About the Mountain Mt Washington, NH
is the highest point in the northeastern U.S. Though it stands under 6,300 feet above sea level, it has a reputation as a mountain not to be taken lightly. The tourism industry benefits from that reputation, and this has led to some exaggerations such as the slogan "home of the world's worst weather," but it's true that Mt Washington holds a surface wind-speed record at 231 mph measured on April 12, 1934, and ranks comparably to much larger or higher-latitude peaks in measures such as temperature, frequency of hurricane-force winds, number of cloudy days, and frequency of snowfall. A winter hike of Washington is thus a serious endeavor; an early April hike is usually significantly less risky, but still a noteworthy goal for Easterners, starved as we are for big mountains.
normal April conditions at 5000 feet
About the Route
The Lion Head winter route is the most popular route up Mt Washington in winter. It starts at 2,000 feet of elevation at Pinkham Notch Visitor's Center (plowed parking lot on a major road) on the east side of the mountain, follows the Tuckerman Ravine trail for two easy miles, then just before the mouth of the ravine (around 3500 feet) climbs the ridge at the ravine's northern edge. The Lion Head itself is a rock on the ridge at 5000 feet elevation. From there a sort of apron, not quite a plateau, provides about a mile of gentle but windy hiking past an area called the Alpine Garden to the summit cone, where the final 800 feet must be climbed in under half a mile.
This trip has a long history, I probably won't remember it all correctly. I think it was BobSmith who first proposed an April climb of Mt Washington on the East Coast message board, back in the fall of 2005. Several of us expressed interest. In the end, as April approached only myself and EastKing remained in the plans. I was then contacted by another SP member who was interested in climbing one of the gullies of Huntington Ravine. After some back-and-forth (EastKing and I were both willing to try a gully climb but lacking in experience and equipment (by April, the gullies are often pure ice), and probably didn't inspire confidence by our lack of advance planning) it was back down to EastKing and myself. Then EastKing's boss changed his mind about giving him free time. This would have to be a solo hike.
Going solo had an advantage: I could set my own hours. Rather than driving up from Boston on Friday night and camping by the base of the mountain to get the early start EastKing preferred, I'd sleep in my own bed and drive up in the morning. I calculated that as long as I got to the trailhead by 11:00, I'd have enough daylight left for the climb.
One other detail which had depended in part on group composition was a decision whether or not to bring my snowboard. I checked the weather forecasts: above-freezing temperatures all week preceding my hike, rain for about three days which could be expected to freeze into ice (impossible to ski even by New England standards) and would also increase the risk of avalanches. I checked the avalanche report: several areas of the ravines rated dangerous, with falling ice, running water, sinkholes and small crevasses opening up. Well, I hadn't gotten much snowboard practice this year anyway, and I certainly hadn't practiced hiking with my board strapped to my back. Skiing in Tuckerman's would have to wait for next year. A faster, lighter approach would work better with a late start anyway.
As predicted, the few days before the hike were extremely warm (at least in Boston) and also grey and rainy. I began to worry about being too warm on my hike. I'd recently hiked Baldface on a freakishly warm day and my ski pants caused me to dehydrate from sweat. I hesitated between my warm and ventable (but bulky) ski pants, and a combination of fleece pants and rain pants. I decided to bring all three to the trailhead and make my decision there.
Another equipment detail was this: I don't own an ice axe. For most New Hampshire mountains, you don't need one unless you're intentionally choosing the steepest, iciest route. Mount Washington, however, deserves a little more respect than most, and an ice axe might come in handy, particularly if I were obliged to descend a ravine for some reason. I'd vaguely planned to borrow or rent one for this climb, but never got around to it. I told myself I'd be extra careful and stay away from anything too steep or icy.
In the morning I groggily put on my clothing (fleece pants for the drive, rain pants in my pack, ski pants in an additional bag along with the boots and gaiters I'd put on at the trailhead) and started the long, dull drive. It was cool in the morning, below freezing, grey and breezy, but there was no sign of snow on the ground through most of New Hampshire. All the lakes and ponds I passed were completely thawed, grass was turning green, and I spotted a wild turkey near the road. No time for a photo, though; as usual, I was running late.
I reached the parking lot about 11:00, stepped out of the car, and immediately realized I would need the ski pants. The wind was blowing noisily from the north, and it was, in a word, chilling. By the time I changed pants and got my boots and gaiters on, I was hopping up and down for warmth, despite my hat, gloves, windproof overgloves, and windproof hood. Well, with luck a little walking would warm me up.
I stopped in the Visitor's Center to check the forecast. The first numbers I saw were reassuring: wind gusts to 25mph, highs around 40 F. Then I realized that that was the forecast for Pinkham Notch, where I was standing. The forecast for the summit called for 75mph gusts, I don't remember what temperature was predicted. I remember 75mph winds from the Florida hurricanes of my youth, so I was a bit daunted. An ice axe would have improved my mood: trekking poles just don't make a good anchor when you're being lifted off your feet. Nevertheless, having lived in New England for a long time, I knew that forecasts can be wrong. I decided to head up the trail and see how far I could get.
The tuckerman ravine trail is wide and gentle. There was some snow on it, packed down by the many feet of skiers heading into Tuckerman Ravine. I made good time, and eventually even warmed up enough to take off my jacket. I still wore my fleece, though. This concerned me: I was keeping warm by moving, but I didn't have much in the way of extra layers I could put on if I got colder. The wind was absolutely roaring through the trees above me. I began to think about ways to spend the afternoon if I decided to turn around at or before Lion's Head.
At the fire road leading to Raymond Path I hesitated a bit - the sign simply said "Lion's Head", not "Raymond Path" nor "Lion's Head winter route". I thought I might have missed an earlier turn and gone all the way to the summer route by mistake. I soon convinced myself I was in the right place when I reached the junction with Raymond Path. Raymond Path had one set of prints in one direction, none in the other. A few feet further, the Lion Head winter route was a set of several bootprints meandering through the pines. I stopped here for lunch since the trail was about to become a lot steeper. I chose to sit in the middle of the fire road, gathering what warmth I could from the sun. The weather was clear, but the wind was a loud and very tangible presence.
As the path climbed toward the ridge it became gradually steeper, until I was leaning hard on my poles to keep from slipping. When I reached a bench-like tree trunk just below a small ledge, I decided it was time to put on my crampons. The trail was essentially vertical for about ten feet just ahead of me. This south-facing rock was largely free of snow and ice, with many good handholds, so it would probably be easier in bare boots, but I couldn't see what else lay beyond. At that moment a climber came down. He said that I was looking at the crux of the hike. Still, if for any reason I was to need crampons, I'd rather stop and put them on here than up on top of the ridge in the full force of the wind. After that short steep section were a few more sections, less steep but deeply shadowed and very icy, that could probably have been done in bare boots but were much easier with crampons. Then I began to emerge from the trees.
There was a coating of recent snow on the ground, maybe one foot deep even on this windswept ridge, with a slight wind crust. Boy, if Tuckerman Ravine looked like this it was a fine day for skiing.
As the trail wandered through sparse krummholz I was grateful for the footprints of previous climbers and for the large reflectors placed on poles at frequent intervals. Those would be a lifesaver in bad visibility. The wind was no longer a roaring noise in the trees, it was a whistling in my ears and a musical rattle in ice-covered branches of mountain heather. It was also a burning pain on the semi-exposed skin near my eyes (by this time I was wearing a hood, balaclava, and goggles, but I'd left a small gap) and a force pushing me distinctly to my left. As when crossing a strong stream, my hiking poles were sometimes a hindrance, difficult to place because they were subject to the same sideways pull.
Surprisingly, I was fairly comfortable overall. I was certain I'd make it at least as far as the Lion Head. First, though, I wanted to stop for some photos. From here the trail approached the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, and I stepped out onto a rocky outcrop to look ahead and down at the various skiable areas within Tuckerman. When I reached the edge, I found that I had company: just a few feet below me a fox stepped out onto a similar rock and gazed out at the ravine.
A fox this high up?
He hadn't heard me because of the wind, but he suddenly looked up and decided to move on, stepping effortlessly over the snow. After a few looks back and one more glance down into the ravine, he slipped into the trees below the Lion Head.
can't keep up?
I also got some photos of the skiers in the left part of Tuckerman Ravine, though I couldn't see most of the Bowl yet.
I made it to the Lion Head, and had to decide whether to risk continuing on to the summit. I sat there a little while weighing the risks. The wind was strong, but not dangerously so. I could see several parties moving up and down the summit cone, and they didn't seem to be in any trouble. Visibility was excellent and the weather was stable. Even the worse-case scenarios, like a forced descent into Tuckerman Ravine, didn't look too bad - there was lots of fresh snow in the ravine (except that part of the Bowl, on climber's left, was icy). I was a little bit behind schedule, but not much: I could probably reach the summit by 3:00 PM and be back to the car well before dark.
I left my snowshoes anchored to a rock in the lee of a cairn, since they were acting as a sail on my back. That helped considerably and I made it to the junction of the Alpine Garden trail without incident. From here, there were large numbers of tracks left by skiers, but the trail wasn't very clear. No matter, the summit was up and that's where I went, angling a bit to stay on the sheltered south slope.
above the ravine
In the end, I think I stayed quite near the route of the Tuckerman Ravine trail, though I didn't see any cairns. I just followed skiers' tracks to find snowfields leading upwards (avoiding rocks and ice). Eventually I saw a vertical structure which I knew must mark the summit. I thought it was a signpost for the parking lot, but it was actually one of the radio towers.
In a lucky bit of timing I reached the summit just as another group was leaving it. The last person down was wearing half a crampon, after some sort of malfunction, but assured me crampons weren't really necessary. I concurred - the snow conditions were just perfect for hiking, and quite good for skiing too. On the way up I'd jealously watched the skiers in and above Tuckerman ravine, obviously having a memorable outing. But I shut out thoughts of skis and snowboard and enjoyed being alone with the summit views and the spectacular rime ice buildup on every surface.
Descent from the summit to near the Alpine Garden was remarkably fast. Even though I was wearing crampons, I plunge-stepped so rapidly in the forgiving snow that I sometimes felt like I was glissading, using my poles to change direction. It was a thrill and a good workout. The walk to the Lion Head was also brisk and easy. The wind had largely abated, but here on the ridge it was still strong. Surprisingly, a group of some half-dozen people had picked this unsheltered spot to stop and adjust their gear. As I retrieved my snowshoes I noticed that one of them was carrying a rope. I fell in line behind them as they negotiated a relatively steep and rocky section just below the Lion Head. They were taking each step very gingerly, as if they'd never seen snow or rocks before, and they were trying to use their ice axes in the cane position but without much success. I could hear the leader saying, "probe the snow with your ice axes." Probe the snow? Were they expecting crevasses? I passed this group at the first opportunity (they didn't even move to the side of the trail) and was amused to see that the next group, a child with his parents, was making much faster progress.
Once back in the trees I caught up to the girl with the broken crampons and her two companions. They were butt-sliding down, which looked like fun for as long as the snow was soft. A male was in the lead, using an ice axe as a brake in approved style (the two girls had to aim themselves from tree to tree). I stopped to watch him negotiate the icy sections just above the "crux" - the technique worked flawlessly to control his speed, but the drops from one ice-covered rock to the next probably caused him a few bruises. I paused again until I was convinced all three would make it down the "crux", then headed for the car and the long drive home.
More photos from this trip:
Mt Washington via Lion Head