A WINTER CLIMB OF MOUNT WASHINGTON
By Ron Chase
Probably no mountain east of the Mississippi holds more attraction and mystique for winter mountaineers than Mount Washington. At 6288 feet, it is the highest peak in the northeast. However, the elevation is just a part of the allure. The challenge of its notorious winter weather is the primary enticement.
Literature on Mount Washington boasts that it has the “world’s worst weather.” While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, its winter weather has been likened to that of Antarctica and some of the data is absolutely astounding. The highest wind speed ever recorded on the surface of the earth occurred on the summit of Mount Washington in 1934, when it reached 231 MPH. According to the Mount Washington Observatory, it receives hurricane force winds on an average of 104 days per year, including 3 out of 4 in the winter. Typically, winds in excess of 100 miles per hour occur once every 3 days in the winter. The temperature has dropped as low as -47 degrees Fahrenheit and wind chills have been measured at -120 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no shortage of snow, either. The average annual snowfall exceeds 250 inches and has measured as high as 566.
The risks for mountaineers are multiple and substantial. They include the danger of falls, avalanches, hypothermia and frostbite. A sobering statistic is that at last count 144 people have died on Mount Washington and the Presidentials. In recent years, a high percentage of the fatalities have been winter climbers. Yet the attraction of the mountain is seductive, as each winter brings hundreds of climbers prepared to engage the elements and reach the summit.
A decision to attempt a winter climb of Mount Washington should begin months in advance, as prior mountaineering experience and a high level of fitness are absolutely essential. A typical 8 mile winter climb to the summit and back takes an experienced mountaineer 8 to 10 hours and entails carrying a heavy pack loaded with winter gear, while ascending over 4200 feet. Depending on the conditions, snowshoeing or hiking will be necessary at lower elevations and crampons and an ice axe are usually needed above treeline.
The normal winter route to the summit of Mount Washington is not a technical climb. However, it does require proficiency with crampons and an ice axe. It’s probably advisable to make a first climbing attempt with skilled mountaineers or get professional instruction. There are several climbing schools in the nearby North Conway area, including Chauvin Guides International, EMS Climbing School and Outrigue Guide Service. Instruction should also include advice on the proper clothing, food and equipment.
Climbers should have strong orienteering skills that include effective use of a map and compass. Fast moving storms can quickly create “whiteout” conditions above treeline that are extremely disorienting. Further, even on a clear day, thick cloud cover can envelop the whole mountain in minutes creating multiple hazards.
Prior to making a final decision to climb Mount Washington, obtain a reliable mountain forecast. The best available information on summit conditions can be found on the Mount Washington Observatory website at www.mountwashington.org. If the forecast is unfavorable, postpone the trip. The mountain is not going anywhere. Also, plan the climb with a group that includes experienced mountaineers. Never attempt it alone.
The starting point for most winter climbs is the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center located on Route 16 about 11 miles south of Gorham, New Hampshire. From central and western Maine, the normal route of travel is to drive west on Route 2 from Bethel to Gorham and then south on Route 16. Another option is to drive west on Route 302 from Fryeburg, through North Conway, New Hampshire to Jackson. The Visitor Center is about 8 miles north on Route 16.
The Pinkham Notch Visitor Center has a large parking area, restrooms, food, guidebooks, maps, changing rooms and, most importantly, summit weather conditions are posted daily. Information on any known avalanche danger is also available. Don’t be deceived by pleasant conditions at the trailhead as weather at higher elevations can be dramatically different. Be sure to consult the summit forecast before beginning the climb.
The usual winter route begins behind the visitor center complex on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Because it is heavily traveled, it can usually be hiked in just boots, although snowshoes are sometimes necessary. The ascent is moderately gradual for 1.7 miles to the Huntington Ravine Fire Road on the right. At this point, be alert for signs indicating whether or not the Lion Head Trail winter route is open and its use recommended. If so, follow the black and orange signs to the alternative trailhead. This area is notorious for avalanches, so taking the safest possible route is essential. Crampons will probably be necessary from this point on.
The Lion Head Trail climbs steeply through a narrow, wooded area that is often icy and frequently congested with other climbers. Be patient and be sure of your footing, as there are lots of opportunities for accidental falls in this section. After several hundred feet of elevation gain, the trail emerges above treeline and continues steeply to a large rock formation called Lion Head. This area tends to be very windy and can be a good indicator of conditions on the summit. Climbers who are uncomfortable or overtired at Lion Head should seriously consider turning back.
After scrambling over Lion Head, follow the cairns that parallel the north rim of Tuckerman Ravine to an area called the Alpine Garden. The trail along the rim tends to be both icy and windy. Normally, snow will have buried the cairns in the Alpine Garden area. If the weather is clear, take a compass bearing on the cairns immediately above the garden area, in case changing conditions cause whiteouts or cloud development. If visibility is obscured, consider turning back, as this is a dangerous area in which to be lost or disoriented. Above the snowfield, the remainder of the climb is a steep, strenuous slog up the rocky summit cone.
The summit area is almost otherworldly. The buildings and towers are chained to the ground and frequently coated with rime ice. Winds often gust between the buildings blowing snow and ice laterally. Do not expect a warm welcome from observatory staff, as the observatory is closed to climbers. Find shelter from any winds and enjoy the spectacular winter views that the highest point east of the Mississippi and north of the Carolinas provides. Careful attention should be paid to the time. A sufficient amount should always be allotted to complete a descent of the Lion Head Trail before dark. Remember, an axiom of mountaineering is that more injuries occur during the descent than the climb.
There are many other mountaineering alternatives on Mount Washington. They include opportunities for snowboarding, skiing and technical climbing in Tuckerman Ravine. The Sherburne Ski Trail, which parallels the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, provides a challenging intermediate backcountry ski. Nearby Huntington Ravine also has outstanding technical climbing. Another option is to carry backcountry skis and boots to the summit and ski down the 8 mile Auto Road, which is closed to vehicular traffic in the winter. Care should be exercised with this choice, as skiing conditions may be dangerous at higher elevations. It also requires obtaining a trail pass from the Great Glen Ski Area and setting up a shuttle.
Ron Chase is the newest president of the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society. He has been enjoying the outdoors in the northeast for years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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