but to be safe, take a compass bearing between the two tents as I go. Sure enough, halfway over, both tents disappear in enveloping mist and I’m forced to walk the remaining distance on the compass bearing. I blunder into their camp, falling over the tent tie-downs. Where the hell did you come from? Oh, just passing by, smelt the tea and dropped in for a cuppa. Ha ha. There’s two of them, experienced climbers with good gear and it’s highly probable that the three of us are the only humans alive on this accursed Range.

Their story of yesterday afternoon is similar to mine. They reached the large cairn at Thunderbolt Junction and then got disoriented, found a slope, dug in...and here we all are, happy little campers on one of the worst mountain ranges in North America for weather. The highest wind ever recorded in the U.S., 230 m.p.h., was on Mount Washington, just along the ridge from here.

Well, lads, what do you plan to do? They have five more free days, and vehicles at both ends of the Range. The best of luck! I’m outta here...back to my car at Randolph, God willing and a fair breeze!

Easier said than done. The visibility is so bad, I’m forced to walk a compass bearing to find each cairn, stumbling, falling and sliding in the deep snow and underlying ice. I look forward to the Valley Way trail, down through the trees using just snowshoes in the soft powder. Surprise, surprise—the newly fallen snow slides down the trail in mini-avalanches, exposing the hard-packed surface beneath. Four torturous miles of exhausting, sometimes dangerous, descent to the trailhead. But finally I’m there. Oh, joy: it’s not yet dark, the car hasn’t been ripped off and the Sam Adams beer in the trunk is still unfrozen. Two of these little numbers, and who cares a fat rat’s bum about climbing in winter. It’s really very easy...just don’t ask me back!

To the Others, who missed out on this great adventure; what can I say? I know you’ll be green with envy when you realize what a fun time you could’ve had. Next winter, when I’m looking for volunteers, I can expect a full turn out. Not!!

 

But of course the adventure didn’t really finish like that. I had two wonderful days left in the White Mountains. A major Winter storm warning is in effect, the sky dark and threatening, the snow still falling; and so it’s back into the hills to have some fun. That’s the spirit. Don’t let on you’re a quitter.

After an overly comfortable night in the Nereledge Inn, it’s off up Route 16 again to the Pinkham Notch trailhead. I figure that a two-day attack on Mount Washington, via the shortest route, should be entirely possible—and very straightforward after the Madison-Adams affair. I plan for an easy walk to the Hermit Lake shelters, spend the night, and in the morning make a fast ascent up Lion Head trail to the summit. All going well, I should make it back to Manchester by tomorrow evening, in position for the flight to Louisville the next morning.

With minimum equipment and a hard-packed trail, the journey to Hermit Lake is easy, but once again it’s snowing in ‘them there mountains’. The view up Tuckerman’s Ravine is a big fat zero, totally obscured by cloud and blowing snow. Not to worry; tomorrow morning is sure to be fine and clear, particularly with a winter storm in the offing!

The night in the shelter is bitterly cold and I long for the flimsy but warm comfort of my tent. It’s like an icebox in here and I remain buried in my sleeping bag from dusk to dawn, trying to stay warm. But then it’s 6 a.m. Out of the bag, light up the stove and prepare for a quick departure. It’s snowed heavily during the night—at least a foot of fresh powder. I wade through the drifts to the ‘off-season’ toilet, a two-berth affair that’s half-covered with snow. I force the inward opening door against the packed snow, get inside and kick the door closed. Big mistake! I’m trapped in this evil smelling place, unable to pull the door open! Apart from the embarrassment of being locked in a lavatory, I’m frustrated by the delay in getting started on the trail. I bang on the walls and shout in the knowledge that there’s no one in the area, particularly at this time of day. Miraculously, the door suddenly comes free and I gratefully exit the building, half expecting to hear hoots of laughter from a gathered crowd. As it happens, I’m still alone in the softly falling snow.

It’s snowshoe conditions as I move off to the base of the Lion Head trail, sinking deeply into the top layers of new snow and dislodging large dollops of the white stuff from the overhanging trees. Oh joy, here we go again. Within a few hundred yards the trail angles up steeply and I can no longer maintain traction with the snowshoes. It’s crampon time, and what a battle to put them on in this deep snow! I wrestle with the straps for at least twenty minutes, during which time another climber passes by. Without the benefit of skis or snowshoes, Pierre, a native of Quebec, has been gratefully following in my tracks.

Ahead, Pierre fights his way up the steep slope and I’m the grateful one now. He’s been here before, in summer, and is not deterred by the ever increasing incline, as I would’ve been on my own. The top layers of snow slide down in a fast-moving river from Pierre’s footsteps as we begin front-pointing with our crampons on the hard ice beneath. If it weren’t for the stunted pines on either side, which give a false sense of security, this would be an exposed and risky climb. One section is particularly nasty, and I try not to think about coming back down. That’s it Pierre: keep pushing...we’ll make the summit and be off this mountain in fine style!

One hour, and eight hundred feet higher, we top the steep slopes near the rock outcrop known as Lion Head. The wind hits face-on with hurricane force and the surface visibility drops to less than thirty feet in blowing snow. We encounter waist-deep drifts on the lee side of the rocks, floundering around, making little headway. And then Pierre decides he’s had enough. Without snowshoes he’ll not fight his way along this next section of the trail. We bid each other Godspeed and he’s quickly lost in the swirling snow beneath Lion Head. Alone on the mountain again, I feel some trepidation about continuing in what now appears to be a full-blown storm. But what the heck, I’ve been in worse...Antarctica! Denali!

Out of the crampons and into snowshoes once more. That’s much better. No improvement in the weather, but at least I’m making headway through the drifts. Moving faster towards the heart of the storm and further away from sanctuary. But damn it, I DO want to reach the summit!

 

Return to Top of Column

I’m surprised by the sudden easing of the gradient. Moving along the rim of Tuckerman’s Ravine, it’s almost flat ground and I’m able to quickly traverse between each successive trail marker with a slightly improved visibility. I feel sad for Pierre. If he’d struggled on for another hundred yards, he could also be running free, with the chance of victory close at hand. The excitement is with me now. I know the summit is near, even if it’s not visible—and the thought of winning a solo prize in such appalling winter conditions is sweet indeed.

However, as I move up onto the summit cone, it becomes increasingly obvious that I’ll need some marked improvement in the visibility before committing to a summit bid. I’ve resorted to running compass bearings as I angle toward the summit. I can continue pushing uphill with some guarantee that I’ll eventually reach the top. But the problem will be getting back down to this location, to intercept the reverse bearing back to the trail markers on the rim of Tuckerman’s Ravine. One small error in direction or distance will probably result in becoming hopelessly lost or stumbling blindly over the edge of a high rock outcrop.

It’s a bitter blow: so close, with victory a life-or-death decision. I’m vividly reminded of the heartbreaking turn back below the summit of Denali in ‘89. This scenario is similar, but I’m aware that Mt. Washington can be visited anytime with relative ease, so give it away, Peter. Don’t be a fool—you’ve already lost a goodly number of your nine lives during the past few days. I agonize over the decision for ten minutes, leaning into the howling wind, staring into the void above and chilled to the core of my soul. I’ve failed again, below another summit. At times like this it’s impossible to reconcile the conflict between doing what you know to be safe and the resolve to push on against impossible odds. And all for what? Some insignificant pile of rock in a far-away corner of North America. Who will care if you win, lose or die in the attempt? Family and friends will certainly grieve, but this is no Everest and the general public couldn’t care less. So what’s the point? The point is, it matters to me—and it’s always tough to turn back.

So, with heavy heart, I retrace my steps along the reverse compass bearing, in extreme blizzard conditions, but not really noticing in the frustration of defeat. I slowly become aware that I’ll need all my concentration and limited expertise to make it down in one piece. At Lion Head rock, I can’t see anything down the steep slope where the dangerous section of the trail begins. I’m acutely aware that I must start at the correct position as the slope tips over into the near vertical or I’ll end up perched on the lip of some precarious cliff top. I fight to swap snowshoes for crampons—hopefully for the last time today—and then move off from the shelter of the rocks down into a totally white world.

Unbelievably, two ghostly figures are moving up towards me. Their clothes and faces are thick with impacted snow, their heads bent against the wind and they don’t see me until I’m almost on top of them. They reel back, almost in horror, not expecting to see another living soul on the mountain. I guess I look like hell: I’ve been out in this for many hours, wearing a ski mask and white from head to toe. We shout a few pleasantries to each other before they move on very slowly, weighed down with heavy packs. Their plan is to traverse Mt. Washington and then along the ridge towards Adams. Good luck guys—believe me, you’ll need it. As it turns out, they don’t last much longer. Like Pierre, battling the drifts without snowshoes and with their heavy loads, they decide to turn back shortly after our meeting.

At least I now have a fix on the trail over the lip of the lower slope. Initially it’s easy, sliding in a mini-avalanche through the gap in the trees, and moving further out of the wind. I reach the very steep section, neglect to turn face into the slope and come off in a tumbling, falling mess, ending suspended head-down in a small tree thirty feet below. This really p’s me off. I should never have let this happen and furthermore, I’m damn lucky not to have driven the pick of the ice ax through my head...it’s poised a couple of inches from my face! So the great international mountaineer carefully extricates himself from the tree, thanks Heaven no one is around to see, and slinks off down the remainder of the trail to the Hermit Lake shelters. Enough is enough. I’m outta here—this time for good. I finally admit defeat against the Presidents in winter.

Peter Tremayne

North Conway, New Hampshire.

March 1993.

Return to Top of Page

home | about us | contact us | sierra nevada | jmt access map | jmt planning | jmt equipment | jmt schedules | jmt2016 | jmt 2015 | jmt 2014 | jmt 2013 | jmt 2012 | jmt 2011 | jmt 2010 | jmt 2009 | jmt 2008 | jmt 2007 | jmt 2006 | jmt 2005 | jmt 2004 | jmt 2002 | mt agassiz | mt sill | mt shasta | matterhorn peak | mt egmont | nz 2016 | mt rainier | mt shuksan | mt jefferson | pct sonora nth | pct tm nth | pct wa nth | mt baker | wonder trail | mera peak | mt adams | goat rocks | cascades 2003 | mt whitney | kaibab trail | presidents | antarctica | hoover pct | recesses | highrte2015 | highrte2016 | denali89 | benson lake | video wmv | videos mp4 |