Mt. Washington via Henderson Ridge (5.4)

Posted on June 20, 2015 by Chris Lumens in alpine, climbing, hiking.

Elsewhere on this site, I’ve discussed how this was not going to be a place where I would discuss every single hike I went on, since there are plenty of places to get that kind of information. Instead, I was going to post more about lesser visited places and multi-sport adventures. Despite how busy Mt. Washington can be on a sunny summer day, our ascent still managed to fit these criteria perfectly.

Introduction

The planning for this trip started months ago. My friend frequent climbing partner Lon mentioned that his friend Katie had a goal of hiking Mt. Washington this year, and he further decided the best way to get her up it would be climbing in Huntington Ravine. We also picked up Kaitlyn from the climbing gym and Chris from Jackson WY, who was on the east coast for a couple weeks and looking for an adventure.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the area, let me explain it a little bit. Mt. Washington is the highest mountain in the northeast and has a significant amount of acerage and elevation above tree line. It can be a pretty inhospitable place during the fairly frequent bad weather, but there’s tons of trails on it and it’s a very popular hiking spot. On the east side of the mountain, there are two major ravines: Tuckerman Ravine, center of spring backcountry skiing, and Huntington Ravine which is more suited to climbing (both ice and rock). We’d be climbing on the north side of Huntington Ravine, across from the more popular Pinnacle buttress.

Approach

Chris and I got up at 5am and left my house to drive to Pinkham Notch, base for all adventures on the east side of Washington. We met Lon, Katie, and Kaitlyn in the parking lot at 8am. There were no clouds, it was pleasantly cool, and everyone was in great spirits even though we were each carrying either a 60m rope or a climbing rack in addition to all the usual hiking gear. We set off at a sustainable pace up the Tuckerman Ravine trail. I don’t find the bottom part of this trail fun at all. It’s steep, covered in rocks, and completely without views. Regardless, we made our way to the Huntington Ravine trail fairly shortly and took a break at the junction.

From here, the foot traffic died off significantly. Most hikers opt for going all the way up via Tuckerman Ravine due to some exposure and slabs on the Huntington Ravine trail. It’s one of the steepest and most exposed in the Whites, and most people who only hike are not at all comfortable on that terrain. Today, I think there were more people up there than normal because Tuckerman Ravine is still closed due to snow on the ravine headwall. The trail from this point on also looks a lot less like a rocky highway and more like a standard White Mountain trail. We got moving, but took a more substantial break at the first major river crossing to refill bottles, snack, reapply sunscreen, and so forth.

We covered the next mile-ish to the base of the climb at a much slower pace for several reasons: we were leap-frogging other hikers, the trail gets a lot steeper, there are very large boulders you have to navigate over and under, the bushwhack across the ravine floor threw a couple of us for a loop, and it took a while to get five people ready to climb. This is a picture from the last time I did this climb, but it shows the route in the very center:

For anyone interested in doing this climb, here’s how you get to the start:

The climb

Anyway, like I said, it took a long time to gear five people up for what’s inherently a two person activity. We arranged ourselves into two teams: Lon, Chris, and Katie were the first team with Lon doing all the leading. Kaitlyn and I were the second team, with her taking the first and last pitches.

First pitch

Lon’s team went off first and he climbed at a pretty brisk pace over easy, low-angle terrain.

He climbed up to almost out of site and set up an anchor just above some shrubs, then belayed Chris up. The first pitch basically ends when you run out of rope. I led this pitch previously and tried to set up an anchor at the shrubs, but the gear’s no good there and climbing maybe 10’ higher gives you a much better place.

This was Chris’s first time climbing on real rock and obviously his first time cleaning trad gear. We were able to outfit him with everything but rock shoes, but he didn’t really need them. From where I was standing at the bottom, there was only one move at the top of the first pitch that momentarily stumped him (and most everyone else). Anyway, he made the top and Katie followed. Immediately after Katie left the ground, Kaitlyn was right behind her placing gear and leading our two-person team.

Kaitlyn was slower, of course, because it takes a lot more time to place gear than it does to follow on top rope. She did a great job of sewing up the first pitch, though she did trend a bit left at one point which made things harder than they needed to be, and made it to the anchor. Lon has a lot of trad gear so he left his anchor there to speed things up, and he was already gone by the time Kaitlyn got to the top of the first pitch. I followed and didn’t have any difficulties.

Second pitch

Everyone was having a great time in a great setting. The wind was still light, there was no one around except for the occassional hiker on the trail far below, and we were on fun and easy rock. After a little while, Chris and Katie cleared out of the cramped belay station and I was free to take the lead. I’d never led the second pitch before, but it was also pretty easy. The first move is probably the most difficult one, and then you have a couple long periods of walking with occassional climbing moves. The next belay station is a big shelf underneath a dripping overhang. There was room for all of us to sit and eat and enjoy the view.

Third pitch

I took lead on the third pitch as well. This pitch immediately goes left around the overhang and then climbs up and on top of it. I suppose you could just go straight up if it were drier. I kept going through more walking and occassional harder moves towards a big wall near the edge of the gully. This pitch wanders back and forth a little bit, and I was having some really awful rope drag. There’s a crack right at the beginning that I used for protection, but I think now I should have run it out a bit and placed something above the belay station. Anyway at the wall I placed a nut that I was pretty happy with, until I pulled on the rock to keep moving up. The rock moved instead, and the nut fell out. That’s just the excitement of alpine climbing. After a couple easy moves around the wall made harder by the rope drag, I made it to the next anchor Lon had left. I couldn’t talk to Kaitlyn, but I put her on belay and gave the rope a few huge pulls and before too long she was heading up.

Fourth pitch

Meanwhile above me, Lon had set up another anchor (he has an awful lot of gear) and was giving people turns walking out onto the diving board. This is a big finger of rock that sticks out over the North Gully. You can very easily walk out onto it and get a great sense of exposure. I imagine it could be pretty dangerous if windy.

This shot from the last time we climbed shows the exposure, with Lon out on the very edge of the diving board:

Kaitlyn joined us, and then I belayed her on lead out onto the diving board and then up over the very short final pitch of the climb. It’s really not more than 20 or 30’, and I think if you had a 70m rope you could link the third and fourth pitches together. You might miss the diving board that way, though. Lon went up and inspected her anchor, then I followed her up.

For a little more info on the climb, see the Mountain Project page about it.

Scrambling

Immediately, I started packing my gear up and changing out of rock shoes into boots. From the top of the climb, you still have another 800’ of scrambling (fourth class, with occassional fifth class if you wander around too much) to the top of the ridge and a real trail. It was also getting late - about 4pm. We started up the scrambling, trying to stay close to North Gully but not in such a way that a slip would send us to the bottom. Note that this entire portion is really loose, and you should space out so one rock or slip doesn’t cause a big accident. After a couple moves that were more interesting than they needed to be, we found some red rocks that allowed us to cross the gully and then continued straight up.

This part was really slow and it took its toll on several members of the team. I’d done this before and knew it wasn’t any fun. I also knew that going straight up would lead through some nasty brush and take us a little out of the way, so I tried to head left at every opportunity. I went off on my own and made some progress but there were two more gullies blocking the way. I was able to get above and then past the first, but the second looked like all fifth class. I just went straight up and hit the Nelson Crag trail probably 100’ left of where I would have gone if I’d just headed up. So much for the short cut.

Summit

By now it was 5pm and even though the weather was still holding, my food was almost all gone and I was in a pretty bad mood. I didn’t really want to continue to the top because of that, but it was also just another mile away and I hadn’t been there since last summer. I waited for everyone else to make it, sat around for another few minutes, and then took off at a quick pace towards the summit. It was 5:30 when I set out, hoping that the summit restaurant might still be open.

Even though I was really tired, I made it across the Nelson Crag trail in about 45 minutes. The slight elevation gains were tougher than they normally would be, but I could see there were still cars heading up the auto road and there were still people wandering around the summit so I was a little bit hopeful. I did also manage to make a very short detour and redline the tiny piece of the Huntington Ravine trail between the Alpine Garden and the auto road. From there, I headed straight to the summit and probably got in some tourists’ pictures, but I just wanted to top out and be done with it.

I headed in to the summit building, hoping to at least find a working ATM, water fountain, and candy machine. What I found instead was that the entire place was still open, and even still serving some hot food, and would be until 9pm! That was a huge mood lifter. I ate a hot dog, two pieces of cheese, a gopicnic, a gatorade, and a coke, and took some candy for the way down too. I paced around a little bit and waited for everyone else. Chris was the next to arrive. He’d been keeping pace with the rest of the group, but blasted ahead when he saw darker clouds moving in. He was still in great spirits and thoroughly enjoying the day. I directed him to the real summit, and then he came back in to eat too. Lon came in next, followed by Kaitlyn and Katie.

I knew that the Lon/Katie/Kaitlyn group would want to sit around a while longer since they’d just gotten in, and I also knew that they weren’t driving all the way back home that night. I was, and it was about a three hour drive, and I knew I wouldn’t have that in me if I didn’t get down as fast as possible. So I suggested Chris and I head off as fast as we could, and we’d just meet up again for lunch the next day. Everyone was appy with this idea, so at 7pm we got up and headed out.

Descent

We sped off down the top part of the Tuckerman Ravine trail to the Lion Head trail, with him doing very well despite the rope weight and not being used to our crappy rock pile New England trails. It’s a pretty steep and direct trail, but we made quick work of it by talking most of the way down. Before we knew it, we had made it back down to the open part of Tuckerman Ravine and set about doing the last two relentless, rocky miles to the car. We turned on headlamps at the Huntington Ravine junction and made it back to Pinkham Notch around 9:30pm.

While our day was pretty long, I later heard from Lon that they finished after midnight first due to leaving about 30 minutes after we did, and then because everyone hit a wall at some point. It’s very hard to keep the hiking energy up after such a long day. Still, everyone had a great time, everyone made the summit, and there were no injuries.

Suggestions

This is a great adventure for the aspiring alpine climber, I believe. There’s a long hike in, a long hike out, a decently long climb in the middle, and a serious talus scramble. It’s got all the elements. I have the following suggestions for anyone else looking to do this:

Stats

GPS Track