By Bruno Matarazzo Jr.
BOXFORD — John Winship's trip to Mount Washington last weekend was supposed to be part of his training regimen for an upcoming trip to Mount Rainier in Washington state.
Instead, it became a test of survival, after a wrong turn meant he'd have to last for days with little food, contend with territorial wildlife and overcome snow up to 10 feet deep.
"When I realized I was in the wrong valley, I made several attempts to get out, but the snow was just too deep," said Winship, 45, last night at his Pine Plain Road home, where he recounted his 31âÑ2-day journey in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
"The snow was over my head, literally," he said. "I had to climb out of holes that were like chimneys. It was arduous; every step was horrible."
Winship's trip up north was supposed to last a day and a half and involve ice climbing and then camping out on the mountain for the night. He signed in at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on Saturday morning.
He planned to hike up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the summit of Mount Washington, then along Crawford Path, camp overnight, then arrive at Crawford Notch on Sunday.
Such trips are a chance for the accomplished outdoorsman to admire the terrain and enjoy the solitude while enjoying a sport he loves.
"Ice climbing, there's nothing like it," he said. "But I'll probably be hanging up my spurs for a while after this because the unplanned adventures are the most incredible."
That unplanned adventure began when Winship began his descent.
He admits he was a little "impatient" because he had friends waiting for him at a home near North Conway, N.H.
"I was a little bit punchy, maybe arrogant," he said. "Doesn't matter how many times one is up there, all it takes is one mistake."
Winship went down the wrong ravine in whiteout conditions. He said if he had waited 21âÑ2 hours for conditions to improve, he would have seen he was going the wrong way.
"But I didn't have the patience to do that," he said.
Soon, Winship realized he was in the wrong valley. He tried to get out, but he had no snowshoes and the snow was over his head. It was too late to turn back, so he needed to improvise.
He dumped 50 pounds of his nonessential gear, including 30 pounds of ice screws, a helmet, 350 feet of rope and a coat. He still had a one-piece expedition suit.
He kept two pairs of ice axes and crampons, footwear made for vertical ice climbing because of the metal spikes on the bottom.
"When I realized I couldn't get out of the valley, I knew I was looking at five to seven days to get back to the road so I changed plan," Winship said.
The new plan involved hiking two miles a day down the valley, sleeping in the inner lining of his tent and using the five days of fuel for the stove to melt water.
He had food, but very little. His first day, he feasted on ramen, Chinese instant noodles, he said. All that remained after that was Power Bars and beef jerky, and that lasted only a couple of days.
During his journey, he ran into a female moose and missed a bear by a half-hour, coming by the estimate by detecting fresh claw marks on a tree in the midst of snowfall.
He had a little luck along the way. Heading down the mountain was easy, he said, on the first day because the river was still iced over.
"I could pretty much walk down the river," he said. "I made good time, but by day three, it had warmed up so much that I could no longer walk on the river. I had to walk along it."
Winship couldn't get up and out of the river, so he ended up ice climbing down the river.
On his last day, he fell into the water.
"Eight hundred fill goose down is probably the warmest thing on earth, but when it gets wet, it weighs 50 pounds," Winship said.
Luckily for Winship, the clouds began to break so he set up camp early to try to dry everything out.
While napping, he woke up to the sound of helicopters hovering above him. He said the people inside the helicopter didn't see him, but he knew there would be people nearby.
"I started screaming my bloody head off, and they heard me, they found me within minutes, and it was an easy 15-minute walk to the road," he said.
Winship thanked the park rangers with New Hampshire Fish and Game who found him.
"This story ended well; they found me rapidly, I was able to get out on my own power," he said. "All too often, they carry bodies out. It's no laughing matter, it's never a joke."