Mt. Washington – Respect the Specialist

Exactly one year ago today, a group of us attempted to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. This was one of the most intense experiences of my life.  Prior to that I had been skydiving, bungee jumping, hang gliding, and drove over the speed limit once, but  I felt this experience was the most dangerous.

Mt. Washington is not known for it’s height (6,289 ft), but for it’s weather. It can go from bright and sunny to life-threateningly cold in a matter of minutes. It is famously known for having the highest land-recorded wind speed at 231 mph back in 1934. (wikipedia) So naturally we came up with the idea to climb it in February.

The group consisted of three guys from CrossFit KoP (me, Vinny, and Tim) and three of Vinny’s buddies. We booked a 2 day session through IME (International Mountain Equipment) based out of North Conway, NH. For the six of us, we had two guides to teach and lead us. Fitness-wise, three of us were CrossFitting and getting ready for the Open. Personally, I had been focusing on strength training for months, but my metcons were fine since I knew the Open would require more metcon and skill rather than very heavy workouts.

The first day was gorgeous. Mid-twenties temperature and sunny: perfect for learning how to use crampons, ice axes, self-arresting, ice climbing and belaying. As people who like learning new things, this was a fun and informative day. One of the cool things we learned was how to create snow anchors out of odd objects like ice axes, bags, sticks, and even snow itself. Testing included throwing ourselves down the mountainside attached to a rope and hoping the anchor stuck. Usually it did. 

The second day was the summit attempt. From the time we woke up we knew it was going to be rough. In town the temperature was 5° F, and the mountain would be much colder. We started at the Pinkham Notch visitor center to check weather conditions and see if it was safe to go out.  The night before, we were warned that there was a strong possibility that we wouldn’t be able to summit, but we still wanted to try. We agreed if things got crazy and the guides recommended we descend, that we would just do it, no questions.

The hike began with a relatively flat and gradual start up the Tuckerman Ravine trail for about 2 miles. For this we did not need crampons. Then we turned off that trail onto the Lion Head trail. From here, things got tough. We had put on our crampons and at one section we needed to climb our way up a 15ft. section of rock.  From there it was a very steep climb that made AMRAP 135# thrusters seem desireable. I don’t know if it was because my boots were a little loose (you want them tight) or what, but I had a tough time with this. Luckily the training from the day before kicked in and we were able to use different techniques to get up (French technique, German, combined). I can definitely say the glutes were burning and I was breathing hard. 

At 4,400 feet, we needed to gear up. Up until this point, we had on base layers, regular synthetic layers, and then maybe a softshell and/or hardshell. Although the temp was below 0° F, the hard work and need to prevent sweating kept us from wearing too many clothes. However, trees stop growing at 4,400 feet on Mt. Washington, so this is called tree line and the exposure to the winds and cold is enough to kill someone quickly. No bare skin could be exposed or else frostbite would ensue within minutes. Here’s a video of us getting ready. 

Going above tree line was like being on another planet. Wearing all the layers, including balaclavas to cover our mouths, and walking in heavy boots and crampons, each of us were in our own little world looking out through our tinted goggles. At points, some of our crampons came undone (mine included) but we couldn’t take our gloves off to fix them. We needed to sit down and let the guides get to us and fix them with their gloved, yet dexterous hands. We couldn’t stay in one place for long though. The wind and cold required us to keep moving since there was no shelter from trees or otherwise up there. The winds were strong enough to push me over a few times. All I could think about was the day before when we were self-arresting and how crazy it would be if one of us needed to actually do it. 

(video above)

We didn’t realize it at the time, but the temperature where we were was somewhere around -20° F and winds were around 70mph. Summit conditions were -66° windchill and up to 91mph winds. In other words, it was crazy cold. 

Below is a video of our descent giving you an idea of the wind. The GoPro was in a housing that muffled the wind, so it was more intense than it sounds.

At one point we did find a huge boulder to sit behind and get protected from the wind a little bit. As we were taking cover though, we found that there was a rip in Andy’s hardshell pants. Although he had a layer underneath, there was no way he was allowed to continue, so he and one of the guides descended. Mind you, during all of this it was so windy and we were so layered that we could only really use hand signals and yell to each other to communicate. The rest of us did continue on for another 20 minutes or so, reaching the Lion Head Pillar at 5,092 ft. It was still another 1.5 hours to the Mt. Washington summit, but the Alpine Gardens ahead of us was an open field where winds could sweep you sideways. Luckily we all agreed that it was the smart thing to turn back after Lion Head. 

There’s something that I want to point out, and it’s alluded to in the title of the blog post. As CrossFitters, we are generalists. We like to do everything pretty well and nothing terribly. The problem comes when we have this machismo about us that we can do anything. This is far from the truth. I’m not going to lie and say that climb was easy. There were many points where I wanted to turn back. Yes, maybe I was more mentally tough and physically more prepared than I would have been prior to CrossFit, but we still need to respect the specialist. 

This thought came into my head as we were above tree line and realizing that the conditions were too harsh to make it to the summit, one of the guides in the back SPRINTED up the mountain to the lead guide. And I don’t mean he simply went faster than us slow pokes, I mean he looked like a gazelle on the frozen tundra with our feet stuck in cement. It was then that I realized these guys may not fit OUR definition of “in shape,” but they were excellent at what they did. (One was skinny and had a classic climber’s build, the other had somewhat of a gut and was shorter. Both could move quickly.) These guys were born into mountain life and this literally is their job: to be proficient and skilled when it comes to mountaineering and ice climbing.

So although I love being a generalist and being able to do a lot of things, there are some people that love being a specialist and we shouldn’t get down on them for it.  CrossFit wouldn’t have olympic lifting and gymnastics and power lifting if it weren’t for the pioneers who excelled in these sports.  Why do you think CrossFit has certs like Oly lifting, rowing, power lifting, etc.? We generalists should appreciate the specialists, as it is from these people that we can learn from and become better athletes and people overall. 

P.S. Of course, we did get in some burpees.

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