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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

MT. Washington

Air Date: Week of

Mountaineers David Breashears and Rick Wilcox take us on an 800-foot ice climb on Mt. Washington, New Hampshire on this National Geographic Radio Expedition. NPR’s Alex Chadwick reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We begin our program this week with an adventure in New England's great outdoors. We travel to an icy, dangerous cliff face to meet two mountain climbers. They are among the best in the world. Each has guided others to the top of Mount Everest. Today they climb with each other and with recording gear for National Geographic Radio Expeditions. Here's NPR's Alex Chadwick.

(Chains clank)

BREASHEARS: Might as well climb it, right?



CHADWICK: David Breashears. Among climbers, world-famous for his daring feats.

BREASHEARS: Should be okay for about 100 feet up the right hand side there. You'll see a spot to belay, I think.

CHADWICK: His friend Rick Wilcox, well-known in the White Mountains for leading dozens of climbs.

WILCOX: You see how it sort of slates, goes toward the right?


WILCOX: Well, that's the way.

CHADWICK: The rock is New Hampshire granite. Eight hundred feet, frighteningly steep, every inch covered in thick blue ice.

BREASHEARS: Well, let's see what happens.

CHADWICK: They're going to climb. We are going with them.


CHADWICK: We are a pair of small microphones wired to their helmets. Some of what the climbers say is from those helmet microphones. Some is from interviews after the climb.

BREASHEARS: I'm kicking, and I'm trying to not kick too hard, because you can kick out the ice.

CHADWICK: David Breashears has boots with steel crampon spikes at the toes and an ice axe in each hand.

WILCOX: You're swinging an ice axe. It's attached to your wrist and your shoulder. And as you swing and swing, your feet get pried further and further out, and you can pop off the ice. If you watch really talented, experienced ice climbers, when they swing that ice axe, you watch their heels. Their heels don't move. And that's what I'm thinking about.

BREASHEARS: Well, I'm just above Rick here. Very pleasant little bit of ice. (Hammers) Typical problem early, when you're either new to the season or new to the sport, is to bash your toes in about 20 times harder than is necessary. Just get yourself tired.

CHADWICK: At 50 feet he sets the first safety point, a hollow, threaded, eight-inch shaft of titanium.

BREASHEARS: I'll belay.


BREASHEARS: Putting in a screw here.

CHADWICK: And slips his safety rope through a clip on the end of the screw. And now, Rick Wilcox on the ground below, not climbing yet, can belay for David. Hold the rope's other end, keep it taut, in case there's a slip.


CHADWICK: Then David climbs higher to set another screw, anchor himself to it, and wait. And now, Rick begins to climb.

WILCOX: Climbing! Well, I have to say the gully looks in excellent condition. Certainly as good as it gets.

CHADWICK: They're on Pinnacle Gully, high on a shoulder of Mount Washington, New England's tallest peak, though modest by many standards: 6,300 feet. Still, it has some of the world's strongest winds, and this ice wall has killed at least one Everest climber. A modest peak in New Hampshire, but don't slip off belay.

WILCOX: You would rocket down the gully, and there would be no way to stop yourself. And then you would go airborne over the first part of the cliff, which is up to 60 degrees, and then land down on a pile of rocks. There's no survival, falling all the way down this gully.

BREASHEARS: Okay, let me get you through here. You're still on belay.

WILCOX: Yeah, okay.

BREASHEARS: Find a place you like. Ouch. Well, I'm racking up again, getting ready for the next pitch. And we've just finished 165 feet of ice.

CHADWICK: They climb a series of pitches, set by the length of the rope. Two hundred feet, David in the lead.

(Hammering, clanking)

CHADWICK: He tries not to loosen any of the chunk ice that climbers call dinner plates. Platter-sized pieces but much thicker, falling heavy and fast. One could easily knock Rick off the wall, where he's waiting below. When he reaches the rope's end, David waits and Rick climbs, pulling screws as he passes. He reaches David. The process starts over.

BREASHEARS: We've climbed over a little bulge, and now I'm on easier terrain. Getting up a little bit. Steeper here. Kind of messy right here. Messy. But the ice is nice, they say. And will suffice.

Climbing, especially on ice, and rock as well, is very absorbing. What really matters is what's right in front of you. Staying attached to that piece of ice in that calm and self-assured manner. And yet, there's other things to keep track of. How much rope is left. And where am I going to place the next ice screw? How far below is the last ice screw? How do I kick and not hit the rope? Because sometimes the rope is running down right between your feet. And it's not a good idea at all to kick that rope and cut in half your lifeline.

A little bulge I'm on now, which is nice. (Hammers, breathes heavily) Stopping here. Hey, Rick? You're on, Rick!

WILCOX: Climbing!

BREASHEARS: It's not like a rock climb, where every time you climb a rock climb, each handhold is exactly the same. Each time you climb an ice climb, it is totally different. The bulges are different. The ice texture is different. The temperature is different.


CHADWICK: Seven hundred feet up now, near the top, David climbing.

BREASHEARS: Great. So I'm about 80 feet above the belay. Rick's encouraging me to put in an ice screw, which I shall. Because you can fall over 170 feet at the moment. But it's so unlikely to fall off. (Calls to Wilcox) Ice on the left! Big piece!


BREASHEARS: Sorry, Rick!


(Hammering, heavy breathing)

BREASHEARS: How much rope?

WILCOX: Oh, ten feet!

BREASHEARS: Okay! (Hammers) There's a nice place off to the left on rope, and it's flat. It's right at the top of the buttress. It's very beautiful. It will be spectacular today. It will be in the sun. Of course, anything on the right's going to be in the sun.

CHADWICK: In a little more than two hours of climbing, they emerge from the darkened slot of the gully, happily weary. Rick Wilcox, a Himalayan expedition leader who owns International Mountaineering Equipment in North Conway, New Hampshire; and David Breashears, the Mount Everest IMAX filmmaker, who is at work to begin another IMAX mountain project. In 20 years of friendship, this day was the first they'd ever spent climbing together.

WILCOX: It's fun to be out climbing, though.


CHADWICK: For Radio Expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR news.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our story on climbing Mount Washington was produced by Van Williamson and engineered by Flawn Williams and Charles Thompson. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society.



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