Overnight at Mt. Washington Observatory
We’re here to learn “self-arrest”: a technique of stopping a fall that can make the difference between living and not. We climb to the crest of the slope, lie on our bellies, heads to the rise, and, well, let go. We slide, wanting speed, then push down with our body weight on the edge of the axe until we stop. Climb back. Lie on our backs, let go, flip ourselves over. Stop. Climb back. Then head first, a position to give pause, then flip ourselves over, all the while lifting our legs off the ground lest a crampon dig in, and perhaps snap an ankle. One of us doesn’t stop until he barrels into Joe, standing like a crossing guard where the slope levels off. In 1994, a woman in her early twenties climbed not far from here with friends; they made themselves into human sleds, until the laughter ended, when in a sudden and growing mist, she shot past the headwall and into a deep crevasse. Her name is on the wall at the Sherman Adams Summit Building.
Joe’s pack weighs 24 pounds. He tells us that these 24 pounds will let him survive any conditions on Earth. On the side of the pack he carries a short-handled, steel-bladed shovel. It weighs next to nothing; hardware stores carry them for $10. We trek across the ridge until we come to hard pack. We dig what looks like a grave–just deep enough and long enough to hold one of us. If we’re ever caught in a storm, if it’s 20 below and blowing 80, this hole can provide just enough warmth away from the wind to give rescuers time to find us. We take turns crawling inside. When I slide under the lip of the cave, it’s as claustrophobic as an MRI tube. “It’s not the Ritz,” Joe says, “but it’ll keep you alive.”
The night is clear, the stars startlingly so, but in the morning clouds sweep through and descend, and snow starts. Joe’s happy; bad weather has joined his trip. We start walking down the Auto Road. Once I’m blown nearly off it. When I look up, the group seems to have walked through a hidden white door. I know I’m fine. I’m standing on the Auto Road; Joe is just ahead. But still…
In time, we hear the snow tractor rumbling toward us from the top, where it had gone earlier to take supplies. Nobody wants to get in.
For another visit to Mount Washington, listen to Jud Hale’s description in Jud’s New England Journal.
For more information on the observatory’s 2009 EduTrips, go to: mountwashington.org
Daytrips to above treeline on Mt. Washington (4.5-mile mark on the Auto Road) are available via SnowCoach van: greatglentrails.com