Climbing Mt. Washington in winter

Mt. Washington is the crown jewel of the New Hampshire white mountains, but westerners might scoff at her relatively short 6,289 foot stature.  Although we don’t have tall mountains out east, Mt. Washington has the “worst weather in the world” and presents a fair challenge for winter hikers.

Matt, David, Jeremy, and I climbed Mt. Washington in February 2013 (and plan on doing it again next month!).  The weather gods of Mt. Washington do not often cooperate with us mere mortals but we were insanely lucky on that day and had some of the calmest winds i’ve ever experienced on Mt. Washington in any season.  Don’t worry though, it was still brutally cold 🙂

near the "lion's head" part of the lion's head trail, above treeline.  no view!

near the “lion’s head” part of the lion’s head trail, above treeline. no view!

The trail starts out the usual way at Pinkham notch and follows along the summer Tuckerman’s trail until you hit a junction and start following the Lion’s Head route.  The winter Lion’s Head is slightly different than the summer trail.  The trail is fairly easy going until you hit a short but steep wall and you know it’s time to put your crampons on!  When we hit the first steep section there wasn’t enough snow and it was half ice and half rock.  I remember being concerned about how I was going to get down it but that was a “problem for future Laura” as David likes to say.

no wind = busy day!

no wind = busy day!

After the first really steep section there were many more almost-as-steep sections, but this time thankfully covered in snow.  After slowly slogging up the steep zig-zags (I’d say they were too short and steep to properly call them switchbacks) eventually we popped up above tree line and the trail flattened out a bit again.

starting to get a push to the top!

starting to get a view…final push to the top!

After we got above the lion’s head part of the lion’s head trail there was a thick layer of clouds below us and another layer above us, so we could just see the top of the ridge leading to Boott Spur.  It was quite a cool sight and made it look like we were way more hardcore than we were.

wooo summit!

wooo summit!

Climbing the rest of the way to the summit was pretty straight forward and was never as steep as the steepest zig-zag section, though it was reaaalllyyy cold.  The wind was only 5-10 mph, and for anyone familiar with Mt. Washington, this is nothing short of a miracle (so I can’t imagine how cold it gets when the wind is really blowing)!  We got to the summit and I snapped lots of pictures of the cool low-level clouds.  Then I sat shivering like a mad man because I didn’t bring enough jackets.  Because I never do.  Because I am not smart.

obligatory summit sign picture (i was being a bit dramatic with the goggles...)

obligatory summit sign picture (i was being a bit dramatic with the goggles…)

We descended quickly, the boys far more quickly than me because they all glissaded.  At that point I hadn’t taken any sort of class on self-arrest and wasn’t particularly keen to die when it seemed pretty avoidable.  I think it goes without saying that I was the most cautious (read: scaredy cat) person in the group.

summit pano!

summit pano!

Then we got back to the zig-zags and that’s when everything started to ssssuuuuck.  Remember when i said that descending the steepest part was a problem for future Laura?  Apparently it was a problem for everyone else too because there was an hour-long queue.  We slowly crawled towards that last steepest sections and my feet felt like they were frozen solid.  I was shivering like crazy from the lack of movement and imagined my toes turning black.  Finally, someone from an EMS guided group showed up with a rope to get things moving along more quickly.  I was thankful for the rope and easily managed my way down the steepest mini-wall.

starting the descent.  matt looking cool with some clouds.

starting the descent. matt looking cool with some clouds.

Super secret pro tip:  Bring a rope for the one steep part!!  But don’t be surprised if you end up waiting while about 50 people with desperate puppy-dog eyes ask if they can use it.

i was having some problems

i was having some problems

I switched socks after we got to the flatter part again and we SAW A PINE MARTIN!!!  I am so sad I didn’t get a picture, but he scampered away into the snow when he realized no one was feeding him.  After the steep part, it’s easy going back to Pinkham on the normal Tuckerman trail.

tra la tra la back to pinkham notch

tra la tra la back to pinkham notch

Driving the two hours back to southern New Hampshire, we had the crappiest post-hike meal at a 99 in Conway, since Moat Mountain Smokehouse (two words – cajun fries) and Flatbreads both had 2+ hour waits…darn Massachusetts skiers!!!!!  The End!

And I can’t forget the gear roundup:

  • My trusty 38 liter Gregory pack
  • 2 liters of water in Nalgenes
  • Baselayer leggings
  • Midlayer wool pants
  • Outer layer gortex pants
  • Baselayer EMS techwick 3 shirt
  • Wool sweater
  • Montbell thermawrap pro jacket
  • Gortex shell jacket
  • Glove liners
  • Mittens
  • Neck gaiter
  • Balaclava
  • Ski goggles
  • Crampons
  • Ice Axe
  • Gaiters
  • Merrell winter hiking boots with 200g insulation (NOT WARM ENOUGH)

As I said, I am super dumb and didn’t bring enough jackets.  Bring a down jacket!!! This is Mt. Washington in winter!!!  My legs were also sweating because I wore too many pant layers and not enough upper body layers.  Also, my poor Merrell winter boots were not anywhere near warm enough for someone with bad circulation.  My current setup is Vasque Pow Pows with 400g insulation with insulated supergaiters over them… this is much more appropriate for the circulation-challenged!

All photos of Matt’s/David’s/My back courtesy of Jeremy.


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