Thursday, February 23, 2006

More Uplifting, Still with Lightning

Lightning is a serious danger to outdoor adventurers. In the mountains or on the water, the exposure can be terrifying.

One summer day I headed up the Huntington Ravine Trail on Mount Washington, with my friend Stuart. We both like trails that go right into the interesting terrain without a lot of slogging to get there. Since the Huntiongton Ravine Trail is rated as one of the most difficult in the White Mountains, it certainly qualifies.

I had been up the headwall of that ravine several times in the winter, but never in the summer. I had been across the cone of Mount Washington a number of times in winter and warmer weather, so I had a good mental picture of the topography.

The forecast that day called for possible showers and thundershowers. If the weather looked too bad we could turn back from the ravine floor. One problem with the Presidential Range is that the steepest part is in the middle of the climb, so weather can sneak up on the other side of the ridge and suddenly burst over on you. You learn to watch the clouds all the time and listen for any hint of wind or thunder.

We proceeded across the ravine floor and up the talus slope, hiking steadily, but stopping to enjoy the scenery. We saw a glider drop its tow above us and begin to soar freely. It did not linger long. That was hint number one.

The clouds darkened and began to swirl more turbulently as they surged over the ridge above us. Hint number two. It was more than a hint. We had to move toward shelter.

One might instinctively head downward to escape a storm, but there was no real shelter back that way. The trees are short, once you finally reach them. You would actually be pretty exposed until you went quite a way down. No, strange as it seemed, what passed for safety lay slightly up and over to our left, at the base of the cliff. A high arching overhang would keep the worst of the rain off us, while the mass of the cliff would give us the best chance that ground currents from a strike above would dissipate or divert before reaching us. Under this overhang, a smaller rock thrust up to give us a place to perch, so that we would be less vulnerable to ground currents from strikes at or slightly below our level. We hurried over to this refuge, where we squatted on the smaller rock below the big roof and watched the storm come down.

We'd seen a couple of other hikers out on the talus slope, but too far away for us to shout to them. I hoped these others had seen which way we headed, but they never joined us.

The storm passed fairly quickly. Lightning did strike a couple of times on the pinnacle above and the ravine floor below our overhang. Then it all passed and the sun came back out.

We emerged from the overhang and scrambled the rest of the way to where the trail starts up the headwall itself. The clouds continued to disperse, so we eyed the route above. Meanwhile, the other hikers joined us. They were cousins, Meg and Julie. Meg was an economist. Julie was a physical therapist. They were very wet, having followed the instinctive urge to beat feet downwards and found no shelter as the downpour trampled over them. But no one had gotten electrocuted, so we were all game to try the ascent.

The climbing does require a little technique and the use of hands and feet for some moves. It gave us all something to think about as we scrambled up it. At no point are you really dangling above a drop. It's just a fun scramble, where you measure your progress in feet of elevation rather than miles of trail. All the while, the views across the valley toward the Wildcat Ridge just get better and better.

We topped out on the Alpine Garden and congratulated each other. Not only had we made the climb, the weather had given us a break. It hadn't dropped another storm on us when we were stuck in the middle of the steep bit. We hiked on over to Lion Head and scrambled back down to hook up with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail back down to Pinkham. Good conversation made the Tucks Trail less of a boring slog than usual.

Stu, you gotta come back. We have many more wicked steep trails to try.

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