A Rare Treat in New England Leaves Winter Enthusiasts Wondering if it was Really a Mean Trick….Article by Rich Palatino
It was only slightly over a week ago that I found myself sitting above Reppy’s Crack. While bringing up my partner, I couldn’t help but wonder when old Jack Frost would once again make his return to the Northeast. It was nearing the end of October and we had yet to see much in the way of typical Fall temperatures. With the exception of one frosty Saturday, it seemed that September was actually quite tropical this year! That one cold, clear morning just happened to coincide with a planned Presidential Traverse. Given the weather forecast that weekend, I remember being quite torn between climbing in the Valley or spending time with friends while enjoying our annual ridge walk. As it turned out, the season’s first measurable snow mixed with a fine layer of verglas, and the always-mesmerizing rime ice formations silenced my unrest as soon as we began our little walk. With pleasing hints all around, I was able to muster up some hope for an early winter. We enjoyed lunch just below Mt. Clay and I couldn’t help but laugh at the grief I caused myself as I debated the value of hiking up high versus climbing down low. Winter was obviously on the way and, as you know, winter makes everything better! Still, while it was wintry above treeline, the first frost in town was still weeks away!
Back on Cannon, it was getting to be mid-afternoon, the sun already low in the sky and heading towards the massive curtain created by the cliff itself. The temperature was dropping and a light wind was picking up from the west. As my second feverishly cleaned the route, I watched as a helicopter made multiple trips over Franconia Ridge, payloads dangling perilously below. No doubt, transporting supplies and other material to and from the Greenleaf Hut.
I was happy to be out for a casual run up a classic pitch on a reasonably warm, dry day that could have been easily mistaken for Sendtember instead of Rocktober. I had spent the weekend volunteering at the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine work weekend. It was good to get out on the rock and stretch the muscles after two days of hard work at Hermit Lake.
As I often do, I had to take a moment to appreciate my surroundings. Despite there not being anyone in ear shot, I felt it necessary to express out loud how fortunate I feel in being able to pursue my passion for the outdoors as a climber. On this day, I was in my own backyard, but I felt like the privilege of such vertical access brought me to another world – a place where I can just exist. No need to question a damn thing. Nothing mundane anyway. Not about the life I’m leading or all the things I have to get done before too long. The focus involved in climbing really is a wonderful escape.
While enjoying the moderate temperature and the warm, setting sun, I take up more rope and wonder, “When the hell is it gonna snow?”. I distinctly remember thinking, “It’s going to be a warm Halloween!”. Over the past few years, my Girlfriend, Marcia, and I brought back a childhood tradition of mine by spending Halloween in the historic and festive Salem, Massachusetts. It is normally a bone-chilling experience, depending on your attire for the evening. At that point, it seemed that this year might be different. Little did I know there was a low-pressure weather system about to develop somewhere in southern latitudes that would soon begin its track North.
As if choreographed by ski bums on high, the storm would send warm, moist air from the southern gulf regions crashing into much colder air sucked down from the north. As we now know, this act of meteorological ballet produced an early season weather event that wreaked havoc on millions, but provided a rare, early-season surprise for those of us who love all things winter!
I must say, the early season ice came in right on time. I was anxious to maybe get a first ascent of the season. Marcia and I brought our ice tools with us for the Tux work weekend. We hoped that with temperatures flirting near the freezing mark, we might be able to sneak away early one morning and sink our picks into something cold and refreshing. Unfortunately, day and nighttime temperatures stayed right around 38º all weekend. As freezing rain and snow fell upon us occasionally while we worked, a welcomed sight for sure, we knew there would be no early season adventures for us. Not that weekend…..
Flash forward a week. I found myself back at Pinkham ready for another work-filled Saturday somewhere on the Tux Trail. Temperatures in the higher elevations had been holding below the freezing mark for a couple of days at that point. I had heard that Huntington Ravine’s Damnation Gully, the go-to early season alpine route, had been climbed on Friday so I was anxious to get out exploring for myself. All the hype about the impending snowstorm the night before had kept me up later then I would have liked, resulting in the all-too-familiar “Mount Washington Alpine Start”. I left Pinkham around 8 AM. Up the Tux Trail and across the Fire Road leading to the ravine, I followed fresh fox tracks past Harvard Cabin. The cabin has been my winter home for the last couple of seasons and a home away from home for anyone looking to spend some quality time on Mt. Washington.
I was at the base of the Ravine by 10 AM. The sky was cobalt blue, the temperature still plenty cold, and from the height of land, I peered into the Ravine for the first time this season. Up until that point, I wasn’t certain if I would climb anything, but I was excited to get a closer look. I headed farther up the trail and into the talus. The small amount of snow that had fallen earlier in the week remained light and fluffy, signaling stable temperatures over the last few days. Good for consistent ice conditions, whatever the thickness. I could also tell there were at least a couple of climbers ahead of me. No surprise, given the beautiful weekend weather and my late start. In any case, both clues offered a bit of comfort. Especially if my walk in the woods proved to be more productive than expected.
I followed the summer trail high up into the talus- eventually breaking off to the right, heading towards
the center of the ravine. Once I got a view of Pinnacle, I must say, it was tempting but the high rate of flowing water was more than enough to turn my head to the north. Central was doable, but the exposure would have been too sustained for a solo climb. Harvard Bulge was forming nicely. Classic icicles begged to be climbed, but they were young and there wasn’t much above them except for the two climbers I followed into the Ravine. They were on a frozen turf expedition approaching the mouth of Diagonal Gully. I couldn’t tell if they were proper climbers or two unfortunate souls who thought it might be a good day to follow the Huntington Ravine Trail up and over the headwall – more reason why I decided I would climb elsewhere.
I looked over to the bottom of Damnation. Of course, given my vantage point, I couldn’t see the portions of the route above the start. I knew it would probably go, but that was only more time in the talus and it was already getting late. I decided I would take an up-close look at the Yale Slabs to get an idea of the quality of ice and how it was bonding down low. Bushwhacking just a bit, I was dreaming of the day, not too far from then, when I would be able to boot all the way up the ravine floor. I was also reliving a nightmare of a bushwhack to the Taber Wall in Baxter State Park over Columbus Day Weekend. Having endured the talus of the Katahdin’s North Basin, this was pure pleasure! Besides, in many ways, I was home in Huntington Ravine and on Mount Washington! It was going to be a great day, even if I didn’t climb.
Once at the base, I grabbed my helmet and a tool and made my first swing of the season. Plasticky and Yummy! The ice down low was an interesting combination of ice, snow, and frozen spray….just what you might expect for the end of October. I got good purchase with the tool….good enough for the slope angle anyway. I decided to kick my toes in, sans crampons, just to see what would happen. I got up about a body length, down climbed, and decided it was time to send. I was stoked!!!
Though I felt badly about not helping with the trail work that day, I selfishly put on my harness and spikes, and racked up. I was carrying a few pieces of protection and a 30 meter rope in case I needed to bail. Needless to say, at that point I was feeling pretty good about finishing the route. After about two body lengths, the ice quality improved greatly. Having enough ice on the first “Pitch” to get into good rhythm was awesome! There is something soothing about the methodical progression up an ice route. After about 70 feet or so, the slab angle decreased and I stood there looking across the valley into the Carter-Moriah Range, the trails of Wildcat Ski Area painted white with the week’s dusting of snow. It was October 29th and I was getting in some legitimate ice climbing; I thought to myself, “Winter is almost here!”
Above the first pitch, the route stair-cased higher and higher towards the summit with interesting ice at every “step”. Only once did I wander onto something a little too thin for my comfort. At another point, I had to remove a glove to make a smearing hand move up onto some turf. I love the flinty, almost sulfur-like, smell the spikes make when scratching the surface of the rock. Well, I should say, I love it in October.
I took my time the first day out. The temps were moderate, there was zero wind, and the ravine was calm and quiet. I spent more time than not on decent, early season ice. I topped out around 1:30. The bluebird skies had given way to overcast conditions. An occasional light breeze, maybe 5 MPH, brushed across my face. With the atmosphere so calm, I knew precipitation was a sure bet, and it was even getting colder! I hadn’t put much hope into the prediction for a major snow storm, but I started to think there might be some validity to the hype.
Back in town around 4 PM, I was in the car and heading for ground zero: the northern Berkshires of Massachusetts and the southern Green Mountains of Vermont seemed to be in the cross-hairs for this storm. As I made it to the southern limits of town, the snowflakes started to fall in the Mount Washington Valley. I was planning on intercepting a snowstorm and became concerned that I might be shooting myself in the lead-foot for driving all that way for conditions that could be just as good in the Whites. It only took a few phone calls for me to realize that a major winter storm was already affecting much of the northeast, especially Western New England. As a good friend put it around 7PM that night, “The snow on my porch is already 2.5 PBR cans deep!!!!”
So, was it a trick or a treat??? We’ll just have to wait and see. If we are graced with snow in November, I will say it was a real treat. If we’re still rock-hopping in February, I’ll call it a real mean trick. In any case, I got my fix last weekend and can now wait patiently for the real onset of winter. Until then, enjoy the remainder of rock season!