Mount Washington is known as the home of the world’s worst weather. For many years it held the record for the strongest recorded wind gust. Companies bring their tents to the summit to test them against this crazy weather. Every year people die on the mountain. So why would I want to hike it in the winter? In the words of George Mallory, “Because it’s there.”
I’ve been hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for many years. It doesn’t matter the season, and most of the time it doesn’t matter about the weather. Except when we are talking about Mt. Washington. Having hiked it multiple times in the summer and fall, it was time for a winter ascent. My father and my first attempt in the winter ended up in us turning around right below 5000ft due to white out conditions. For the last three years now I have been itching to go back. It was all a matter of timing. The weather had to be “good” when we were planning on being up there.
Finally, our time came. It was the last day of winter and the forecast was for a high around 0 degrees, 40-60mph winds, and clearing sky as the day went on. Yes, we consider this to be a “good” forecast. Having experiences temperatures and winds like this before we had an idea of what to expect. We set out from the parking lot at the Cog Railroad well prepared with food, gear, clothing, and emergency supplies. There was a fairly decent crowd in the parking lot so we knew we wouldn’t be alone on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. The trail starts out pretty easy for the first 1.5 miles until you reach the Gem Pool. Here we switched our Microspikes for crampons. The trail gets very steep and it was very icy. At this point you are gaining around 1500ft of elevation in about 0.8mile.
The nice part about going Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail is you can take a break at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. The hut isn’t open in the winter but it can provide protection from the wind now that you are above treeline. This is where dad and I adjusted our gear and added our layers. Wind protection was a must to prevent frostbite. Goggles, masks, no skin should be exposed. We also took this opportunity to eat and drink for our summit push. There was now nothing to protect us from the wind and cold until we reached the summit. We made our way slowly along the Crawford Path towards the summit. Constant 40-50mph winds pounded us making me feel almost as if I was hiking drunk. It’s hard to be steady with the winds and walking on snow, ice, and rocks with crampons. The summit was in and out of the clouds as we inched closer. I constantly had to turn around to make sure dad was behind me since I would never have heard him if he yelled.
The closer we got the more short breaks we needed to take. It was within reach. I just wanted to run. After 3:45 hours it felt so great to finally reach the first of the summit buildings. We made it!
First stop, a picture with the summit sign. No lines, no waiting, just us and the summit sign (and Buddy the Marmot). When we initially reached the first summit buildings there were only two other people up there and they were leaving. This is very different than when the Cog Railroad is running and the Auto Road is open. Just us and the 50+ mph winds. As you can see I was not willing to take off my face mask yet for the picture, but trust me, that really is me. This is exactly what I was hoping for. Rime ice, cold temperatures, and decent wind. It was a test of not only the body but also the mind. Like usual we took our pictures, video (see below), and sought out shelter from the wind. As we were refueling the crowds started moving in. And by crowds there were maybe 15 other people who joined us out of the wind. Even though we were protected from the wind it was still 0 degrees and we still had to go back into the wind to get off the mountain so we didn’t stay too long.
With my mask firmly back on it was time to get off this Rock Pile. Navigating off the summit cone is a bit tricky with crampons on. There wasn’t enough snow and ice to fully cover all of the rocks so you had to be careful to not catch anything. The previous weekend two people had to get med evacuated off Mt. Washington via helicopter, including a hiker who had an accident on the summit cone. The sight of a US Coast Guard helicopter on the way up and the story of last week’s accidents weighed on my mind and kept me at a slow, controlled pace. I was looking forward to getting back to the Gem Pool and taking the crampons off. I can’t image not having the crampons doing what we just did, but at the same time it’s a great feeling to have them off and know you are on easier terrain. It was smooth sailing from the Gem Pool back to the car where we were rewarded with huge glasses of chocolate milk. Check that off the bucket list!