Not as gnarly as Rbirk's - We pretty much lolled around the bunkhouse all day. Here's the report, more for a general audience than NEClimb's but perhaps you'll enjoy it:
The use of two ice axes is generally recommended for ascending steep ice, and the sight and sound of my ax bouncing down the climb was so unwelcome that for a moment I hoped I was imagining it.
This was day three of my late February trip to Baxter State Park, in the company of my nephew and climbing partner Philip Walsh and our guide, Kevin Mahoney. On day one we’d skied twelve miles from Abol Gate to the Roaring Brook bunkhouse, pulling our gear sleds. The temperature was a mild 30 degrees, the snow was forgiving and the trip was over in five hours. The next day we stashed our skis and hauled the sleds two and a half miles and two thousand vertical feet to Chimney Pond, where we settled into the bunkhouse. Later we did a few pitches of WI 4 climbing on the fat blue ice of the Pamola Ice Cliffs.
That night we saw three head lamps moving uncertainly down the Pamola ridge. Those climbers got down to their lean-to about 10:30, in good order after summiting.
The next day we were up at 5 and out at 6, headed for the Gallery Route on Baxter Peak. It was minus 8 degrees, breezy even at Chimney Pond, and a little snowy. I hadn’t climbed in such cold weather and foolishly chose to wear my soft shell instead of a hard shell parka. The soft shell is good gear, a North Face Kishtwar that has kept me comfortable on many climbs, but it doesn’t fully block a strong wind and I was cold all day. Lesson learned.
The lower pitches of the Gallery involve some WI 3 ice and it was at a belay station at the top of these that I dropped my ax. I had goggles on, couldn’t really see the ax hanging on my gear clipper, and while feeling for it off it came. I never felt it get away and hence I literally could not believe what I was seeing as the ax bounced down the climb.
There was still lots of ice to come, but Kevin modified the route and I was able to ascend. Climbing with one ax puts a premium on solid feet and centered climbing, and I was very happy for the single ax training Adam George gave me at the ice festival in North Conway earlier in the month.
When we started the climb it was with no real expectation of summiting in such brutal cold and wind. As we completed pitch after pitch, and on easier terrain made time simu-climbing, the ridge grew nearer and the summit seemed attainable. We topped out into strong winds and tagged the summit. It was Philip’s first ascent of Baxter Peak in any season and he did it in fine style.
Then we rappelled, 13 or 14 pitches. Anyone who has ever taken a ropes course has rappelled, and it can be fun and exciting to lean back and ride the rope down. Rappelling pitch after pitch in bitter weather is another matter. It is slow – the rope is only 160 feet long, and after each rappel an anchor is built, each member ties in as he arrives at the anchor, the ropes are pulled down from above and tossed down the route, and each climber sets up his rappel device, before the descent can continue. All day long we’d worked hard to keep our hands warm, and with the pauses I was beginning to lose the battle. My warm gloves are pretty warm – Black Diamond Soloists – but by this point they were dampish and ineffective. The alternative, deep in my pack, was a pair of very warm down mittens, a North Face prototype the company developed for an Antarctic expedition. I’d bought them years ago in the Freeport outlet, had never worn them in earnest, and often wondered if they were worth the carrying.
Mittens make for a useless climber, but so does frostbite, and I pulled out the mittens and activated the chemical warmers I had stuffed into the mittens for just such a situation. Soon I could feel all my fingers again. As I type this several days later, a pinkie and a middle finger are just a bit numb at the tips. My feet did fine, thanks to the La Sportiva Baruntses Rick Wilcox sold me before the 2013 Baxter trip.
We finally neared the bottom, picking up dropped gear as we went: a sling, a screw, a ‘biner – and my ax, which I about kissed. For the rest of the trip we were more careful and dropped nothing.
We were on the climb eleven hours and the bunkhouse, with its huge woodstove, was very welcome. We had hot soup laced with melting cubes of cheese, and Scotch whiskey, and smoked salmon on buttered crackers, and then dinner. Of the seven others in the bunkhouse, none had gained the ridge.
On last year’s trip I slept badly. This year I brought a full length Thermarest pad and, an inspiration, my wife’s rectangular LL Bean flannel lined sleeping bag. The bag is good only to maybe 45 but the bunkhouse is warm and I slept much better than when I was cocooned in a tight and over-warm mummy bag.
Breakfast, as most mornings, was fried bagels with cream cheese and bacon, and Starbuck’s Via instant coffee. Then we were off on one of the great Baxter routes, the Chauvin-Cole. It was still cold – minus 4 at the ranger station – but the wind was light and there seemed to be some sun. More importantly, we had our clothing dialed. This time I wore, as before, three fairly light poly shirts under a Patagonia Nanopuff, but this time I added my Wild Things hard shell parka over my hard shell bib pants, and I was comfortable all day. One of the shirts was a Patagonia R1 hoody, and if you don’t own one and want to be comfy in the mountains, you’ll want one. Of course I had something really warm in my pack, a Northface Nuptse puffy, but never needed it.
The Chauvin-Cole delivered, both aesthetic and challenging. The crux pitch was a face of rock coated in verglass. The verglass was impossible, and Kevin tried a corner on the right but it wouldn’t go so he traversed left on a very skinny ledge to another corner system and got up it. The pitch was difficult to protect – the corner had too much ice for rock gear yet hardly enough for a screw - but 20 feet above the ledge Kevin managed to get in a stubby. He said later if he hadn’t been able to place the screw he’d have backed off, and that would have been the route.
Philip went, in good fashion, and then it was my turn. Just getting out on the ledge was touchy. The verglass was right in front of my nose, half an inch of ice, perfectly clear and every detail of the granite visible, and absolutely useless for an ax. (I tried.) So it was just shuffle out, no hands, all feet and balance, the ledge snowy so you really didn’t know what your feet were on or if you could kick for a bit of purchase. I just about slipped off a couple of times. Sure, I was on belay, but still.
I gained the corner and started up. Ideally in ice climbing your feet and axes make a stable triangle, feet a foot or so apart and more or less level, the axes overhead one over the other, the third point of the triangle. On this skinny corner, my feet were on top of each other or maybe one crampon was scratching rock in a useless attempt at a stem, and axes were equally matched and trying for purchase in bad ice or a crack. It was no good and three feet up I came off and with rope stretch ended up below the ledge. So I had to climb back up and then I still had this pitch to confront, the score already Pitch 1, Walsh 0. If I’d been at the crag top-roping it might have been “Lower me!”, but that was a poor option given the circumstances and with great effort and little style I managed to get up. I even cleaned the gear. Some pitch – felt like the hardest I’ve done.
From that point there were some more belayed pitches and simu-climbing and before too long we were at the summit ridge. It was nearly a whiteout but the temperature seemed more moderate, although when we were down we saw the temps still were sub-zero. We were acclimatizing, I think. We found and followed the Cathedral Trail and at the Third Cathedral traversed right, into the steep snow below our ascent. I generally feel at home on steep snow – that’s what got me into this business, in Tuckerman’s Ravine years ago - and I much prefer it to a rocky icy trail negotiated with crampons. The snow dropped us down the mountain fast and ninety minutes later we were filling water bottles at Chimney Pond.
We were spent, and for the next day there was talk of cragging some of the lower ice climbs – the Waterfall, the ice below Cilley-Barber, and so on. But Kevin suggested Steel Monkey, a moderate snow and ice route that departs left from the Chimney about half way up, and that was perfect. The initial pitch was glassy, brittle and steep, and after that the route got easier. It ended in a pitch of mixed climbing, with all the interesting techniques called for when climbing icy rock with axes and crampons. We walked off on the Pamola Trail, which this year has enough ice and snow on it to make it less than an ordeal. En route at 8, at the bunkhouse before 3, and minus 10 when we got off the climb. It was getting colder!
Minus 15 the next morning, our last. As is usual, we skied the 16 miles out to the road in one day, and with some fresh snow it took us only 5 ½ hours. It was hard though – it had been a hard six days.
Next year I’ll bring some BD Guide gloves, and better lunches. This year I depended on Cliff bars and candy for calories en route, and that’s just not enough in such cold. I had bought some wraps, butter and chicken sausages but left them at home, and a sausage in a thickly buttered wrap would have fueled me much better than a 250 cal Cliff bar. Gets cold up there.