Huntington Ravine on Mt. Washington: Pinnacle Gully Attempt

After a send last week of O’Dell’s Gully Right Variation (WI3+), we wanted to try Pinnacle Gully. It’s the premier alpine route in Huntington Ravine, and all of New England for that matter. It’s a three-pitch WI3 in a rock cleft on Pinnacle Buttress.

This weekend, the plan was to climb as a team of three: Phillip, Jonah, and I. With double ropes, three wouldn’t be a hassle. It would be nice to share the weight as well.

We left Boston around 5 a.m. Saturday morning. The weather would be interesting today. Forecasts said the peak was clear and sunny, but with over 70 mph winds coming from the west. The ravine is east-facing and the wall acts as a wind break, but at 70 mph wind would certainly spill over. The only question was how much.

We pulled into Pinkham Notch. As soon as I stepped out of the vehicle, a gust of icy wind instantly chilled my hand. It was already ripping right here in the parking lot. We hastily put our boots on.

Jonah would be borrowing one of Phillip’s boots so he could climb ice, a pair of Scarpa Phantom Techs. The zipper on that was a little broken though. It wasn’t water-tight; but with cold, dry conditions and no powder; that would be fine. The zipper ended up breaking even further as he put them on though, and for a moment it looked like the boots wouldn’t work. But, I remembered I packed a Leatherman with me. The pliers were able to fix it.

Then, we went to the packing room, out of the wind. We split the ropes and rack here. My back was happy that the weight was divided in three rather than two. We started hiking up.

The constant wind dissipated when we entered the trees via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. But, some wind gusts were so strong that they powered through the trees. As we ascended higher and higher, more wind would gust through. We would get glimpses of the upper slopes of the peak, and it was absolutely ripping up there. Spin-drift shrouded the ridge. We likely wouldn’t be topping out on it then. Rappelling the route would have to do.

After 2,000 feet up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, we turned onto the Huntington Ravine Fire Road. The Phantom Techs were a bit too tight, and unfortunately, they gave Jonah blisters. We stopped at the Harvard Cabin 0.3 miles down this way. We took a break and tended to the boots.

At the Harvard Cabin.

After the Harvard Cabin, we started hiking to the ravine itself. But, the boots still weren’t working. The fit was too painful, and the blisters too big. Phillip offered to switch boots with Jonah — the Phantom Techs fit Phillip after all. I also had some leuko-tape with me. They sat on a rock, taped up the blister, and switched boots. The new boots, La Sportiva Nepal Evos, were a size 46 and cut on a roomier last, for a much better fit.

While tending to that, a group of turned-around ice climbers descended by us. They were planning on Pinnacle Gully as well, but they said it was too dangerous. It was a funnel of spin-drift and debris. The entire ravine had ferocious winds in fact.

We discussed having to turn around, but we decided we could do other routes as a backup. O’Dell’s Gully was an option, as was Central Gully. Central Gully is a steep snow climb with a short WI2 ice section. It would go easier in tricky conditions. O’Dell’s Gully is mostly WI2+, and we climbed a variation in there last week – we were already familiar with the route.

We continued hiking. We crossed treeline and reached the ravine’s boulder field, “The Fan.” The wind was relentless. Now that we were above treeline and just below the ridge, spin-drift would attack us as well.

A bit of scrambling later had us behind a giant boulder, protected from the wind. We put harnesses, climbing gear, crampons and ice tools on. It was much colder as well. I put on a fleece over my base layer and underneath my soft-shell. I rarely need to do that, especially going uphill — it was that frigid. Then, we started hiking up, into the wind.

The snow was wind-blasted and pretty good for ascending. It wasn’t icy nor perfect neve, but when climbing, only a small boot-print would be left behind — no sinking. The crampons got great purchase.

As we got barraged by wind and spindrift, we discussed having to turn around. The blisters were beginning to be a problem too. While the new boots were better, they’d already developed on the hike up.

Caught in a wave of spin-drift.

We decided to at least see Pinnacle Gully and then decide. We climbed up Central Gully to reach the start of Pinnacle Gully. The ice was perfect, but it was indeed a barrage of spin-drift and wind. Three pitches of technical ice climbing through that would be past our risk tolerance.

There were a pair of splitboarders here as well. They were transitioning for the descent. They wanted to ride Central Gully, but because of the wind, they stopped here. The snow was pretty good for riding, at least with how bad the snow can be. It took an edge and wasn’t icy. That’s pretty much our criteria for “good” here. It made me wish I’d brought my splitboard setup.

Splitboarder descending in front of Pinnacle Gully.

After more discussion, we decided to give Central Gully a shot. We climbed up a few hundred more feet. I went a hundred feet ahead so I could snap some photos. But with the wind and spin-drift, we decided to turn around. It was a great day regardless, and I got some good photos in.

Climbing Central Gully. Pinnacle Gully hidden in rock cleft in background.

We started descending. At the base of Central Gully, we came across a group of Canadian ice climbers going for Pinnacle Gully. We told them of the conditions, and they decided not to go for it either. We led them to O’Dell’s Gully as an alternative. That’s lower-angle and much safer in tricky conditions.

While traversing over to O’Dell’s, a gust of wind caught me mid-step. It pushed me over down-slope — a slide which would lead to the boulder field. But, I instantly self-arrested and stopped. It was a nice adrenaline rush to end the day, and a good reminder of the power of the wind. It must have been quite a gust to push over my 190 lb. self.

We started descending, and it was smooth sailing back to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail turn-off. From there, 2,000 feet of descending the well-worn trail brought us to our cars.

Jonah inspected the blisters, and they weren’t good. On the way back, we stopped at Walgreens for some first-aid stuff. The Walgreens was next to an REI, so I got some shopping done as well.

We stopped for some pizza and then drove back to Boston. The plus side of the cold, dry and windy conditions today: None of my gear was wet! I didn’t need to dry anything out in my 24 square feet of living space — always a plus.

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