Having ignited the “gotta catch ‘em all” fire in my ex-neighbor Tim in 2012 (but only in regards to the White Mountains of NH), our sights were set on Mt. Washington for the spring season of 2014. Our journey started at daybreak on this June morning at Pinkham Notch with nonspecific, rather hazy plans of ascending Washington in the greater Tuckerman Ravine/Lion Head area. (The importance of proper preparation, with up-to-date information, cannot be understated, folks. But that’s neither here nor there.) Tim’s old, out-of-date information warned him that the Lion Head Trail may be closed for erosion, so we headed inside the visitor’s center for information regarding the trails before heading out. There, we learned several little tidbits that some would argue were important:
- The trail we wanted to hike down, through Tuckerman Ravine, was closed due to the waterfalls. The snow depths that had formed within the ravine were still melting out (halfway through June, because, well, because Mt. Washington is Mt. Washington) and were not stable enough for travel.
- Lion Head Trail is open and fine.
- Huntington Ravine Trail is open, but is “technical. You don’t need ropes, but people will use them. It may be a little wet.”
Excited as always by the promise of a challenge, I was immediately attracted to the idea of hiking on the Huntington Ravine Trail. I asked Tim if he wanted to hike Lion Head up and Huntington down, and halfway through his first of several “I’m up for anything” shrugs, the lady behind the desk informed us that “we don’t recommend anybody going down Huntington Ravine because it’s too steep. You should do that route only going up.” “Huntington up and Lion down! Sound good, Tim?” “Sure, whatever.” And so it would be.
Our hike started out on the Tuckerman Ravine trail under overcast skies. We were following the Cutler River for about half a mile so the clouds delighted me. (Waterfall photography, or really any photos of flowing water, do not work so well on sunny days due to the high contrast of light filtering through the trees, as this tends to eliminate the natural highlights caused by the movement of the water.) We slowly hiked our way up to Crystal Cascade, where I met a tripod-free photographer impressed by my level of preparation (because only the most prepared adventurers plan to hike an unstable trail) and inquired about our route. I informed him of our intention to hike up Huntington Ravine to the Alpine Garden, and his reply? “Ah, I’ve done that once. Never again! It’s scary stuff — hope I see you up top! You have a macro lens for the Alpine Garden Trail?” (I did.)
Completely unfazed, we continued upwards, eventually branching off onto the Huntington Ravine Trail and crossing over several roaring but scenic creeks. The sun was out by this point so any good [flowing water] photography was out of the question, but I marked the lower Huntington Ravine Trail in spring as a great spot to add to my overcast day checklist. As we approached the headwall, we joined up with a father/son climbing team also headed into the ravine. At the base of the headwall, the climbers pointed out where the trail would take us: “You’ll follow the boulder field right up to that patch of snow — see where that person with the red backpack is? From there the trail gets… fun! Don’t follow us onto the talus slopes.” Resting for only a minute or so, we launched ourselves up the boulder field and quickly began reflecting on the fact that the King Ravine Trail up the headwall of Mt. Adams was steeper.
Up towards the top of the boulder field, and much to my surprise, we encountered two rather strongly flowing streams — seasonal paths for the spring runoff. I paused for a second to really reflect on the depth of the snow that must have been sitting on top of Washington this past winter. For these waterfalls to be flowing as consistently as they were, this high up on the mountain, this late into spring… It was beyond what my imagination could grasp. The first one that we noticed was flowing down next to The Pinnacle, a large rock formation upon which we saw a group of climbers. As I spotted the flow, I turned to Tim and shouted excitedly “TIM! I HAVE to get below that!!” But it wasn’t possible at that spot, so we hiked on up and came to the second stream. As we crossed it, I pulled out my tripod and the super-wide lens and took some pictures of a mini cascade flowing down from the peaks above. I was very limited in the amount of perspectives I could capture (repositioning myself too many times may have resulted in my tumbling down a boulder field), but using a super-wide lens allowed me more options than I would have had otherwise. As a tradeoff, it also meant I had to crouch within the spray of the water. If you ever plan to do this, take a lens cloth with you — you’ll be using it after every shot. I slacked on this necessary step a couple of times (when bracketing exposures, I tend to click them out one after another without pausing), and as result I had to crop a water splotch out of my best result. The lesson here? When standing in the spray of a waterfall to get a super-wide perspective, cover your camera with a rain cover, keep the lens cap on between shots, and wipe down the front of the filter with a lens cloth the moment before you click the shutter each and every time.
Tim was waiting for me at the patch of snow where the boulder field ended. Mr. Red Backpack and his partner had actually turned around here, and now we could see why. The boulder field had led us up to a sheer cliff, and as a surprise only to fools, we saw blazes leading right up it. The Pinnacle towered over us to the left, opposite where the trail went, and while Tim pondered on whether he was up for the challenge, I told him I was going down to the bottom of the first waterfall. He told me to be careful, and with only slightly shaky knees I meticulously stepped down a dangerously unsettled talus slope.
For those unfamiliar with mountainsides, allow me to explain something about talus: it’s loose. It is a slope (in this case, a steep one) covered in tiny rocks that are always moving below your feet and feel ready to tumble down in an avalanche of rocks, ice, and body parts at any given moment. I made my way down being especially careful to nudge as few rocks as possible, switchbacking when the terrain allowed and finding all the large, stationary rocks that I could. Fortunately, the trek to the bottom of the waterfall wasn’t very long, so I stepped onto the equally unsettled material at the base of the flowing water, set up my tripod as motionlessly as I ever had (great training for wildlife photography, perhaps?), and started clicking away. After I caught all the wide exposures that I wanted to, I changed lenses to capture only the top portion. This whole time, I should note, I was terrified that all the recently-deposited material would wash down the ravine, taking me with it. It didn’t, but my fear (and severe lack of options) prevented me from seeking out additional perspectives. Before heading back up to Tim, I picked up an old, broken ice axe some winter adventurer had dropped from The Pinnacle’s sheer cliff walls.
I returned to Tim my legs shaking from fighting the talus and my mind shaking from the whole experience to find him chatting with a dude who had hiked Huntington Ravine some fifteen times before. Listening to him speak of the climb ahead in a casual sort of way and then watching him effortlessly glide up the wall gave both Tim and me the confidence we needed to keep going up. He was out of sight within minutes, and as I watched him maneuver the headwall I turned to Tim and said “Oh, we’ll be fine. We just go that way, then that way, and then step over that wet slab like he did, and then we’ll be golden.” Even standing directly in front of our path, it was easy to underestimate the length and difficulty of what lay ahead.
It only took about the first five steps or so before I began to understand that maybe, just maybe, I had finally tried to tackle something that was over my head. Perhaps it was my shaken mental state from the waterfall chase, but I was struggling to conquer just the first pitch. My camera bag, full of an SLR and three lenses, was hanging across my body, swinging freely. At times it felt like it would knock me off balance, sometimes it obscured my view of potential handholds or footholds, and other times it simply prevented me from pulling my body close enough to the rock. I was also wearing shoes whose soles had long been worn out. As Tim waited for me on the first landing, I frantically worked my way up the cliff, convinced that my shoes would slip out from under me while I searched for handholds that weren’t there. (The wet spot I had noticed from below, I should note, was not an easy step like a fifteen-time veteran would lead one to believe.) I have no photos of this spot, but plan to change that for next time by packing away my extra lenses into my pack before this ascent, securing my camera (with the most diverse lens I have attached to it — the 18 – 300mm) to my waist where it can’t shift, and using footwear I have confidence in (climbing shoes may be the best bet for this section).
My normally stable mountainside mindset was in shambles on this headwall, and it was Tim who took over the leadership role and voice of confidence for the first half of the climb. As I was struggling to pull myself to the second landing, I noticed two girls down at the snowpack studying the headwall like we had been doing several minutes before. They seemed to be under the belief that hiking over the snow would provide a better route up the cliff than our route — the blazed route — would, and I began to panic for them. Tim wisely instructed me to keep my focus forward, invaluable advice for such terrain. He firmly reprimanded me further up the headwall as well, when I looked behind me while pulling myself up a boulder to see someone’s pack lying in the ravine below. “Do you think someone fell down there?!” “FORWARD!” This man did not take long to develop a strong mountain instinct. Eventually, I did regain my confidence and snapped some photos of Tim scaling the wall after the most gut-wrenching stuff had passed.
This technical hiking lasted considerably longer than either of us expected — at least half a mile — but we both made it up to the Alpine Garden Trail unscathed, where we were immediately blasted by incredible wind gusts. This flat trail followed the rim of the ravine, and the only challenging aspect of it was walking forward without getting blown over. The noontime light was flattening the landscape around us and the alpine flowers, I learned later, were blooming a week earlier but were bare as we walked by. With my camera packed away for this trail, we breezed through that mile and soon enough found ourselves only .9 miles and 1,000 feet away from the summit. We were above Tuckerman Ravine as we started heading back upwards, and soon found ourselves engulfed in the clouds trapped by the terrain.
After seeing the obviously relieved photographer from Crystal Cascade (“SO happy to see you guys!”), several exhaustion breaks, and the completion of the most difficult staircase we’ve ever climbed (along the obligatory growling at the kids running up the steps after emerging from their parents’ cars), we found ourselves on the completely socked-in summit, blasted by cold, wind, and clouds. As we got in line for our summit photo, we were joined by the girls we had seen below us at the start of the headwall. Once we all realized that we recognized each other and why, we exchanged congratulations and powerful high fives that made me wish I had remembered to pack gloves. Then into the cafeteria we went to escape the winter conditions, grab food, and wait a little while to see if the clear sky everywhere else would eventually catch up to the infamous summit of Mt. Washington — home of the “world’s worst weather” while sitting 6,288 feet above sea level.
Inside unfolded a scene that belonged nowhere near a mountaintop, complete with a post office, fully working bathrooms, a cafeteria full of delights such as pizza and coffee, and a plethora of sightseer hopefuls that had not hiked to the summit. This bustling building also contained a plaque that came almost with a shock: a list of everyone who had died on the mountain. Two of the most recent items on that list, one in March of 2013 and one in November of the same year, took place in Huntington Ravine. The first was a solo ice climber who fell in an avalanche while climbing in the Pinnacle Gully, and the second was a hiker who had ventured off trail to “get closer to a waterfall.” I walked away from that list relatively convinced that I had picked up a dead man’s ice axe and that I should have died doing what I did.
I suppose the lesson here is that it’s important to consider the costs and benefits of your actions. In the world of photography, you have to take risks. Interest in photography has exploded in the age of smartphones, and for those of us who take it seriously, unique perspectives and a willingness to leave our comfort zones is essential to stand out. However, there’s nothing wrong with a quick little cost/benefit analysis before diving into the deep. Know your limits, and understand how your unique perspective tests them. No image is worth your life. I’ll let you guys be the final judge here, but if you ask me, the low angle of the runoff cascade is not any better than the image of the Pinnacle taken from the safety of the boulder field. Poor cost/benefit analysis, but an experience I do not regret.
DISCLAIMER: Trekking off-trail is dangerous, particularly in bad weather, and can result in injury or death when hiking above tree line. Know your limits and do not attempt to surpass them, even for unique photo opportunities. Also remember that Alpine vegetation is fragile. Stay on trail (or tread carefully if off-trail) to minimize environmental impacts.
Back to the summit. Although photos taken in fog have the potential to be extremely compelling, and I am personally interested in capturing such conditions, I was feeling uninspired up on the summit. To begin, there were too many buildings around, and the fog was really too thick for any interesting “vanishing point” perspectives (such as repeated rock cairns). There wasn’t much in the way of vegetation growing among the rocks, and the clouds weren’t parting to offer even glimpses of the surrounding land or swirling clouds. (My trek up Mt. Katahdin the previous September was far more rewarding, thanks to the diversity of sky conditions.)
We waited about an hour for the view to clear and then headed down the Lion Head Trail to emerge from the cloud right above Tuckerman Ravine. We made it off the mountain without incident, and as we drove past the north side of the mountain on the way home, we noticed that the clouds had finally cleared from the summit. No doubt, this would thrill the swarm of sightseers trekking to the summit via car and train.