The Tree Line

Most of the photos taken during our two-day mountaineering adventure were shot by Northeast Mountaineering’s awesome photographer, Cait Bourgault.  Check out her work at, and on instagram @photocait 


If I had a personal mantra that defined the long weekend I recently spent attempting to climb Mount Washington, it would probably be “What on earth am I doing?” When our friends Jessica and TJ rallied a group of eight of us to take a two-day mountaineering course, it had seemed like a great idea.  Of course, it’s easy to like the sound of an endeavor such as this while you are sitting at your dining room table, drinking a warm cup of chai, and texting your friends about plans that will only affect some abstract, future version of yourself.  It’s also easy to slip into a habit of not taking training seriously, and thinking you have plenty of time to prepare, only to find yourself on the side of a mountain wishing you were in better cardio health.

Before I go any further, I should clarify and say up front that I had a blast trying to climb Mount Washington.  The team at Northeast Mountaineering was great and made the trip really fun.  Despite finding myself to be way out of shape, I enjoyed being on the trail with good friends.  I didn’t even get hangry, which is a serious personality flaw of mine that is often activated on long, strenuous hikes like this.  The only problem was that I found my own fitness to not be up to the task of trying to trudge up a mountain, laden with clumsy gear, while battling hurricane force winds.

Our two-day mountaineering experience actually took five days in total.  One day for driving from Michigan to New Hampshire, one day of skills training, the actual summit attempt, a day to climb vertical ice, and finally the drive home.  On Friday morning we met at The Bunkhouse, which is the New Hampshire headquarters/hostel of Northeast Mountaineering, the guide service that we climbed with.  We met Corey, Dakota, and Cait, our guides and photographer, and then Corey gave us a talk about preparing for our imminent trek.  As a warm fire crackled in the hearth behind him, he covered what gear we would need, how to pack it, and how to best fuel our bodies to maximize warmth and energy during the climb.

After the lesson, Corey did a gear check with us to make sure we were all properly equipped for the next day.  We were able to rent any items that we didn’t bring with us, which ended up being double boots and an emergency parka for me.  Then it was time to gear up and brave the wintery mix that the weather had kindly provided for us.

We drove into White Mountains National Forest, and then hiked uphill for maybe a half mile before stopping just below a long piece of ice that looked like it would be great for climbing.  Here Corey showed us a multitude of different ways to conserve energy while walking up and downhill in crampons.  My preferred of these ended up being the “French method,” which involved cross-stepping sideways while using your ice axe for balance.  This method saves wear on your calves and puts more strain on your quadriceps, and I ended up using it for most of the trek the next day.  We also went over how to carry and use your ice axe before ending the skills course with a super fun crash course in self-arrest. Corey showed us how to stop ourselves from sliding downhill by digging our ice axes into the snow, and we got to practice from a variety of different starting positions.  As fun as practicing was, it was sobering to think about having to actually employ these techniques in the event of a real fall.

© Cait Bourgault

After our lesson we were all completely soaked from the persistent rain that had been falling all day, so we drove back to the Airbnb we were staying in and threw all of our wet snow gear in the dryer before ordering pizza.  While we were waiting for dinner, I attempted to make some progress in befriending Francine, a flying squirrel that was running loose in the house.  She (He?  I don’t know) was thoroughly unimpressed.

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Francine the Flying Squirrel

We turned in early in hopes of getting a lot of rest before our climb the next morning.  Instead of sleep though, I spent most of the night tossing and turning, feeling very nervous about the climb.  I was actually relieved when the alarm rang in the morning because it meant I could get up and stop lying in bed pretending to be asleep.

By the time we met back at the bunkhouse, I had myself decently freaked out (excessive worrying can be a bit of a signature of mine, although I am getting a lot better at keeping it to a minimum).  We gathered the whole group – our eight, plus two other climbers, and the three guides – and drove to the trailhead.  The weather was really nice at the base of the mountain, but we were promised -20ºF windchill and 40 mph bursts above the tree line.

The first portion of the hike started out fine for me, but it didn’t take long for me to start feeling defeated.  The trail wasn’t very steep, but trudging uphill through the woods with my heavy, ill-fitting pack (I borrowed it from my brother, who is bigger than me) became monotonous and tiring.  I started out on the fast side of the group, but ended up slowing down as we reached our first rest stop.  After refueling with some water and snacks I felt a lot better, and was happy to start hiking again because moving was the only way to stay warm.

© Cait Bourgault
© Cait Bourgault

It took less time to get to our next resting point.  Here, we donned our crampons and our next layer of jacket, and traded our trekking poles for ice axes.  I also braved the cold to apply tape to my ankles, which were starting to get hot spots from my boots rubbing against them.

© Cait Bourgault

Cait snapped a group shot of us before we started the next portion of the hike, where things started to get fun… that is if slowly walking up steep inclines with 15 pound weights on your feet (yes I’m exaggerating) is your idea of fun.

© Cait Bourgault

A narrower, steeper trail veered off from the main one we had been walking on.  Now it felt like we were really getting somewhere.  The trail was steeper, the forest denser, and the whole endeavor was beginning to feel a lot more adventurous.  It didn’t take long for me to realize the merits of the French method, and soon I felt confident walking in my crampons, a skill you don’t really get from climbing vertical ice.

It wasn’t long before we came to our first notable obstacle, a steep step covered in ice.  Corey went up it first, and set up a static line so the rest of us would have something to hang onto while climbing it.

© Cait Bourgault

The step was my favorite part of the climb because it felt good to focus on something that was a little more technical, and less cardio-health dependent.

© Cait Bourgault

After the step, the trail was even steeper, and I found that while I was enjoying myself, I really was not prepared at all for how hard the climb was going to be.  I tried to push myself to move faster, but my muscles and my lungs did not want to cooperate with me.  I think on a nice, summer day Mount Washington would not be a problem for me at all, and for some reason I thought that winter wouldn’t be that much different.  I completely neglected to calculate the added impact of having to carry and wear all of that cold weather gear, and the increased clumsiness of walking in snow with crampons vs walking on dirt in hiking boots.

Blame it on gear, snow, or lack of fitness, the outcome was the same.  I ended up reaching the final break before the tree line a bit late.  I gulped down some water, and shoved a handful of almonds in my mouth as the faster section of the group donned their snow goggles and hardshell coats.  They got a head start pushing forward above the tree line, and four of us, along with Dakota as our guide, stumbled into a desolate windy tundra with less time to try to push forward before our 1:00 turn around time.

I was surprised at how quickly our environment changed as we left the trees behind us.  One moment, we were in a fairly peaceful, wintery forest, and the next all illusions of peace and tranquility were literally blown away as we stepped into the desolate environment above the trees.

© Cait Bourgault

Thick clouds kept us from seeing most of our surroundings, not that I was looking around too much as I had to focus on where I was placing my feet, and we often had to pause to brace ourselves against some of the harshest wind I’ve ever felt.  After stumbling around in the cold and wind for what felt like forever, I began to do a bit of mental math.  Nobody from our group was going to make it to the summit that day, that much was obvious.  In fact we had passed many returning climbers below the tree line and none had made it past Lion’s Head, the next landmark on the trail.  Lion’s Head would be the turn around point for the rest of our group, and it was still about a forty-minute trek away optimistically.  It was currently a bit after noon, and we had to turn around by one, so we would have to move much faster if we hoped to make it there.  Suddenly, every step up just began to look like an extra step that I would have to take back down, which was unfavorable because of my tricky left knee, which had picked this trip to give me problems for the first time in over a year.  Jessica was also struggling with massive blisters that had formed on her feet (seeing them after the trek, I couldn’t believe that she had kept walking on them for so long), so I asked if we could turn the climb and she eagerly agreed.  I felt really bad turning it for the two who wanted to keep going, but I also didn’t want to put another half hour of altitude on my knee if we weren’t going to make it anywhere.

The down climb was much faster than our ascent had been, despite me having to pick my footing carefully to try to avoid hurting my knee too badly.  We were approaching the step when, as if to prove that walking downhill is more treacherous than going up, Bonnie slipped and I heard her yell “Falling! Falling! Falling!” from behind me.  I was standing in a precarious spot myself, and without much time to react, I ended up just sitting on her legs as she was about to hit me.  This knee jerk reaction probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I actually did manage to arrest her fall without taking a tumble myself.

We made it safely through the step, which was harder to down climb, and then stopped to wait for the rest of group back where we had originally put on our crampons.  They had made it up to Lion’s Head, and regaled us with the tale of trying to go past Lion’s head only to be met with 70 mph winds.  I was happy to reunite with Vince, and spent the rest of the descent chatting with him, Jordi, and Corey.  Just as we were almost to the parking lot, I stopped and took one, really underwhelming photo.  I was definitely grateful that Cait had been along to capture the day.

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The only photo I took on our climb day

After the climb, my initial reaction was, “That was fun, but NEVER AGAIN.”  Then a few hours passed, and I had eaten a super delicious veggie burrito, and my outlook changed to “Yeah, I’ll try that again.”  Of course, I would want to be in much better shape before making another attempt, and I would also want to make sure to bring a backpack that fits me better, because the giant one I borrowed from Caleb did not do me any favors.

We filled the rest of the weekend by watching the cinematic masterpieces “The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course,” and “Vertical Limit,” and attempting to befriend Francine by feeding her peanut butter.  By our final evening in the cabin, we had her eating peanut butter from our hands.

We also went to a crag called Frankenstein in Crawford Notch State Park to do some ice climbing.  Vince got to try ice leading for the first time, and I got to snag some photos of TJ leading.

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TJ lead climbing at Frankenstein

I also got to try out my new lens, the Canon 50mm prime, and I absolutely love it.

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Vince taken with the 50mm

We spent the next day (New Years Eve) driving home through Canada (and of course stopping to appreciate some mountain views).  All in all, the trip was a great end to 2018, and beginning of our ice climbing season.

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  1. I highly admire you for this hike, unlike anything I’ve done. I had one glorious fall day hike in the White Mountains, many years ago, and seen some of the area by car, but climbing Mt. Washington is a genuine milestone. Thanks for visiting Under Western Skies. I’m certain you’ll get to more of the western states that are my primary beat.

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