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“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” -Ed Viesturs
“Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.” -Nemann Buhl
Well, we made it back alive. Sore, bruised and blistered, but alive. The two quotes above could not ring more true to me right about now.
The buzz of our alarms jolted us out of bed at 6:30am. As we got ready, packed our bags and fueled up in the morning by basically eating a shitload of carbs for energy, we were getting beyond stoked. The day had arrived, we were finally climbing Mt.Washington. Even with all the reading and research we did before the trip, as we drove closer and closer to the mountain range and once Mt.Washington came into view, we then realized that we were in for quite the doozey of a climb. This thing was HUGE. I just remember us literally “oohing” and “ahhing” at the site of it.
Once we arrived at the base of the mountain, we got dressed in our hiking gear, made sure we all had our necessities and hit the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail. Later on, we would switch to the Lion’s Head trail, also known as the hardest and steepest hike, of course! We started our ascent around 10:30am, which is actually considered a late start for Mt. Washington. We had planned on taking the infamous Cog Railway back down to the base once we would reach the summit, or we had the option of getting a shuttle down the auto road, but the last shuttle was at 4pm, and we had about 4.5hrs of hiking ahead of us, one way, so off we went!
We were about 10 minutes into the hike and all the layers started to make it feel like we were in an oven. A quick stop to remove our coats, so we wouldn’t sweat through all the layers we had proved to be the smart thing to do, as we got a glimpse of the boulder covered hills ahead of us, we realized that this was no leisurely hike, this was a strenuous climb!
Hiking up these hills was a complete mind fuck. We would give ourselves visual points to get to, then take a rest and water break. Every time we thought there would be a plateau, there would just be another hill, slightly steeper than the one we just climbed up with more boulders. The higher we got, we noticed the elevation slightly messing with our breathing. The only thing we could do was to take a breather, get used to the change and carefully carry on while watching each step, as the boulders are prone to be loose in some points along the trails.
Further along the trail, we came across a detour that we had to take due to trail maintenance. As we trekked along the detour, it seemed to have gotten a lot less rocky and slightly mossy and soft, which was quite nice on the feet after having rocks constantly stab at the bottom of our shoe soles. We were saying how nice it was to finally have a break on our legs and feet when we stopped dead in our tracks. There was a massive rock wall in the middle of the trail. Were we suppose to scale this thing? How would we do that? My sister jumped up to see what was on the other side. Luckily, there were two hikers sitting having a break off to the side, so she asked them where to go and when they said to cross the river, I’m more than certain we all said the same thing… “Shit!” Crossing the river with moving water under our feet proved to be a challenge, as the rocks became slippery as ice. No hiking shoe will help at this point, so we had to gingerly step and test every rock to make sure it wouldn’t move. One slight misstep and we were in the water and that’s the last thing you want on a hike, especially on this mountain…wet feet. Once safely across, we continued our trek to Lion’s Head Trail.
As we continued our journey up the Lion Head’s Trail, it just got steeper almost instantly. It became essential that we stopped for breathing, snack and water breaks at this point, as the trail is literally sucking the air out of you with the elevation gain of around 4,288ft. As we made our way through the thick, dense forest, we had to watch out for exposed tree roots. Tripping on one of those could result in broken ankles, or worse. As we pushed our way through the trail and out of the forest to the Caretaker’s Cabin in the ravine, we stopped for a chat and asked the caretaker, Jeff, some questions regarding the last shuttle of the day and if we would make it. He said it would be risky, since the shuttle only carries 15 people at a time and we still had about 1.8 miles to go to the summit. We talked to each other and said, “Fuck it”, let’s try to get there, we were already halfway there. We decided to stick to the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail and head on up. Lion’s head had kicked our asses all day, so off we went.
As we started to ascend more, we noticed the weather starting to shift. It was getting misty from having our heads in the clouds, literally. This portion of the trail proved to be the most daunting. We were now scaling a massive rock head-wall at around an 80 degree angle, at around 5,000ft, with rain falling on us, boulders that were slippery as ice and cloud coverage starting to roll in quickly. This portion of the trail was wide enough for one person to either come up, or down at a time. This area of the trail proved to take the longest, as we had to concentrate on every step we took and make room for people to pass up, or down. We were very fortunate that it wasn’t too cold, or windy, since Mt.Washington is highly known for it’s brutal winds. This could’ve been disastrous giving the rain on the rocks, it would surely have turned to ice.
The more we climbed into the clouds and the more it started raining, we couldn’t help but feel slightly nervous, but we kept going strong. We were confident as hell that we were going to make it to the top summit, crack open our summit beers and congratulate each other on a successful hike. We were at the 5,300ft mark of the mountain, so 0.8 miles away from the summit, when all of a sudden, experienced hikers were coming back down the mountain and telling us that it wasn’t safe to continue, as the winds were shifting and the cloud coverage was making it’s way down to us quickly, making for almost zero visibility. This was the famous weather of Mt.Washington truly telling us to “Get the fuck off.” We looked at each other and came to the agreement that it wasn’t worth putting our lives at risk more so than we already were doing. Remember the first quote at the top of this post? “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.” This proved true, as we were now stuck. We couldn’t go to the top, we had to turn around and now navigate our way back down to base from these incredible heights. A sense of vertigo kicked in when we looked down and realized that we now had to slide, or crab walk our way down the slippery rocks.
On the decent, we made sure to constantly talk to and encourage each other to give us the much needed confidence to get down to drier grounds. My sister was in front of me on the way down, when out of nowhere, she fell forward. I was freaking out, hoping that she wouldn’t hit her head on the rocks, or worse, slide off the edge. She managed to come to a stop and I asked if she was alright. After checking her over and making sure she was ok, we continued our way back down to the caretaker cabin. Scariest thing to watch, since there was nothing I could’ve done to help her!
As we reached drier ground and the cabin, we stopped to have a snack, reflect on the craziness that just happened and continue our 2.5hr hike back to the base before dark. We finally reached the base after one of the craziest, most strenuous days, physically and mentally of our lives. After everything we went through that day, and as upsetting it was not to reach the summit, I had this to say at the end of the day, “Don’t be upset that we didn’t make it, be proud of how far you DID make it.”
It’s now a few days after the hike and I am still extremely sore, can barely walk, every muscle in my body is just killing me. People asked me if it was worth it and if I would do it again. My answer to them is, “Hell yes, and I’ll keep trying until I reach that damn summit!”
On that note, see you soon Mt.Washington, we will definitely be back to conquer you one of these days!