Part 2 – A Solo Winter Mount Washington Ascent

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Was I really going to set off to climb Mt. Washington (the mountain with the worst weather in the world) when the temperature in the parking lot was -16F? No, I was not! (See Part 1- To Hike or Not to Hike). I was going to wait… at least for a little while… It was -4F when I left Carter Notch and that had seemed like a perfectly reasonable temperature for a hike, but -16F? No way!… That settled it, I was going to wait until the temperatures got up to at least -5F before I left the warmth and safety of my car…

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Temperature in the valley the morning of Feb. 28

How cold is too cold? I have trouble conceptualizing subzero temperatures, so -5F was an arbitrary threshold. However, if -5F was too cold I had no problem with turning around and hiking right back to my car (a big advantage of day hikes relative to thru-hikes). As I waited for the temperature to rise I double-checked my gear and re-packed everything… I was over-packed for this hike, but in light of the recent tragedy (the death of a solo hiker from exposure in the Whites), it seemed like a small price to pay to know that I could be warm if I needed to be.

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Looking out at the valley from the steep section of the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail.

“ALERT: Wind Chill Advisory in Effect,” I read from the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast as I sat in the parking lot waiting, “wind chills -25F to -35F.” Brrrrrr… Just thinking about it made me cold!

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Mt. Washington via the Ammonoosuk Trail plotted using the tracking function of my SPOT locator.

Mount Washington via the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail (White Mountains, NH)

  • Date: February 28, 2014
  • Total Mileage (out and back): 9 miles, 3,800 ft of elevation gain
    • Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail ~ 3 miles each way
    • Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path) ~1.5 miles each way
  • Mount Washington forecast the morning of  Feb. 28, 2015:
    • Sunny, highs near 0F, westerly winds 25-40 mph, wind chills of -25F to -35F.
  • Total Duration: 8 am – 4:30 pm, 8 hrs 30 minutes
  • Trailhead Parking: Cog Railway Base Station. Base Station Road and hiker area were plowed.
  • Base Pack Weight: 21 lbs, 28 lbs with food and 3L of water. Pack contents include: ice axe, snow shoes, crampons, expedition parka, zero degree sleeping bag, emergency bivy, SPOT etc.

By 8 am my car registered the requisite (and oh so balmy) -4F degrees, so I hefted my pack onto my back and headed towards the trail… Loaded up with all of my winter gear my pack was heavy! The base weight of this day-pack was heavier than the base weight for my PCT thru-hike!

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“Hmmmmm…” Just out of the gate and I was already feeling like a noob… Where exactly did the trail start? Why was everyone leaving the parking lot and hiking up the road? I’d hiked this trail in the summer and had scouted out the winter trailhead last night, but as far as I knew, the trail left from the backside of the parking lot… That trail, however, was largely untracked and I really didn’t want to start my Mt. Washington ascent by breaking trail if I didn’t have to… The next time I saw someone pull into the parking lot and start gearing up I wandered over and asked, “Is there a second trailhead up by the station? Everyone seems to be heading up there, but then some of them turn around and then veer off to the left… Are those the folks going up the Jewell trail?”

“Yeah,” he replied as he strapped his snowshoes to his pack, “if you veer to the left on the road before the station that’ll bring you to the Jewell trail, but if you keep going passed the station, veering to the right through the cabins, that’ll take you to the Ammo.” I hesitated, but he continued reassuringly, “Don’t worry, it’ll be obvious.”

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Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail: 3.1 miles, 2,500′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty level: Strenuous. Trails in New England are famous for their steep grades, and the Ammonoosuk (Ammo), despite it’s gentle start, is no different with an average grade of 15%.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/traction. Most hikers were using snowshoes, but some, like me, started in boots and used full crampons as necessary. (I brought my snowshoes with me, but didn’t use them).
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, mostly hard-packed powder, small section of ice flows immediately below Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
  • Vistas (9/10): The views of the Northern Presidentials from the parking lot and as you head into the ravine are stunning… and before long you start getting views of Washington that are spectacular.
  • Duration: 8:00 am – 10:40 am (2:40); Summertime ‘Book’ estimate (2:50)

I headed up the road in awe of the mountain that I was about to climb, but the closer I got to the base station, the more tracks I saw… there were ski and snowshoe tracks veering off in almost every imaginable direction. Eventually, however, I saw the well-tracked path the guy in the parking lot was talking about… It wove between the cabins and headed off into the woods right where I would imagine it to be from the map… I was shocked to discover that there were even some trail signs perched there at the edge of my winter wonderland!

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Because of the subzero temperatures I started off wearing more layers than I usually do, figuring that I would peel them off as I warmed up, but the outside temperatures dropped as I tucked into the ravine by the water… I didn’t need to add any layers but I certainly wasn’t going to take any off! About 10 minutes into the hike, however, my eyes started feeling a little bit gummy… my eyelids were sticking together and it was getting harder and harder to open them… I took off my gloves and reached up to touch them and discovered that my eyelashes were glued together with ice! The heat from my fingers quickly melted the ice from my eyes and I continued hiking…

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Within minutes my eyes started to freeze shut again… I took out my camera so that I could see what they looked like (and have a better sense of what I was dealing with), and was entertained to find that my eyelashes were crusted with a beautiful frosty mascara! Despite the ease of application of this ‘mascara’ (the first make-up I’ve applied in years), and my fondness for my new “Frozen” look, I decided that I needed to add another layer to my ensemble afterall… it was time to put my ski goggles on and eliminate every last bit of exposed skin!

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Just above Gem Pool (~2.1 miles, elev. 3522′) the trail got significantly steeper, and I stopped to put on my crampons. In the summertime, I love the waterfalls scattered along the Ammo, and I had hoped that I’d get to see them in all of their frozen glory on this winter hike. Unfortunately, the icy cascades were buried under the snow and largely indistinguishable from the rest of the blanket of white.

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There was a lot more snow on Washington now than there had been on Lafayette just a month before… It was beautiful… I just wished that the sun would finally peak around the Presidential summits and make all of the snow in my ravine sparkle!

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Climbing the last mile (1,528′ of elevation gain, 29% grade) from the pool up to the hut, I couldn’t help but contemplate the difference between the designed trails of the PCT with all of their switchbacks and moderate to low grades and the direct (fall-line) trails of New England that I’ve grown up with… None of the PCT was this steep, unless you count the snow-covered sections in the High Sierra where there was no trail (Mather and Pinchot Passes immediately came to mind, though there was a small stretch towards the base of Forester that probably would count to.).

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I stopped to enjoy the view… Not a cloud in the sky… the stark contrast between the snowy mountains and the deep blue sky was breathtaking… or maybe that was just all of the exertion with a side of asthma? It was true that it was time for me to use my inhaler again so I caught my breath, took a puff, and continued onwards and upwards… The views were still breathtaking!

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As I made the final approach to Lakes of the Clouds, I left the last of the trees behind and a starkly beautiful landscape of snow, rock, and ice opened up before me…

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“Wow, just wow!” In all the times I’ve climbed Mt. Washington I’d rarely (if ever) seen it this calm and clear. I could see the evidence of strong winds all around me in the beautifully sculpted sastrugi

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I made a mental note of these areas since the forecast predicted increasing westerly winds throughout the day… These would be the trouble spots when the winds picked up, but for now, they were quiet, calm, and eerily beautiful.

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Just above the first round of sastrugi, the trail opened up into a field of ice that made me glad that I was wearing crampons. I traversed it easily and found myself at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

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I wasn’t hungry (a common problem when winter hiking), but Lakes of the Clouds was a pre-designated break point for eating and for re-evaluating the weather, how I was doing, and for forcing myself to eat my second breakfast! It didn’t matter how unappealing food was, I had to make sure to eat, drink, and adjust my layers before making a decision about whether or not I should push for the summit of Washington! (Note: If you are too cold to eat, you are too cold to go above treeline. If you don’t want to bother with hydrating, you don’t want to bother with going above treeline. If you are too cold to stop and take a break, you are too cold to go above treeline.)

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Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path): 1.5 miles, 1300′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. After finishing the final steep ascent to Lakes of the Clouds, the bid for the summit seems tame , but it is still steep with a lot of exposure and always feels longer to me than I think it will.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/crampons. Most people switched from snowshoes to crampons for this final stretch, though either would work. I used crampons.
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): Hard, wind-swept snow, sastrugi, interspersed with occasional ice flows.
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely exposed and above treeline the whole way… views of the valley and of both the Northern and Southern Presidentials. It was 100% clear, not a cloud in the sky… a 1 in a million day on top of Mt. Washington.
  • Duration: 11:10 am – 12:40 pm (1:30); summertime book estimate (1:25)

The back side of Lakes of the Clouds Hut (Lakes) was glare ice, so I circled around to the front where the snow had drifted up and over the roof. I found a nice, dry, sunny spot on the roof to take a break, eat my second breakfast, and watch my fellow hikers. The majority of them were popping over to Mt. Monroe (a short hike from Lakes), but a few were returning from sumitting Mt. Washington so I asked them about current conditions up there, “Clear, calm, and absolutely beautiful,” was invariable the response. The sun was shining, it was early in the day, my belly was full, and I was nice and warm… Everything was looking good for a summit bid!

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The temperatures were still subzero, but I was confident that my gear was up to the challenge (the warmest of it was still in my pack)… The only thing I was still nervous about was the strengthening westerly wind, which was predicted to top out at ~40 mph, which by Mt. Washington standards that wasn’t too bad (the last time I was on top of Washington they were predicting 80 mph winds!).

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Since it was a westerly wind, I’d be facing into it for the 1.5 mile return trip to the hut, but even if the winds picked up to 65 mph (25 mph above anything predicted in the next two days), I would still be well within my comfort zone. If, for some reason, the conditions changed wildly and unpredictably (the Whites are famous for that) and were so extreme that I couldn’t return to the hut, my back up plan would be to head to Pinkham Notch via the Lions Head Trail with everyone else… After eating my second breakfast and going through all of my checks and double-checks I made the call (literally called my parents to let them know)… I was going to give the summit of Mt. Washington a go!

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On the AT, looking back at Lakes of the Clouds and Mt. Monroe.

As I left the hut, I was once again on my beloved Appalachian trail. I was stuck by the stark beauty of the wind-swept landscape… I’d never been up here in the winter before. The elegant sastrugi pointed out the areas where the winds funneled up from the western ravines… I noted them not only for their beauty, but because I figured these would be the trouble spots if the winds picked up later. For now, however, everything was still quiet and calm (~10-15 mph winds).

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As I continued to ascend the winds started picking up… barely breaking ~20 mph, but a sign of what was to come. Knowing how exciting the tippy-top of Mt. Washington can be, I decided to stop at the intersection between Crawford Path and Davis Path to layer up… fighting high winds to add warm layers at the summit of Mt. Washington is a challenge at best!

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On the AT, looking ahead towards Mt. Washington!

On my last hike up Mt. Washington (AT, September 2013) I was within 10 feet of the towers on top and had no idea that they were there! I had stopped, confused at the edge of the building with absolutely no idea which way to go to get to the summit which was less than 100 ft away…Needless to say, the view was less than stellar…

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The summit of Mt. Washington on my AT thru-hike! (September 2013)

That view, the view of the inside of a cloud, is the view from Mt. Washington that I remember from my childhood. In the 25 years that I’ve been climbing Mt. Washington it is, by far, the most common view I’ve encountered from the summit!

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My first hike to the summit of Mt. Washington (summer 1990) with my family (mom and brothers in photo).

So for me, the crystal clear views were unusual and I was savoring every minute of them! It was so clear that I’d been able to see the towers at the summit from the parking lot! I had had them in sight from the moment that I left Lakes, and now they were finally in reach…

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As I approached the first tower and the snow-covered parking lot it boggled my mind that the last time I was there I hadn’t known how to get to the summit… It was so close!

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I smiled and approached the final heap of rocks that sported the summit sign… Here I was, on top of Mt. Washington, on the Appalachian Trail, in the middle of winter… the temperature was around 0F, and I guessed that the winds were gusting to 35 mph, but hidden beneath my nice warm ski-mask was a great big smile… the same smile I always wear when I’m climbing mountains… the smile that comes with knowing that you are exactly where you are supposed to be!

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Photo actually from down by Lakes after summitting :)

I pulled my camera out of its warm inner pocket to document my final steps to the summit and managed to get one picture before the screen said, “power exhausted” and shut down. I tried for a cell phone photo, but the cell phone wouldn’t even bother to turn on… My electronics found the cold weather to be exhausting even if I didn’t!

I took another couple of steps towards the summit. It would be a shame not to have any summit photos, but wow… It was beautiful… I turned to fully appreciate the view and saw two people emerge from behind a building… I pulled my mask down and yelled over the wind, “Hi! Could you take a picture of me and mail it to me? My electronics are rebelling and refusing to work!”

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I spotted a couple of people leaving the summit and convinced them to take a quick photo and email it to me.

“Sure,” they replied quickly snapping a picture of me before I even got the chance to pull my hands out of my pockets where I was placing my cell phone hoping to warm it up. I hurriedly gave them one of my cards saying, “Thanks! This has my contact information on it. It would be awesome if you could email me a copy of that photo.”

“I’ll get the picture to you… You can count on it!” he said determinedly as he and his hiking partner hurried off, leaving me alone on the summit… (he emailed me the photo a couple of days later… Thanks again Andy!)

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The summit of Mt. Washington, all to myself?! How cool is that? -1F with a -30ish wind chill, that’s how cool! I took the last few steps to the summit and plunked my pack down… Wow! I’d made it, and it was absolutely awesome! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and as long as I kept my back to the wind, I was perfectly comfortable relaxing there at the summit sign.

The Summit of Mount Washington!

  • Duration: 12:40pm – 1:20 pm (30 minutes)
  • Official Summit Conditions @ 12:47 pm:
    • Temperature: -0F
    • Winds: W 35 mph
    • Wind chill: -27F
    • Visibility: 100 miles
  • Number of people at the summit between 12:40 and 1:20 pm: ~10-15

I sat at the summit for a while soaking in the view and trying to coax my electronics into working again… It’d be nice to get one or two photos! I had the summit to myself for the first five minutes or so, but before long there was a steady stream of people coming up to summit, snapping quick pictures and heading off in search of some shelter from the wind… It was kind of fun watching them scurry around the summit buildings trying to find windows or door jams to crouch in, desperately hoping to find some shelter from the wind… There was none.

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After snapping a few pictures for other folks I pulled my cell phone out and managed to get another photo or two before it turned itself off… Fivish minutes of warm pocket time meant two pictures… This called for strategic picture taking… If I played my cards right, I might be able to get a picture of me at the summit itself! I set my camera warming in my pants pocket again and waited for the next group… I didn’t have to wait long before the next group of guys came up from the Lions Head (there was a steady stream of guys coming up from the Lions Head Trail) and I was able to get them to take a photo for me!

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I was reluctant to leave the summit because it was so beautiful up there, but what goes up must come down… Besides, I wanted to get back to Lakes of the Clouds before the winds picked up too much!

The Descent

  • Crawford Path to Ammonoosuk ~ 4.6 miles
  • Duration: 1:10 pm – 4:30 pm (3:20) including 30 minute break at Lakes.

With winds gusting to almost 40 mph, I definitely needed to use my goggles and a face mask as I descended down towards Lakes. By the time I got to the lower sections, however, the winds weren’t too bad (~20 mph). I took my time as I descended, enjoying the expansive views of the valley with both the northern and southern presidentials stretching out before me… It was amazing! If my electronics had been happier, I’d have taken hundreds of pictures and gone even slower,  but they continued to rebel against the cold. I only managed to get one or two photos every five minutes or so from the summit until I returned to the car.

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For the last snow field before Lakes of the Clouds I decided to pull out my ice axe… the footing was easy and good, but I I was getting tired and there was enough exposure that if I fell I’d go for more of a slide than I wanted to. Per usual, I crossed it with no problem and didn’t really need the ice axe. I was relaxing at Lakes of the Clouds and eating my next enforced meal before I knew it! I still wasn’t hungry, but on winter hikes I schedule food breaks where I force myself to stop, take a break, and eat because I know that I need the calories!

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Though glissading all the way from Lakes of the Clouds to the parking lot seemed like it was the way to go, I decided to hike it instead. I try to be more cautious when I’m hiking solo, and I know that glissading has a higher risk of injury than hiking…. Having done accidental glissades on similar slopes, and knowing that I was tired, I decided to keep my ice axe out just in case (especially since I still had my crampons on… stopping a glissade with crampons is a great way to break a leg).

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For the most part it was a long, beautiful, snowy, uneventful descent… I postholed once or twice, but not enough to make the snowshoes seem worthwhile, so I stuck with the crampons…

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It wasn’t until I was about 0.5 miles from the parking lot that things suddenly got exciting. I was just traipsing down the relatively flat trail as it followed along the Ammonoosuk River when suddenly my right leg went out from under me, postholing through the snow and then sliding down a steep embankment, my left leg quickly following behind it.

“Holy sh**!” I hadn’t left the trail, but the trail had left me! Before I knew what was happening my ice axe was buried to it’s hilt in the snow and my face was at eye level with the trail. I had reflexively plunged my ice axe into the snowy bank creating an impressively, awesomely stable anchor, and now there was nothing keeping me from tumbling 6-10 ft down into the Ammonoosuk (and getting sopping wet) except for my trusty ice axe… I looked at it, surprised (and very pleased) by its sudden usefulness as I pulled myself back up and onto the trail with its aid.

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The terrain was flat, easy, and had seemed very stable… Normally, I would have long since put my ice axe away in favor of my trekking poles, but I’d been feeling lazy… to lazy to take the time to stop and put it away… I looked back at the river… Though the tumble wouldn’t have killed me, the surprise icy plunge would have been incredibly unpleasant, and the 0.5 miles back to the car would be a really nasty hike if you were sopping wet after a full day out in the cold and with temperatures well below freezing! Yup, I was suddenly very fond of my ice axe indeed!

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When I finally made it back to the car I was both happy and exhausted… The sun was low in the sky, the afternoon was warmish (18F), and the skies were still perfectly clear. My hike up Mt. Washington had been everything I’d hoped for and more… I hesitated, standing there beside my car… I didn’t want the day to be over… I didn’t want my amazing hike to be over… I wanted to stay outside in the sun, enjoying the amazingly clear and beautiful afternoon… I have to admit, I didn’t hesitate for too long though… A nice warm car, a hot meal, and a soft bed sounded awfully nice!

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Official Summit Weather Summary for February 28, 2015

  • Temperature: 4F to -11F, avg. -3F
  • Precipitation: 0.00
  • Summit snow depth: 14 inches
  • Wind: avg. 30.8 mph, 46 mph gusts, 310 NW
  • Total sunshine: 680 minutes, 100% of possible minutes

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P.S. Know before you go!!! Mount Washington is known for having some of the worst weather in the world… Weather in the mountains (especially on Mt. Washington) can change quickly and with deadly consequence… In preparing for my trip I frequently checked weather conditions and trip reports and had an exit strategy (or two or three) at all times. These are some of the online resources that I found most helpful:

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