I have always admired the long sweeping ridge between Mount Washington (6288′) and Mount Monroe (5372′) and wondered what it would be like to hike it in winter. While I have hiked the route a half dozen times during the warmer months of the year, the 1.8 mile traverse is fully exposed to winter winds and not a journey to be undertaken lightly without proper winter training, a strong group, and the right equipment.
The fourth highest peak in the Whites, climbing Mount Monroe is a considerable conquest by itself, requiring about 2600 feet of elevation gain up the steep, ice-encrusted Ammonoosuc-Ravine Trail. Starting at the lower Cog Railway Parking Lot, we barebooted up the Ammo to the Gem Pool. The snow on the trail was soft and powdery, but was sufficiently broken out that flotation was not needed. The last thing any of us wanted to do was to carry an addition 4 pounds of snowshoes up to the summit of Monroe or Washington, when we knew that the area above treeline would be scoured clean of snow by the wind.
Joe took the lead at the Gem Pool, kicking steps up the steep slope to the top of the waterfall. My left glute began to ache as we ascended so I switched to a rest step and the pain was soon forgotten. I was carrying full winter gear on this hike along with 3 liters of hot water and food. All of us were also wearing plastic mountaineering boots which are well insulated for spending the day above treeline and on ice.
After a short break, we continued up the slope as the trees began to thin below the Lake of the Clouds hut. We switched to crampons when the ice became thick under the light dusting of snow and climbed back and forth over the ice, working to keep our feet parallel with the surface for maximum grip and to prevent an accidental slide.
We arrived at the Lake of the Clouds Hut after 3 hours of hiking, pretty good considering the degree of ascent involved. The Lakes Hut is shuttered in winter, but hikers congregate here in winter to get out of the wind, share beta, and have a snack. You can usually hike onto the roof of the hut simply by walking up the snow drifts that pile up on the south side of the building.
Washington was still in cloud, so we decided to climb Monroe which is an easy climb, only about 350 feet above the elevation of the hut. The original goal of the hike had been Monroe with Washington added as an afterthought almost, to be climbed if the weather permitted.
As luck would have it, the summit of Washington began to clear just as we summited Monroe, opening up views of awesome Oakes Gulf to the southwest. Looking back toward Washington, I was able to get this awesome picture of the mountain with these two hikers on the western ledge of Monroe. Sublime.
We descended Monroe and regrouped back at the hut to consider our options. It’s a 1.5 mile hike from the Lake of the Clouds Hut to the summit of Washington, across a largely featureless lunar landscape. Though marked by rock cairns, they’re not terribly tall and are easy to miss in fog. There are also a dense number of cross hatched trails leading in all directions across the Tuckerman Lawn above the Lake of the Clouds tarns which can be confusing if you’re not familiar with the territory.
In the end, we decided to proceed up the Crawford Path from the Hut as long as we could easily see the next cairn ahead. This wasn’t a terribly difficult walk although it does climb another 1400′ in elevation to the summit of Washington. Still we had to walk fairly slowly because the surface of the “trail” was covered with rock and scree, in places traversing broad sweeps of ice and wind slab underneath our crampons. If you’ve ever wondered about the limits of microspikes, the face of Mount Washington is one of the places where you want a full mountaineering crampon instead.
The cloud continued to clear as we climbed the summit cone of Mount Washington which is covered by a collection of buildings and weather towers. I always get a kick of seeing one of the wooden buildings up here which is literally chained to the ground using a huge logging chain that runs over its roof and down the sides so its not blown off by the wind. With recorded gusts over 250 miles per hour, Washington is an inhospitable place to be in bad weather.
I was eager to get to the top of Washington to look at the Northern Presidential peaks – Jefferson, Adams and Mount Madison, but they were covered in cloud. We were scheduled to climb Adams, the second highest peak in the Whites, on Monday, but cancelled it because the wind speeds were forecast for over 100 mph with wind chills down to 50 below zero fahrenheit.
Once on Washington, we took a short break in the hiker shelter, munching on summit cookies and the ubiquitous Cape Cod potato chips that Joe likes to share on hikes because they never freeze. There’s a bit of a tradition here to boil water on a stove and then throw it out the door of this shelter – only to watch it turn to snow before it hits the ground. Yeah, Washington deserves the title of having the worst weather in North America.
We left the summit by about 2 pm and headed back to Lakes at a fast clip. The cloud had rolled back in so finding the cairns took a bit of concentration since our footsteps and crampon marks already been filled in by the wind. Going down Washington is way easier than climbing up though, so we made good time, taking a break at the hut before picking our way down the steep ice at the top of the Ammonoosuc-Ravine Trail. From there it was a fast walk out with a stop at Fabians for burgers and hot food. Then sleep.
Total distance: 8.6 miles with 3840′ elevation change in 9 hours.
Altogether, an epic day with an excellent group of hikers.