This is a hiking column that I wrote in 2014. It is worth reprinting, not only to remind Mount Washington hikers that safety is a priority more important than reaching the top, but to remind people that climbing New England’s highest peak in the snowy season has become a valued experience for not only Americans, but for many people visiting this country from afar. You could say this column is also a political statement about the worldwide family of man, and appropriate for these turbulent times.
Last Saturday turned out to be a beautiful calm day in the area, despite a cold and windy prediction. Like many outdoor enthusiasts that day, I was pleasantly surprised as I climbed up the lower Tuckerman Ravine Trail in the sun-drenched stillness of morning on Mount Washington.
Down at Pinkham Notch, I had written in the winter hiker’s register that Lion Head might be my goal for the day. But the possibility of continuing further lent a pleasant optimism to the walk up the trail. But not to the point of certainty, like the well equipped young guy who quickly passed me and said he was definitely going to the top. It would have been neither wise nor fun for me to set a rigid goal on that beautiful day.
Besides, it was definitely the in-between season, when there likely wasn’t enough snow accumulation above timberline to cover rocks enough to smooth out the trail. There could be some awkward footing up there.
It was the time of year when ice climbers frequent the Tuckerman Bowl to catch early ice before the snow covers it. On that day, some ski toting hikers were making their way up the Tuck Trail to ski in fresh powder down the John Sherburne Ski Trail from Hermit Lake to Pinkham.
On a bend, just below the turnoff for the Raymond Path, I paused to get a photo of the direct sun on the snow-covered trees. I was surprised when I opened my pack and my camera was not there. I realized that back home, while paying attention to packing the right winter garb, I had bypassed it on my way out the door.
I had become attached to taking pictures on a hike and later posting them, as well as using one for a column. But I was able to quickly fall back on an old activity of occasionally going camera-less intentionally, and having confidence in recording the day with my own eye rather than the eye of a camera. Anyway, I had to peel off a layer of attachment. And I was on the mountain and enjoying it.
The snow at the start of the summer Lion Head Trail was packed well. My MICROspikes held the slope firm as I headed up. In an eighth of a mile, I climbed out of the shadows of the lower mountain into the warmth of the direct sun in the east. A lone, middle-aged hiker stood there, soaking it in.
We hiked together for a while. He was Polish, and presently working in this country. We talked of mountains, and he said that he grew up in the same town as two famous Himalayan climbers — Wanda Rutkiewicz and Jerzy Kukuczka — both tragically killed during their career as Himalayan mountaineers.
Below an icy section of the trail he paused to put on foot traction. I moved on ahead. My encounter with him began a day of meeting winter hikers from various countries and cultures, including Canadians, Europeans and Asians. By the end of the day this left me with a strong feeling of multiculturalism. They had all been drawn to Mount Washington for a universal experience, and were climbing one trail. Another striking example happened later on the way down the Lion Head Trail, when I passed four tall, dark-skinned young men on their way up. I asked where they were from and got a quiet one-word answer as they passed: “Punjab” (the northwest province of India).
When I reached timberline alone on the way up, there was hardly any wind. There was some packed snow on the trail between rocks, so the going was pretty easy. The top of Lion Head was the acid test for wind, and when I reached it, there was only a mild, steady, cold breeze from the west. Yet, it was enough to put on my face mask and to zip up my parka before continuing.
The footing began to get challenging on the flats where there was fresh powder and sharp rocks, and when I started up the summit cone, deep drifts made it more so. My feet kept finding hidden holes to fall through. An old sprain on my right foot began to feel sore. Small hiking snowshoes would have been helpful.
After a while, I began thinking that I didn’t want to go all the way up the summit cone and back in these conditions. Just before the junction of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and Lion Head Trail, I turned around.
I didn’t have a camera and didn’t get to the top. Yet the former allowed me to see the beauty of the mountain in itself, the latter forced me into experiencing the path as the goal.
My ankle stopped aching immediately on the way down. I began encountering the hikers that I had passed on the way up. An American that I had hiked with earlier said that it had been a pleasure to walk a while with me. I met the Pole, who was raving about the beautiful windless day — much better that his last six trips to the mountain. Down on top of Lion Head, I took a photo for a group of 10, then passed a dozen Japanese hikers with all the latest winter gear.
Finally, I encountered the four Punjabis, and on my walk down the lower Tuck Trail, I was thinking that anyone who had a problem with multiculturalism today doesn’t really know how the world works, and is more blind that an ostrich with its head in the sand.