Hunker down on the ground as an 80 mile per hour wind gust blasts you from the northwest. While you're down there pray. Pray to whatever it is you believe in; god, karma, the universe, fate. Pray that you don't lose any fingers or toes to the negative 60 degree windchill. Pray you don't get lost in a whiteout. Pray you don't get caught on the mountain after dark. Most importantly, pray that you come back alive. Welcome to Mt Washington, this is going to be the greatest week of your life.
Day 1 - February 14, 2014 Snow. Heavy at times. Windchill 15-25 below. Winds NW 70-80 mph with gusts up to 110 mph.
I wake up at 4:30 AM and head to the local hill to make some turns before my AIARE 2 class. It has snowed 14-18 inches over the past 30 hours. I reach the summit at 7AM and lay tracks in the fresh blanket of powder. When I show up for my course another attendee admits he woke up at 4AM to skin up a local mountain. Great minds think alike, I guess. We end the day by skinning up the cog rail on the west side of Mt Washington. The wind is so intense it has reduced the foot and a half of new snow to a couple of inches of wind buff. We ski down from 3600 feet in the fading light as it continues to dump.
Day 2 - February 15, 2014 In the clouds with a chance of snow in the afternoon. Wind chills rising to 5-15 below zero. Winds NW 20 mph gusting to 50 mph
We spend the afternoon performing full season snow profiles at the base of the cog rail. There is a weak layer of facets 40cm down that is easily failing under every compression test. It's unsettling to think this is what is underlying the snowpack up high in the steep alpine bowls. For the first time in years the east coast is dealing with a persistent weak layer. As we finish up it starts to snow again. More avalanche problems to deal with for our tour tomorrow.
Day 3- February 16, 2014 Steady northwest winds blowing in the 70-80 mph range, potentially gusting to over 100 mph, will make travel extremely difficult today. Wind chills will be 50-60 below on the summit. Low clouds will envelop the mountain for most of the day.
The avalanche danger is Considerable and the wind is brutal from the second we leave the parking lot. Our plan is to tour up to an area known as the Gulf of Slides and see if we can ascend any part of the main gully. When we arrive at the foot of the gully it is obscured by clouds. We can't tell where the pockets of fresh wind slab have been deposited. Our group discusses options for 10 or 15 minutes before succumbing to the 30 below wind chill and deciding to take a more conservative route. After bush whacking for 20 minutes we see evidence of two huge slides from the Friday storm. Each one is easily a size D3 avalanche having snapped trees and run full distance. We investigate the debris piles and then ski down to get out of severe cold.
Day 4 - February 17, 2014 Sunny skies and cold. Wind chills 55-65 below zero. Winds NW 60-70 mph gusting to 110mph.
Today is the day our group been waiting for. It's our last day together and we will finally be able to access the exposed terrain we love to ski. We skin up to Huntington Ravine on the east side of Mt Washington. The whole area has been majorly wind affected with a huge wind slab in the fan below all the main chutes. As we travel out onto the main slab we see a 300 foot tall snow tornado across the bowl. It sounds like a small airplane taking off. Our guide has never seen anything like it. It is the last snow tornado we will see all day since you can't see a tornado you're inside of. As we continue to boot pack up the 35 degree knife hard slab we are pounded again and again with snow tornado after snow tornado. Each time we drop to the ground and hunker down until it passes. I don't know what is going through the minds of my companions but if they are at all religious I hope they are praying. We travel halfway up the bowl to a protected area where we can dig a snow pit. This slab is rock solid. Any failures in our compression tests are moderate or hard with low quality fractures. The cold wind is continuing to hammer us as one of our group members toes goes numb. It's decision time and we decide to ski down. The turns should be glorious; steep, exposed, wind buffed, cold powder. But all we can really think of is getting off that god forsaken mountain and out of the cold.
I begin to question myself. Will I ever find what it is I came here looking for?
Day 5 - February 18, 2014 Clear early with snow developing this afternoon. Winds rising from 20-30 mph to 50-60 mph. Wind chills 20-30 below.
Today is the day I summit. I meet up with a friend and we decide today is the only day the conditions might permit us to reach 6200 feet. We decide to skin up the cog rail all the way to the summit and then ski down Amanoosuc ravine. Our plan is right on schedule, but it has begun to snow much earlier than forecasted. We reach an elevation of 4700 feet and an area known as Jacobs Ladder. The south wind is blowing through the truss of the cog rail so hard it sounds like an airplane is taking off. It's not the wind that bothers us so much as the snow loading onto the 30 plus degree slope we must traverse. The fresh wind slab looks to be several feet thick awaiting the perfect trigger. I step onto the left flank and a 25 foot shooting crack immediately propagates from my ski. I turn around and run, reaching a safe zone without incident. We dodged a bullet and I am simply thankful that I didn't kick off a slab avalanche. Our summit attempt is thwarted. Wind blown powder will have to suffice for the moment.
Day 6 - February 19, 2014 Mostly cloudy with snow developing this evening. Winds NW at 30-40 miles per hour will pick up in intensity gusting to over 120 miles per hour this evening and into the early morning hours. Wind chills overnight will drop to 45 to 55 below zero.
Today is a travel day. My companion and I ascend the Tuckerman Ravine Trail with 60 pound packs. We arrive at the Harvard cabin in time to meet the regular caretaker who is leaving for a funeral. In his stead his two friends will take care of the cabin. Skiing for the day is uneventful. Staying in the cabin at night is a throwback to everything that is glorious about mountain living. No phones. No internet. No running water. A wood fired stove and a shared living space dimly lit by gas lanterns and whatever light your headlamp can generate. We spend the evening swapping stories of adventure and passing time until we can fall asleep. The silence in this place is unbelievable. At 9 o'clock sleep comes swiftly.
Day 7 - February 20, 2014
The instant I wake up I know I'm about to have one of the best runs of my life. I was outside at 2AM for a bathroom break and the west wind was depositing the snow in deep heavy blankets. The entire cabin is awake by 7AM when the weather report comes in from the summit observatory over the HAM radio. The static makes it sound like they're a million miles away, and maybe they are. "Sunny skies with warming temperatures. Winds out of the Northwest at 60-70 miles per hour. Windchill rising to 10-20 below." Fifteen minutes later the snow ranger stops by for a chat. He lets us know that the danger rating for the day is considerable. The blowing snow will be loading approaches in the morning and start zones in the afternoon. I expected this would be the case and had already planned on staying below treeline. I gear up and skin for 10 minutes to the top of the Sherburne Ski Trail. I can see up into Tuckermans Ravine and it looks absolutely glorious. Blankets of snow covering the nastiest, steepest, rock exposed backcountry skiing terrain in the east. The mountain is teasing me, letting me know once again what I am missing out on. But today I don't take the bait. I know that what waits below is just as glorious as what waits above. I turn around and look at the Sherburne. There are no tracks in the 12 inches of wind deposited snow. There is no one behind me making me feel anxious to start. It's 8AM and the sun is shining. I feel the wind on my face. I hear the rustling of trees. I see the glimmer of sunlight on each fallen flake. I am part of the stillness of nature. Finally when the time is right, I drop in. Three turns in I know, without a doubt, that for the next 2 miles and 2000 vertical feet, I have found exactly what I came here looking for; The glory of the universe, the moment of creation... Absolute Bliss.