Mt Monroe is the fourth highest four thousand footer in the White Mountain National Forest, while Mt Washington is the tallest, #1. They’re often hiked on the same day because they’re adjacent to one another in the middle of the Presidential Range and both are located on the Crawford Path, which is one of the main trails leading to Mt Washington.
This being April, we knew trail conditions would be mixed with some ice, some snow, and bare rock but we were unprepared for the amount of slush and water draining running down the sides of Washington when we climbed to the summit. It felt like the mountain was melting beneath my feet! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The forecast for this hike called for temperatures to be in the low forties Fahrenheit and partly sunny with winds of 20-25 mph gusting to 35 mph, which is pretty mild for Mt Washington at this time of year. Nearby Mt Monroe is about 1000 feet shorter, so we expected it to be even milder. There weren’t any recent trip reports on NewEnglandTrailConditions.com but we figured we’d try Hillsound Trail Crampons and bring along full crampons in case we needed more traction on the descent. I was accompanied by my regular peakbagging partners Ken and Karen who are trustworthy companions with loads of four-season experience in the Whites.
We started this hike from the hiker lot below the Cog railway station, which shaves about 2 miles off the route than if you start at the Forest Service Amonoosuc Trailhead Parking Lot. We chatted with a few backcountry skiers who planned to hike up Washington and ski in Airline Gully (never heard that name before) in the Great Gulf. While I think they’re all batshit crazy, you have to admire the fitness and skill level required to climb Mt Washington with skis and ski boots attached to your backpack, let alone climbing back up the Great Gulf headwall a few times to get in multiple runs.
We headed up the Amonoosuc Trail which was covered in slushy snow and soft ice, bare booting at first, but we soon switched to Trail Crampons, which are microspikes with very long sharp spikes. This trail climbs very steeply to the Lake of the Clouds Hut at the foot of Mt Monroe, but that climb, 2500′ in 3.1 miles, would be the hardest part of the day.
However, we were soon sweating buckets because it was much warmer out than expected. Ken and I stripped down to our baselayer shirts, removed our hats and gaiters, and rolled up our pants legs to cool off. I’d neglected to bring a brimmed hat and knew I’d have to keep my wool cap on all day to prevent sunburn on my head above treeline. I had brought suntan lotion though, so at least my face and ears would be spared.
When we arrived at the Hut, we dropped our packs and climbed to the summit of Mt Monroe, which only requires an additional 350′ of ascent. There were a few steep parts made tricky by ice, but the climb was pretty straightforward, although the descent took some caution to prevent a long slide down the east face.
Back at the hut, we sat on the warm rocks below the “lakes” which are the glacial tarns after which the hut is named. The doors and windows were still boarded for winter and the front of the hut was buried in snow up to the roof. I chugged a quart of hot tea and ate a sandwich loaded with honey to keep my energy up for the climb up Washington.
We set off on the Crawford Path toward Mt Washington and quickly encountered water streaming down the slush that covered the trail. We were all wearing waterproof insulated boots so our feet stayed warm, but the slush was so deep there were a few times I was worried that the water would top my boots.
The Crawford Path is normally easy to follow with all the rock work that has been done to it over the years. It is the oldest continuously maintained trail in the United States, first cut in 1819. But the scree walls and carefully fitted rock steps that form the trail were hard to pick out amidst the slush and lingering snow before us. We’ve all hiked up here enough that we knew where the trail was supposed to be and we did our best to head in the right direction.
The distance between the hut and the summit of Washington is 1.3 miles and about 1100′ of elevation gain, completely exposed to the weather, which can be quite severe at times. As we climbed, we crossed one of the remaining snowfields on the peak, cautious to avoid an uncontrolled slide down into Amonoosuc Ravine. I’d thought about bringing an ice axe on this hike and knew I would have felt better here with it in hand.
Once we’d passed that obstacle, we continued picking our way through the slush trying to avoid full submersion, climbing past the Davis Trail and Westside Trail junctions toward the summit. When we finally made it to the summit sign, we marveled at the warm temperatures. It had reached 65 degrees, warmer than Boston, some 150 miles to the south.
The summit of Washington is an odd place. There’s a weather station up top, and we always refer to their forecast when climbing Washington and the other Northern Presidential peaks, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. There are several buildings on top, including a restaurant, a post office, a gift shop, scientific offices, and living quarters for the forecasting/summit crew. The restaurant, post office, and gift shop are all closed in winter, as is the Mt Washington Auto Road which charges a fee for cars and motorcycles to drive to the top and sightsee during the warmer months.
As we stood there we discussed our descent. Ken and Karen wanted to hike down “the Cog”, which is a tourist train that takes people up and down the mountain. I was hesitant because I had no idea what the road would be like and whether it was safe to hike down it given the current snow conditions. They assured me it would be fine – since they’d hiked down a few months earlier for the first time too.
The “Cog” road is a popular route with peakbaggers, especially gridiots, because it shortens the hike up and down Washington by several miles. It does that, but it is a hideously ugly way to climb or descend the mountain, which can really snuff your mood. There’s an elevated track that runs up the side of Washington, but the ground adjacent to it is littered with pieces of coal, rotting wood timbers, old rusting rails, wire, bolts, and all kinds of industrial garbage. It’s kind of surreal given that it’s surrounded by one of the most majestic and heavily protected mountain ranges in North America. I tell people, “Mt Washington died so the rest of the National Forest could be saved.”
The Cog road turned up to be easier and safer than I expected although it was still very slippery with slush, wet snow, mud, and a few precipitous drops if you lost your footing. But it was a fast exit that did save more than an hour if we’d come down the Jewell Trail instead. It wouldn’t be my preference, but it’s a good option to know about if you have to get off Washington fast.