The tallest peak in New England, and home of the "world's worst weather," meet Mt. Washington. I had heard of this peak before, but it didn't interest me much. With close friends in the Pacific Northwest, and knowledge of the Cascades, I didn't really consider the east coast to have any real "mountains." But, as I learned more about Mt. Washington's legacy, the danger, and the opportunity for some solid mountaineering training, plans began to form to visit the mountain. We threw a dart at the calendar, picked a weekend, and began to make reservations.
On Saturday February 27th at 9am, we began to hike up the west side of Mt. Washington. Most people come from the east, but we were ascending via the Ammonosuc Ravine Trail from the west to avoid traffic and help shield ourselves from the wind. The trail was decorated with brilliant winter scenery. Boulders of ice taller than humans lined the trail like abstract artwork, and brilliant blue water dropped off ledges into frozen pools of ice and snow. Best of all, the weather was beautiful, despite the mountain's reputation.
Sun poured through cracks in the trees and onto the icy trail, which had started off easy going, but quickly demanded our respect. Hard snow and thick ice made specialized equipment mandatory for a successful ascent. First we put on micro-spikes for extra traction, but eventually crampons would be crucial for gripping the trail. My worn rental ice axe and I became good friends as I jabbed it into the ground like a walking stick, and used its blade to hook trees and pull myself up.
The steep terrain persisted, but I still felt good. Actually, I still felt great. Eventually the trees became more sparse and the trail would open up to views of the mountain top. After more than two hours of respectable climbing, I caught my first sight of the summit. A weather observatory and some radio towers marked our destination on top of the white peak. Up until this point, I remained conservative about expectations of reaching the summit. After all, this mountain held the title of world's worst weather, record wind speeds, and other dangerous conditions. But, with gorgeous blue skies, a kick ass guide, and a clear view of the summit, I was feeling certain that we were going to make it.
The steep slopes continued and we all trudged forward, but eventually it began to wear on the group and we were starting to spread apart. For maybe 10 minutes or more I had not seen any of my fellow climbers in front or behind me. I didn't like that the group was getting so spread out, so I waited for the guys behind me to catch up. Eventually, they slowly come into view, and I could see that they were really struggling. Difficulty getting traction and slipping was wasting a lot of energy and taking its toll on them. I put on my metaphorical pom-poms and pleated mini skirt to cheer them on. They would walk a few steps, and take a break, walk a few steps, and take a brake. I began to doubt we could reach the summit if we kept moving at this snail's pace. Sure the weather was great, but we had a hard turn around time, and if we didn't reach the summit by 2pm, we were turning back with no questions asked.
With valuable energy wasted slipping and sliding, it was time to switch to crampons. Surely these one inch spikes were just the gripping power needed to push up the icy slopes. After a solid break and crampons installed, we started hiking again. It quickly became clear that even with crampons, the mountain would still require a lot of energy to keep ascending. Was this how it was going to end? Did wedrive 8 hours, invest in gear, and beat the odds on the weather, just to have to turn around without reaching the summit? As doubt began to sink in deeper and deeper, a small hut came into sight. This was our next major milestone, and solidified that we were above treeline and in the alpine. This was a big sense of relief, but my optimism was suppressed by the fact that we were just beginning to enter the windiest and most dangerous part of our hike.
Here we needed to layer up and cover any exposed skin on our faces before we set off on the last mile to the summit. The Ammonosuc Ravine Trail ended, and we began hiking through the Lakes of the Clouds to get onto the Appalachian Trail. What an awesome sight to see two lakes completely frozen all the way up in the alpine. After the lakes, we would face one last challenge before the summit. We needed to traverse a steep and long pitch of ice. The threat of slipping and falling during the traverse was a serious one. If you fell and couldn't self arrest with your ice axe to keep from sliding, you would be barreling down the mountain into an array of large jacked rocks. At an elevation of about 6,000ft , it was going to be a long trip back to safety and proper medical attention if that happened.
In a single file line, we carefully marched across the traverse without incident. At this point, if was finally clear; we WERE going to make it. At 1:26pm, we were 6,288ft above sea level, and stood on the top of Mt. Washington. What a sense of satisfaction! We had bagged a winter summit on a respectable peak, and seen an array of the marvelous White Mountains' frozen scenery.
About 10-15 minutes on the summit was long enough to celebrate, snack, and take a few pictures. Then we began our long hike back down the mountain. Most accidents happen on the descent, and our trip was no exception. Now back at the treacherous ice traverse, one of my fellow climbers got a cramp in his leg, fell, and began to slide down the mountain. Luckily the slick ice wasn't very steep where he fell, and he was able to self arrest to keep from sliding down. It was unnerving to watch him lay on ground and wait for the cramp to pass, but he got back up and we safely descended.
After 7 hours and 45 minutes of hiking, we had returned to the base of the mountain where we had started. We had traveled 8.5 miles and gained almost 4,500ft. in elevation during our trip. In the parking lot we shared high fives all around, dug the car out of the snow, and headed back to town for a burger and a beer. It was awesome to get a true alpine experience right here on the east coast. With Mt. Washington in the bag, I can't wait to visit Mt. Hood in just two weeks.