Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mount Washington, New Hampshire

For the first several years of my life, my family would make at least a couple trips to Maine every year. In the fall we would celebrate Thanksgiving with family, in the summer we'd stay at the family camp until it tragically burned down in the late 80s. After the fire, our trips decreased in frequency, but I would go at least once a year, sometimes with just Nana. The drive was long, but scenic and beautiful. It would be broken up with stops at Queeche Gorge in Vermont, and a quick meal in St. Johnsbury. We would drive by Mt. Washington, though you could never see the top which was hidden in the clouds. I always wanted to climb it. An opportunity arose to go with four of the toughest women I know, and I couldn't turn it down.

Mount Washington is known for many things. It is the tallest mountain in the Northeastern United States. It boasts that it has the world's worst weather, if that is something to brag about. It had the world record for recorded wind speed - 231 MPH in April of 1934, a record that was broken by Australian Typhoon Olivia in April of 1996. The bragging rights on Mt. Washington remain, however, because this measurement was recorded by man. There is a scientific and meteorological explanation behind these strong winds, involving jet streams and currents and things I won't pretend to understand. It is these winds and the rapid changes in weather that can make the hike a dangerous one.

Backpacker Magazine lists the peak on its top 10 Most Dangerous Hikes in America and calls it the most dangerous small mountain in the world. What makes a 6288ft peak in the White Mountains so dangerous is the rapid changes in weather, strong wind gusts, and risk for hypothermia, not to mention the falling ice and hiker fall risks. That being said... it was a lovely day. However, I would never belittle the risks that you can encounter in the woods. Preparation and knowing when to turn around are key in any hiking situation.

Three of my fellow hikers arrived in Gorham several hours before my carpool, which gave them time to head to the Pinkham Notch Visitor's Center to discuss with the staff there what our best options were for trail conditions and weather. Our original plan was to attempt Tuckerman's Ravine Trail, but our research showed that part of it would be closed due to falling ice, crevices, and undermining. The Visitor's Center confirmed that it was closed and recommended the Lions Head Trail, as we had figured and planned for, round trip.

We left the Top Notch Inn at 6am and headed for the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center. We geared up and were on our way at 6:25. Our original plan was to leave at 7am, but the chance of afternoon thunderstorms persuaded us to an earlier start. The sky was overcast, but the trail was dry. We started on the Tuckerman's Ravine trail which we followed over two miles to the turn off to the Lions Head trail. We had only paused for rest a couple of times, taking some pictures along the way, but we were surprised to have made it to the turn off so quickly... Only two miles to the summit of Mt. Washington! While this was a shorter hike than the Adirondack High Peaks that we are used to, what made this different was the lack of a few warm up miles before the ascent. You start climbing right from the start with little reprieve.

The views along the Lions Head trail were amazing. The clouds broke up and blue sky was visible, with the sun peaking through at times. We were above the clouds, a view I had only seen before from an airplane. We could not see the ground, just the clouds, and the mountain tops above them. We took advantage of the weather and took many pictures along the way, who knew how long this would last! The trail was rugged and steep, the lack of soft ground was wearing on the knees.

As we neared Lions Head, the summit of Mt. Washington was occasionally visible, but it would frequently tuck away behind a large cloud. The wind was picking up and the clouds were drifting by us rapidly. We stopped on Lions Head to put on our hats and long sleeves, it was windy but tolerable. Tuckerman's Ravine was to the left, Huntington's Ravine to the right. You could see the trail and the ice in Tuckerman's Ravine, and its huge headwall. Up ahead was the summit, only a mile away. I had seen this so many times before. A false summit or overlook with the true summit seemingly so far away, but it always arrives sooner than expected. Not this time, though. That was definitely the longest mile I have ever experienced. The final stretch was similar to the the loose rock on the Macomb slide, the exposure was like that on Haystack or Marcy.

A man was heading down from the summit and we stopped to chat. He said that he had taken the Tuckerman's Ravine trail up, and that he was going back down the same way. We thought it was closed! He said it was muddy and wet but doable, he recommended it. We'd talk to the rangers at the summit, and see what they think.

As we neared the summit, the clouds started moving in faster and darker. It would rain for sure. We could no longer see Tuckerman's Ravine, the mountains, or fellow hikers for that matter, but we were almost there. Taking our final steps, the sound of motorcycle engines signaled that we were almost there. From the top, you could barely make out the Tip Top House, weather station, and a train. The clouds passed again, and it was blue skies.

At the true summit we took pictures, and some automobile climbers took a group photo at the sign. We checked out the Tip Top house, and posed for pictures at the dining room table, pretending to have tea. This is the remaining part of the original structure, once a Pre-Civil War hotel.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch at the Summit Building which offers a snack bar, gift shops, exhibits, information center, running water bathrooms, and even a post office. The rangers at the information and registration desk said that Tuckerman's Ravine had re-opened that day, but suggested that we go back down Lions Head as the trail would be muddy and wet. We enjoyed our time at the summit, especially when we saw that the clouds had broken and there were amazing views. We took some more pictures before heading back down around noon.

The descent was steep, and we separated a little. While two members of the group stopped to take more pictures, the rest of us headed down, following the cairns. We came to one last cairn and no others were in sight. Perhaps they were visitor made cairns, leading in a wrong direction. We could see where we needed to go, but lost sight of the trail and our other two hikers. We were concerned, but not worried, as long as we could see Lions Head we were going to be OK. Turns out that we were both yelling to the others, but neither of us could hear the calls over the wind. We reunited before Lions Head and tried to figure out where we went wrong. Whatever happened, we all were on the same page, knowing that the others would surely stop at Lions Head to regroup!

I was grateful to have borrowed Sister's pole so that I'd have two. The steep descent on rocks and boulders was definitely eased by a second pole, as I usually hike with only one. Our spirits were so high on the way down. We could not get over the great luck we had in the land of the World's Worst Weather. We even speculated on a future trip - perhaps the Grand Canyon!

We took a short detour to check out another waterfall, and before we knew it we were back to Pinkham's Notch at 3pm. I weighed my pack, post hike - a whopping 20 pounds after I had drank a lot of my water, and eaten my lunch, adding only a T-shirt and patch saying "I Climbed Mt. Washington." No wonder I didn't blow off the summit!

The rest of my photos can be seen here.

1 comment:

David in Fresno said...

Congratulations on your ascent. You've written a compelling story and made me "shiver" at what you have accomplished.