For New Englanders, Mount Washington has an almost mythical reputation. Washington’s summit is the tallest point between several major storm tracks. As a result, the weather is erratic and extremely dangerous. Often described as the worst weather in the world, Mount Washington is considered a Tundra climate that occasionally warms to sub-arctic. Wind speeds exceed hurricane force an average of 110 days per year. On April 12th 1934 the highest wind speed ever recorded by man was recorded at the summit of Mount Washington (a staggering 231MPH).
If the erratic weather isn’t enough to warrant Washington’s mythical reputation, there have also been 135 recorded deaths in the Presidential range since 1849. These deaths occurred for a variety of reasons including avalanche, hypothermia, heart attacks, or simply taking one wrong step. Amateurs and experienced Mountaineers alike have fallen victim to this mighty Mountain.
Despite its horrid reputation Mount Washington is no stranger to tourists. Hikers swarm to bag the peak in every season. The Cog Railway runs from North Conway through the White Mountains and eventually to the summit. There is also an auto road that allows access to cars. People brave enough to drive up Washington proudly flaunt bumper stickers that declare “This car climbed Mount Washington.”
I’m almost embarrassed to say I had never been to the summit of Mount Washington. I spend a lot of time hiking in the White Mountains, but Mount Washington always scared me. I didn’t want to do it alone and I rarely have opportunities to go with others. I also felt like taking a train or car to the summit was cheating. I wanted to reach the summit through the power of my own two legs and the idea of doing it in the winter, during Washington’s most violent weather, seemed appropriate. However I’m far from an experienced Mountaineer and reaching the summit of Washington in February requires skills that I just don’t have.
In January, while googling articles about two hikers who survived an 800 foot avalanche in Tuckerman Ravine, I stumbled across an ad for the EMS climbing School. It was one of those situations where I had to spontaneously sign up for the trip or else I would allow myself time to think and ultimately wouldn't do it. I have found allowing myself to think things through is never a good idea!
I left my house at 3:30AM and quickly shot up to North Conway. My adrenaline and the lack of traffic got me to the EMS climbing School by 5:45AM, a full hour and fifteen minutes before check in.
After an hour of scanning radio stations and repacking my pack, I saw a few others file into the Climbing school so I followed suit.
There would be three other climbers besides myself and the guide. I first met Matt and Tom, who had rented a car and driven 8+ hours from Philadelphia for this class. They were both accomplished hikers having completed the JMT and several hundred miles on the AT however, like me, they had little Mountaineering experience.
We were joined by John who had a bit more climbing experience. He had climbed Mount Rainer a few years ago and this year had taken to climbing several of the Whites smaller peaks with Microspikes.
Our guide, Jeremy, had summated Washington 75 times. He quickly got us outfitted with technical gear including an ice axe, crampons and microspikes, and then we were off to Pinkham Notch to begin our ascent.
Tuckerman Ravine Trail.
From the Pinkham Notch parking lot we took The Tuckerman Ravine trail 1.7 miles to the Lions Head Trail. Tuckerman Ravine Trail is a turn of the century logging road that was converted into a hiking trail. The incline is gradual and the trail is wide enough to, well, drive logging trucks down.
We were all pretty anxious to get on the trail and we sped along as Jeremy gave us advice about layering our clothing in anticipation of what was to come. We made short work of The Tuckerman Ravine trail and reached the turn off to Lions head where the real climbing began.
We quickly changed from Microspikes to Crampons and unleashed our ice axes as Jeremy spent about 10 minutes reviewing Crampon techniques and proper use of the Ice Axe. On a side note, I don’t think I ever felt more badass in my life than when I was carrying that Ice ax and realizing I would actually have reason to use it.
Lions Head Trail:
John took the lead through the beginning of the Lion’s Head Trail with Jeremy in back shouting instructions as we reached different types of terrain. We soon reached a “shoot” which would be the steepest section we would encounter the entire day. A “shoot” was a near vertical climb that required very careful footing. In the summer, I imagine this was nothing more than a difficult rock scramble, but in the winter with the snow covering foot holds and very little to grab onto, it made for a very dangerous endeavor. I was the second to the top of the shoot and I stood by watching Matt and Tom climb up. All I could think is, “How the hell are we going to get down this?”
We broke Tree Line in what I felt was really good time. The wind picked up immediately and we marched on to Lions head where we could take quick refuge from the wind and decide if we could continue.
As we sat at Lion’s head, ate and changed into our colder weather gear the news from descending hikers was bleak. Every person we talked to was turning around due to strong winds and extreme cold.
We decided to gear up, push forward and reassess as we went. Before we left Lions Head, Jeremy felt it was necessary to have a very real conversation with me. He noticed my pace had slowed during the last quarter mile. My body was running low on energy and I knew I was slowing down the group. For the safety of me and the group Jeremy needed to know if I could physically complete the climb, keeping in mind the hardest part was still in front of us.
I’m a slow hiker to begin with, but there was no hiding that this trail was kicking my ass. Still, we sat less than a mile from the summit and I knew I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I got this close and failed for reasons other than the weather. Not to mention we were all in this together. If one person stops we all have to stop. The other guys in the group had a lot of time and money invested into this and if we failed to reach the summit, it had to be because of dangerous weather and not because I couldn’t push on. I ensured Jeremy I was able to go and we started the final push to the summit of Mount Washington.
The Alpine Garden:
From this point forward every inch of our bodies had to be covered in order to prevent frost bite. With 70 MPH winds and a high of 0 degrees, we anticipated wind-chills of 50 below. Jeremy didn’t pull any punches about his intentions. If the wind was as strong as the other hikers reported, we were going back down the Mountain. Right as we left the safety of Lions Head Mount Washington’s erratic weather shifted once again. The wind we had felt since reaching tree line had shifted to the other side of the Mountain. Suddenly the air was calm and the only thing that would prevent us from reaching the summit was our own will power.
I took the lead position and we began our push. I wish I could tell you I took the lead because I was the most experienced or had the best technique, but truthfully I was the slowest and it was important we stayed together.
After about a half mile the trail began to rapidly ascend. We could see the top of Washington right in front of us, but there was no way to get there without going up! Each step became more challenging than the last. My ski goggles fogged over, then froze solid making them impossible to see through. So much for buying second hand ski equipment to try to save a few dollars… They had advised us to bring two pairs and I was happy I did.
We reached a sign that announced we were 0.4 miles to the summit. It’s amazing how short of a distance four tenths of a mile feels like when you’re driving or even walking down the road. As I looked at the summit above, those four tenths of a mile might as well have been a hundred miles.
With each step I grew more exhausted and started playing games in my head to try to get me through the last push. “If you take 10 steps, you’ll cover 20 feet, if you cover 20 feet 110 times you’ll be at the summit” the logic wasn’t even rational, but it was the type of game I needed to play to keep myself moving forward.
Before I knew it my Crampons were clanking against the pavement of the Auto road. It’s surreal to work so hard to reach one of nature’s most unique creations only to see buildings and pavement. Still, I knew this was here going into the hike and it didn’t deter from the moment at all.
The others raced past me to the summit sign as I walked at an agonizing pace. The wind had regained its full force and it was truly like nothing I had ever experienced before. It battered my beaten body around like a boat crashing against waves in a storm. I couldn’t get over how hard it was to do something as simple as walk in a straight line.
I’m proud to say I got my picture at the summit that day and I earned it.
The descent was slow and we burned through day light quickly. The most difficult section was the “shoot” below tree line. Jeremy took out his rope and we repelled off the mini ledge with our crampons digging into whatever snow covered foot holds we could find.
We ended up night hiking through the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, but it was so wide open we didn’t need head lamps.
As far as I’m concerned the class was worth its weight in gold. I plan to take another Mountaineering Course with EMS next year and I would like to do the same Mount Washington ascent again. I would make a few changes to my gear and how I prepare for the hike, but it was a truly exhilarating experience. Jeremy was a great group leader. He was a good teacher, patient and joked around with us. At the same time, he was deliberate and clear about what was in our best interest.
I’ve done a lot of hiking around the United States and it’s difficult to compare one location to another. They are all unique and special for their own reasons. I can say without hesitation this was the hardest hike of my life and something I will fondly look back on.
Some more pics from the hike: