Hiking: The wisdom of turning back

By Ed Parsons
In New England, climbing Mount Washington in the winter has become a well known and respected objective, prompting thousands to try — either on a guided climb or on their own.
The wisdom of turning back on a winter attempt of Mount Washington is respected, and the stories of those who ignored the signs and didn't — putting themselves and others in danger — is one of the most documented subjects in mountain literature.
Few winter months go by without climbers turning back, and not getting to the top. That is a good thing, and a sign that common sense combined with years of public education has worked to an extent.
However when it happens to you, like it did to me this Wednesday morning, you know firsthand both the temporary frustration, and the apparent wisdom of your actions.
That morning, I thought about my plans. The temps were mild, and the desire to get outside strong. I knew that Thursday would be a better day weather-wise. Mount Washington was supposed to start clearing up on Wednesday, but not totally. Yet unsettled weather can make for an interesting hike, especially if getting to the top is not a top priority.
I decided to go.
In the valley it was partly cloudy and blue, but I drove up to Pinkham Notch into the clouds. It had snowed a few inches on the mountain the previous few days, and wind in the last 24 hours had blown a lot of it down onto the eastern side. When I started up the Tuck Trail at 6:30 a.m., I walked in a couple inches of fresh virgin snow. At the first bend, I joined the fresh snowmobile track of the USFS Snow Ranger, up earlier to check avalanche conditions.
Some people hate the steady uphill of the lower Tuck Trail, but like many I let it work for me, using it as a gauge for how I will do later. I finally turned off onto the Huntington Ravine Fire Road, and in a few hundred feet, approached the orange sign for the winter Lion Head Trail.
Although hikers had climbed the winter Lion Head Trail the day before, the wind had blown snow down the east side all night, obliterating their tracks. There was four or five inches of fresh snow in the sunken track of the trail. I walked easily enough up to the bottom of the steep section, took off my MICROspikes and snapped full crampons on my plastic boots.
I don't think I have ever climbed the steep part of the winter Lion Head Trail in fresh virgin snow, and it was fun and exciting. However, the section above that to timberline, often blown in with some fresh snow, had more than usual and was tiring.
The windblown landscape above timberline was a release from the new snow. I headed up to the top of Lion Head, my crampons scratching on rocks covered with ice feathers. A slit of blue sky directly above looked like the "Pinkham window," when wind coming over the mountain from the west circles downward on the east side, opening up a narrow window in the clouds.
It got windier near the top of Lion Head, and I knew it was howling just above that. Just below the top, I stood in a flat sheltered spot I had used many times over the years, and donned a face mask and goggles to compliment my hooded parka. Then I stepped into the wind to walk on the flat Alpine Garden, next to the drop off into Tuckerman Ravine. Beyond that, the summit cone would likely afford considerable protection from the west wind.
That flat section was gnarly. The previous rain had melted any seasonal accumulation there, making it, as I described later to three upward bound hikers I met on my way down, like "summer conditions with ice feathers."
Finally I reached a trail junction near the bottom of the summit cone. The wind died considerably. But the trail through the stunted forest at the base of the cone was blown in with deep snow, and hard to find. I found it, but knew there would be a lot of fresh snow to plow through starting up the cone, and maybe all the way to the top. Did I want to climb through that?
I stopped, then kept going, then stopped again. No I didn't want to plow through it. Yet part of me wanted to get to the top, to complete the mysterious ritual of climbing a mountain. I had to let my mind stop, and let my body tell me what to do. It said turn around.
Walking back on the flats was much easier with the wind behind me. Just below Lion Head the wind dropped completely for a while. The sun hit the eastern slope, then disappeared. I finally felt able to take out my camera and take a few pictures.