This past Friday I had Syed and Thomas for the last day of a 3 Day Mountaineering course with Northeast Mountaineering. On the first day they had learned some of the basics with me at the North End of Cathedral Ledge. On the second day they had a great day on Mount Washington getting less than a quarter mile from the summit (sometimes the weather gods just say “not today”). For their last day we took on a multi-pitch alpine climb, the classic “Hitchcock Gully” on Mt. Willard in Crawford Notch State Park.
Almost a foot of snow had fallen the day before so I was grateful to see a party had broken trail from the parking lot and we made our way to the start of the climb. After roping up we short-roped and short-pitched our way up to the more technical climbing.
The first 5th class pitch was quite standard with a smidge of funky ice at the choke. I had been following fresh boot-prints until this point but right above the choke they disappeared into a small avalanche debris pile. After setting up an anchor in the first bomber ice on route I took a look at the small crown and guessed it was probably triggered by the climbers who had just proceeded us. While this was a very small slab avalanche on the “Destructive Size” scale it was big enough to sweep a climber off their feet.
This is something ice climbers who solo our local alpine gullies should keep in mind especially after a foot of fresh snow has just dropped. While the danger had passed probably less than an hour earlier now that the small slab had released, two climbers who caught up to us decided to solo the first pitch despite having a rope and a party of three directly ahead of them. While they climbed efficiently they still had to wait 20 minutes for us to finish the rock pitch…so… why not pitch out the first pitch when we have a NWS avalanche warning in effect? You got nothing to lose and might as well bust out that rope you are hauling especially if you’re going to have to wait a few minutes for the party ahead of you.
After finishing Lower Hitchcock we made our way up to the start of Upper Hitchcock. There were some climbers on East Face Slabs Right but we didn’t make contact so I could not confirm if they were the party that triggered the small slab. Upper Hitchcock looked great!
The climbing was great with good ice and comfy temps. Soon after leading the first long pitch we were all at the anchor and ready to climb the last bit of fun ice at the top.
As I topped out I noticed the trail was not broken so we would be doing a little bit of “wallowing”. The pow was so fresh that it was one of the easier bushwhacks to the summit I can recall when breaking trail.
We enjoyed the summit for a few minutes before quickly booting it down the nicely packed out Mt. Willard Trail (thank you snowshoes for packing that thing out minutes after a Nor’Easter’!)
My first day on Willard this year and a great reminder of what an awesome place it is to climb!
Before I wrap up this quick trip report a quick PSA. This is shaping up to be a banner winter recreation season. If your hobbies take you into steep snow covered terrain, you need to be thinking about avalanches. They don’t just happen on Mount Washington. They don’t have to be big enough to bury you to cause injury. Anywhere you go on snow that is over 35 degrees could be avalanche terrain. Even being on flat terrain under this steeper terrain can be a risk.
Know Before You Go!
There is more avalanche education available this season than there ever has been! Take advantage of that and take a course, or a refresher, THIS YEAR!
Don’t wait for a close call (or worse).
Some important resources:
And if you want to take an avalanche course with me we are almost sold out. Please check the dates here to see what is left this winter:
If you book a course through the above link use “DavidNEM” at checkout for a chance to win a free custom guided day of your choice (ski tour, ice climb, snow pit work, companion rescue, you name it!).
See you in the mountains,
Northeast Alpine Start