The two most popular routes up Mt Washington in winter are from the east side using the Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head Trails or from the west side of the mountain via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail and the Crawford Path. Having climbed Washington using both routes, I prefer hiking the peak from the west side because it sets you up for an easy summit of Mt Monroe on the same day, or as an alternative destination if the weather on Washington is too bad to proceed.
That’s the way we climbed up Washington and Monroe last weekend, starting at the Cog Railroad Station. There were 14 hikers in our group, many who I knew already from other winter hikes, including previous hikes up Washington, Monroe, and the other above-treeline peaks in the White Mountains.
My motivation for joining this trip was very different this year than in previous years when I was working on a peakbagging list. This year, I came along to hike with some old friends and because I knew that preparing for a Mt Washington climb early in winter would force me to get into good hiking shape for the rest of the winter hiking season. It didn’t quite work out that way, however.
I’d come down with a bad lingering cold that lasted a month before our Washington/Monroe hike, so I wasn’t able to train for this climb, which is about 10 miles long and requires over 4000′ of elevation gain. Winter hiking is a lot more strenuous than three season hiking because you need to carry much more gear and you’re often encumbered with heavy boots and clothing like the Michelin Man. Despite my illness, I was able to finish the hike without getting exhausted, although I had had my doubts at the beginning of the day.
The weather forecast on the day of our hike was somewhat unsettled and 50 mph winds were forecast, which is approaching borderline in my book for Washington in winter. Joe, the trip leader, decided to go ahead with the trip anyway and assess the winds when we got to 5000′,when we could stand in the lee of the Lakes of the Clouds hut at the top of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. As a worse case, we figured we could climb nearby Mt Monroe, because it’s about 1000 feet lower in elevation than Washington, and the wind would be less severe.
We left the parking lot by about 7:30 am and started hiking up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. The cloud ceiling was very low, probably about 3000′, and it didn’t look like we’d be getting any views later in the day.
We all switched to full crampons at the Gem Pool, which is at the base of the steep 1500′ foot climb to the hut. While the trail below the hut is mostly packed snow, there are a few stream crossings along the route and mixed rock and ice as you near Lakes (of the Clouds).
The moment we arrived at Lakes, we saw a glimpse of the Mt Washington summit through the fog ahead of us (see top photo). I was hopeful we’d get some views.
It was cold at the hut, but the forecasted winds never materialized. So we bundled up and decided to head for Washington, after finding the rime covered sign to the Crawford Path and following the rock cairns to the peak.
I was hopeful that the weather would still improve and it wasn’t long before the views behind us opened up and we could see Mt Monroe behind us.
Shortly afterwards, the cloud cover on top of Washington cleared up and we were treated to clear weather for the final ascent of the summit cone from about 5400′ to 6288′. It had turned into a glorious day, after a doubtful start.
When we reached the top of Washington, we all scattered amidst the summit buildings to get out of the wind, take photos at the summit sign, bundle up, and have a hearty snack. It’s hard to believe that a group of weather forecasters live up here year round, in such harsh weather conditions. One of the buildings on the summit is literally chained to the ground to prevent it from blowing off the top of the mountain in the ferocious winds that scour the peak.
We regrouped and descended Washington back to the Lakes of the Clouds hut just as the mist started blowing back in over the west side of Washington.
By the time we’d regrouped at the hut, visibility was down to about 15 yards again. But we decided to climb Monroe since it’s so close to the hut (0.4 miles and 350′ of elevation gain) and a quick hike to the top and down.
With darkness on the horizon (sunset at 4:20 pm), we left the summit of Monroe quickly and started our descent back down the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. The route finding down was a little difficult in the thickening mist, but we made it down to the Gem Pool slightly before sunset and had a quick hike back to the base station.
We’d really lucked out with the weather on this hike and it was a great way to wrap up a fantastic year of hiking with so many old friends before the start of another winter hiking season.