By Clyde Smith
In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s October 1980 issue (Volume 9, Issue 3).
SKI MOUNTAINEERING across New Hampshire’s Presidential Range can be the most harrowing experience of your life, and it could quite possibly be the end of it if you’re not prepared for some of the most severe weather conditions on earth! Mount Washington is the crown of this rugged range which is composed of dozens of New England’s highest peaks. By Western standards, Washington’s modest 6,288 feet in elevation wouldn’t seem very imposing, but the fact is its climatic conditions have earned it a reputation of having the “worst weather in the world.”
Ferocious wind is its nemesis. The highest natural velocity ever observed by man was recorded at Washington’s summit Weather Observatory on April 12, 1934—an incredible gust of 231 mph! Sustained winds over the range’s exposed slopes are often over 100 mph. Combined with below zero temperatures, the wind chill can deliver a knock-out punch for any who venture or are stranded above timberline.
The entire range is often capped in clouds and in winter the addition of blowing snow reduces visibility to a few feet at best. Route finding then is serious business and if you don’t believe it there is a casualty list of 85 individuals who have perished in one way or another through the years, any because they lost their way. Panic, exhaustion, and exposure are some of the dangers lurking along the range for unsuspecting travelers. To probe above timberline in winter without adequate survival gear is courting suicide.
In spite of these obstacles, or perhaps because of them, I have criss-crossed the Presidential Range at various times for more than 40 years. I find the winter months most rewarding when the throngs have retreated to their city dwellings or have augured to the comfort of resorts with all their amenities. But I wouldn’t think of wandering above tree line without a pack full of equipment—even if it’s just a day excursion.
However, many of my treks have been of extended duration in which my companions and I have camped overnight along the way. It is during these longer periods on the mountains that I’ve grown to respect the forces of Nature and indeed discover how very frail man is when the elements turn against him.
It is nearly impossible to tell someone what it’s like to experience a 100 mph wind. For one thing, you cannot stand. The force of the wind is like an overpowering surf—it will easily knock you off your feet. If you happen to be traveling on skis and the wind velocity mounts to hurricane proportions the best thing to do is get off them. Otherwise you’ll be pummeled over the mountainside like a windmill. I was on Washington for four nights, pinned in my camp during a storm in which a peak gust reached 121 mph. The temperature hovered at 45 degrees below zero. The wind chill was unmerciful and equaled any of the most severe conditions found in Antarctica.
The world is full of armchair experts, but the real test is out on the slopes where all men are equal with creation, and sometimes the answers aren’t so pleasant.
The winds over the Presidential Range produce a disorienting quality. It’s a bit like being caught in a punching bag and if there’s a whiteout, finding direction is a baffling enigma. A 100 mph wind has a way of sucking the breath right out of you, so not only are you in a battle for balance but you are also in a fight to retain the very air you need to stay alive. Without the best wind protection, parkas, hoods, hats, mittens, pants, and boots, oblivion is only a matter of seconds on a clock.
All this sounds melodramatic, of course, when one is sitting in the comfort of their living room. It’s easy to say, “Oh I could handle a situation like that,” when your feet are nice and toasty beside the fireplace. The world is full of armchair experts, but the real test is out on the slopes where all men are equal with creation, and sometimes the answers aren’t so pleasant.
For all of its ferocity, the Presidential Range can just as quickly slip into quiescence. That is one of its predictable characteristics—being unpredictable. When those lulls between storms do occur, ski mountaineering can be a delightful adventure. There is one thing you can almost always count on, however, and that is no fluffy powder. As a matter of fact, snow conditions are often very sparse, leaving exposed boulders and rocks on the windward sides. The snow accumulates on the lee sides or drifts off into the great ravines below. What snow remains is usually hard packed or even ice coated so make sure your edges are sharp. I never cross the range without my crampons either. There are places where you just can’t maneuver through rocks on skis and if you remove them to go on foot, most slippery ski boots just won’t bite into what little hard-packed snow there is. Besides, if it’s windy, crampons provide extra confidence for just hanging on.
I’ve done a number of complete traverses across the entire range on skis and each time I’ve experience different conditions. Your salvation lies in the preparation of equipment you carry on your back plus a knowledge of the terrain, along with an understanding of your own physical limitations. By the time you add up the weight of a cold weather sleeping bag, thick sleeping mat, tent, cooking, stove, fuel, food, cooking utensils, extra clothes (don’t forget extra mittens in case one pair is lost in the wind) and any other necessary items, you’ll feel like quite a pack horse going across the mountains. But in spite of the weight it doesn’t pay to take short cuts and go skimpy on items that could mean the difference in survival.
Once all this is concentrated on your back you’ll find the techniques used for skiing the well groomed resort slopes just won’t work high on the icy slopes. I call my technique “tank skiing,” where I just rumble along not worrying how I look or whether my skis are together or not. Coming down erect is cause enough for jubilation.
Over the period of many years I’ve used a number of different types of shelter for overnights. Igloos were popular with us for a long time and provided plush quarters in exposed areas. Igloos are time consuming to construct, though, and we seldom used them on a moving traverse. However, if we planned to stay in one spot longer than one night, then they proved to be worth the effort. We’ve also used snow caves but more often these were on emergency bivouacs as they are definitely not comfortable. There are a few shelters, too, below the tree line levels which are helpful in establishing a base before attempting the exposed crossings. Our tents probably were the best system, in that you can set up camp as necessary wherever you happen to be. However, because of the scouring action from flying ice crystals, tents take an awful beating and can be shredded in no time. The way we combat that is by building a wall of snow blocks on the windward side as a buffer.
Certainly New Hampshire’s Presidential Range is not a place to be taken lightly by the adventuring ski mountaineer. Under ideal conditions there are many fine runs and the space is as exhilarating as any in the world. But it’s a wise person who keeps a watchful eye on Mother Nature, because, on Washington, she can be some mother!