A month had passed since my first summit and state highpoint and I was busy researching and reading and thinking way outside my skill level.
My buddy Tony in Oregon suggested I fly out to join him on a late winter bid of Mt. Hood. It only took a paragraph of Wikipedia to realize, even with a guide and the legend of a woman summiting in high heels, it would have been foolish to attempt a real mountain without even knowing how to properly secure a harness or tie a “Figure 8” knot.
As a result, in the preceding weeks, my cellmate had to endure my moping and crying and baby sighing every time I saw a mountain or looked at a map. How the hell could a kid living in Ohio become a real climber?
“Too bad I’ll never have the skill set to go do my lifelong (as of a month ago) obsession and destiny, to stand atop the highest point in every state,” I would mutter to her along with the taste of salty saline tears.
A month later, Santa Claus came and brought me a 3-day “Intro to Mountaineering” paid-for class from some mysterious (to an Ohioan) Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) company out of New Hampshire. Wasn’t that an east coast state with little-to-no elevation???
The climb school was to cover ropes, knots, vertical ice, belaying and general mountaineering pitch climbing. At the end of the course, we were to take our skills to the top of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire’s highest point.
“Doooodude, Mt. Wishington is only like 6,000-some feet. I did a ‘13-er’ three months ago, this will be easy,” I told my cellmate.
“Don’t call me dude. And what did you call that mountain? Wish what? You better have respect; they call it the ‘Everest of the East,’ really strong winds and you’ll be doing it in the winter,” she said.
Once again, research enlightened me, and I found Mt. Washington to possibly be not only out of my ability range, but I was also genuinely frightened. The polar weather comes from the north, the cooler ocean gusts from the coast and the fronts from the south and west all smash together, routinely creating some of the highest wind gusts on planet earth. For real. The summit held the record for decades at 231 MPH.
“Yo, Santa Claus, did you take out a giant life insurance plan on me before you got me this ‘gift’?” I asked my cellmate.
“Oh don’t worry honey; Mt. ‘Wishington’ is nothing for a man like you,” she sarcastically said.
With no flight booked and driving becoming imminent, I quickly called my cousin Dusty Kline in Ohio’s capital city:
“Dummy, I’m going to New Hampshire to climb some mountain, wanna come?” I asked.
“Shut up. Shut your mouth. Don’t ever call me,” Dusty said.
“It’s like a 13-hour drive, but don’t trip; I’ve already booked a crappy motel in North Conway, all they had was a ‘smoking’ room and they assured me of fecal and other fluid excrements to be well stained into the mattresses,” I said.
“Fine, I’ll go. But no talking the whole way, I’m in charge and when you die I’m not telling anyone how it happened,” Dusty said.
In late February, and after 14 hours of fake silence, we arrived in the ski/snow/mountain town of North Conway, New Hampshire, along the Maine state line.
Friday, Course Day 1
“I’ll take the equipment and outdoor gear that they told me to bring inside the store just in case, but I’m pretty sure we’ll just be sitting in a classroom all day learning how to tie ropes and stuff,” I told my cousin when he dropped me off outside of the EMS school and REI-type store. He was not doing the classes, but had his own backcountry plans.
After finding the climbing area at the back of the EMS store and checking in, I was told by one of the instructors that I was late. I inquired about how much time would be spent inside on day one. Looking down at my jeans and cotton-based dress, the worker replied with contempt, “You’ll be outside all day and should be dressed accordingly.”
Should have called EMS weeks ago. Could have not gotten totally drunk the night before immediately upon arriving in North Conway. Coulda been dressed and ready.
Three other human beings were in the same class, and along with the instructor, they were adorned with $5 million worth of gear. Most of mine was rented or borrowed. (You should also know that I tried crampons on in the store for the first time and had to get help securing them. With them still latched to my boots, I was going to walk through the store to the parking lot and the instructor stopped me and wondered what the hell I was doing. “Those are for snow not floors.” I knew it wasn’t right, but my flakey, post-imbibed brain-dead hungover mind kept repeating, what? What? WHAT?)
Our initial assault of the White Mountains was to begin after 10-minutes of driving from the EMS store, while the frost was still melting off the park benches, towards the tall pine forests coated in powder.
The on-the-snowbank class started with learning the French style of footing, the modern, the lost, the preferred. We moved to mastering knots, harnesses, ice screws, mountaineering axes and technical tools. Within a couple of hours we were staring at a vertical ice wall and I just wanted to go home.
Climb class: two friend dude bros, young 20s, both basketball-player tall and fit, super snobby, with all the recently purchased gear: La Sportiva climbing boots ($600), crampons ($245), gaiters ($150), hard-shell top and bottom ($650), etc., wanted to climb Mt. Rainier and this was step one for them.
The third team member was a lady in her early 40s that grew up in the White Mountains and had backpacking experience. Again, marathon shape and all three had general climbing knowledge and vocabulary.
Our instructor was an exceptional ice climber and had made a name for himself with inverted icicle maneuvers. Petite skinny guy, he was the Steph Curry of the White Mountains climb league.
Meanwhile, I was incorporating incorrectly into my vocabulary “on belay,” “pitches,” “cairns” and other words sewn into mountain culture, much to the annoyance of my team. Since I thought I’d be going to Taco Bell for lunch and not spending all day in the woods and on the ice, I only had one slice of last night’s 2 a.m. pizza that I threw in my pack last minute.
Not having enough food impacted my will and performance. And before we moved to the vertical sections, on a simple inclined slice of ice, I lost my footing. Imagine one of your go-to sledding hills as a kid. But the hill is extremely bumpy and wavy, made of concrete and someone coated the whole run in olive oil.
When you are pitch climbing, once your fall starts, you don’t sideways sidewalk slide to the anchor point, but all the distance past that point as well. It happens so quickly there is no reaction time. You just bounce.
The rope caught and my knee bashed into the solid blue ice block jetting out from the pitch. It’s one of those things where when you get hit in the nose your eyes water, but if you are hit hard enough, where’s the line of crying? The pain had me weeping.
The broh twins laughed. The lady with her pigtails shook her head in shame. My teacher gave up on me when he saw me in jeans inside the EMS store.
To close out the day, we did 10-foot vertical ice pitches. Three fourths of the way up the second pitch, I looked down and froze in fear. Couldn’t move. They had to top rope belay me down. Saying I was the weakest team member didn’t even begin to touch the reality.
“Don’t worry, not all four of us have to make a summit push,” the instructor said as we headed back down the snow banks and through the forest to our vehicles.
One of the broh twins gave me “that look” before he kicked off his crampons and got into his new Dodge truck. Had seen it so many times from the nuns in grade school, from my father and older brothers, from all the my arresting officers.
Dusty picked up me, his core temp high, no winter hat over a buzz cut and just a t-shirt over the muscular frame. He inquired about the day and laughed and laughed at my ineptitude.
“But I had my own nightmares, bud. Some old lady came flying past me on a climb and called me a ‘bare-booter.’ I guess only fools go hiking around in the White Mountains without micro spikes or trax on the bottom of their feet,” Dusty said.
“Take me to the grocery store please,” I begged Dusty. Needed to load up on all the “proper” mountaineering food for day two.
I drank ever so lightly (3-4 four glasses of Kentucky Bourbon, neat) and stuffed Asian stir fry goodness into my esophagus. While my cousin sat snoring in his clothes on his stained mattress, I mentally replayed my knots, steps, holds and processes, over and over again, well into the night.
“The Mountaineering Handbook” that I brought along was memorized as my burning and itching eyes watered all over the pages, refusing to blink, for every time I did, I saw “the look” from the broh twin.
Saturday, Course Day2:
Big breakfast Saturday morning and switched out my slothy slow-dry gear for borrowed appropriate clothes that I had planned for summit day.
Beyond proud of my Patagonia hard shell jacket that cost hundreds I got from my snowmobiling father. My top layer was Mercedes, but the pants and gloves and down coat were all pieced together from friends and family, boots and crampons from the EMS rental store.
That Saturday, for almost the entirety of day two, we did a series of 40-foot rope pitches up a long slab of ice. Not trying to reach any point, just the repetition of ice screws and lead climbing and setting anchors and really getting familiar with the gray ice axe in your hand.
With redemption mode still in effect, I was well geared up, fueled, hydrated and had an absolute mental focus that led me to outperform everyone. Never hit an ice bulge (if you hit the cream-colored ice, it flaked off and you couldn’t get a good stick with your ice tool), had equal weight distribution, fluid form, clipping through carabiners and tying knots with ease, belaying up and down like the world’s greatest pole dancer. Leaving just the right amount of take and being quick with the slack gap, smiling the whole time.
A beardless man from Ohio has never front pointed so good on the slopes of the Whites.
One of my broh teammates tore his shell bottoms when we practiced self-arresting with our mountaineering axes.
“That slide just cost me 200 bucks,” he said.
Sounds like you got ripped off, get it, ahahahhahahahah.
Sunday, Course Day 3, Summit Day
One margarita and an early retirement the previous evening had me fresh in the morning. I aggressively told the team on the way to the trailhead not to worry, that I wouldn’t leave them to die alone up there. The instructor was the only one that grinned.
On the trail I said, “With you, I feel like we’re totally fine.”
“That’s the halo effect; too much trust in your team leader. And if I were to go down, what would you do?” the instructor asked.
Route: Lion’s Head winter route up the “three steeps,” across the alpine garden and finally to the base of the summit cone. With the team being pretty young, their regenerative nature and quick movements had them in the lead the whole ascent until we arrived at the summit cone, which was turning into an all-powder blur hike, but devoid of real technical handling.
Extreme wind and cold cut through my teammates, their faces expressing an immediate desire to get down when we stopped for a break. On we pushed and the good news was there were no insane moves coming up.
Slid the googles up unto my forehead and looked around. We were really just in the winter backcountry, where I truly belonged.
I’ve backpacked stretches of the Pacific Coast Trail, Appalachian Trail, Kalalau Trail, as well as winters in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of northern Michigan snowmobiling, hiking and snowboarding — from Boyne to the Sault. Playing competitive soccer twice a week provided a nice relationship with endurance, despite the light but constant fusion of spirits and my blood.
Being in my backyard, my pace quickened, Orc-like, and I passed pigtails, then broh one, then two and finally, the mountaineering professor.
“Hey! You can’t pass me and take lead,” the instructor said.
Was the first team member on the summit of Mt Washington. My summit pic was laced with ego and narcissistic neediness. And on the descent, between glissading, half running and feeling no obligation to be “guided,” I had to constantly wait for the team at different checkpoints.
My second summit showed me that I know infinitely less about climbing and mountaineering than I could ever could have imagined. But there was also the realization that I could learn, and fast. And so my Ohio home-schooling began…
Read HP #3 & #4 when they are released later in 2022. Skip to HP #5:
An infamous Mt. Washington funny video from 1990, and trying to pass a football.
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