Life, death, and stupid train tricks

by Jenifer Tidwell

Washington is a mountain of many moods. You don’t know how the mountain will behave on the day you show up at the trailhead. What will the weather do? Will it be windy or calm, clear or foggy, snowy or rainy? What else will you see? What stories will you return with?
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been on Mount Washington over the past twenty years. But I remember the stories.

Here are some of the things that have happened to me up there.

The dumb college student. I had just learned to ski, and one spring I tagged along with some much better skiers who were going to Tuckerman’s Ravine for some serious skiing. On the way up, the weather changed literally every few minutes: sunny, dark, snowing, whiteout, sunny again. I made it as far as Hojo’s (a building near the base of Tuckerman’s) before I realized how woefully underdressed I was! After recovering from mild hypothermia, I attempted to ski back down. Actually, I would ski a few meters, slip and fall a farther distance, get up, repeat. As we drove home that evening, we looked up to see the summit of Washington, tauntingly clear against the darkening sky. “I’ll be back,” I said to the mountain.

The blackflies. A group of us went up Boott Spur to Lakes of the Clouds one June. I hadn’t known that blackflies — soft-bodied, persistent, obnoxious, biting little things — were worst in June. They were terrible! At stops, they would cover our faces and necks. I got so fed up at one stop that I grabbed my pack, mumbled apologies to my hiking partners, and dashed up the trail, slapping and waving and yelling at the flies as I ran. (It actually worked for a few minutes.) Later that day, the rain and fog closed in, and the blackflies went away — they don’t like it any more than we do, I guess.

The snake. When I was helping guide a group of blind hikers on the Old Jackson Road one summer, at least two of us saw a large, beautifully patterned snake slither across the trail a few yards ahead of us. On his tail was… a rattle.

The sunset. The heaviest pack I ever carried was full of climbing gear and ropes, in addition to the stuff you have to take on a Washington day trip. We climbed a rock route in Huntington Ravine that day. The climb itself was fabulous, but the pack wore me out! I “hit the wall” at the top of the route. After redistributing the heavy gear, we each made our way slowly back along the Alpine Garden and down Lion Head. Thankfully, the mountain was in the best of moods that day. I stopped for a rest around sunset — still on the Alpine Garden — and realized that there was no wind, no clouds, and no sound except the croaking of a distant raven. The sun slanted down over my shoulder and cast blue shadows on the valley below. What an exquisite moment.

Jenifer with Randy & Quinn before a *much* easier climb!

The ice axe. On a winter ascent, we used full mountaineering gear and technique. Good thing, because as we ascended the summit cone, we were in a whiteout the whole¬†way: vicious roaring wind, driving snow, zero visibility beyond a couple of yards in front of you. We made it to the summit in that! On the way down, the weather cleared rather suddenly, and at the lip of Tuckerman’s Ravine, it was decided that the group would slide down on our bottoms. (Yes, you can do this safely and under control.) The first few climbers started the slide with no problems. But when I went, I accidentally slipped out of the track they had laid, and I hit ice. Next thing I knew, I was rocketing down Tuckerman’s Ravine — on my back, head first, no control at all! I honestly thought I was going to die. But the previous day, we had practiced self-arrest with ice axes. Good thing. I whacked my ice axe into the snow, the way I’d been taught, and stopped my slide before I reached the rocks at the bottom of the gully.

The moon. A few summers ago, some friends, a dog, and I climbed the same route that Team 2020 might climb this coming weekend — up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, stop at the Lakes of the Clouds hut, climb to the summit, and down the Jewell Trail to complete the loop. It was a hot, dry, windy, beautiful day, and we had a ball! Now, the Jewell Trail descent takes you across the Cog Railway tracks. We happened to be in that area at the same time that a train was coming up the mountain. Leaving the dog with me and the other female hiker, every single male member of the group ran to the tracks and mooned the Cog Railway. Oh, the juvenile hilarity!

There will be more stories from our trip this weekend. I hope they’re good ones. What stories do you have from this unique mountain? Share them in the comments!



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