I turned 38 on Friday June 17th and spent the day with Ayla and Stud hiking Mount Washington. We had originally planned to go almost a week earlier but some stormy snowy weather blew in so we postponed. Mount Washington has some of the most severe weather changes and it can go from a sunny 70 degree day to a hailing 10 degree day in the same afternoon. I actually lost a friend up there four years ago. He was hiking in Tuckerman’s ravine with his son in early April which he had done annually for many years and on this particular trip he tragically fell into a very deep crevasse. When he fell, his son who was 23 at the time, responded immediately by throwing his jacket and flashlights and food down into the crevasse and yelling for a response but there was no response. He went for help and rescue workers lowered someone on a rope about 50 feet down into the crevasse with a flashlight to see if they could find him but there was nothing but ice and rock and waterfalls beneath the snow so there was nothing anyone could do but wait. We all thought he would come walking out days later because he was a very charismatic guy with so much life in him. He was just 67 and very active and clever guy. Having watched Touching The Void, I was optimistic but an entire month went by before the snow melted enough making it possible to recover his body at the bottom of the ravine. It was extremely tragic and shocking. He was a mentor to me and the very first person I ever worked for when I started my business as Handy Tam. He was a very handy and very wealthy entrepreneur who was very busy inventing things so he had me working on his house everyday for years and taught me many skills. After he died I wanted to say my goodbyes to him so that following June 17th, just two and a half months after he died, I spent my 34th birthday hiking up Mount Washington via the Lion’s Head route than hiked down into Tuckerman’s Ravine and took time to reflect standing back from the various cliffs along the switchbacks that make it possible to hike up and down the headwall in summer. At the bottom of the Ravine there was still some big snow bridges melting that looked as though they had slid off the headwall sometime in the last month. I even saw a jacket under it and I remembered how his son had thrown a jacket into the crevasse after the fall incase his dad was alive down there. Death is weird.
On this trip we hiked the exact same route and it was just as glorious as ever. Not only did we get to summit but we had epic 360° views and mild weather. Never have I ever made it to the top of a ridge along the Presidential range and not immediately needed to put on some layers. In fact, last time I was on Mount Washington when I hiked up the cog side, I was wearing a hat and gloves and all my layers in mid august.
But this time, we soaked in the sun and welcomed that high mountain breeze. Once we were in the alpine zone, a dark cloud came over the ridge and I wasn’t sure we should continue. Lightening is a serious threat on wide open rocky mountain tops and Mount Washington has quite a stretch of completely exposed alpine zone with very tricky footing and once you are up there you are kinda screwed if the weather goes really foul. Layers, food and rain gear will protect you from hypothermia but the only protection from lighting to get back below tree line and out of the alpine zone. So we paused at our last trail intersection and decided the cloud wasn’t too threatening but we kept our eye on the sky as we continued up the exposed rocky boulder field until the sounds of Bike Week Motorcycle enthusiasts let us know that we were in fact just yards away from the Auto Road which meant we were just about there. We stumbled onto the auto road trying to avoid getting run over and dragged our exhausted bodies up the giant staircase. I pulled myself along the railing hand over hand. It always feels like culture shock to go from the remote serene rugged mountain side to the bustling village on top where you then have to wait in line to take your picture at the summit sign behind all the people who drove up the auto road or took the cog.
Once we got our summit pic I laid down on the observation deck which I have never done, mostly because the weather is so intense up there that I immediately go inside seeking shelter. But it was mild and beautiful so I laid down and rested my feet up on the railing to let the blood drain down my legs. We hobbled inside and put some layers on as our cores quickly cooled down and exploded our bags onto a table with all our food and water bottles bandanas. I went to the bathroom and when I came back Stud and Ayla surprised me with some birthday treats! Stud made little whoopie pies and Ayla brought a bunch of Mountain House freeze-dried ice cream! So thoughtful and so fun! We got a round of hot coffees (luxuries from the cafe) and enjoyed the treats and all our other food. I then saw that the weather board had some low Tstorm warnings so we moved along not wanting to take any chances. We filled our waters and started our decent out of the alpine zone very slowly as the boulders teetered under foot. Once we got down to the top of the headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine some eight year old kids warned us about some slippery rocks and how people have died. We thanked them and I imagined the cautionary tails their parents warned them about before starting this hike.
This was my third time summer hiking in the ravine and it never ceases to take my breath away. Its terrifying and beautiful. I love it. There were a couple of spots where we rocked hopped across a small bit of fast-moving water next to cliffs where so long as you didn’t do anything stupid or think about it, it was nothing but my heart raced a healthy beat while focusing on my footing. Before we knew it we were down the headwall and crossing the bottom of the rain when the rain started. But it didn’t really pick up until we were at the caretakers cabin under a covered porch at a picnic table eating some snacks. How lucky are we?! So we relaxed and ate while it rained. Then the sun came out and we hiked on finished our last two hours thru the pines until we were back at Pinkham Notch feeling good and accomplished and dirty and exhausted. We showered and went out for dinner in North Conway and saw a giant rainbow.