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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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49 comments

  1. Nice Pics! Boulders…you learn to hate the bloody things…at least the ones you cannot walk on, errr over….uhhhh…around…. The only good one is the one you can sit on, few to be found. Switchbacks?? What’s a swithcback? Isn’t the shortest distance between two points a straight line? Ha… North Country Trails…Yes, The hill trails go straight…up. The fally flat trails are full of twists and turns. A bit backwrads if you think about it as a hiker. Yes, the views are worth it. Really great pics!

  2. Good article. Just one large nit to pick though …. 40mph is not a hurricane using NOAA’s scale, it is a tropical storm. The lowest hurricane classification starts at 74 MPH.

    That should not detract from the rest of the content though.

  3. Philip, I like this post. There are a million photos you could have used to depict the toughness of the White Mountains, particularly the rocky trails, but you did choose very well. I think the most important out of this selection is to know the weather. After hiking the 48 twice now, there was never a time I didn’t check the weather in advance. By that, I mean watching it for at least 3 days in a row in advance of the hike. I think sticking to this, and always having the gear necessary for the warranted conditions just in case has gone a long way for making almost all of my trips free of problems or major concerns with the weather. If I can’t make an easy determination, I’ll usually bring that extra layer or piece of gear I might need.

    • I go through the exact same planning process – watching the weather. Hasn’t failed me yet. Harder of course if you’re going to be out for more than a day hike, which is when the real-time observational skills become so important – I’m a cloud watcher.

  4. What month would you recommend if I want to plan a week of hiking?

  5. So wind, rain, storms, rough trails and the like. Best I get to Scotland then and train for the Whites. They look mean those Whites.

    Wind speed of a sustained 74-94mph is a cat 1 hurricane

    40 to 45mph is easy to judge as you start to get blown around and walking in a straight line gets hard. Been out with a group of six and we all got blown off our feet in 90mph gusts. We beat it back down the hill.

  6. I do a lot of gain in the Lakes and (4000 -5000ft) Scotland a day so not worried. Just need to train hard next 12 weeks to get some real steel into my legs.

    I look at it as Ben Nevis day after Day.

  7. I’m amazed that you tackle the terrain and weather conditions in lightweight trail shoes. I couldn’t do it.

    • It’s all in the footwork of course, but lifting a trail runner requires far less exertion than lifting a leather boot. Switching to trail runners transformed my experience up here. I fly up these peaks.

      • 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.

  8. Thanks for the shoutout for the Random Group (www.meetup.com/random-hikers).

    I know you aren’t comparing but one of the discussions that I find interesting is the “what is harder, the NH48 or the ADK46”. Many people say their “home” mountains are the hardest. After doing both lists my vote is ADK46. They have steep trails, they have boulders, they have slides and avalanches, and many of them are remote.

    The big difference for me though is that while the WMNF has all of these roads (93, 3, 112, and 302) that go through it creating a seemingly endless number of trailhead and route options, there are no such roads in the Adirondacks. You have to attack from the periphery.

    Look at the two big hikes in the Whites – the Presidential Traverse and the Pemi Loop. For the most part you are never really that far from a road or trailhead. Once you start the big hike in the Adirondacks (Great Range Traverse) you keep getting farther away until you hit Marcy where you turn around.

    They also have an Isolation/Owls Head (Allen) that is a longer hike than either one of them and almost half of their summits don’t have officially maintained or blazed trails. While they aren’t bushwhacks they aren’t the highways that lead to many of the summits in the Whites.

    Don’t get me wrong I love the Whites, but while the casual hiker can easily claim the NH48 list I’m not sure that same casual hiker would easily claim the ADK46.

    • For the casual hiker sure – but for multi-day hikes and winter it’s probably about the same level of difficultly as the Dacks since you don’t really care about the roads or the roads are closed.

  9. Despite the rocks, the weather, the steep trails, I love backpacking in the whites ! It just feels great up there. Peace

  10. My name is Jiro. i’m from Japan. Nice to meet you.

    I think your photo is wonderful.

    I am not good at English. I’m sorry if you do not through the English meaning.

    I will visit again.

    Thanks and best regards,

    jiro

  11. Welcome Jiro. I am honored to have you say so.

  12. I started hiking at the age of 54. I was around 12 lb.s overweight but not in condition. I have done a lot of hiking since. I have to take numerous breaks when hiking in the WM. I hiked Mt Washington for the first time last year. I saw many a young person (20’s-30’s) who had to take breaks with a few verbally complaining that they should never of agreed to starting this venture. Many others hike up and it seems like it’s no big deal physically. I come to realize that hiking never will be easy to me but I truly enjoy it. I have had times where I say ” why am I doing this to my body” but at the end of the hike I feel good about myself that I did it. My goal is to hike MW on my 60th birthday (2015) which may not be a big deal for some but it’s important to me. I hope I am healthy enough to do this.

    • Awesome. My mother recently asked me, “How long can you keep doing this?” I am in my early 50’s. I told her I hike with people in their 80’s in the whites. I think it’s largely attitude.

    • That’s funny. I also started hiking at age 54 and will be 60 in 2015. I’ve done four one-week AT section hikes in the past four years from Pearisburg to Pine Furnace Grove, and plan to thru-hike the AT in 2014. I’ve learned quite a bit from my section hikes as well as from SectionHiker and other excellent hiker blogs. Thank you Phil for sharing your knowledge.

    • 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!

  13. Between what two landmarks was the photo labeled “The Appalachian Trail” taken? What other sections of the AT have similar trail conditions?

    I’m planning a 2014 SOBO from Lincoln to Rutland and planning for Gorham to Lincoln after that. Knowing where the boulders are would help me develop a safer hiking plan that allows for muscle recovery and better allocation of energy.

    Thanks, Phil!

  14. When the trail is all rocks and it rains some and then the trail turns to a river and then you become aware you might fall you finally realize why the Whites are tough. Its the rocks.

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

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

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

  20. 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!”

  21. 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.

  22. 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

  23. 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!

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

  25. I’m glad you re-posted this.

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

  27. 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

  28. 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 :)

  29. 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.”

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