The White Mountains: Mt. Washington
by Louie “Sunshine” Knolle
Greetings and salutations from New England to all of you RRT dudes and dudettes out there in the cybersphere! This is Loubear Sassafras (one of many RRT alums) checking in with some winter adventures that I was able to enjoy this past January and February. The topic for discussion today is Mt. Washington, located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. For those who have not heard of this beast of a mountain, allow me to elucidate the finer details of this wonderful place. Mt. Washington is the highest peak in the northeastern United States at 6,288 feet, Wikipedia even goes so far as to label it the most “prominent” peak in all of the eastern US due to its altitude relative to the land around it. Don’t worry peak purists, Mt. Mitchell is still the highest peak east of the Mississippi, but I digress. Washington is home to some of the worst alpine weather in the world. In 1934 the Mount Washington Observatory observed a recorded wind speed of 231 mph! That’s more than 3 times the minimum for hurricane force wind. The official record low temperature for the summit is -50 degree Fahrenheit and that was without accounting for windchill! There have been wind chills of 140 degrees below zero. Even as I’m writing this my mind is riding the boggle bus. Due to its location, Mt. Washington is at a confluence of many major air streams and weather patterns, hence it’s unpredictability and slightly erratic nature at times.
Now if that doesn’t put you in the mood to go and summit this baby, I don’t know what else will. The most popular time for hiking up Washington is during the summer when the weather is slightly less inclement (note the italics.) Even in summer, you can get caught in some snow up top when it is perfectly warm and sunny down in the town of North Conway. It is highly recommended that even for a summer summit attempt, you bring water and windproof hard shell pants and jacket, both a thermal and fleece layer, and it would probably be a good idea to include a light mid layer in your pack, just in case. You can wear shorts and tank tops back in town, but you don’t want to get in a sudden rain storm in 30-40 degree temps mixed with 75+ mph winds. Those are all conditions that can quickly lead to hypothermia if you don’t watch it. However, if you pay close attention to the weather and plan accordingly, it can be quite the amazing hike and so worth the effort. The most popular trail is Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. It is about 4.2 miles to the summit and you can always switch it up by coming down the Lion’s Head route if you’re looking for a little more exposure or a change of scenery. Tuck’s is considered a Class 2 route, so there a few places where you might be required to use your hands for climbing up some rocks, but the moves are simple and you are not at any risk if you take your time and mind your P’s and Q’s. During winter, Tuck’s is usually covered in ice and snow so it is highly recommended you take the Lion’s Head winter trail.
People call these mountains “The Whites” for a reason. They are a giant, snowy wonderland for winter sports enthusiasts. Whether it be cold weather mountaineering, alpine or ice climbing, backcountry or telemark skiing, the Whites has it all. I was recently there on a Wednesday in mid-February and the place was a-hoppin’. Coincidentally enough, most of my experience in the Whites comes during the winter time. As of 2 weeks ago, I have summited Mt. Washington in the winter on 3 separate occasions. My first two summits, in January 2013 and in January of this year were by way of the same route. Starting from Pinkham, we hiked up the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail for almost 2 miles where we hopped off and went up the Lion’s Head Trail. This trail goes around a large rock feature (called the Lion’s Head) and takes you up along a beautiful ridge looking down into Tuckerman’s Ravine. On a clear day you can just make out the weather station on the summit (which is about another mile and a half away.) Both times, we were required to put on crampons before breaking tree line due to snow and ice on the trail. Over the years I have seen some people summiting with just microspikes, but those will not hold up as well in truly gnarly conditions. Also required for this winter hike is a mountaineering axe of some kind, whether it be a true mountain axe, glacier axe, or even an ice tool. It is an invaluable piece of gear for safety reasons, in case you find yourself in a tight spot and need to use it to self-arrest to keep from sliding down a steep, icy slope. Ski goggles are also a great idea teamed up with a balaclava to protect your face.
Once on the summit, there is a very clear summit post and a couple buildings usually covered by lots of snow and ice. People live and work on the summit year round studying the weather since it such an amalgam of weather patterns and one of the most unique climates in the states. During the summer, there is a visitor center open to the public, mostly due to the fact that the Mt. Washington Auto Road allows people to drive their cars to the summit. And I know what you’re thinking: nobody needs to be “that guy” with the bumper sticker claiming they sat on their bum while letting a machine take the fun away from hiking up this wonder. You were born with feet for a reason! In winter however, this road is closed and so is the visitor center. On two of my three summits, the kind people at the observatory left a bay door open for us to huddle inside of away from the dangerous winds. Both times, we came down the same route we had summited by. In summer you have more trail options to do more of a loop to get a change of scenery.
My third and final summit (just a few weeks ago in February) was by far the most exciting to date. My friend Lee and I hiked up Tuckerman’s Ravine as usual, but we took a side trail toward Huntington’s Ravine where usually we would begin the ascent up Lion’s Head. At this juncture, we stayed at the Harvard Cabin (owned and maintained by the Harvard Mountaineering Club) where you can pay $15/night for a spot in the loft for your pad and sleeping bag, access to propane burners for cooking, and best of all a wood burning stove that they keep going from 4-10 pm, making this a nice alternative to sleeping out in a tent where it is likely that there will be negative temps overnight. The next morning, we hiked into Huntington’s Ravine where there are numerous technical ice climbing routes that go up the mountain, ranging from 500 to 800 feet in length. Lee and I chose Odell’s Gully which was an easier intermediate route in which we climbed 4 pitches of ice and topped out after several hundred yards of steep snow/rock scrambling. Then we were able to meet up with a trail that took us to the summit after about another mile of hiking. In addition to summiting after climbing up almost 800 feet of solid ice, it was actually a clear day and we could see out from on top of the mountain. On both of my previous trips, it had been cloudy and snowing on us so we weren’t able to see more than 50 feet in front of us at times.
And now come the disclaimers! I am in no way an expert on this mountain at all! If you decide you want to climb up this mountain, which you totally should because it’s rad as can be, make sure to thoroughly research the paths you are taking, have all the necessary clothing and gear (I wonder where you might be able to get that ;),) and above all watch the weather like a hawk!! The Mt. Washington Observatory has its own website where they update the summit weather forecast daily and it will change on a day to day based on my experience. Don’t forget to talk to people who have hiked it. Almost everyone at the RRT has done it to the best of my knowledge. That’s one of the easiest ways to first start gathering intelligence on the hike. I’ll leave the lecture on calories and hydration to the rest of the team now that they are all Wilderness First Responders too. I’m sure they have a backcountry safety blog in the works or reprising one of the old ones. And if you’re still reading this, I know you are dedicated to informing yourself about the trips you take and the places you go because I have rambled on for far too long now. Happy trails and I hope to bring y’all more tales of the adventures I am having while in New England. Slainte!
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