Yankee Classic: Nightmare on Mount Washington
Yankee Magazine March 1993
The afternoon of February 24, 1991, blew in cold and gusty, and Vermonters Tom Smith and Jamie Huntsman felt all of its bluster. By 2:00 P.M. the two avid climbers stood high up in Odell Gully, a steep, icy gash in Huntington Ravine, just a couple of hundred feet below the summit shoulder of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the Northeast’s tallest peak.
Though nearly at the end of their climb, Jamie, a tall, athletic 36-year-old from Montpelier, was growing anxious. He and Tom, 41, a lean former nationally ranked bicycle racer, had started that morning under starry skies. But the weather had deteriorated all day and now they were wrapped in clouds dense with snow flurries.
Roped together for safety, they had been leapfrogging each other up the gully, cautiously taking turns climbing, then digging in to provide security in case the other slipped or fell — a basic mountaineering technique called belaying. Jamie was leading now, with Tom below providing the belay, and he was encountering loose patches of snow. He thought, "This doesn’t feel good."
The avalanche danger that morning had been rated low to moderate at the Appalachian Mountain Club Lodge in Pinkham Notch when they started. But Mount Washington is notorious for its changing weather, and Jamie wondered how much snow had fallen in the past few hours.
Jamie carefully worked his way up the narrow, V -shaped sluiceway they had entered after leaving the broad face of ice and rocks in the main gully. He crested a small ice bulge and, once secure on top, dug in a little seat. Sticking his ice ax solidly behind him as an anchor, he roped himself into it and turned to face downhill, setting his crampons in the ice. "Belay on," he yelled to his partner. "Climb."
"Climbing," Tom’s voice echoed up.
Tom, a tall man with an irrepressible sense of humor and remarkable athletic skills, had plunged into ice climbing the last two years with his characteristic enthusiasm. The two had spent the winter practicing on ice all over Vermont, and Tom had twice come to Mount Washington to take ice-climbing lessons. They had been eager to tackle this longer, more challenging climb together.
As Tom worked his way up, Jamie took in the slack line. Suddenly, the world around Jamie went completely white.