My stance was poor, frictioning my feet against lichen infested rock and reaching over to sloping and loose holds I realized I had no choice but to use these pitons, other protection was entirely absent. Reaching for an extendable sling and carabineer I banged on the piton once, “Ding….” A hollow ring echoed down into the valley. Pulling on the piece it seemed to be strong enough so I inched my way forward. It’s moments like these where an adrenaline fueled high will consume your mind, closing out the rest of the universe and all of your tedious tasks back in the civilized world. Exposure like this places you in a deep meditative trance where every fiber of your body can be felt and each delicate movement takes absolute and full awareness. Reaching high again I clipped the next piton then balanced my weight on the small foot chip below me and swung my weight out onto the exposed and sloping rock. Failure was no longer an option. At that very moment my pack caught the jagged roof above me causing my weight to shift and my heart to lurch into my throat, “This is it,” I thought. I’m going to fall and need to be rescued by teams of first responders while hanging off the edge of a 600’ rock prow.
Weeks earlier I sat at the small map counter in Eastern Mountain Sports thumbing through a fresh copy of North Conway Rock Climbs with a pile of guidebooks surrounding me. Reading intently, I compared the information the books offered on local rock climbs and assessed which was more informative. “I just feel as though if I buy one of these guidebooks and put the positive vibe out there, the universe will align, and these climbing objectives will finally present themselves to me, you know?” Leaning tiredly against her elbow on the counter, Amanda looked up at me and nodded her head approvingly.
The route that had caught my attention was known as The Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle. Located high in the Huntington Ravine of Mount Washington, the Pinnacle Buttress loomed well over 700 vertical feet and provided some of the most exciting alpine rock climbing environment on the East Coast. In fact, a variation of the route was first completed in 1910 when mountaineering equipment was limited to no more than a few railroad spikes, hemp rope and thick leather boots, a sobering consideration for any egotistical mountaineer with access to today’s technological advancements. The route was, as I was told, like, “climbing through a museum” with the assortment of fixed protection left from explorers of nearly a century ago. However even with todays improved climbing gear, successful access and completion of this climb would be no easy task. A long and grueling hike from the AMC’s visitor center in Pinkham Notch, would span 2300 vertical feet before the climb could even begin. Once there, a minimum of five hours would need to be allocated strictly to route finding and climbing the exposed face before then descending from Mount Washington’s 6289’ peak. This would undoubtedly be the most committing and physically, not to mention psychologically, demanding climb I had ever attempted. That was, if I ever had the chance.
Later that week I stood at the edge of a workbench in my small woodshop, covered in sawdust and sweat, when I noticed my phone buzzing between the drill press and router. A message from a long time climbing partner read, “Any plans this weekend? I had some hopes of climbing. Any thoughts?” I couldn’t reply quickly enough. Tapping the keys of my phone I hatched out the idea that had come to me in EMS and proposed the Pinnacle as a weekend objective. I waited in anticipation hoping that our opportunity had come finally come.
4:30 AM is early for anyone, but on the morning that my two partners and I set out for Mount Washington, the dreary spell of sleep had been fully lifted and replaced with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. We motored our way into New Hampshire, rolling over Vermont’s winding roads and through the thick cloudbanks, which had yet to awaken themselves. Before we knew it, our packs were on our backs and sweat was pouring from our brows as we trudged up the steep Tuckerman’s Ravine trail and split off into Huntington Ravine. Anticipation silenced the group as we grew closer to the buttress and the sounds of mountain birds and wind over alpine plants whistled in the absence of our conversation. Finally, the thick coniferous forest had cleared and there before us lay the talus field that would bring us to our objective.
Standing at the base of the buttress, we combined gear and studied the task before us. The Pinnacle was bigger than it looked in the guidebooks, much bigger. The jagged piece of metamorphic rock jettisoned out of the confounds of the mountains steep slope and presented its bold face to the elements. Our difficulty today would be managing the exposure to the sun, which could not only overheat and dehydrate a climber but blind one with its powerful rays beating off the almost luminescent rock. More than that, Mount Washington is known for its temperamental weather patterns; it could be sunny one moment and then pouring rain with 100 mph winds the next. Nonetheless, we were off before we knew it, climbing quickly through vertical crack systems, around loose refrigerator-sized blocks of detached rock and over grainy, schist-covered ledges. The exposure was magnificent.
We had swapped the position of the lead climber at every belay ledge, which had proven to be an arduous task but the easiest way of distributing the workload. As it goes, the lead climber will navigate through a pitch of rock, placing pieces of removable protection as they go and when having reached a suitable belay stance, the leader will stop, build an anchor and belay their partners to the next anchor. The most important difference between the leader and the follower relates to the probability of incurring damage in the event of a fall. Shortly put, the lead climber will almost always have a greater chance of getting hurt if something were to go wrong on their way up. This is the assumed risk that mountaineers attempt to manage. Having just reached the crux, or most difficult portion of the climb, it was now my turn to lead and my turn to manage that risk.
“So I believe this is the route” Peter said, pointing to the picture in my new guidebook. “Ya,” I agreed. “Up this right facing corner, step right over the awkward overhang and into the belay ledge. No problem!” I announced confidently. I carefully position the gear onto my shoulder sling and worked my way up the hand-sized crack. Now roughly 500’ up, a retreat off of the face would be incredibly difficult. Smearing my left toe onto a small quartz crystal and jamming my right foot into the thin crack below me, I worked my way up the crack and into the difficult section. Beneath two overhangs, I managed to place a few pieces of small-sized protection and then belly flop myself into the narrow corridor below the second roof. I was beginning to notice the pack I was carrying, as it continually caught edges of the roof above me and threated to pull me backward off the face. Crawling into the next corner I looked above me into what appeared to be the route we had described. “It’s a bit nasty up here boys!” My voice echoed through the valley while I assessed the possible options.
Above me was an assortment of old pitons, metal stakes pounded into the rock, which could be used as protection in the absence of crack systems where removable protection could be used. The trouble with pitons is that they are old and often times unpredictable. I thought back to an article I had read in a local climbing magazine about the wear that these metal pitons incur over time. The article had several old, rusted and mostly bent pitons laid out over a rock which the author had removed with a slight tug of one hand. The author went on to describe accounts of climbers over-trusting pitons and unfortunately falling on them, causing them to bend and twist and inevitably pull out of the rock, plummeting the leader through a dangerous fall.
In the matter of seconds that it took for my pack to pull me backward from the route I imagined my story being added to the list of other climbers who had over trusted an old piton. Breaking this rusted piece of jagged iron meant falling 20 feet onto the ledge below me, and then potentially bouncing over the steep edge below that. An injury in this terrain would necessitate a long and painful extraction requiring the assistance of high angle rescue teams. We could be stranded up here all night. What would my parents think? Could this really be happening?
But it wasn’t. I made the move, muscling through the terror and replacing my mental armor to its defined place I reached the next ledge and built my anchor. I shouted in relief, the fear and adrenaline spilling out of me now. Confidence in my movement and ability had never been so high. My partners met me at the anchor, pushing through the difficult stage and shouting with joy as they loaded back into the safety of the ledge. The sun had begun to hide above the peak of the climb and a shivering cold came over all of us. Moving more quickly than I ever had, we escaped the ledge, passing through the final stages of the climb and eventually out onto the buttresses peak. Success.
We shared congratulations as we walked over the razor sharp, fairy tale like fin off of the pinnacle and onto Mount Washington’s peak. The descent was filled with laughter and tales of our completed task. The accomplishment had propelled each of us to a new level in our mountaineering skills and built a strong trust in our team work and group ability. That night I would revisit the North Conway Rock Climbs book with a full heart and strong confidence. A door had been opened, a future objective list created and a fiery aspiration kindled. The Pinnacle had humbled us all, but more than that, it proved a prosperous future for each of us as young mountaineers.
Segments of this article along with a short interview with it's author were featured in Climberism issue 18: The Climbing Bum