I did something last week that I never thought I’d ever do. I drove up to the summit of Mt Washington with my wife. She’s not familiar with the White Mountains and wanted to see where I’ve been going to hike and backpack this summer. She’s not a hiker or an outdoors type, so I found myself paying $33 dollars to drive up a mountain I usually hike up for free.
She enjoyed the views and we had great weather, which was lucky, because the 6,288 foot summit of Mt Washington is covered by clouds over 100 days per year. I’m glad she got to experience the majesty of the place and see why I am so compelled to spend time here.
I also got to scope out a few more hikes I want to do later this year in the Great Gulf up the shoulders of Mt Jefferson and Mt Adams. I’m starting to bag these high peaks from multiple points of the compass which is surprising to me, because I thought that kind of thing was only done by peak-bagging fanatics. But each route up is so different, that it’s like climbing a different summit every time and I’m enjoying the challenge of these difficult hikes.
A White Knuckle Drive
I’m not easily intimidated (in my car,) but this drive got my attention. The road to the summit switchbacks for 6.2 miles, climbing over 4,000 feet with a 12% average grade. There are no guard rails and after you pass the 4,000 foot mark, you are driving alongside slopes that are steep enough to qualify as cliffs.
My wife got scared when we reached treeline and she could see into the Great Gulf that separates Washington from Mount Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. It’s looks like a bottomless pit. She was in the passenger seat looking straight down into it, while I kept my eyes glued on the narrow two lane road in front of us. I would have felt much safer if I’d been on foot among the cairns, even in the fierce 50 mile an hour winds we had on the summit that afternoon.
Auto Road History
The Mt Washington Auto Road has an interesting history. It was built 150 years ago using immigrant labor and black powder explosives, which were particularly unstable to work with. In those days, passengers boarded wagons pulled by 6 horses teams for the ride to the summit, which took up to seven hours to complete. The wagons stopped regularly at buildings along the way where passengers could eat and refresh themselves. The trip down took 4 hours and burned through a complete set of leather brakes on each trip.
Throughout it’s history the Auto Road has been operated as a private concession like the Cog Railroad, which also provides transit to the top of Mount Washington. They’re both eyesores in my opinion, but I guess having them has helped ensured that the other high peaks in the region remain undeveloped (except for ski resorts on a few smaller mountains.)
Views from the Top
In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter how you get to the top of Mount Washington, although my preference will always be by foot. On a clear day, the views from the summit are sublime and you can’t help but feel small in comparison to the peaks and ravines surrounding this massif.
Washington is right in the middle of the Presidential Mountain Range. To the north, lie Mts. Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. To the south, lie Mts. Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, Jackson, and Pierce. Plus Washington has many shoulders and ravines including Boot Spur, Tuckerman Ravine, Mount Clay, Huntington Ravine, Nelson Crag and more. There is still incredible variety here for true adventurers, and only one way to the top.
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