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I hope you all had a nice holiday. It was a great one up here in the Valley. The north country got a white Christmas, just as many of us asked for. I supposed the adage, be careful what you ask for, surely applies as we are now getting our first real Nor'easter of the season with pretty close to a foot of white stuff on the ground. Those of us who wondered if winter was going to show it's face this year, have had that question put to rest.
As I've (unfortunately repeatedly) pointed out over the past 6 weeks, while the ice has been slow to form in the usual places like Frankenstein this winter, there has been ice to climb in some places. On Christmas eve day my friend Martin and I decided it would be fun to check out Mt. WIllard and in particular Hitchcock Gully and the upper tier. I figured that at the least we should be able to slog our way up Lower Hitchcock, get over to the Left Hand Monkey Wrench and then find something interesting to climb on the upper tier.
As I rode up through Crawford Notch to meet him I noticed that there still was pretty minimal ice in the Frankenstein Amphitheater and even Standard Route didn't look all that great. In addition, the scenic overlook and lower parking lot at Frankenstein had still not been plowed, nor had the one at Willies. Fortunately however, the lot at the top of the Notch was clear when I arrived at 8:45 and there were already a number of cars in the lot. Walking down the tracks we could see the tracks of several parties in front of us. I noticed that some older tracks headed straight up the hill below the North Slab. I'd heard that it was getting done and wasn't in back shape. When we arrived at the start of Hitchcock several tracks headed up and several continued down the tracks. We geared up and followed up the gully.
I've done this so many times and frankly it wasn't in very good shape. There was a lot of rock and open running water and not a whole lot of ice. Needless to say I much prefer it when I can just kick-step up at least to the Monkey Wrench cutoff, not putting on my crampons until I have to actually climb some actual ice. This time it was just a real mess so we went ahead and put them on at the bottom. The party in front of us continued straight up the gully where we headed over to the Wrench, following an older track. As always the talus field below the big face was annoying without a lot of snowpack in it. When we got to the Monkey Wrench I was pleased to see that it had filled in a bit compared to what I had heard about from friends the week before. We geared up and I climbed it to the tree ledge, enjoying the simple act of swing the tools into reasonable ice. Martin followed quickly and as he started climbing another party came up behind him. A busy day it was on Mt Willard.
As we started up through the upper talus toward the cliff band I noticed a lower trail had been beat-out heading up and right in the direction of the Cleft. Since this was our ultimate destination I gave it a follow. Unsurprisingly it came out of the trees just left of the Cleft. I love the Cleft as it's a really unique feature and can often look like some Tolkien-like fairy land. Before we headed up in there I noticed some interesting ice on the face above and suggested we wander down the cliff-band a bit to check it out. There was a very interesting curtain that looked as if it was close to being doable, tho the start looked very thin and I didn't bring any rock gear. However, just around a small buttress was a very cool corner, looking much like a mini-Pinnacle Gully. I thought that this would be a lot more fun to climb, with actual fat ice and places to place, dare I say it, screws! I couldn't really see how the top-out was going to be but I figured it would likely be good turf, if nothing else.
I offered the lead to Martin, but as he hadn't climbed at all in a year he deferred to me. That was fine with me as I was itching to get on something that actually looked interesting. The start was blobby and thin, but I managed to get some good feet and sticks into plastic ice, making it a gas. I stayed left in the right-facing corner and it really felt nice. as always it's a bit steeper than it looks, but there were stances wherever I needed them and it was pure fun. There was an long thin icicle about halfway up that I managed not to even touch for fear it would break off and hit me on the head. 2 years ago I got bopped right in the face with a similar obstacle on Gully Number 1 making an unpleasant gash in my eyebrow and I was in no mood to repeat that!
At the top of the ice there was a very nice platform to stand on, but absolutely no ice for the 20+ feet up to the trees! Down at home in the Valley the ground wasn't very well frozen and I was a bit concerned that it would be the same, however a few test swings rewarded me with some very solid New England turf-shots. This made for a very happy camper. . . I continued on up to a clump of birches where someone had left a couple of slings and a screw-link. I didn't use the slings, but the trees felt OK so I slung a cordelette around them and brought Martin up. He was grumbling about his climbing abilities, but considering how rarely he climbs I thought he did great!
We discussed rapping down the climb and then keeping going all the way back down to the tracks, but for some reason the idea of bushwhacking over to the Upper Hitchcock walk-off and then down the regular Willard hiking trail seemed more appealing. Of course that rapidly went bye-the-bye as we pushed and scrunched our way through the dense trees and blowdown over to the connector. At one point we were right along the edge of the Cleft and we could hear another party below us. We finally reached the connector and made our way to the regular hiking trail. Just as we came out a couple who were out for a hike came by. They were the first of many we folks we say on our hike down. The Mt. Willard trail is one of the more popular winter hikes in the area. It's quite moderate and since the AMC does guided snowshoe hikes up there several times as well, it is almost always well packed out. Heck, it is so well packed I'll be you could ride it on a bike with studded tires!
We got back to the car happy and grinning from the day. It was just about as prefect a time as we could have asked for, a great day in the mountains with a good companion. It doesn't get a whole lot better than that!
There is still ice to climb in many places right now, but with the warm temps and rain coming that’s going to change quickly over the next week. I would expect that the Frankenstein Amphitheater will become problematic pretty soon. Even as big and fat as Standard Route is, it is in the full sun all day so it’s getting beat up. Climbs like Dracula, the North End of Cathedral, Lost In The Forest, Upper Hitchcock and various things in the shade will last longer of course. We’re moving into the best time for climbing on Mt Washington for the next 3-4 weeks. That said, it’s time to think about rock season folks.
Be sure to check the Ice Report Page for the full assortment.
20th Anniversary Mt. Washington Valley Ice Festival:
Believe it or not, you should be putting Ice Fest 2012 on your calendar. This year it's this February 1-3. Plans are already afoot and you can read about them here - http://icefest.blogspot.com/. If I were you I'd get your hotel accommodations in place 'cause this is going to be a big one!
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