As winter approached my friends and I discussed what we wanted to accomplish during the season. We all had different ideas but everyone’s list had the same ultimate goal of a winter ascent of Mount Washington. Finally on the last day of winter our schedules and the weather forecasts seemed to align enough to make an attempt possible. The trip demonstrated the harsh realities of climbing and proved to be every bit as challenging and rewarding as we had imagined.
Washington has been present in many of my trips to the whites; whether it is a view of the peak from climbing a mountain nearby or the sound of the Cog railway which can be heard almost everywhere in the Whites. Until this trip I had only hiked it once, ten years ago, as my first 4000 footer in the whites on a 61 degree, sunny and windless day. I always thought climbing Washington in the winter was insane. However a few years of progressively harder winter hikes and some new gear convinced me that this ascent was the perfect goal.
I left my house at 4:30 am with a goal of getting to Pinkham notch by 9 am. This would be a late start in early winter but it was fine after daylight savings time on the last day of winter. On the way up I mentally checked and rechecked my gear as I knew that Mount Washington can be extremely unforgiving. At the time I expected to deal with 20 mph winds and a -20 wind-chill above tree line which seemed manageable. I arrived at Pinkham Notch to find plenty of snow as well as a parking lot full of hikers, backcountry skiers and ice climbers. Mount Washington’s summit as well as its famous Tuckerman’s and Huntington Ravines are an extreme playground for almost any winter activity.
We rechecked the weather report, secured our gear and headed for the trail. Our plan was to take the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the Huntington Ravine Fire Road to the Lion Head Winter Route to the Lion Head Trail and back to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail which leads to the summit. This sounds like a lot of trails but they are all well marked. It is the safest route to the summit since Tuckerman’s is avalanche prone and Huntington requires ice climbing gear The total mileage was projected to be about 8 miles with much of it on extremely steep pitches or above tree line. This meant that an ice axe and crampons were mandatory.
The initial hiking on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail was uneventful with gentle climbing on snow that was heavily packed by many hikers and is wide enough for a snow cat. The temperatures seemed a little higher than expected so staying warm was no problem. We got our first glimpse of Mount Washington after about 1.5 miles and that is when things started getting interesting.
At 1.7 miles we turned right to follow the signs for the Lion Head Winter Route which is a .5 mile detour from the summer trail that avoids some avalanche prone terrain. It is also known for extremely steep and icy pitches so we put on crampons and readied our ice axes. At first the Lion Head Winter Route climbs gently as a narrow trail surrounded by thick tree cover but this does not last long.
We soon found ourselves facing what seemed like wall of ice and snow which also happened to be the trail. We could no longer stand upright without tumbling down the slope so we relied on our crampon front points, ice axe placement and nearby trees to continue moving upwards. This was where we were reminded of the dangers of this sport. Someone who was descending from 10 ft above our position tripped over his crampon and fell off the trail and down the heavily wooded and extremely steep terrain. He cart wheeled a few times and was able to stop his fall in a pile of brush about 20 feet below our position. We immediately stopped our climb to make sure the hiker was ok. He assured us that he was and a group below us was able to get to him to provide assistance. This definitely reminded us to be extra cautious but we continued the ascent.
The Lion Head Winter Route continued steeply with another intense and icy pitch that required careful crampon placement. At this point one of my water bottles fell out of my pack and began bounced off rocks and ice as it fell down the slope and out of sight. Thankfully I always carry extra water or this might have been the end of the climb for me. After this the trail remains steep but manageable as it approaches tree line. We could hear increased wind ahead and took advantage of the tree cover to add a few layers. I still expected -20 wind chills so I added 2 more layers than usual. After preparing for above tree line hiking we continued the climb and met up with the standard Lion Head Trail.
Thankfully the snowpack was deep enough that our crampons had plenty to bite into and no boulders were exposed. We got out first views into Tuckerman’s Ravine where a few brave souls were skiing. We then began to approach Lion head which is a rock formation that requires one tricky climb to get over it. After this there were no major obstacles between us and the summit except for just under a mile of pretty steep snow climbing.
It was still warmer than expected with intense sun coming from the cloudless sky. I found myself sweating profusely, unable to drink enough water and having to stop every few minutes which was slightly concerning. I continued climbing like this until I could barely move and realized that all the sweat put me at risk of hypothermia if it got colder or I stopped moving. So I stopped on the slope and layered down to my typical above tree line gear that consisted of just a thermal shirt, fleece vest and a shell. I also took in some more water with electrolytes and quickly started to feel normal again. The lesson here is to wear enough layers so you feel chilly while standing still and just right while moving. This prevents excessive sweat which can compromise the effectives of insulating layers when they are really needed.
Feeling refreshed, I caught up with my friends and we found ourselves at the summit with blue skies, 5 degrees, and almost a no wind; very rare weather for Mount Washington. The pleasant weather allowed us to take pictures with the summit sign and spend a few minutes relaxing. However when you are above tree line and the weather is favorable it is best to keep moving, especially on Mount Washington, so we headed down.
The image of the hiker’s fall was still fresh in my mind so I chose my steps carefully and used the ice axe when needed. I still took a few breaks to take in the beauty of Tuckerman’s and nearby Mount Adams when it was visible. Wind was starting to increase which could obscure neighboring peaks from in seconds. The descent seemed to go rapidly and we soon found ourselves at the top of the Lion Head Winter route. We knew that this was the steepest, iciest and most challenging portion of the hike, especially after using so much energy for the climb. We also knew that it was possible to fall and sustain serious injuries here. To down climb the steeper pitches we faced the slope and carefully front pointed down. We even used some nylon webbing as a hand rail at some points. This was definitely not the fastest way down but we were not in the mood to take any chances after seeing the fall earlier in the day.
After some careful down climbing we found ourselves back at the Tuckerman Ravine Trail with only 1.5 miles on gentle trail between us and the parking lot. It was already 5 pm which meant the descent took longer than expected but there was still plenty of daylight. We reached the parking lot physically and mentally spent but extremely satisfied that we had achieved our ultimate winter goal.