by Courtney Ley
The Great Gulf. There could be no other name for it. When I look at it from the vantage point of Mt Clay, I imagine the walls of this giant cirque begin to expand suddenly, high rocks and cliffs start breaking apart and tumble into its gaping mouth. I see the summit of Mt. Washington tilting, the buildings shake and crumble, sliding into the dark abyss with deafening sound. All that’s left is a giant cavern. The Great Gulf just swallowed Mt. Washington whole.
But as I stand on the summit of Mt. Clay on this day, all is still. The only moving object is the sun as it lowers over Franconia Ridge to the west, creating long shadows across the Presidential Range. I hear no tumbling rocks or collapsing cliffs. I only hear the sound of the wind beating on my jacket. I am alone and feel at ease. I watch the sky turn pastel colors and soft lenticular clouds form high above me. I adjust my hood to block the wind the best I can and head down the mountain towards Sphinx Col.
My need for seclusion brought me to the Great Gulf. Some approach the gulf from Huntington Ravine and do it in March or April when the gulf is filled with the years snowfall and travel is relatively easy. I had two days and decided to approach it from its beginnings. I wanted to wind my way through its endless water courses and forest canopies. It’s not very far in miles, but the wilderness trails are left to the forces of nature. The trees fallen across paths remain in place and water is not forcefully diverted away. Long bogs and difficult river crossings are a norm here. I enjoy the wilderness feel, as it’s hard to find in the developed White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Great Gulf is by no means ‘out there’. A quick jaunt up the Chandler Ridge finds you at the Auto Road and once you top out of the headwall, there’s Mt. Washington’s summit with its restaurant and gift shops. The Great Gulf Wilderness was conceived in 1964 and is New Hampshire’s oldest yet smallest wilderness area, comprising just 5,658 acres. Despite this, the giant glacial cirque leaves you feeling like you are somewhere remote and far away from anyone and anything.
Admittedly, I also had another motive. I was hunting down ice and I had a good feeling I’d find some here. Not only is the gulf at a high elevation but it’s predominately north facing and it’s walls rarely see sunlight. It had the elements necessary for early season capture. I pitched my tent at one of the designated tent sites along the Great Gulf Trail and set out. Unlike other ravines, the gulf doesn’t show its full self until you are just about at its walls. The spruce are tall and the tiny Spaulding Lake proves the only vantage point from the floor during this time of year. When I worked my way around the lake I got a glimpse of ‘Wait Until Dark’ Gully. It begged me forth. I knew reaching the entrance would be no easy task. I was proved wrong, it was much harder than I imagined. Giant truck-sized boulders were scattered among thick spruce. Enormous crevasses littered themselves between boulders. The terrain was so difficult I couldn’t fathom enough snow falling to fill it all in. I thought about turning around several times, but each time I dreaded going back more than I dreaded continuing forward. It took me almost two hours from once I left the trail until I crawled to the start of the ice begging for mercy.
My spirits lifted when I saw the gully filled with beautiful solid ice. For a full length pitch, I enjoyed a continuous flow of grade 2 ice. I fell into my rhythm of swings and kicks, focused solely on ice in front of me. Occasionally, some ice would break loose and fall away, echoing as it hit into the rocks. A reminder of the vast amphitheater that I was climbing in. At times, the wind would funnel down the gully, picking up snow and swirling it in a cold dance towards me. I lowered my head and let it pass each time. The wind tried to push me backward, as if I did not belong. But I knew I did, at least for this brief while. A short steep step led me to the upper ice which was at a lower angle with a few short bulges. I stopped more frequently here and took in my surroundings. Eventually the ice relented to a rock and vegetation finish. I hit the Mt. Clay summit loop trail immediately when I topped out, as it hugs the lip of the gulf.
I never saw anyone all day and nor would I during the night and majority of the next day. Now I stood on the summit of Mt. Clay with no one else in sight on the ridge. I sat down in a wind-sheltered area and looked back at where I had come from. I couldn’t think of my time in the gulf spent any other way. It had granted me my solitude. It was as it was meant to be. I imagined the entirety of the Great Gulf as it expanded, shuttered, and devoured the nearby peaks. I imagined the Great Gulf as it swallowed me too.
Photographs by Courtney Ley (click on images to enlarge)
All it took was a few days of cold weather to set the stage for the start of the ice climbing season. October ice is so sweet!
Alfonzo, Katie Ives and I figured the best bet for ice would be King Ravine. The aspect is perfect for early season ice. We were right. Not a lot of ice, but real ice climbing. Courtney and Joel also found good ice to climb in King Ravine.
Climbike and partner climbed Odell’s Gully with “Psychological pro only”. They reported climbers on Yale as well.
The Black dike was climbed Saturday by Max Lurie and Helon Hoffer under very marginal conditions.
Pinnacle gully was climbed Saturday by Gaddshady and partner, they found “tenuous ice and dry tooling”.
Lets hope things keep going. The forecast is for cold temps this week which will add to the ice conditions. Next weekend we bring in November. The ice is right on schedule and no warm weather in sight. YES!
The Great Gulf is a massive area shroud with mystery. In the early years of hiking for many of us here in the White Mountains, the huge drainage of the West Branch Peabody River, the “Great Gulf Wilderness” was a place filled with intrigue. The remote drainage with its many tributaries, gulfs & ravines holds something almost lost to us here in the New Hampshire. And is a place that harbors silence and a true feeling of being alone. Experiencing this area in summer or winter, total responsibility for one’s actions is paramount. This is especially true during the winter months. However, it is during this time when one perceives the rare peacefulness that resides here. A peacefulness so complete, a single bird singing a short song goes right to the heart. During all of my time spent out in the winter months, I try to mimic the quiet of this season. A small and perhaps vain attempt at keeping human noise out no matter where I am. Often I think to myself, this is what goes on, all the time, when I am not here. I’m just a blip on the screen in this environment and attempt to have my passage go unnoticed.
On the East Face of Mt. Adams, glowering above Madison Gulf resides a cliff. The ice that hangs in various lengths and hues of psychedelic colours off this wall offer wonderful climbing in a wilderness setting. At the end of a day your body will be tired and the mind satisfied with all it had seen. This is especially true if the summit of Adams is reached after the ice climbing is over. Madison Gulf is a climbing area that will not appeal to everyone. The approach and descent, the weather, ice and the mountain itself are all ingredients that make this a very satisfying day for those that come here.
I’ve been into the Gulf many times, via both aspects of approach, the East and the West. For the past four years my preferred approach is from the West via the Valley Way Trail in Randolph. Not only is this way going to be packed to the col, it’s skiable and lends itself to summit Adams as a finish to the climbing and subsequent descent. My last time in via the Great Gulf/Madison Gulf Trails in 2009, took 7 hours just to get to the ice. It was a beautifully epic day that opened my eyes to put away the guide book and approach from another direction, one that made sense to me. Check out the Post here.
Milage to the ice, with ether choice is close. However the time may not be. The Western approach, the Valley Way is ~4.7. The Eastern, Great Gulf/Madison Gulf trails about ~5.3. The key to the approach for the Great Gulf Trail is a lean snow year or early season. Alternatively, catching the Valley Way tracked to the col. can happen almost anytime. To each their own, I’ll not say one is better than the other, it all depends on what you seek. The Valley Way is faster and can have complete solitude, that is if you leave early enough. It also has the wonderful terrain of the Madison-Adams col. The beauty of Star Lake and passing the craggy Parapet en-route to the descent could be a destination in itself. The Great Gulf Trail feels remote after the first bridge. The river sings almost throughout the entire hike and you’ll pass through some of the states most beautiful forest and countryside.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
The day after an excellent session of lift service skiing, Doug and I are on the Valley Way Trail. In a few hours we are at the Madison-Adams col. The fog and stillness join together to create an eerie, though appealing environment. Our view of the ice from the Parapet is not available for fog is dropping like a heavy veil over the mountains face.
I kept the descent on the high side, not wanting to get drawn too low. And though the visibility and snow conditions were less then perfect, in little time we came to the northern most route, Point du Pinceau. A traverse along the base brought us to our destination. The line of Point is the longest on the cliff. This is the best route to do if one is not rappelling and continuing on by ether traversing off via the Buttress Trail back to the col or upward to the summit of Adams, Point gets you closer to both of these two exits.
The ice is perfect. The large flow was a cascade of movement caught and frozen in a kaleidoscope of colours. We climbed side by side until a headwall of steeper ice at one third height. Here we climbed through a weakness one at a time. Above, the ice was like an azure sea with islands of white sand. It flowed upwards, lapping like the tide into a green mainland of stunted trees.
The snow through the trees was airy and deep, snowshoes were once again required. After crossing the Buttress trail which runs from Star Lake down into the Great Gulf, we continued up an unseen mountain looming above. Part way to the summit the snow became firm and the rime iced rocks more exposed. We stopped in the surreal landscape, packed the snowshoes and took a tea break. The fog was thick and the wind light and we took the wonderful atmosphere into our souls.
The summit came to us like the face of a wraith out of the fog and after a quick handshake we were off. The Airline Trail drops off the top and after a half mile merges with the Gulfside Trail. We followed this back to the col and flowed like liquid back down the Valley Way.
Reanimating areas and climbs is my passion. I look at Madison Gulf as a challenging way to summit Mt. Adams. The unusual weather we had, the constant changing of ice and conditions made this another wonderful experience. Grades did not matter and without any expectations of what lay before us, this was about experiencing an amazing area and climbing a mountain, pure and simple.
Another great link-up when the snow is just right is that of King Ravine to Madison Gulf. Here is the link to a post from 2009. Link
Thanks to all for taking the time to read this. And thank you to Doug for being there.
This is an interactive map. Zoom in, out, click and drag to move for more terrain. Also click balloons for info.
“High And Dry” ( erroneously named Woodman/Dorcy in my post Spirit, the names of the FA team) is an excellent introduction to the wonderful climbing in Franconia Ridge back country. The approach up the Dry River is straight froward and easy. Depending on conditions of course. One starts this adventure by parking at the Old Bridle Path/ Falling Waters Trailhead, the same parking lot for Lincoln’s Throat.
In a short distance (.2m) turn right on to the Falling Waters trail. Hike this trail for ~ 1.5 miles until the last brook crossing ( L to R side) and then follow the Dry Brook directly to the base of the slide. The finish of this climb is on the Franconia Ridge just south of Lincoln’s summit, where it gets craggy at the little detached tower. This section of ridge is one of the most aesthetic in the state.
Friday 2.8.13 , on the toes of the oncoming snowstorm, Ted Hammond and I got into this beautiful drainage and slide before it turned into a expert BC ski run. What applies to some bc climbs applies here, High & Dry is best done early season or during a lean snow year.
Of note, this is also a great summer hike. With the climbing on the slabs in the 5.4 range, and many finishing options on the cliffs guarding the Franconia Ridge.
Below is a slideshow of our day, enjoy.
It’s the ice fest weekend. During this event many think every route in the White Mountains will be crowded. This is not the case, that is if you know what to do and when. The rains came just 24 hours before the official start to the fest, and once again many were lamenting.
However, with the impending invasion of low temperatures, my friends and I saw the opportune time open up for many routes.
The Canadian air arrived Thursday night, with Friday dawning sunny and cold. We decided on Mt. Willard, totally alone excellent ice was found. Knowing Saturday would be busy we went for the dawn patrol mission of Shoestring Gully on Mt. Webster. The cold was doing it’s work on the mountain.
The ice on Mt. Webster was in fine shape. Now it was Sunday and time for something long, adventurous and completely new. Starting at the same spot as Central Couloir and taking off left, the line of Fools Paradise fit perfectly. Enjoy the slideshow below of this wonderful route. Suffice it is to say, the start is rarely in, but it is now.
Mt. Webster, Crawford Notch NH
Photos by Alan Cattabriga & Doug Millen