Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ascending New Hampshire's Mount Washington

1. Mount Washington:
If the White Mountains wore a crown, it would look like Mount Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire, New England, and the northeast, cresting at 6,288 feet. Yet, the greater the obstacle, the greater seems to be its attraction, and it is this philosophy which has served as its magnet for hikers, skiers, and technology-tamers-that is, those who sought to surmount it by road and rail-all in the conquering spirit of "reaching the top."
Originally designated "Agiochooki"-the Indian word for "home of the Great Spirit," "the place of the spirit of the forest," and "the place of the storm spirit"-it was seen as the exalted domain of just such a deity, "Gitche Manitos," and any attempted ascent was therefore considered sacrilegious. Non-Native Americans, however, did not think so and did not hesitate to try.
Its obstacles were not to be underestimated. Surrounded by 5,372-foot Mount Monroe, 5,716-foot Mount Jefferson, and 5,533-foot Mount Clay, Mount Washington itself, a melange of metaphoric rock and characterized by ancient alpine glacier-carved ravines, lies at the center of three storm tracks in the Presidential Range and its prehistoric continental ice sheet covering left vegetation above its tree line only found in the near-arctic regions of Labrador. Its slopes are drained by several rivers, including the Ammonoosuc, the Dry, the Rocky Branch, the New, the Cutler, and the Peabody.
Below-zero temperatures on more than 65 days per year ensure summit permafrost, and hurricane wind velocities of at least 75 mph pound it on more than half of its winter days. Its lowest temperature was -49 degrees Fahrenheit and highest wind velocity 231 mph, as recorded at its summit on April 12, 1934.
Yet, none of this daunted summit-strivers. The initial path, so to speak, was forged in 1642 when Darby Field, aided by two Indian guides, made the first recorded climb, while the first scientific mission, the Belknap-Cutler Expedition, was conducted more than a century later, in 1784, when it was undertaken for the purpose of measurement and alpine plant collection.
Renamed Mount Washington after then-General George Washington, it was also the target of Colonel George Gibbs, a mineralogist, who cleared its first path in 1809, but made several successive climbs since then.
Forging their own summit-surmounting path a decade later, Abel and Ethan Allen Crawford, a father-and-son team, passed it to brother Thomas, who considerably improved it between 1838 and 1840 by widening it and rendering it suitable for horse negotiation. Although it has no current equestrian use, it remains as the Crawford Bridle Path and is maintained by the White Mountain National Forest.
Each "step up" brought those path blazers to new strata as the flora and fauna reflected the climactic conditions generated by their elevation-associated temperatures, which dip three degrees with every 1,000 feet, and wind and precipitation, which commensurably increase.
Between 2,000 and 2,500 feet, for example, hardwood forests-of American beech, sugar maple, yellow birch, white ash, white pine, red maple, red spruce, Eastern hemlock, and red oak-predominate, becoming spruce-fir forests, of balsam and red varieties, up to 4,000 feet.
As if malnourished, the balsam fir trees creating their own system become stunted at about 4,500 feet, yielding to the short transition, or Krummholz, zone, up to 4,800 feet, where twisted and slanted trees mark the end of the forest and the beginning of the alpine area. The latter, considered above the tree line, is no longer able to support tree growth because of its pounding rain, snow, fierce winds, and intolerable temperatures, and instead incubates robust, low-lying plants.
There are two significant plateaus above 5,000 feet: Bigelow Lawn, an alpine meadow with arctic sedges, and Alpine Meadow, abundant, as its name suggests, with alpine wildflowers.
The summit is a rocky, desolate, wind-swept moonscape whose view of the other Presidential Range peaks is awe-inspiring when the clouds allow it.
In order to take up the challenge imposing Mount Washington seems to propose, visitors have three principle means of doing so: by foot, road, or rail.
2. Foot:
Most of the challenges early ascenders had faced remain for modern-day hikers and climbers. Because of the mountain's weather severity and changeability, the season for either is relatively short, running from Memorial to Columbus Day, with often-encountered mud, snow, and ice after this time. Winter surmounts, fraught with the most frigid temperatures, highest winds, deepest snow accumulations, and the least amount of daylight, should only be attempted by the most fit, trained, experienced, and provisioned. Ravines expose climbers to potential avalanches and the summit is usually shrouded in cloud.
Indeed, a sign located at the mountain's approach warns, "Stop! The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad. White Mountain National Forest."
Trails vary according to length, elevation gain, gradient, severity, and obstacle, and run the spectrum from short, low-elevation hikes to full, summit-surmounting climbs. Of the latter, there are several.

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