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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 has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 10 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 540 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

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  1. Great article, very good advice to go with pros, this Mountain is a killer. I have done a few winter climbs in the Whites. Carter Dome with a overnight at Carter Notch Hut, and some smaller, tamer winter hikes. Monadnock, Kearsarge, Chochorah, Potash and Whiteface, all great winter hikes, even a nice winter overnight hike to Ethan Pond Shelter. Washington in winter, although on a life list, always gave me pause. That beast is scary. Stories of folks digging into the chamber underneath Lakes of the Clouds hut to survive, And reading of Kate Matosova back in 2015, a pretty capable climber, who mistakenly went alone, and froze to death up near Madison attempting a Presidential Traverse. I finally put the Rockpile in winter on the same list as Everest… the list I have called.. Fugedaboutit .. hike safe.

  2. I enjoyed your article—it covered so much information that would apply to any winter hike, and that I had forgotten, such as bringing goggles and balaclava to protect the face against frostbite. I will probably never hike Mt. Washington in winter because I am older, have two knee replacements and hike very slowly, but I do like getting out in winter and hiking smaller mountains such as Pierce or Tom. Thanks for the detailed advice!

  3. Another thing I would add is to choose the right route. There are many ways to get to the summit with varying levels of risk and exposure. My favorite so far is the Ammonoosuc Ravine trail. Although it is steep, it has limited exposure, beautiful scenery along the way, and brings you right to the Lake of the Clouds hut so you have options if things start to look bad. Happy hiking!

  4. Good article. I agree with the list with one minor exception – the need for an ice ax. I’ve climbed Mt. Washington 4 times in winter, once solo, as well as the other 47 4Ks in winter and never needed an ice ax. Yes, there are some trails where it may be needed, e.g. winter Lion Head route. By selecting you route carefully, checking recent trail condition reports, and weather conditions, an ice ax may be needed but only on rare occasions. It does come in handy in winter backpacking to break thru ice for access to a water source and for tent stabilizing.

    • I’ve used an ice axe on the Lion Head trail (twice) and the West side trail on Mt Washington and was damn glad I had it to prevent slides. Of course, there are many other uses for it, such as stability for french stepping and for hooking around tree roots on steep slides, and for braking on glissades. While you often don’t need an axe in the Whites, it takes a lot of previous experience to know when and where you do need one. I’ve used one on East Osceola, Osceola, North and South Hancock, North Tripyramid, Wildcat A, Middle Carter, Tecumseh, etc.

  5. Mt. Washington is really fun in the Winter provided you choose a good weather window (i.e. winds that aren’t likely to blow you off the mountain, lol). I have always been a solo hiker, preferring to avoid the crowded trails of Spring/Summer/Fall. To find solace and more enjoyment in the hike, many years ago I switched to climbing Mt. Washington only in the Winter.

    As the years went by though, even Winter hikes there became pretty crowded. So these days, I climb MW only during the Winter and only at night. I’ve just found it to be a lot more enjoyable. Of course it’s more critical to find good weather windows, carry a good headlamp, etc. I’m also in the habit of leaving a kiddie sled at the bottom of Lion’s Head which makes for a quick retreat from the lower mountain if I need it. :-)

    The hikes I enjoy the most up there are those where a full-moon night matches up with a calm weather window. If you’ve never tried this, I highly recommend it. Just be sure that you know your chosen trail well enough to navigate it in a whiteout if you have to. For me, that’s generally the Lion’s Head trail.

    One of the best nights I had up there was when everything lined up perfectly – calm weather, warm temps (20-25F), and full-moon. Rather than just hike up and back down, I set up a very comfortable bivy a little ways off-trail in the cliffs just beyond the Lion’s Head. Perched high on the North wall of Tuckerman’s, I had a spectacular view of ravine with the bowl glistening in the moonlight. It was definitely a highlight of my times spent on the mountain.

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