Mt. Washington

Looking back on Mt. Washington

The White Mountains in New Hampshire are nothing short of epic. It seems as if every hardship along the trail is preparation for their rugged terrain and high peaks. It’s preparation so that a hiker might enjoy the endless views these mountains have to offer. So many of the great american literary giants have been inspired by these very mountains, but their beauty is closeted by the difficulty of the trail. Save Mt. Washington, if you want to see these views, you have to hike, and hike hard.

Mt. Washington is home to the worst weather in the United States. Wind speeds often reach hurricane force and the record high and low temperatures are 72 and -50 degrees Fahrenheit. The weather is notoriously unpredictable. Until recently, the Mt. Washington Observatory held the over-land wind speed record at 231 mph…which was set in 1934 when the anemometer broke due to the roaring winds. It’s gnarly up there, to say the least.

The Appalachian Trail goes right up and over the summit. The Lake of the Clouds Hut, run by the AMC, is the highest shelter along the AT. In the basement there is an emergency hiker shelter called the Dungeon. From that point, it is a short 1.4 miles up and over boulders, snow, and ice. However, short doesn’t mean easy.

View from the Dungeon

My climb started at sunrise when I opened the dungeon door to a perfectly clear view of the summit. I had arranged my mileage to get there for a clear day, but not a calm one. Mt. Washington is covered in clouds 55% of the time, so to get a day with clear skies is a rare treat. You can’t have your cake and eat it to, so clear is good…even if it’s not calm and balmy.

After boiling water, eating breakfast, and gearing up for the climb ahead, I shoved open the cellar door and stepped into the morning frost.On a normal day of hiking you start off cold. Your hands are cold, your feet are cold, and you’re generally uncomfortable. However, after a few minutes of hiking, you warm up. Turns out this isn’t true if it’s blowing 40mph and the temperature is hovering around 28 degrees Farenheit. Not knowing this, I pressed onward and upward.

The whole climb up my left hand rode in my right armpit to keep it out of the wind coming across my left flank. I flexed my fingers constantly to keep the circulation going. $50 is not enough to spend on gloves, because, lifetime warranties, guarantees, and promises of water and wind-proofness don’t mean jack when you’re on a mountain. Needless to say, I now own a proper $80 pair of mitts that do what they say they do…keep my hands warm and dry. How much is a functional finger worth? More than $8.

It was miserable, but the thing that makes it all worth it is the view. Climbing this frigid boulder field, all I had to do was look to my right, my left, and behind me to see where I had come from. All three views, leaving the forward one that only promised more pain, were breathtaking.

Hiking up from Lake of the Clouds.

I didn’t want to mess around too much on this ascent, but I did manage to take some video which shows the drop into the valley below. Breathtaking…the only thing that keeps you from stopping and taking in the view is the shear cold and driving wind. Go, Go, GO! Those are the action words on a hike like this.
I had a perfectly clear day. However, many people are not so lucky. When I reached the top, or near the summit buildings, I had no idea where I was. Boulders and ice everywhere, and no trail in sight. I imagined what an impossible place it must be when the visibility is nil.
So there I was, top of the world in New England. All the buildings are closed, not a soul in sight. I thought there was supposed to be a warming hut…that would be nice. No such luck. I eventually happened upon an observatory staff member shoveling snow. No help. He was about as helpful as talking to one of the rime covered rocks I had stumbled over. He did, in a hypothermic tone, relate to me the weather report for the day.

The top of New England.

I quickly took my picture, or video as it were, on the top. I almost got blown off in the process. Later I would find that during my time on the peak the observatory registered the day’s highest sustained wind speeds, at around 70-80 mph. I seriously looked at the wind speed profile and thought, “Wow, I was pretty much up there at the worst time of the day.”
This made my next decision more palatable. To explain: I diverge from the AT for two reasons only:
  • Safety
  • Common Sense

I don’t shortcut the trail, but I’m by no means a purist. If the trail used to go along a road through a town, but now goes through a muddy swamp to the left of town, I’m going through the town and buying a burger and milkshake. But, I don’t cut the trail. All of my “common sense” divergences probably amount to less than a mile. So, diverging to me is a big deal, because I want it all.

However, I like my fingers and my life. So, with safety in mind, I proceeded to climb down the fastest way possible: Tuckerman’s Ravine. This knocked about 10 miles off my trip of what would have been, in retrospect, crawling over a ridgeline during hurricane force winds. Good call, but sad to have to get off the trail.

Icy walls of Tuckerman Ravine.

Tuckerman’s Ravine is a trip in and of itself. It is THE backcountry ski destination in the Northeast. When covered, it’s bowl is a wild descent down an avalanche prone slope that has killed many, and inspired more to become reckless and badass skiers. It’s on my Bucket List.

The hike down was beautiful. After descending into the bowl, I was sheltered from the wind and I began to warm. I passed countless hikers on their way up, with no clue of what was in store for them just 2 miles further.

To spite the sheltered positioning of the trail, the ravine itself was no joke. Ice clung to the sides and sporadically fell off. Some sections required a perilous sprint across basketball sized ice chunks while dodging falling ice from above. All-in-all, it was a fun and awe inspiring hike. Two miles after the base, I was safely eating my way through the kitchen at the Pinkham Notch AMC Lodge. Need a suggestion for an awesome hike? Lake of the Clouds to Pinkham Notch. It’s legit!

Mt. Washington was the only mountain on this trip that scared me. It is not something to be trifled with, it must be respected.  Hwever for those willing to take the risk and climb the slopes, the views are nothing short of priceless:

View from the top.