Before February of this year, I didn’t even know that there existed a certain Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and that the mountain is infamous as the “Home of the World’s Worst Weather” (although technically that claim is not true, the weather is bad enough! Imagine extremely fast wind speeds combined with low temperatures). Luckily, I have joined a couple of climbing related Meetup groups and I keep getting notifications of upcoming events from these meetups. Someone had posted an event for Mt. Washington winter hike and interested people were supposed to confirm their spot. I did a Google search on Mt. Washington for about 10 mins and signed up for this event by the end of the 15th! Turned out that there were quite a few who wanted to do this tough winter hike and in the end, a group of 6 of us from New York/ New Jersey and Connecticut areas booked a spot each on an IMCS (International Mountain Climbing School) guided climb up the peak.
By now, I am pretty seasoned seasoned when it comes to hiking or climbing with a motley group of like-minded people. On many occasions, I have let my desire to go for a trip overpower the natural discomfort one feels when one has to join a group of complete strangers to make that trip possible. A lot of my friends cannot relate to this behavior, since they think that they wouldn’t enjoy the experience if they are not acquainted with their traveling companions beforehand. I must say that I used to have the exact same reluctance till the time I started saying to myself, “what the hell, let’s do it anyway!” and rather started enjoying the company of folks who knew nothing about me and of whom I knew nothing, except the fact that they too were equally passionate about the activity as I was. The fact that one has to be extremely careful while exercising the judgement in jumping in to such experiences is implied. But with an attitude that floats between being paranoid and being careless, things can go smoothly most of the times. With that long preamble, let me begin the story of me and my hiking companions on Mt. Washington.
I picked up my meetup companions (let’s just call them friends) Marc and Bernardo from somewhere in New York City around 6:30 p.m. on Friday and we started our 7 hour-long drive up to North Conway, New Hampshire, the town where we were going to stay overnight before Saturday’s summit attempt. I was glad to have company in the car for the long drive and certainly relieved that I wouldn’t have to drive by myself the entire way along. Both Marc and Bernardo were good talkers and between the three of us, we had German, Portuguese and Indian cultures to talk and compare about during our long journey – so now you know their nationalities. With a half an hour long break for dinner, we made it to the White Mountain Hostel in North Conway at 1:30 a.m.! Bernardo and Marc had done the hotel research a few days prior to the trip and had found that the hostel, formerly affiliated with the Hosteling International, offered the best possible deal, with $29 a night for a bed in their dorms. Since I had been familiar with HI hostels from my previous experiences, I had no qualms about staying in this one and gladly took the offer. The remaining half of our group was staying elsewhere.
As per the itinerary, the 6 of us assembled at International Mountain Climbing School at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday – (yes, we could get only 3 hours of sleep after a 7-8 hour-long drive the previous night). Although we were not supposed to hit the trail before 9 a.m., we still had to fit the gear – meaning, we had to find the correct size of snow boots, crampons, down jacket and any other missing piece of gear at the climbing school, under the supervision of our guides for that day. After spending a good 2 hours in this activity (no idea why it took so long!), we drove up to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center – the trail head for Mt. Washington and hit the Tuckerman Ravine trail at 9:30 a.m. Lion’s head Winter route is the standard route in the winter season. It beings with a 1.7 miles long walk on Tuckerman trail in the beginning after which, one hits the intersection of Tuck’s trail with Tuckerman Ravine Fire road.
There is also a motorable road that goes up to Mt. Washington Observatory at the top of the mountain but that road is closed during winter. Now, just because I told you that there’s a man-made structure at the top and that you can even drive up in your car on the mountain, don’t start judging the difficulty rating of this peak. Let me first present you with harsh facts about this mountain. To quote www.outdoors.org, “Because the Presidential Range is in the pathway of several major storm tracks, Mount Washington is known to have a severe combination of wind and cold. The average annual temperature is 27.1°F, the summit temperature has never risen above 72°F, and the mountain holds the world-record for a wind speed of 231 mph, recorded on the summit in 1934. Hurricane-force wind, dense fog, driving rain, and snow occur even during the summer months, and sudden and extreme weather variations are common.” Several people have died on this mountain, in fact a woman had died just the previous week, on account of having gotten stranded by herself in bad weather on the mountain. So, even with a summit of as low an altitude as 6288 ft, this peak tests your endurance and mountaineering techniques really well! I’d say that it’s a great winter peak for those who are training for mountain climbing – you have to use snow boots, crampons, ice axe and brave the negative temperatures pretty much the whole time on the summit day.
We had two and a half guides between the 6 of us (the package was that for 1 guide per 3 people, the third guide was an intern guide). The Tuckerman Ravine trail starts out steeply and is snow-covered from the beginning itself. Within the first 15 minutes, it became clear that Rich and I were relatively slow hikers compared to the other 4 members in the group. For the first hour and half, the trail was quite wide. At times, it even felt like a snowmobile could pass over it easily. The trail went up and up, zig zagging the mountain steeply. Uphill walking warmed our bodies up in no time. One by one, we peeled off our layers in -10 degree Celsius! Luckily for us, the wind was not in its usual form that day. On my back, I had a day pack containing crampons, ice axe, 2 litres of water, snacks for the day, an extra pair of gloves, a spare snow hat, sunglasses and sunscreen lotion. My group was setting a very fast pace (because the guides were walking superfast) but I could walk comfortably and consistently only if I followed my own slower pace, which is what I did. That meant that the distance between myself/ Rich and the rest of the group went on increasing with every passing minute. After a point, I stopped trying to catch up as the effort of having to walk consistently uphill on the snow with the heavy snow boots was an onerous task in itself. We had started at about 2000 ft altitude at the visitor center and would have to go up another 4000 ft before we reached the summit. I started to set my pace in order to be able to last till the summit. To this moment, it’s difficult for me to judge if my group was super-duper fit or if my own stamina was so bad that I was finding it very difficult to walk at the same pace as the others in my group. In any case, I kept walking, one step at a time – this was only the first one-fourth part of the climb.
A few minutes after leaving the Tuck’s Trail, we arrived at the junction of the Lion’s Head Winter Route. We must have spent about an hour and half by that time. The junction is the point where people put on their crampons and need to get their the ice-axe out. My lungs were burning by this time and I welcomed the break. Rich decided to go back with the third guide from this point on so that now, we had two sub-groups in our group of 5 climbers and 2 guides – Me+guide and rest+guide. The fact that I was no longer required to constantly catch up with the faster group relived me a little bit although I didn’t want to be so slow as to jeopardize my chances of reaching the summit. On any mountain, and especially this one, the weather becomes unpredictable in the afternoon and it’s advisable that one starts to climb down from where-ever one is at that point, post 2 p.m. As it is, we had started on the trail kinda late in the day and the guides were insisting on a turn around time of 1:30 p.m., thereby leaving us with only 4 hours for the uphill effort of 4.4 miles and 4000 ft. of height gain. I was intimidated in my mind and felt that I would be able to go near the summit but perhaps, not the summit itself. In any case, I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. I told my guide Todd that I wanted to give my best shot and if that meant having to return from within a very short distance from the summit, I was prepared for that. I just wanted to keep going till the time it was absolutely necessary to turn back – turnaround time or my complete exhaustion, whichever came first.
With the crampons beneath the shoes and ice axe in my right hand, I tried to put my game face on and started walking on the trail through the spruce forest. Within the next 5 minutes, the trail became very steep and narrower than before. We had started to use the French side stepping technique in order to make the optimum use of energy/ muscular power while stepping uphill with crampons. This section of the trail lasted for about 20 minutes. Being quite steep, everyone had to make use of the ice axe as well. There was a small rock step where we had to plant the ice axe above our head or use our hands for a few moves. It was a bit scary but added to the adventure of the hike. It is because of such a mix of hiking and semi technical climbing on different kinds of snow, that Mt. Washington winter hike is called a mountaineering hike. Since the day was sunny, a lot of people were attempting the peak that day, resulting into a traffic jam on this part of the trail. But again, I welcomed the rest stops that the traffic job provided us with!
We emerged at the top of this section of steep trail onto a wide open slope that would further lead up to Lion’s head. The gradient eased out a little bit but it was still pretty steep and was going to be so till the end. The next milestone on this route would be Lion’s Head, a small rock formation that marks halfway point to the summit.(reference:newhampshireclimbing.com). We continued walking up and pretty soon, crossed the tree line. It was amusing to cross the treeline at such a low altitude of about 3500 ft or so! The view of the valley and the mountains around us opened up on this section of the trail. For the first time since starting to walk that morning, I enjoyed the the scenery. The beautiful brown and white curves of the mountains were rolling around us! We could see a part of the trail by which we had come up, down below on the face of Mt. Washington on which we were standing.
Weather was quite windy from this point onwards, but I could still walk without a face mask for at least the first 10-15 mins. Conditions below my feet were somewhat icy and at some points, one had to step carefully across glassy ice and rocks. We passed through a rocky section just below Lion’s head and at this point, I could no longer bear the cold wind that made me feel like my face was on fire. Strange, right! I have never appreciated the importance of a face mask so much in my life! I guess it was around 11:30 a.m. by the time I made it to Lion’s head. Lion’s head was supposed to be the windiest place on the mountain and it lived up to its reputation. Since there’s hardly any good spot to rest from Lion’s Head onwards, we took a snacks and water break on the flattish area and tried to assess my chances of making it to the summit. Well, the chances of my reaching the summit were slim, in fact very very slim, given the time frame we were left with. I was not tired, but I was unable to walk any faster than I had been. I could have continued to walk beyond 1:30 p.m. but that would not be a safe choice. Again, I made up my mind to give it a try anyway, although by now, I was sure the summit wasn’t within my reach. I could see one of the towers at the summit from Lion’s Head but the tower soon went behind fog and clouds. On a clear day, one gets a clear view of the summit from Lion’s Head but on that day, it was not to be so.
From Lion’s Head, the trail moved on to the base of the summit cone. This section of the trail was out in the open, with strong winds lashing the face and icy ground and rocks to negotiate. One important thing to note is that it’s almost necessary to use goggles from Lion’s head onward – not so much for protection against snow blindness as for protection against the strong, often unmanageable wind. I had made a grave mistake in thinking that a pair of sunglasses would suffice. But the biggest issue with sunglasses is that they fog up in such crazy weather! Mine certainly did and the fog turned to frost in about half a minute so that I couldn’t do anything about the half blocked vision that my sunglasses permitted me to have. It was very annoying to not being able to see properly when you are already straining your leg muscles, panting with exhaustion and dealing with cold and half numb fingers inside the two layers of gloves! So please, please, I urge you to pick up a pair of goggles (like skiing goggles) if you are aiming for the summit.
From the base of the summit cone, we could see the trail going diagonally west up the summit cone. I guessed that I would take about 30 more minutes to reach the next landmark – Split Rock, which is a large boulder with a gap in the middle that one squeezes through. I was exhausted by this time and knew that the upward walk till Split Rock would exhaust me even further. Todd had been constantly reminding me for the last one hour that I did have the option to turn back and that the mountain could wait. I knew the whole philosophy and agreed with it. But at the same time, I was confident about my judgement regarding how my body works under exhaustion and in the mountains. The only reason I had pushed myself till that point was because I felt sure that I was not risking myself. But at the sight of the diagonal uphill walk to Split Rock and the thought of having to walk another 30-40 minutes beyond that to the summit wore me down mentally. I was super tired and even if I was able to continue after Split Rock, we would have crossed the safe turnaround time at my pace. At long last, I decided to at least make it to the last landmark before summit and only then say goodbye to the summit attempt. With that resolve, I started side stepping on the slope and started the count down of steps towards my destination. I was tiring out fast and made a note to myself to come better prepared physically, when I attempt this peak the next winter. After about 20-25 minutes of trudging, I found myself at Split Rock at 1:30 p.m., which was our pre-decided turnaround time. I wanted to rest here but some part of me wanted to push ahead, as I knew that the next stop would be the summit. But this option was out of question due to safety concerns laid out by Todd and this time, I agreed with him. Making peace with the failure to reach the summit, I enjoyed the view across the valley, of the mountains beyond it. Todd showed me places on the mountain opposite us, where crazy skiers regularly ski down. We actually spotted a party of 3/4 skiers going up a steep looking snow gully on that mountain. I made another note to myself, about taking up skiing the next winter season.
Split Rock was a very cold and windy spot and we didn’t stay there for more than 10 minutes. It was important to make it back safely too. My group members had summited the peak by then and were also on their way back. Todd and I started the downhill climb and the rest of our party joined us in the next half an hour or so. Apparently, the weather and visibility from Split Rock onwards had been really bad and the group was being very sweet in trying to console me by saying that I didn’t miss out on any views. They were unable to see anything on the summit due to bad weather and the best views that they experienced, had been around Split Rock. It was a nice thing that they were trying to do for me, but a missed summit does feel like some sort of failure; So that is that!
The downhill journey was event-less. The short section with steep gradient and the rock step was difficult to negotiate and we again ran into a traffic jam. But with our guides’ guidance and help, we could make it across the tricky rock step quite safely. They set up a knotted rope that we held with one hand while climbing down the step. It made things a lot easier and safer for us! The last one hour on Tuckerman Ravine Trail felt like it would never end; but it finally did end and we were back to North Conway for drinks, a sumptuous dinner, a hot bath and a warm bed by evening!
Mar 6: Drive up to North Conway after office. Reach by 1 a.m. on Mar 7
Mar 7: Gear fitting at IMCS between 6:30 a.m. to 8:30.a.m. Drive up from the school to Pinkham Notch visitor center. Start walking around 9/9:30 a.m. 4/4.5 hours uphill, 2 hours downhill. Back to Pinkham visitor center by 4:30 p.m.
Mar 8: Drive back to New Jersey/ New York
International Mountain Climbing School, North Conway:
- Website: http://www.ime-usa.com/imcs/
- Phone: 609-356-7064
Essential Gear for Winter:
- Snow shoes – Koflach kind of shoes
- Ice Axe
- Rope (At least one rope in a group of 5-6 people)
- Face Mask for protection against cold, fast wind
- Two pairs of gloves – one for use, one as spare. The kind of gloves that can hold you well in a temperature range of -10 to -20 degree Celsius, when you are continuously on snow
- Warm, thick woolen hiking socks
- A thick, double layered skiing/ snowboarding trouser
- Thermal layer for upper and lower body
- Fleece to be worn on top of the baseline layer
- Soft/ hard shell jacket
- A down jacket – you would most likely not use it. But it’s good to have it in case you were injured and had to wait for rescue while stranded on the mountain
- Skiing Goggles
- Wide mouth water bottles – Wide mouth makes it easier to crush the ice if the water gets frozen in the crazy weather. A guideline is to insulate the bottles among the spare clothes and keep them inside the backpack, to keep the water from freezing.