RHLI Exercises

National Defence and the Canadian Forces

Joint Task Force Central & Land Force Central Area

31 Canadian Brigade Group


Capt Dan Stepaniuk

This year RHLI adventure training took place in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. Seven soldiers and one civilian guide travelled down to the USA in two vans packed with warm clothing and technical gear for two and a half days of alpine trekking. The team included our guide, Blaine Groves, chief climbing guide Sgt Matt Kirkpatrick, team leader Capt Dan Stepaniuk and members MCpl Sean Fletcher, Pte Brad Hillmer, Pte Chris Harrington, Cpl Warren Pyper and Pte Drew Nagtegaal.

After arriving in New Hampshire and picking up some rental gear, the team set out for Crawford Notch, a cleft in the mountains to the west of Mt. Washington. The team's goal was to attempt the southern traverse. This meant a climb up from Crawford Notch over several peaks and down the other side to Pinkham Notch. This was an ambitious but achievable plan. But all who trek in the mountains know that the success of a journey is almost entirely dependant upon weather and good fortune.

The team set out along the Crawford Path in the dark. The temperatures during the trip were incredible. Jack Frost was hard at work in the eastern USA and Canada. Quebec city reported temperatures as low as - 46 degrees and the temperature on the summit of Mt. Washington on 9 Jan 04 was a biting - 92 degrees. These are fully arctic conditions and the team members needed to be outfitted with the proper environmental clothing including several layers of fleece, Gortex, goggles, plastic double boots, crampons, and an ice axe.

The combination of high winds in this region and cold temperatures are approximately equal to the worst temperatures reported in Antarctica despite the much greater cold in Antarctica. Mt. Washington has violent weather all year long. The wind speed at the summit averages 44 mph and the peak boasts the highest wind speed ever reported by a surface weather station of 231 miles per hour, recorded on April 12, 1934. Since people started counting, dozens of people have died on the slopes, giving Mt. Washington the reputation of the most dangerous small mountain in the world.

The team ascended Crawford Path and established a bivouac inside the tree line below Mt Pierce. Our thermometer bottomed out at - 30 degrees, but our check of the temperature at Pinkham Notch visitor centre after the trip showed the temperature that Friday night to be about - 50 degrees. After a frosty night, the team got their gear together and planned the day's activities. Because of the unusually cold temperatures, and the risk of hypothermia above the tree line, it was decided to leave the bivouac where it was and to ascend Mt. Pierce (4312 feet) and Mt. Eisenhower (4760 feet). Both peaks are above the tree line in the wind-blasted Presidential range.

Mt. Pierce was summited first, but the team received a brutal surprise atop Mt. Eisenhower. Ferocious winds caused the temperature to plummet and although the entire team made the summit, we remained there for only a few minutes before descending. We captured the moment with a couple snapshots of the team with the Regimental Flag.

We returned to base camp after dark, tired, yet elated at our success. We hunkered down for a bitterly cold night. In the morning we decided that our best chance of a successful ascent of Mt. Washington would be from Pinkham Notch. Climbing inside the tree line was very hot, despite the extreme cold. When we reached the base of the Lion's Head winter route, two members had to turn back due to a minor injury. It is foolhardy to continue a trip of this nature with injuries however minor. The most dangerous part of a trek is often the descent.

Our Lion's Head route is very steep and can only be navigated with crampons and ice axe. As we got higher on the mountain, the temperatures began to drop. Atop Lion's Head, Mother Nature reminded us who was in charge as the winds picked up and it began to snow. Above the tree line, the trail is marked with cairns of rocks. But as we climbed higher, it became increasingly difficult to determine the trail. We lost the trail twice in near-white out conditions and our experienced guide, Sgt. Matt Kirkpatrick put us back on track. However, about 300 vertical feet below the summit, Sgt. Kirkpatrick made the call to turn around. This is a very difficult decision to make for anyone trekking in the mountains. The deteriorating weather and limited visibility made a summit attempt possible, but the descent would be very dangerous indeed, probably including a descent in the dark without being able to find the trail.

The descent was hairy as it was, but once all made it back into the tree line, the morale picked up again. We glissaded down a large portion of the Lion's Head trail and made it back to the base of the mountain before dark.

Overall the climb was a great success. The participants experienced weather conditions and physical challenges unequalled by any of their army training. The RHLI will return to the mountains, the only question is when.