Route: Odell's in Huntington Ravine. 2 Pitches Ice (Pitch one: easy ice of 30-50 degrees, 70 M with 2 – 3 ice screw placements; pitch two: moderate ice of 40 – 70 degrees, 30 M with one ice screw placement followed by 30 M of snow and rock, two rock placements (stoppers). 3 Pitches Rock/Mixed/Dry Tooling (each about 60 M, minimal placement needed, free solo feasible)
Getting there, but is there ice?
Leaving the DC area at 11:30 pm Saturday (12/17) night, my partner Mark and I were quite excited about the trip ahead. For Mark, this would be his first foray into alpine climbing and mountaineering, while for me this would be my first experience tackling technical ice and a winter mountaineering ascent. All things considered, it seemed we were an optimal pair for the trip: Mark's ice and rock experience coupled with my mountaineering experience created between us a strong skills foundation.
In preparation for the trip, we had been watching reports on weather and ice conditions, and were not encouraged. New England had been experiencing unseasonably warm weather all fall, and ice reports were offering little evidence of any freezing. Worried, we had even planned a back up trip to Canada if the ice wasn't in when we arrived. Lucky for us, this wasn't necessary.
We arrived in Conway at about 10:00 AM, heading straight for the EMS where Mark needed to pick up insulated water bottle holders and a map. Instead, he made an immediate beeline for their guides, knowing what they have to offer would be much more valuable than any map. However, the info we received was anything but promising: ice was not in, we'd be best off hiking or getting on some rock. Further, the forecasts had deteriorated, expecting building winds overnight and through our first full day (the 19th), only slowing during the day of the 20th, our second and last day. Slightly discouraged, we got some supplies in town and a Mount Washington map meant for trail hiking, resigned to the conditions. Not willing to give up on climbing completely, we did recon the climbing area near Conway that the EMS guide had pointed out on the maps. Cathedral Ledge looked like it has some interesting lines, but with our rock background, we weren't particularly impressed. Finally, it was time to head to the mountain.
We drove to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center run by the AMC, arriving about 12:30 pm. We headed in to sign up for the Harvard Cabin, since reservations must be done in person at the desk. While signing in however, we got to talking with the AMC staff. To our amazement, against everything we heard, they were certain that the ice was in (at Huntington at least). Whether due to exhaustion or information overload however, we couldn't quite grasp what we were hearing, believing that it must be thin, early season ice that just formed from the sharp freeze they had the week before. Mark, with only a year of leading experience on ice, thought we would best sticking with our hiking plan. Indeed, as we packed in the AMC's packing room under the visitor center, we decided to leave the ropes and racks in the car, a decision we would regret.
Sure enough, after hiking the two miles from the notch to the cabin, the hut caretaker, Rich, informs us that there is some fat ice in Huntington, especially Odell's and Pinnacle. So we drop our stuff, turn around, and hike back to the car, grabbing the rock and ice racks. After a great time at Harvard Cabin and tired from the six miles that should have been two, we go to bed eager for Odell's.
To the summit, climb on!
We awake at 7 to the weather report coming over the radio: winds building all day, with winds 50-70 during the day, building to 80-90 overnight. Further, with a front moving in, there was the chance of snow in the evening. However, it seemed we would be a go for an attempt up Odell's, able to hike down via the Alpine Garden/Lion's Head if weather proved poor. With Mark ready to go a little late, we were set to leave at 10... only to find Mark had left the ropes in the car. OOPS! Pulling a quick audible, we decided to hike our ascent and descent lines to prepare for a dedicated attempt the next day, when the weather is supposed to be better. We hiked Lion's Head up to the Alpine Garden, were I was blown over flat on my side by gusts of wind around 65 mph! (FYI: The winds on Alpine Garden can be harsh around the Lion's Head formation, but about 100 meters past the rock, the trail is sheltered by the ridge line. Thus, if you can make it past that 100 M, you'll be out of the wind until the actual summit pyramid.) We hiked down to Harvard Cabin and from there to the Huntington Ravine Trail, gauging our approach. Ice looked great on Yale, Odell's, and Pinnacle, so we expected the next day to be a go. Finally, we had to hike back the car for our ropes. All in all, we put in 9 miles of hiking on our first full day.
Waking at 7 again, the weather was great: winds starting the day around 50 mph, dropping over the day to 30 mph by evening with clear conditions all day. We finished packing quickly, leaving the cabin at 830.
We got to Odell's around 10, took a food break and racked up. We started the ice at about 10:45, with Mark leading the ice.
His first pitch was primarily easy ice, 30 to 50 degree ice, with one 6 foot section of vertical ice in a beautiful dihedral. Mark protected the first pitch with two screws, climbing the full length of the 70 M rope (gives you a good idea of how easy it was). The second pitch was more difficult, with moderate ice, 40-70 degrees, making up the majority of climb. Here too was another 6 foot section of vertical ice. However, the ice on this second pitch was thinner, making it a little nerve-racking. On a few occasions, we sunk our ice axes into what appeared to be fat ice only to have a gusher erupt as we pulled out the picks. To avoid ice that had gotten early sun, we swung left on the second pitch, topping out onto some ice/snow/rock covered scree. From here, we followed the ridge line up to the Alpine Garden. Though we stayed roped up for the three pitches of rock scrambling and snow, with Mark placing a piece or two of rock pro as he went, I thought this overkill and advocated an unroped finish. Better safe than sorry I guess. Anyways, we topped out at Alpine Garden at about 2:45 and hustled towards the Lion's Head/Alpine Garden trail junction. We repacked our harnesses and then summited via the Lion's Head route. Hiked back down to Harvard Cabin and packed, getting to the car at something like 6:30 pm.
Ice conditions in Huntington: Odell's was fat at the base, getting thinner as you go. The right side of the gulley looked thicker, but is much steeper and gets morning sun (make sure any attempt on this ice comes after a few days of solid freeze and climb in low temps, my two cents). Even at the bottom, you could hear the water running underneath of the fat ice though.