Jon was 12 when we climbed the mountain together for the first time, 15 years ago. It was a perfect January day. At the summit we stood in the cold and took a couple of photos. I didn't notice that Jon hadn't eaten enough and was having trouble staying alert. He was too stubborn, or too cold, to say anything. On the way down, clouds and fog flooded in, a white-out, and we got lost for nearly an hour on an ice-covered ridge. We stumbled up to the lip of a ravine, lucky not to slide in, and eventually followed it back to the trail. At the bottom, Jon nearly lost consciousness. I remember thinking of it as a charmed escape, something lucky that would gild tall tales. Jon remembers it as a beginning, an adventure that helped him choose a path. Both of us look back now and shake our heads at the errors—we should have talked more, turned around earlier. I had more experience; the mistakes were mostly mine.
After college I spent a year living and working at the base of Mount Washington, teaching people to snowshoe, camp, ski. But eventually I moved on to other things. For Jon the alpine attraction only grew sharper; he headed for larger peaks and more technical challenges. He now leads—sometimes drags—clients up mountains in Washington State, Alaska, and Nepal. So when I was asked to write about Mount Washington, I wanted him to join me. We could revisit old battlegrounds, try once more for the summit. "I guess it's fitting," he wrote back. "Kind of like returning to the scene of the crime."
On the second day of our traverse we wake to bad weather above tree line, howling wind and snow. Temperatures far below zero. Washington is several miles away across exposed ridges, and we'd chosen to approach it along a route we've never taken together, looking for something fresh in a familiar landscape. In the colorless dawn we stamp like horses and weigh our options. I'd forgotten the fearsome power of cold. Each breath stings as it slides down. Silently we consider the option of retreat but decide aloud to go on.
The balaclavas covering our faces freeze stiff as wood. Visibility drops and the sky darkens, iron clouds shuttling overhead. The cold forces us to shelter in the lees of stones, behind mounds of snow, and add layers of clothing. By noon the snow stops and the sky brightens, and we reach a place where the wind falls away.
But soon the trail fades. In alpine zones all through the Whites, trails are marked by stacks of stones called cairns. Winter sheathes them in windblown ice; sometimes it buries them completely beneath snowdrifts. Beside a cloud-choked ravine, the cairns disappear and we are once again lost on a white blank, just as we were many years ago. We strip off our packs and fish out the map. Tendrils of cloud make it difficult to read the terrain, but we find we're near Mount Jefferson, a spot that is infamous for us, for many New Englanders.