Mount Washington, Willard, and Elephant’s Head… my winter guiding season finally begins!

This weekend kicks off the start of my winter guiding season. Yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a motivated father & son team from Connecticut up Mount Washington in some of the thinnest conditions I have ever seen this late in December. Despite the absence of snow we had a pretty enjoyable climb with comfortable weather and some great views.

Connor and his father, Thomas
Connor and his father, Thomas
Crossing the Cutler River for the second time
Crossing the Cutler River for the second time
Climbing through the clouds Boot Spur Ridge appears behind us
Climbing through the clouds Boot Spur Ridge appears behind us
Summer Lion's Head Trail
Summer Lion’s Head Trail
Just Below Lion's Head
Just Below Lion’s Head
A group ahead of us climbing up to Lion's Head
A group ahead of us climbing up to Lion’s Head
Reaching Lion's Head
Reaching Lion’s Head
Tuckerman Ravine looking pretty bony for mid-December
Tuckerman Ravine looking pretty bony for mid-December
Nearing Split Rock with Lion's Head below in the fog
Nearing Split Rock with Lion’s Head below in the fog

We made it all the way to the lower summit parking lot before needing to don our micro-spikes for the final 100 yards (that parking lot is an ice skating rink).

Clear skis as we reach the lower parking lot and for the first time need traction
Clear skis as we reach the lower parking lot and for the first time need traction
Obligatory summit shot
Obligatory summit shot
Our route
Our route

Today I had 3 guests for a Winter Climbing 101 Course. It’s no secret Mother Nature has dealt us a sub-par hand in terms of “winter” conditions, but John, Mitzy, and Tom were still enthusastic about what we could accomplish and with a little thinking “outside the box” we put together a pretty productive day. We started the morning off in our new conference room where I shared some of the online resources for trip planning in the White Mountains. Namely, HikeSafe, the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast and Regional Mesonet, and CalTopo.

We then had a gear shakedown looking at differences in ice axes & crampons before packing up and heading north to Crawford Notch. I knew Willey’s Slide & other usual early season standby’s would still be questionable but we had a backup plan in place. Our drive through the Notch confirmed my suspicions regarding “climb-able” ice and we parked at the Mt. Willard Trail parking lot. After shaving the technical gear from our packs we hit the 1.6 mile trail up to Mt. Willard. While non-technical in nature we were able to go into detailed conversations regarding mountaineering concerns. Heat loss, cold weather injuries, altitude illness, navigation, avalanche awareness, mountain weather, layering strategies, were all discussed in detail. About an hour later we arrived at a socked in summit, just in time for a clearing while we enjoyed our lunch.

John & Mitzy on summit of Mt. Willard
John & Mitzy on the summit of Mt. Willard
Tom on Mt. Willard with Mt. Webster behind
Tom on Mt. Willard with Mt. Webster behind
Love that view
Love that view

We opted to wear micro-spikes for the descent and headed back down to the car. With a couple hours to spare, and wanting a bit more “technical” end to our day, we made our way over to Elephant’s Head. This .3 mile trail brought us up to the top of this 120 foot bluff where we all rappelled during intermittent snow squalls.

Rappelling the Elephant Head
Tom rappelling the Elephant Head
Our route
Our route

While we seem to be off to a rough start this year I want to put a little perspective on the situation. It’s true we had a great start last year with freak powder skiing on Halloween and a personal 11/20 ascent of Pinnacle in great conditions. But then we had a big December thaw with 3 days of rain towards the end of December which essential pushed the reset button on our winter. We then went on to have one of the best winter & ski seasons I have experienced since moving here in 2001. El Nino or not, I’m holding out hope that just like last winter our season is simply going to begin a bit later, but still be quite epic. The two new pairs of skis sitting in my closet sure do hope so!

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See you in the mountains!

-NEAlpineStart

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