Unit climb, June 18, 2005
A Journey Up Mt. Washington: or
“What kind of batteries does your ice axe use?”

by Jim Dagata

So there we were a little after 0900 on a muggy Saturday in June at the PCT trailhead heading to the North Ridge of Mt. Washington swatting at the mosquitoes. Jerry, Katie, and I had arrived in Jerry’s Westy to find Chris wandering the road in his truck (wondering if it was the right trailhead) and Aaron curled up on the ground in his bag and bivy by the side of his rig. We expected Matt to show by about 1015 and figured he would catch up to us. Well, by the time we split up some group gear -- which consisted of two light ropes and some webbing, and determining that an ice axe was likely necessary. It was 1000 as we left the trailhead, a little later than planned but so far so good.

Jim, Jerry, Katie and Matt follow Aaron (leaving picture)
up the ridge

Aaron pauses for a drink
The hike was pleasant and uneventful. We generally went at a moderate pace with only a few comfort stops on the way up the climbers trail. When we reached the ridge we started talking about when we thought Matt might catch us at which point he popped up the spine of the ridge as if on cue. Apparently he was unavoidably detained by no less than 5 fifth wheel rolling road blocks tugging up route 20 who were not about to pull over for a lowly Subaru. Anyway, our merry little band continued up the ridge in the fairly decent weather talking about various important subjects such as which is the best climbing movie ever. I think The Eiger Sanction won out.

At this point things stepped up a notch as it was time to pull out ice axes and helmets for some real alpinism. We encountered some spots of steep and tricky snow that needed to be carefully negotiated on our way to the “notch” on the north ridge. We reached it at around 1330 or so and proceeded to put on harnesses and get out ropes for the tricky parts. While we were preparing for the final push, I distinctly remember someone saying how calm and nice it was for once at the notch. Bad ju-ju my friends, bad ju-ju.

Aaron, Katie and Matt gear up

Jerry, Jim, Katie and Matt evaluate the situation
I suggested that in the essence of expediency and the groups experience, we could use a rope on the easier and less exposed direct rock route of the first pitch by free climbing with a safety prussic slid up as a we each climbed. Everyone was comfortable with this idea and it was working well as the weather turned worse (wetter and colder!) by the second. I was the last to go and as I started my ascent I thought about announcing a turnaround due to the deteriorating conditions (what was I thinking, this was great!). I reached the crux move about 15ft below the others when I went for a move and heard the loudest rifle crack ever! No boom, no rumble, no flash, not much of a warning, no kidding. I called up “HEY GUYS!” and for a few seconds I heard nothing but the wind, as my body decided to go down before my mind did, at which point Matt yelled over “RAP DOWN, GET DOWN!!” in a very emphatic way. He didn’t have to say anything, I was already halfway down. Like I said, bad ju-ju.

At the same time at the top of the pitch, the scene went something like this (correct me if I’m wrong team);
        Chris: Matt, my ice axe is humming.
        Matt: Yea, I think mine is too.
        Chris: Isn’t that a bad thing?
        Matt: It isn’t good.

At the sound of the loudest rifle crack on the planet they all hit the deck into a low crouch, some saw the flash, others felt the zing through their feet. It took a couple of nano seconds for what just happened to register. It was time to go before Mother Nature had her way with them. Then Matt yelled down to me.

Jim, the intrepid leader

Katie savoring the moment
I should say that no one was in a panic, everyone was calm, and that that was the fastest I have ever seen five climbers make an “exit stage right” off of a mountain. Of course it did help that it was a single line rap on an 8mm line, go figure. With everyone “safely” in the notch, we quickly packed up and made our exit, today was not going to be the day to summit out, sorry Aaron. We got down around the corner and the weather let up some, the graupel that had been coming down had slowed as we picked our way down through some snowfields. We contemplated a quick glissade down a nice area that we spied on the way up. I acquiesced to one member of the team who was worried about slogging through rain and puddles at the base of the bowl so we continued down the ridge. About thirty minutes from the notch we looked back and the sun came out, the summit laughed at us (well, at least at Aaron). The mountain and valley looked beautiful in the sun.
We continued our journey back to the vehicles and arrived somewhat energized (sorry, I had to say it) by our mountain adventure. We quickly changed (OK, some of us are a little slow) while we swatted at the mosquitoes and loaded up to go. It was around 1830 and we had to journey back to the rainy valley. It was a good day. Did I fail to mention, it was one rifle shot, that one clap of thunder, that one lightning strike was all that we saw or heard all day. Ah well, better to climb again tomorrow when Mother Nature might let us up the rest of the way to the top of the mountain.

The elusive summit

Photos by Chris Davis