The chance to ski on the windiest place on earth. Why wouldn’t I turn that option down.
Not long after moving to the North east I found out about an organisation called the Appalachian mountain club who were organising a ski tour up the Cog railway on mount Washington. Situated in an incredible area known as the white mountains in New Hampshire. Mount Washington I quickly discovered once had (only relatively recently beaten into second place) the highest recorded surface wind speed outside of a tropical storm coming in at 231mph.
It isn’t the closest ski area but with the warmer than usual temperatures in the north east it was always going to be about travelling further north to get the best snow possible. Unlike the previous weekend, the temperatures had certainly begun to cool down. As I started to make the drive north the weather began to change and by the end of the night it was snowing. I was seriously looking forward to getting out the car after a fairly brutal 7 hour drive after a full days work. As much as I wanted the snow I didn’t really fancy the slowing down of the journey.
Arriving at the lodge I crashed out as soon as I hit the mattress, it didn’t feel like many hours later than the first people began to stir, all trying to get the best conditions for the day. Munching a quick breakfast all washed down with large mugs of coffee, I made my way to the meeting point. Now despite it once having the highest recorded wind speed on earth there is still a railway to the summit along with an access road. Our plan was to follow the train tracks up the mountain and once out of the tree line see what the conditions were like. Summiting was highly unlikely with forecasts of high winds and a thick layer of cloud covering it.
I had enjoyed the ski mountaineering racing but this was a completely different experience again. The pace obviously much more sedate with the emphasis being on efficiency and trying not to sweat. Compared to my race strategy of trying to go as fast and efficiently as possible. Which was more of a brute strength and endurance exercise. And certainly less care for the amount of sweating going on. It was however a lot colder, hovering around the -5 to -15F , a balmy -20 to -26C and the wind chill on top. Despite this it still felt quite warm as we meandered up hill surrounded by trees which looked incredible. Like frozen statues dotted all the way up the mountain side. Pausing occasionally to have a drink and admire the views behind and in front of us, despite the large bank of clouds hiding the summit. It wasn’t the blue bird day we had all hoped for but still fantastic being out on the mountain.
Arriving at the first split point and we soon bundled up as the temperature plummeted. We had come out of the trees and the wind now had us in its sights. The rail line had clearly taken the full force of this onslaught for quite a while as its frozen structure looked like something from another planet. Not even in the arctic had I seen buildings covered in ice to this extent.
A few of us opted to continue slightly further up the mountainside. It is safe to say we needn’t have bothered. All that proceed was some skating around on an icy surface of wind stripped mountainside. We tried to get purchase on what little friction we could get but despite this effort we hardly made it any further up for a lot more huffing and puffing. With the wind battering our faces and bodies it was only sensible to head back down. There was no chance of a summit today and the possibility of some better powder round the corner was never going to happen without some more hardware of ice axes and crampons. Even then we were not convinced there would be any great powder.
It was a quick turn around to get out the wind. I say quick but the ice and strong winds made it tough work wrapping up our ski skins to get them put away. Its like trying to roll loose duck tape up in a strong gale into a neat organised bundle.
And then the bit we had built up for, the ski down. Despite the odd patch of ice there were some great stretches of powder. The three of us who had tried to go a bit higher made the most of the descent getting in as many tight wee turns to float on the powder. In the hunt for some I managed to find a fairly lightly covered rock. Skiing over it I stopped almost instantly, trying to recover my balance from the forward momentum only to finally pop out of my bindings. Unfortunately one of the guys saw the whole thing unfold in a particularly slow and inelegant fashion.
We made it down to the bottom and back to the lodge for a well deserved hot shower and drink.
The next day I headed up to the in famous tuckermanns ravine. You can check out a couple of pro skiers hitting this on the link below:
It isn’t recommended generally to ski it until later in the season but whilst in the area I at least wanted to have a peek at what it was all about. I followed the trail up which is incredibly well marked. Past people snow shoeing up and a number of groups up for the weekend as part of a nearby ice festival learning about avalanche rescue techniques. The wind certainly felt less strong and it was definitely a warmer day than the previous one. Snow occasionally fell from the trees. It was a pretty magical sight.
Slowly but surely the ravine revealed itself. Each glimpse between the trees showing a bit more until I came round the corner and caught sight of the whole area. With clear views of the summit of mount washington in the background. There in front the huge tuckermanns ravine and the steepest ski descents in the north east, or at least one of the better known ones.
Arriving at a small cabin and there were groups continuing up as part of their avalanche course as well as some skiers who despite the now windy conditions had opted to try a few routes. It looked pretty incredible and in places pretty intimidating even from a distance. I headed on up the mountain as I wanted to see the full face of it. Some of the slopes are up at 40 – 50 degree range. The wind had certainly picked up though and I was now taking a bit of a beating even if it was warmer than the previous day. Arriving at the bottom of tuckermanns and I could finally take it it. I definitely want to return to the slopes here and take on some of these descents.
Heading back down the mountain and my legs could finally enjoy a bit of a down hill ski. After trekking up it made for a nice change. Despite this I still had to walk a few bits at the top due to not being able to find a decent route to ski down as well as the path I walked up being really quite tight between rocks, trees and a small stream that with the warmer conditions wasn’t completely covered in snow.
I soon found myself down the bottom of the mountain just in time to munch a load of food in the car and before the return journey back down south to new jersey.
Over the last few years there has been a huge increase in the number of ultra running races and trail races around the world with people looking beyond the standard road marathon to get their athletic fix. Regardless of what I do the option to go out running in the hills and mountains is always tempting.
The winter months give an opportunity for some down time, change the activity or generally prepare the coming season. For a while now I have been reading and watching more about skimo racing also known as randonee and ski mountaineering. Which from a racing stand point and ignoring the degrees of difference in technical descents and ascents basically involves hiking up hill either boot packing (going up hill with skis on your back), skinning (ski up hill with special material on the base of the skis called skins) and then descending the mountains as fast as you can.
When I moved to the north east of the U.S. and with the mountains nearby I went about searching for an event to enter. I found the north east rando race series. A series of events around the north east of the US and the timing was perfect. My first weekend in the U.S and there was an event on.
With snacks for the drive bought, I woke in the early hours of the morning to make the 4 hour drive up the road. The conditions over the last few weeks had been warm and the day was looking to continue this trend.
Despite this there was still a chill in the morning air and with this came the occasional blanket of fog which made for some spectacular scenery particularly where there were small clearings.
Arriving at Berkshire east and there was one guy making an early start on the course in shorts and t-shirt. Which was a long way of my ski trousers and jacket. I hoped the day would stay cold, otherwise I was going to be ridiculously hot scaling the mountain. After getting organised it was time to start the race amongst a group of people ranging from the lycra clad to the occasional ski tourer.
Making a dash up the mountain the group soon dispersed as we made our first lap up the mountain. Before the first corner my jacket was as off and for the ascents only my helmet soon came off too. It was sweltering. First up hill done and it was the transition back to skiing down hill. The skins were off the bottom of the skis and everything switched back into ski mode for a brief ski half way down the mountain. This sounds much quicker than it was in practise, initially with the skins flapping all over the place nothing helps speed things up with either bad weather or the time pressure of a race. That and a desire to cool down on the descent. It was then a walking stage up a steep wooded part of the route with our skis on our backs before we exited the forest and could get ours ski’s back onto ski touring mode for the last bit back to the top of the mountain. Skins off and it was time to go full speed down to the bottom of the mountain to repeat this a three more times. On the way up I ended up chatting to one of the local ski patrollers and another guy who turned out to be the owner of the ski resort which passed the time and made sure we were going at a steady pace up hill. With the U.S elections only just completed it was certainly interesting to start getting more of a local insight into it.
With the day heating up I stopped to get some water from a nearby stream having used up my small water bottle over the first few laps. Despite it being in january most people had switched to open jackets or just a thin shirt. One guy had even opted to go topless.
After the third lap it was time to head to the second stage of the race on the other side of the mountain. Amazingly some people had already finished. The skiing down became increasingly harder as my legs became more tired. This was my first ski day of the season, ski touring race and I had literally arrived in the US three days earlier.
Despite this i finished the final couple of laps and very quickly ended up in the cafe for a well deserved feast of food before the prize giving. It was at this point I realised the quality of the field. Ranging from those competing for positions in the US team to the previous record holder Ed Warren for the fastest ascent of Denali before this was taken by Kilian Jornet. Certainly an impressive range of athletes.
All in all I seriously enjoyed the north east rando race and will certainly be working out how to fill the next seasons schedule with races. It mixes mountains, skiing and running into a pretty epic combination. By the end I was sufficiently knackered, yet despite this my legs still felt good enough the following day to tear through some laps of a nearby mountain before the rain descended on the area. I can certainly see why this is the perfect winter trainer or event in its own right when you have mountains nearby.