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Climbing Mt. Washington in Winter

Climbing Mt. Washington in Winter

After a week of increasingly alarming weather forecasts, we ended up having excellent weather for our summit attempt on Mt. Washington today. Temperatures were only 10 below zero with winds of 38 miles an hour, gusting to 50 miles per hour. That’s considered balmy in January.

However, despite the good weather, we were forced to turn back just 0.3 miles and 300 feet below the 6,288 ft. summit due to icing on our goggles and glasses that made the final ascent up the icy, boulder strewn summit cone extremely treacherous. Breaking an ankle up here, in full exposure is not worth it, so we about faced and walked back down. Honestly, the climb up to this point was extremely difficult for me and I was pretty close to my limit when we turned back.

Mt. Washington Summit Cone in Winter

We hiked up today from Harvard Cabin, where we had established a base camp the evening before.This is a very primitive shelter with no electricity, and only a wood stove for heat and propane tanks for melting ice for drinking water. It’s only open in the winter and is managed by a caretaker who lives there during the season. Guests can sleep in the upstairs loft or in a few camp sites behind the cabin.The caretaker works closely with the Mt. Washington observatory and the park service to educate climbers about weather conditions and avalanche danger, which can be quite serious in the White Mountains.

 Avalanche Danger Levels in the White Mountains

Part of my crew, including myself, elected to sleep in a 3-person tent outdoors, last night, with temperatures well below zero. I was quite comfortable all night in my new minus 25, Western Mountaineering Puma Sleeping Bag and my Exped Downmat 7 sleeping pad, despite the fact that my tent mates kept kicking me all night to keep me from snoring. I slept through it all.

We broke camp this morning at 7:30 am after listening to the Mt. Washington observatory forecast for the day. We had until shortly after noon to make a summit because a snow storm was predicted to come into the afternoon. We climbed up the Lion’s head trail for about 2  hours in crampons, with ice picks and a single ski pole. This is a steep trail up to tree line and we had to use French Technique most of the way up. It had snowed close to a foot the previous night and we had to kick steps or front point on the really steep sections.

After we broke tree line, the wind really kicked up until we got to the Alpine Garden. We continued to ascend through deep snow up to the summit of Lion’s head. We weren’t exactly postholing, but it was a close thing, and carrying old style heavy packs all the way up wasn’t helping. I got stuck with this Robson Pro pack rental from my guide that must have weighed 10 pounds all by itself. It had a million compression straps on it, a detachable fanny pack, heavy padded hip belts, a double liner and a shovel pocket and was really unwieldy.

When we made it to the Alpine Garden, just below the summit cone, the wind moderated somewhat and we were able to make good time. This is a flat area overlooking Tuckerman’s ravine that’s full of krumholz trees that can stand the windy blasts over Mt. Washington.

After hiking through the Alpine Garden, we started the final ascent. There was one 5 person party ahead of us, but my the time we caught up with their tracks the wind had covered them up again with drifting snow. The going was difficult at this point and we started to get a bit strung out. I was slightly dehydrated and my water from the previous evening was starting to freeze into a Cytomax slush making it difficult to drink without getting chilled.

Climbing up a steep grade in a foot of fresh snow wearing mountaineering boots with crampons in the howling wind is not at all like normal walking in hiking boots. It’s a completely different movement similar to walking in 5 pound milk crates in beach sand. The crampons are also razor sharp and will slice through any article of clothing they come in contact with or trip you up if you step on rocks buried in the snow. I pretty much shredded a pair of breathable pants this weekend, which I’ll repair with duct tape and keep for future crampon practice.

We had about 4 miles to get back to the bottom of Washington from the point where we decided to turn around. This was no cake walk either, but the going defintiely got easier once we had the wind at our backs. We descended by the same route we took up, but glissaded down most of the Lion’s head trail below tree line except for a high degree icy patches that we had to crampon down. Of the four self arrests I did with my ice axe today, three were performed while glissading.

Although, I didn’t make it to the top of Mt. Washington this weekend, I still had a great time on this three-day Introduction to Mountaineering class and learned a lot of basic skills that I plan to practice and build upon on future expeditions: ice climbing, winter camping, self arrest with an ice axe, glissading, how to walk in mountaineering boots and so forth. I guess I’m a four season hiker now.

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11 comments

  1. A wonderful account of what was clearly an enjoyable and challenging weekend. I'd read a lot of reports about very severe weather on the East Coast over the weekend, and was concerned that you might have had to delay your long-anticipated trip.

    I'll be interested to hear how the layering system worked for you, too. And as for the gaiter-shredded pants, well that's an occupational hazard. Although when it happens, to quote Colin Fletcher, it's definitely a "two cougar scream" moment!

    Once again, congratulations on a bold first winter ascent!

  2. My layer system worked great as long as we were moving. That was problematic at points since we were in a class with mixed skill and endurance levels. I wore two lightweight capilene layers and my thin gore-tex parka as a vapor barrier on the ascent up to tree line. I was warm, as you can imagine, and dry. At treeline, I put on the momentum jacket which was very effective at pulling my sweat through the gore-tex. Once we crested lion's head, I added a thin Montbell Thermawrap jacket for some extra insulation and when we started up the summit cone I added a puffy down coat for extra warmth. I never felt sweaty all day and was never cold.

    But I can't explain how tiring this climb was while we were on the mountain. I'm in pretty decent shape, but this really pushed me to my endurance limits. Next time, I'm just going to pick a nice 4,000 footer, not a peak that people use to train for Rainier or Denali.

  3. Excellent read and even more excellent attitude. Sounds like an awesome time, summit or not.

  4. It was a complex decision and in some ways way too late given the potential consequences. I've been in hairy situations before but never anything like the top of Mt. Washington in winter. There is no room for mistakes or improvisation. I have to credit my guide/instructor because he forced us to make the decision to turn back and didn't just make it for us. It made the learning experience a lot more powerful.

  5. Glad to hear you had a great time, whether or not you had the chance to summit. The weather on Washington can be deadly at times. My hat's off to you!

    ~The Pilgrim.

  6. Great post, it looked like "fun". In Australia (where I live we are having very hot weather 35C plus) around a 100F to you guys.

    I have been following the Presidential inauguration very closely from afar. That bloke makes a great speech. Incredibly moving. We REALLY hope he is a very successful President for both the U.S. AND the rest of the world!

  7. Agree completely. I sighed a sense of relief when Bush left office yesterday. Hopefully Obama can start the long process of turning this country around, but WE, the citizens, have to do it. Having an articulate leader who can remind us what we need to do for each other and ourselves to rebuild this country will be good.

  8. Sounds like a great trip. Nothing like pushing yourself to the limit. Great post.

  9. People describe me as having no fear – in that I will attempt and often succeed at things both personal and professional, that are let's say, outside the norm. When I "fail", I just dust myself off and try again. In fact, the entire process of achieving a goal, with it's ups and downs is far more interesting to me than actually achieving it. So missing the summit on this trip has made me even more determined to try again, but with a lot more incremental training and preparation next time.

    And this WAS a great trip. Getting back into the swing of things at work is proving difficult after such a SUBLIME adventure. I don't really feel like I'm physically here, other than the sore bits. :-)

  10. Great report. I'm doing a 3 day intro to Mountaineering class with AMC in February. Maybe you took the same class. We have a summit attempt on day 3 but having read a bit about the mountain I don't really expect to summit, or at least figure it's 50/50 depending on weather and my climbing companions.

    The mountain will always be there.

  11. I tried again a few weeks ago and summitted successfully. I think that first time, I was completely psyched out by my guide and afraid of the mountain. Once you climb a few winter 4,000 footers, the panic fades to respect. Here's my trip report. I can't remember, but I think the AMC outsources the classes to IMCS.
    http://sectionhiker.com/climbing-mt-washington-wi

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