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10 Tips for Climbing Mt Washington in Winter

Climbing Mt Washington in Winter
Climbing Mt Washington in Winter

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.

A group of strong and experienced winter hikers on neighboring Mt Monroe
A group of strong and 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.

Current Conditions Summary

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.

Adding layers at treeline in cold fog
Stick together in low visibility and cold fog

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.

Fill your hot water bottles for winter hiking at the gas station.
Fill your hot water bottles for winter hiking at the gas station.

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.

Munroe's Family Restaurant in Twin Mountain, New Hampshire
Munroe’s Family Restaurant in Twin Mountain, New Hampshire

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 days are very short in winter, so you need to get an early start to get down by dark
The days are very short in winter, so you need to get an early start to get down by dark

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.

Layering Up for the Ascent to the Summit
Layering Up at 5000′ for the Ascent to the Summit

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.

Be sure to bring full face protection including a facemask and goggles
Be sure to 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.

Mt Lafayette and Mt Lincoln on Franconia Ridge
Mt Lafayette and Mt Lincoln on Franconia Ridge

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.

The Ultimate Winter Hiking Desination - Mt Washington in Winter
The Ultimate Winter Hiking  Destination – Mt Washington in Winter

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.

Philip Werner is the 36th person to finish hiking all of 630 trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of over 1440 miles. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook that anyone can access. Philip has 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 (but still needs 24 hours of trail work for the patch). 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.

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4 comments

  1. Just finished reading the, “AMC Guide to Winter Hiking and Camping: Everything You Need To Plan Your Next Cold-Weather Adventure” by Yemaya Maurer and Lucas St. Clair.

    Pretty good overview of winter hiking, camping, and tips. The book is geared towards beginners to intermediate, and they have some good lists of gear, first aid items, and hiking gear.

  2. Best “tip” for climbing Mt. Washington in winter is “be prepared to turn around.” Or even “expect to turn around” before reaching the top. If one succeeds, then that’s great.

    Advice to “carry an ice axe” is, for most people, questionable — or wrong. Guides seem to hand them out to everybody (“look Ma, I’m a mountaineer!”) But in reality, a reliable self-arrest takes hours of intensive practice, and at least a bare minimum of talent to master. Dragging around a sharp object is, very slightly, dangerous in itself.

    On LH winter route (basically what everybody takes) there is one, 10-foot stretch, where, in the right conditions (an unusual amount of snow), a self-arrest might, in theory, be useful in the event of a slip. That’s it. Without crampons, they can be useful in chopping the odd step here and there. But doing so probably won’t occur to the uninitiated, who, in any case, should wear traction devices and carry hiking poles.

    To ask (or answer) what are the “10 most dangerous hikes” is meaningless hyperbole, in that conditions in any given place are bound to show drastic variation over time. Moreover, purely on the basis of statistics, hiking on Mount Washington in winter isn’t particularly dangerous, given the most minimal and unremarkable common sense.

    • Little out of date there Allan. I think most people climb up the Amonoosuc Trail these days because the Lion Head trail is so eroded and nasty. The only people who do use it are guides and newbies. As far as ice axes, they have many uses besides self-arrest. It’s actually best to learn these with a guide in the context of using crampons (ie. french step, international step) and glissading, all of which can be accomplished on Mt Washington on the Lion head route. I use these techniques all winter long on other peaks like Wildcat A, East Osceola, North Hancock, etc, but I learned them first from IME (a guide service) on Mt Washington.

  3. I didn’t realize that most winter hikers use the ammonoosuc ravine trail in preference to Lions Head.

    Back in my day, the AMC Pinkham Notch facilities and related giant parking lot there helped draw sometimes large crowds on winter weekends to The Lion Head route. Also, until last year, specific avalanche forecasts were unavailable for AR, but posted daily for the southeast ravines.

    I’m unsure what has caused AR to surpass LH in popularity, nor exactly, how much farther a drive it may be from the south.

    But perhaps the newbies still prefer the more developed glacial cirques visible from Lions Head. Personally I find them more scenic.

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