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10 Tips for Climbing Mt Washington in Winter

Climbing Mt Washington in Winter
Climbing Mt Washington in Winter

Backpacker Magazine got it right when they named Mt Washington (6288′) one of the 10 most dangerous hikes in America. Several weather patterns collide on Mt Washington and produce its notoriously foul weather, which can move in quickly.  The winds on Mt Washington exceed tropical storm force (40 mph) 110 days a year, the summit is covered in cloud 55% of the year and snow falls every month of the year. In 80-mph winds, hiking becomes nearly impossible, and becomes very dangerous when the temperature falls below freezing.

1. Climb Mt Washington with other experienced winter hikers.

A group of strong and experienced winter hikers on neighboring Mt Monroe
A group of strong and experienced winter hikers

If you’ve never climbed Mt Washington in winter before or any other of the Northern Presidential peaks (Adams, Jefferson, and Madison), find yourself a group of experienced winter hikers who have climbed the mountain before and hike with them. Climbing Mt Washington isn’t just any old winter hike. It’s a long climb in tough terrain, the cairns marking the trails are difficult to locate in cloud or fog, and you need mountaineering skills with full crampons and an ice axe to get to the summit. The wind is usually ferocious and whiteout conditions are all too common. Going with a group of experienced winter hikers or a mountaineering guide, who will rent you the required gear, will increase your safety and enjoyment of the day,

2. Postpone your hike if the weather is bad.

Bad Weather Warning for Mt Washington and the Northern Presidentials
Bad Weather Warning for Mt Washington and the Northern Presidentials

The Mt Washington Observatory publishes as daily forecast at 4:50 am and you should make a point to read it before you start climbing the mountain. If the wind is over 50 miles per hour sustained and the summit temperature is forecast near zero  (before subtracting wind chill) , or heavy snow is expected, you’d be wise to postpone your hike until the weather is better. The risk of frostbite on Mt Washington in cold or windy weather is very real. If it’s snowing heavily, the wind will whip up the snow and it’s very easy to get lost if you’re not an expert navigator. If you get into a situation where you need help, a rescue will be significantly delayed in dodgy weather. Too many people schedule a hike up Mt Washington on a specific day, months in advance, and will attempt to climb the mountain even when it’s unsafe. Give yourself a few days when you visit, so you can pick a calm day to do your hike.  Better yet, climb it on a sunny day, when you can see something from the summit.

3. Don’t split up.

Adding layers at treeline in cold fog
Stick together in low visibility and cold fog

When hiking in a group, make sure you stick together. If the mountain is smothered in cloud or fog, visibility can easily drop down to 15 yards, making it difficult to see your companions if you fall behind or you hike off without them. If the wind is blowing hard, you might not be able to hear one another above the roar of the wind, so work out a system of hand signals in advance. Don’t ever spilt your group into fast and slow hikers, because you lose the ability to communicate route changes or help one another if someone wanders off-route or has an accident.

4. Bring hot water in wide-mouth insulated bottles.

Fill your hot water bottles for winter hiking at the gas station.
Fill your hot water bottles for winter hiking at the gas station.

Bring boiling hot water with you on your hike in wide mouth bottles that are insulated with neoprene sleeves or buried deep in your backpack with your insulating layers to stay hot all day. Uninsulated bottles and hydration reservoir hoses will freeze in winter, so don’t rely on them. I recommend bringing 3 liters of water on a Mt Washington winter hike and drinking 2 liters of water or other liquids before you start your climb.

5. Eat a big breakfast before your hike.

Munroe's Family Restaurant in Twin Mountain, New Hampshire
Munroe’s Family Restaurant in Twin Mountain, New Hampshire

You’re probably going to burn 5000-6000 calories when climbing Mt Washington in winter, so it’s best to pile on the calories first thing in the morning because you’ll be running at a caloric deficit all day, even if you snack frequently. Eating a lot of food will boost your metabolism, which will generate body heat and help you stay warmer, so pile on the calories before and during your hike. My favorite pre-hike meal for Mt Washington are waffles, hash browns, and two sides of bacon.

6. Start early in the morning.

The days are very short in winter, so you need to get an early start to get down by dark
The days are very short in winter, so you need to get an early start to get down by dark

The hike up Mount Washington is a 10+ mile hike with over 4000 feet of elevation gain. Assuming an average of 1 mile per hour, it will take you at least 10 hours to climb the peak and get back down. But the days are very short in winter, with only 9-11 hours of daylight, and you want to make sure you get below treeline before dark when route finding become much more difficult.The best way to avoid getting caught out in the dark is to get a very very early start, so that you get to treeline at sunrise, giving you more time to complete the climb and get back down before sunset.

7. Dress in layers.

Layering Up for the Ascent to the Summit
Layering Up at 5000′ for the Ascent to the Summit

You want to avoid sweating in winter because it will chill you when you stop moving. The best way to do this is to dress in layers so you can strip off clothes when you get too warm and put on layers when you get cold. For example, when climbing below treeline, it’s not uncommon for people to strip down to a short sleeve technical shirt because they’re sweating so much. When you get above treeline, you usually want to put on an insulating midlayer and a wind shell for the final summit ascent, which is not protected by tree cover, adding gloves, hats, a facemask/balaclava, or ski goggles as needed. At the summit or when you stop, most people put on a heavy down coat to stay warm.

 8. Bring full face protection including a facemask and goggles.

Be sure to bring full face protection including a facemask and goggles
Be sure to bring full face protection including a facemask and goggles

Frostbite is a very real danger on Mt Washington, especially when the temperatures are below freezing and the wind is up. Make sure to bring a facemask and ski goggles with you, so that there isn’t any skin on your face that is exposed to the elements when it’s cold and the wind starts howling. If you’ve never hiked in winter with a full balaclava and goggles, make sure you get some practice beforehand. Walking over ice-covered rock while wearing full crampons is treacherous enough without wearing fogged up goggles. It’s best to debug any fogging issues before you attempt the peak, lest you be forced to abort your hike and turn around.

9. Train for your hike by hiking other New Hampshire 4000 footers in winter conditions.

Mt Lafayette and Mt Lincoln on Franconia Ridge
Mt Lafayette and Mt Lincoln on Franconia Ridge

The only effective way to train for winter hiking is to go on winter hikes. Hiking in cold weather, knowing when to layer and delayer, practicing your crampon footwork and ice axe skills, and packing and organizing all of your winter gear isn’t something you can train for on a treadmill or in the gym. When training for a winter hike up Mt Washington, you want to do a few practice hikes up other White Mountain four thousand footers in winter conditions that have  long approach hikes and a significant above treeline section. Peaks such as Mts Lafayette, Lincoln, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Garfield, Carrigan, Eisenhower, South Twin, Moosilauke, or South Kinsman will help you develop the stamina and skills needed to climb Mt Washington.

10. Bring an ice axe, full crampons, heavily insulated boots, and the 10 essentials.

The Ultimate Winter Hiking Desination - Mt Washington in Winter
The Ultimate Winter Hiking  Destination – Mt Washington in Winter

Climbing up Mt Washington in Winter is more of a mountaineering trip than your average winter hike. That means bringing full crampons to provide purchase on hard ice, an ice axe to self-arrest and stop a bad slide, and carrying the ten essentials including at least one sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, and emergency shelter per group. While it does pay to bring the lightest gear you can on a climb up Washington, it’s not worth bringing less gear than you need. Hike safe.


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16 comments

  1. Great list with very sound reasoning. I’ve climbed many bigger mountains in the Rockies Sierra, and Andes as well as Mt. Washington in winter conditions. Take it from me, Washington is a tough and potentially very hazardous winter climb.

  2. Great timing, I’m climbing it in about a month! Everything is what I expected but it’s always reassuring to read it with no surprises. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for posting Phil! Jeremy, I too will be up there in about a month, really stoked for this trip. My longtime hiking partner and I have been preparing for this trip for months.

  4. GReat informtion Phillip and great timing as well…..Your readers should not that this information also applies to those hiking into the Eastern Sierra’s especially in what they call the Bishop Basin in Winter..Lake Zabrina at 8000 feet then the climb up to Blue Lake at 10,000 feet is a beautiful place in the Snow and then on to Mt.Darwin, prepare prepare, prepare, prepare…and Aclimate, Aclimate, Aclimate..bring three days more Food and Fuel than you think you need. One of the reasons I prefer MRE’s in Cold weather in case the Stove fails for what ever reason and no fuel issues. I just summited Mt. Cheaha in Alabama last week and we were lucky, just some rain and a bit of sleet but no snow…

  5. So many Mt Washington’s – took me a bit of reading to figure this one out, ugh :-)

  6. I’m planning on taking a hydroflask that is vacuum insulated for water. It is stainless steel, and on the mouthpiece that you’d drink out of. Will this be ok to use on a trip in less than two weeks?

  7. I did this hike with the EMS adventure school in North Conway. It’s really not that expensive considering you rent the technical gear needed for the hike. More than that, the experience of the guides are invaluable.

    As for the water bottle discussion, I brought two of these from REI. I kept them inside my pack and close to my back, but they still got awfully icy on the Washington hike.

    http://www.rei.com/product/852357/rei-wide-mouth-loop-top-water-bottle-48-fl-oz

    Thomas, I would highly recommend going with experts. It’s a dangerous endeavor and it has claimed the lives of experienced and inexperienced climbers. Learning basic skills like walking in crampons and knowing how to self arrest are critical.

  8. Phil, What sorta snacks do you like to bring on these kind of trips?

    • Chunks of Trader Joe’s Milk Chocolate, Sesame Snaps, Chex, (Peanuts, raisins, and chocolte chips), cliff bars kept warm next to my body, gatorade in my hot water, the usual…

      • Awesome! Like the idea of Chex,…Cheezits have been a mainstay on my trips regardless of weather. Thanks for suggestions!!

  9. I have climbed higher mountains but Mt. Washington has always been special for me. Winter climbs are a good test of fitness, and sometimes will power. The first time was with friends including a friend that had climbed it more than 20 times. The second time was with a guide from IMS – it was 10 below but no wind and you could see Portland. The third time was a solo but despite the weather forecast of clear weather – by the time I made it to split rock the snow was so heavy I couldn’t see 2 feet. Bagged that summit attempt and went back down. My favorite food is vanilla wafers because they don’t get rock hard in cold weather. Cliff bars or any other bar with a high moisture content will freeze solid if not kept in inside your coat.

  10. Thanks for the very useful information Philip! I plan on climbing Washington this Saturday with my hiking partner as long as the weather goes our way. After reading this article and doing some research on breakfast diners in the area I am in a little bit of a pickle…how can I start my hike as early as possible and eat a nice big breakfast if the diners in the surrounding area don’t open until 7? I was hoping to already be on the trail by then but I want my bacon and French toast! I’m staying in Jackson Friday night if you know of anyplace (preferably south of Washington near Jackson) please inform me my 10 min on Google did not bring about anything. Thanks

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