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Why are the White Mountains So Tough?

Treeline Warning, White Mountains
Treeline Warning, White Mountains

The White Mountains in New Hampshire have a well-deserved reputation as a challenging place to hike. People are always a bit surprised by this because they’re not that high in elevation, only topping out at 6,288 feet on Mt Washington. Still, people come from around the the world to train for major international expeditions here because the Whites are so formidable, particularly in winter.

What makes them so tough?

Wind and Weather

Bad weather is certainly a major factor. For example, the average wind speed on top of Mt Washington is 35 miles per hour, the winds on 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. These mountains deserve respect!

Weatherwise you simply don’t hike in the Whites without carefully assessing the weather beforehand, planning days in advance. When you do get out, you need to be very alert to changes in cloud cover, white outs, thunder and lightning, hail. In cool or wet weather, hypothermia and frostbite are very real risks because the mountain summits are usually 20 degrees cooler than the valleys and the wind accelerates evaporative and convective cooling.

Lenticular Clouds Warn of Pending Rain or Hail
Lenticular Clouds Warn of Pending Rain or Hail

Avalanche Terrain

A lot of people think that avalanche activity in the White Mountains is limited to Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines. That’s just not true. Snow avalanches occur all over the White Mountains in the King, Castle, Burt, and Ammonoosuc Ravines, in Crawford Notch, Franconia Notch, Carter Notch, Eagle Pass, the Pemigewasset, along the Kancamagus Highway, in fact anywhere where there’s a slope angle between 38 and 45 degrees. While Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines are the only places with snow rangers forecast avalanche danger, they occur throughout the White Mountains. Your best defense is to take an avalanche awareness class or avoid avalanche terrain in winter.

Mt Cannon: Avalanche and Rockfall Zone
Cannon Mountain: Avalanche and Rockfall Zone

Trail Conditions

People new to the White Mountains are often surprised by how rugged the trails are. They’re often narrow, steep, and require good scrambling skills to ascend and descend. I know many experienced White Mountains hikers who will tell you that learning how to rock climb vastly improved their hiking footwork.

Typical White Mountain Trail: Edmund's Path
Typical White Mountain Trail: Edmund’s Path

On top of the roughness of the trails, the ascents in the high peaks are quite steep, rising over 1,000 feet per mile for miles at a time without switchbacks to provide physical or mental relief to weary hikers. The best thing to do under these circumstances is to keep your eyes down (looking up crushes all hope) and take small steps so not to exhaust your quadriceps muscles.

M Lincoln and Franconia Ridge
Mt Lincoln and Franconia Ridge

Above treeline trails are also quite exposed to the elements. While these trails are magnificent to hike in fine weather, they can be quite dangerous if the wind or weather turns on you unexpectedly. In an emergency, particularly in winter, the best thing to do it to get below treeline: most people who get below treeline survive to hike another day. Remember, the summit is always optional.

Remoteness

While there are sections of the White Mountains relatively close to major highways, a large portion is quite remote and seldom traveled. I’ve been on hikes in the north country where I haven’t seen people for days. If you decide to venture beyond the well-traveled trails, make sure you hike with others, you are fully equipped, and that you’ve done your trip planning homework. Help is often not readily available and you need to develop a certain level of self-sufficiency if you want to go off the beaten path.

The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail

Parting Thoughts

When I started hiking in the White Mountains, they honestly scared me. But there are plenty of opportunities to build your confidence and skill level gradually and safely. If you’re just getting started I recommend that he join a hiking group like the Appalachian Mountain Club or the Random Group of Hikers on Meetup.com. If you’re more experienced, I’d still recommend that you hike with others who are familiar with the territory before branching out on your own. While there are plenty of easy hikes in the Whites, things can go south amazingly quickly, unless you know the territory well and hike prepared.

The White Mountains are a great place to hike and once you get hooked….

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26 comments

  1. Great post! I’ve hiked all over North America, South America and Europe and I’ve never seen hiking as difficult as the Whites.

  2. Just as a qualifier, Laura and I finished the 48 in July and are working on the NE 100 highest but we definitely don’t have as many miles as you Phil. My experience matches yours except I disagree about the remoteness of The Whites. I think one of the reasons there are a lot of accidents in The Whites is because they are so accessible and the proximity of commercial developments gives a false sense of safety.

    That’s not to take away from the brutality. What people don’t understand is just how fast things can go from docile to dangerous. A lost glove, a frozen rope, a forgotten headlamp, or a slip are just a few examples of game-changers that can elevate the level of seriousness within minutes; even for a seasoned hiker.
    I can think of dozens of examples in every season but we climbed Lost In The Sun a few weeks ago which is a slab up the side of Mt. Webster. We had done it before and wanted to bring my little sister’s boyfriend. It was a beautiful day, everything went smooth, you could see loads of tourists at the Willey House enjoying the sunshine all day…. but the day turned out to be much hotter than we expected and we did not have enough water. We could literally see visitors going in and out of the ice cream shop all day. Still, in that short time I was the most dehydrated I had ever been. Delirious, we knelt down and started drinking out of the Sacco when we finally got down to route 302 around 4PM. Still, just a short while later we were laughing about it and enjoying drinks at the Red Parka.
    At 7AM we wake up in Massachusetts pour some coffee and read the news, by 11AM the 70MPH wind is so intimidating we want to cry, at 5PM we are laughing about it playing volley ball in a swimming pool. That’s something distinct about The Whites. Everything is so close. In a single weekend you can do a lot. Drive up after work on Friday night, walk into the woods during a blizzard with a headlamp and do some winter camping. Wake-up, take a shower at Pinkham, go for a hike, do some roadside ice climbing. Go see some live music and stay with a local friend. Wake up the next day and go skiing, maybe do a little ice skating on Chocurra, grab some Mexican food, and make it back to Massachusetts in time to upload the photos, do the laundry and catch the game.

  3. All true, but you CAN get way off the beaten track if you want to. Try the Kilkenny, the Wild River Wilderness, the Dry River Wilderness, even the Great Gulf. You might as well be on the moon. I’m just saying that if you go there, make sure your skills are up to snuff.

  4. I THOUGHT I recognized that stretch of the AT. That’s a hard one, all right. Thanks, Mike Blair, for the description of the Daks vs. the Whites. I was wondering how the two compared. I’d like to get to the Daks for some hiking one of these days.

  5. Excellent well written informative post Phil! Nice to run into the other day!

  6. I chuckled at your Edmund’s Path photo. The reddish broken log bottom right of the photo, at quick glance, looked like some sort of remains – I had to take a second look. First thought was “that’s what happened to the last hiker to underestimate our trails!”

  7. No problem Liz. Just got back from our seventh trip to the Adirondacks and can’t wait to go back. Will be trying some of them in winter next time. It’s a six hour drive so when we go we stay as long as we can and do as much hiking and backpacking as possible. We were there for a week in August and climbed 15 of the 46. On 11 of them we had the summit and most of the route entirely to ourselves. On 3 of the others we saw a mother and her son (skylight) family of four (big slide), and a family of three with their dog (donaldson). The final peak was Marcy and that was a mob scene so we quickly hit the summit and continued on our way.

    As Phillip just wrote in a different piece about the Kilkenny ridge backpack trip he just did, there are still low es in the Whites where you can find true wilderness and we love the Whites (Maine and Vermont too), but we love the change of pace and the different challenges that the Adirondacks provide.

    • After hiking Katahdin a couple of weeks ago, I suddenly realized that there’s a whole new world of hiking outside of NH. Who knew? Thanks for the Dacks descriptions, I’m chomping at the bit to get over there.

      Btw, Mike, I’m the Liz that did AMC leadership training last fall. Just got my full H/B leadership status.

      • Fantastic Liz! Congrats.
        Oh yes, there is LOTS of fantastic hiking outside of New Hampshire. LOTS of driving too, so it’s best to backpack when doing long road trips so you can maximize your trail time and sleep cheap.

      • Agreed! Or stay with your friends who just moved to VT. Oh, wait, that’s me. :-)

      • Way to go Liz. Hope to see you on the trails some time soon.

        Yes, there is a whole world out there beyond the White Mountains (or I guess outside the Adirondacks if you live in upstate NY). The point is go out and explore – don’t just keep doing the same trails over and over again.

  8. I’m from Toronto, but had seen the weather nerd stuff from Mount Washington for years.

    A couple of my friends were speaking about their multitudinous world travels when I challenged them to summit Mt Washington with me. It was a great trip; a great hike to the tree line. My world traveler friend types were eager to summit, so noting a small cloud near the opposing ridge we set out. That cloud became a front.

    Yikes! Half way between the shelter and the summit we were in white-outs in July. Visibility about 1m. .We made it through, but we weren’t in back country. Man it hit quickly. I’ve camped northern Canada. that’s tough weather. up there.

    Loved the cog railway back down soaking wet though.

    My world traveler buddies didn’t poo-poo the Presidentials after that.

    cheers

  9. Glad the trail runners work for you. I would likely lift them only a few times before turning my ankle, never to lift them again. After falling, stumbling, and tripping along White Mountain trails for ten years, I’ll suffer with the weight to have waterproof ankle support.

  10. If you think that’s tough, you should see the San Gabriel mountains in Los Angeles…we had some nights this winter where the temperature went below…fifty…and the winds…well, they blew a napkin right out of my hand once…oh the horror!

  11. My least favorite section of trail in the Whites. good photo.

  12. That trail makes a good argument for doing it when they are covered with snow.

  13. I’m glad you re-posted this.

  14. You need a 3/4 shank hiking boot to climb these babies, or you’ll crack an ankle.

  15. Lynn (Pat) Patterson

    Taspat.Montreal
    Just found your site and enjoy it.
    Always wanted to hike but never got into until I retired at 55 in 2004.When asked what I was going to do at retirement I said hike Mt Washington. Few knew what I was talking about. I lived in flat southwestern Ontario then. My girlfriend and I did it the weekend of my 55 birthday. Last summer was my 11th summit(most solo as my girlfriend works still) and always had good weather(lucky). My goal is to do it every year ’till I die as incentive to keep in shape.
    Also did the traverse in Aug 2007, at 58, a long day but a good one. We did the Northville Lake Placid in in 2009, mostly in rain.
    We hike a lot in Vermont and the Adks as they are closer for weekend hikes, than the Whites but I love NH. This summer we are booked for The Chilkoot Trail from Skagway, Alaska into the Yukon if all goes well; but the northeast has great hills to practice on.

    Ciao

    Pat

    • Hi Lynn I am from Ontario as well (Belleville). Currently 31 of the adk 46 under my belt. We camp every year in the Whites though. If you are ever looking for a weekend hike partner drop an email. Once I complete the adk 46 I am hoping to section the AT. I’m 48 now and hope to wrap it up before 70…..And to add yes I too just found this site and am enjoying it.
      Regards All

  16. Not to mention how absurdly fast the weather can change on you. During one spring hike we started with temps around the 60s at the base and blue skies, temps dropped to the 40s with rain, temps dropped further with a short burst of intense snow, and when we got close to the base again the temps were in the 50s with a thunderstorm, dumping rain and hail. Even with proper gear that was just not a fun hike :)

  17. How’s July usually? I always bring everything id need in case of a FUBAR situation anyhow, (always be prepared) just curious.

  18. Jessica Woodhouse

    This brings back childhood memories of hiking in the Whites with my Dad. He was a longtime winter mountaineer and ice climber – a guy from the heroic age of Joe Dodge when climbers no one had ever heard of cell phones, GPS, or Gortex. I grew up with his hair-raising stories of deadly mountaineering accidents. Most of them involved climbers “from away” who underestimated the ferocity of White Mountain weather conditions. The one I remember most vividly was of the time he and a friend turned back from what would have been a first winter ascent of Mount Owlshead. Another team did not turn back that day – and were lost in an avalanche. My Dad took me and my brother all over those mountains during our preteen and teen years without anything worse than blisters and sore legs. But I remember many a time when we turned back because he saw bad weather coming in on the horizon. His climbing mantra was “When you’re in doubt there is no doubt.”

  19. dbcooperisalive, it’s 2015, hope you post back when you summit MW. It defeated me when I was 21 but I finally came back at 41 with more respect, better fitness, and made it the second time. Clicking around the sectionhiker site beforehand made a big difference!

  20. Actually he did not say “hurricane”.. he correctly said “tropical storm” winds.

  21. Hi All,

    Been hiking the 48 4kers for about 8 years or so now. I have 4 left(Bonds and Zealand) and hope to finish this summer(2017).

    Mt. Washington: Hiked up 3 times. Believe it or not I find the north side(COG railway side), a fairly easy hike.

    The toughest for me has been Mt. Adams(done it twice). Had chest pains both times after finishing. Be careful on this one and pace yourself! Was there one year on June 30th and it snowed(just small non accumulating flakes) but was so cold hands got numb and hypothermia started setting in. Knew enough to just get moving and head down below tree line.

    I have many colorful stories about many of my hikes if anyone is interested.

    Good site..thanks.

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