Winter Backpacking: Mt. Washington, NH

“Wow!!” I grinned, ear to ear, as I gazed up at the sparkling white, snow-covered summit of Mount Washington, set against the most amazingly clear bluebird sky I’ve ever seen in the White Mountains. It was hard to believe that just a few days before the winds had been blasting across the mountains at 171 mph with temperatures dipping down to -13F (-25C) since today the sun was shining, temperatures were rising into the teens, the winds were calm, and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. Not a single one!!  I couldn’t have asked for better weather for me first winter overnight on Mt. Washington! (Trip report and gear list below)

Trip Report: Mount Washington, NH (elev. 6,288 ft)

  • Date(s): March 1-2, 2019
  • Activity: Winter Backpacking
  • Weather: -2 F to 23 F, maximum wind speed of 42 mph
  • Trail Name(s): Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail (“The Ammo”) and Crawford Path
  • Trail Conditions: Unconsolidated snow / Ice flows
  • Traction: Snowshoes (<4500 ft), crampons (>4500 ft), and ice ax (glissading)
  • Parking: THE COG RAILWAY IS CHARGING $10/PERSON FOR ACCESS TO THEIR PROPERTIES! Park at the USFS Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead instead.

Parking:

My friend Cryptic and I arrived at the Cog Hiker Lot sometime before 8, and were getting ready to set off on our backpacking trip when a women drove up and told us we had to pay $10/person to park in the unsigned, unmarked area I’d parked in on all of my previous hikes of the Ammo. We dutifully packed our stuff back into the car and headed towards the USFS Ammonoosuc Trailhead lot, which would add 1.5 miles to our round-trip distance. I glanced at my gigantic winter backpack, and wasn’t in love with carrying it 1.0 miles to the first trail junction instead of the 0.3 miles I thought I was going to have to carry it so I asked the Cog employee if we could leave our packs somewhere and pick them up as we hiked up from the lower lot?

“Only if you pay the $10/person access fee,” she replied. I was confused since I thought the $10/person was a parking fee, and clarified, “We’d just be walking up the road to get them. We’ll be parking down in the USFS lot.” She shook he head, “if you walk up the road, you still have to pay the access fee.” I looked at her rather incredulously as she explained that if you accessed any Cog land at all, you had to pay a $10/person per day fee. “So, for the two of us to access the Ammonoosuc Trail from our usual trail head for this backpacking trip we’d have to pay $40?” She said yes, and explained that the Cog Base Station was open in the winter now, and the fee covered plowing and allowed the Base Station to provide us with food now. I could understand a parking fee of $10/day or paying for the privilege of crossing private property, but paying for the privilege of being able to buy outlandishly priced food at the Cog base station seemed a bit much. This is just the latest of a number of controversies surrounding the Cog’s 99 foot wide property running from the base of Mt. Washington to it’s summit:

For now, there’s a simple solution: plan on parking in the USFS Ammonoosuc Trailhead. Full disclosure: Fly ash from the Cog burned my face and arms when I was climbing Mt. Washington as a kid, which gave me a very negative first impression of the Cog Railway.

The Ammo bringing me to my knees (photo courtesy of Cryptic Firecat).

Snowshoeing

We set off from the USFS parking lot and entered our winter wonderland at around 8 am. The 2-4 inches of light, fluffy snow that had fallen overnight blanketed everything with a fresh white coat of snow. The trail was full of loosely packed powder, and I have to admit that as I donned my snowshoes, I was dreaming about how amazing skiing through the trees with this kind of snow would be. The downside of the beautifully light and fluffy snow was that it is was way, way less stable on steep embankments, and there were a number of spots along the Ammonoosuc River where people had post-holed, slipped down the bank, and almost ended up in the drink.

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My friend Cryptic snowshoeing up the Ammonoosuc Trail.

Most of the time I enjoy being tall, but my gigantic backpack and I were the tallest thing that had been on the trail since the last snowstorm, which meant that the trees were constantly unloading their burden of snow onto my head and shoulders. In addition to catching lots of extra snow loads, my ice ax kept catching on the weighted down branches, slowing my progress and unleashing even more snow on my head. I was a bit frustrating, but I had plenty of warm, dry clothes with me and I was able to laugh at how comical and ridiculous the constant snow dumps were.

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My winter pack towering over my head (photo courtesy of Cryptic Firecat).

The first mile and a half was relatively flat and fairly easy, but after that, the trail became much steeper, and stayed that way. “Squeak, squeak, squeak,” each step and each pole placement was met with the squeak and squawk of the cold, dry snow. My pigtails were frozen solid, and the moisture from my breath continued condensing on my pigtails turning each frizzy strand white with frost. Although the exertion of the uphill was keeping me warm, there was no doubt that it was still quite chilly on the West Side of the mountain.

Making Camp:

By 12:30 we’d climbed up to about 4800 feet and found a good spot to make camp. I’d gotten a rough idea for the spot after seeing some folks camped nearby on my solo winter ascent of Mt. Washington in 2015. There was a lot of snow, much more than on my 2015 hike, so we chose our site carefully, taking time to evaluate potential avalanche areas, and making sure that both the snow we were on, and the snow above us, was stable, . We also chose a spot above treeline, that was relatively flat, that was 200 feet from the trail, and that had some wind protection. We broke trail over to our spot, made sure it still met all of our criteria, and then very, very happily set down our heavy overnight packs and ate a bit of lunch.

My Nallo 2 tent set up on the shoulder of the mountain.

Setting up camp in the snow takes me a lot longer than making camp in the summer. First, the site takes more prep time because the snow under the tent needs to be tramped down. Second, anchoring the tent in the snow takes more work than stomping stakes into the ground; each tether and guy line needs a dead man anchor, not to mention the fact that I actually use all the tethers and guy lines when I camp above treeline in the winter! On the plus side, plunking down in the snow, digging holes, setting my deadman anchors, and packing the snow in around them makes me feel like a kid building a snow fort. When the weather is nice, it’s nothing but fun!

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Looking back at our camp and an incredibly awesome view of Western New Hampshire.

Summiting:

We left our snowshoes behind and changed into our crampons for the final ascent from camp to the summit of Mt. Washington. Although there was plenty of snow on the slopes above us, the 171 mph winds earlier in the week had scoured the loose snow away, leaving either an icy crust of snow, or the large ice flows I’ve come to expect on the final stretch of the “Ammo”. The views were spectacular, and the sight of our camp on the side of the mountain below us constantly brought a smile to my face. The weather was spectacular, and we were really doing it! We were summiting and camping on Mt. Washington on this gorgeous day!! (Note: If you listen to the audio in the video below you can hear the distinctive squeak of cold, dry snow as Cryptic Firecat climbs to the bottom of the ice field below Lakes of the Clouds Hut, which is closed in the winter. Our camp remains visible in the background of the clip).

“Are you sure you don’t want your ice ax?” Cryptic asked, as he pulled his out of his bag. I’d convinced him that if he was thinking it might be a good idea, it was definitely a good idea. I took a moment to look around me, reassess my footing, the exposure, and evaluate the risk of falling. “Yeah, I’m sure,” I concluded. For me, the extra stability I gained from using two trekking poles outweighed the advantages of the ice ax in that moment, but I reserved the right to change my mind.

The slick surface of the ice above us glowed in the afternoon sun, and I marveled at the superpowers bestowed upon me by my crampons as I marched straight up to the ice flows without slipping or sliding at all. Within mere moments we were across the ice and passed the Lakes of the Clouds Hut (by 2:30 pm), and hiking on the snow- and ice-covered Appalachian Trail.

Wind swept ice flows on the approach to Mt. Washington, NH (Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail)

As we continued onward and upward we started seeing people descending from the summit. The people in snowshoes waddled awkwardly across the ice-covered slopes, ice axes gripped tightly in their hands. From a distance they looked like they were limping, and I was afraid they might have ankle injuries, but after a few of them passed and assured us they were fine, I realized their awkward gait was from their desperate attempts to gain traction on the steeply sloped trail. The folks wearing micro-spikes seemed to be doing much better.

Standing on ice flows between Lakes of the Clouds and the summit (photo courtesy of Cryptic).

“It’s a little sketchy through there,” one of the snowshoers commented as we passed by. He looked longingly at our crampons, nodded to himself, and continued, “but with those you’ll be fine.” I love my microspikes, but for ice flows and sheets like those between our camp and the summit, there’s nothing like crampons!

As we made the final push to the summit the winds picked up, but the skies remained sunny and clear, and by Mt. Washington standards, it was still warm and calm. It was absolutely gorgeous, and we were late enough in the day we had the summit completely to ourselves. In fact, we didn’t run into anyone else for the rest of the day.

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Patches at the summit of Mt. Washington (photo courtesy of Cryptic).

We took some pictures at the summit before my camera decided it was too cold, then we sheltered from the wind for a bit to eat snacks and take in the view. It was a beautiful day and we lost track of time as Cryptic, a juggler, experimented with balancing his trekking pole on his face.

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Cryptic on the summit of Mt. Washington balancing a trekking pole on his face.

Despite the cold and the gusting winds he was successful and I managed to snap a few pictures. As I did, I noticed that the sky was beginning to show signs of the impending sunset and checked my watch. Holy sh**! It was almost 5! Although I would have loved to stay at the summit for sunset, we decided it was prudent to start our descent, and to try to get across the ice fields before dark. Besides, we were virtually guaranteed the opportunity to watch the sunset from the ridge as we hiked back down to our amazing campsite.

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Sunset on the ridge as we began our descent.

Descending:

The sunset was spectacular as we hiked down to camp. Despite our goal of making it to camp before dark, I couldn’t help but pause to appreciate the beauty of the amazing sunset and snap a few more photos.

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The sign of the rime at sunset.

Before my thru-hikes I always made it down and out of the mountains before dark, but nowadays it’s almost inevitable that I’ll find an excuse to be above treeline for sunset. One of the reasons I love backpacking is it allows me remain up high for sunset. Besides, it doesn’t get truly dark out until 45 minutes to an hour after sunset, and I was sure we’d be below the ice by then ;)

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Sunset reflections on ice

Sure enough, we managed to get below the ice with the fading light of the sunset still in the sky. Cryptic decided to glissade down to camp, but I decided opted to stay on my feet; I figured I’d be warmer that way. Much to my surprise, I made it back to camp first, and was able to get some photos of the sunset behind the tent (see, it wasn’t dark yet, I swear).

We definitely made it back to our camp before dark; we had at least a minute to spare.

I pulled out my camera hoping to get a video of him glissading into camp, but my timing was a little off, and I got a video of him walking/falling into camp instead. Laughter is something that is frequently missing from my solo adventures, but we had it in abundance as Cryptic slid into camp (see video below).

Star Gazing:

After an amazing day of hiking we were blessed with an amazingly clear night on the side of Mt. Washington. All we had to do was open the vestibule, and there, from the warmth of our sleeping bags, we could gaze out at the summit of Mt. Washington set in a backdrop of stars and constellations (the big dipper easily visible from the tent).

When the beauty of the stars eventually lured me out of the tent, I used my boot as a tripod and got a photo of the tent with Orion’s belt behind it. These are the starry images that filled my head as I zipped up the vestibule and fell asleep. What an amazing backpacking trip!

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Orion’s Belt shining behind the glow of the tent.

Mt. Washington Winter Gear List:

The base weight of my pack for this winter Mt. Washington overnight was 35 lbs. In addition to that, I was carrying 4 lbs of water and ~2 lbs of food. The biggest surprise for me when I looked at my pack list and what everything weighed was that I was wearing about 15 lbs worth of clothing. I never would have guessed that what I was wearing was that heavy! Well, except for maybe my boots. Here’s a link to a pdf of my Mt. Washington winter overnight gear list for those of you that are curious:

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Descending from Mt. Washington at sunset (photo courtesy of Cryptic).

Additional Links:

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