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.
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.
The Mt Washington Observatory publishes a daily Higher Summits 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking and backpacking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide (1440 miles). He's also finished hiking many of the region's peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72. Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He also teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year, listed on Outdoors.org.
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide, 30th ed.
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- White Mountains Map: New Hampshire and Maine
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