Above: Rime Ice forming and nearing the summit.
I had been slow to accept the invite to climb Mt Washington as when my daughter was in Elementary School a friend’s father had perished on it during a winter climb. Finally though, knowing I was in the hands of an experienced friend, the first Friday afternoon of October found me with four others, heading up the steep Crawford Path out of the AMC Highland Center.
The Countries Longest
The Crawford Path, I learnt is the oldest path in America, led us in a ‘warm up’ hike to our overnight stop at the Mizpah Springs AMC Hut (Appalachian Mountain Club). This remote Hut with cozy, basic facilities has solar power for basic lighting, but otherwise everything is carried in on backpacks apart from the occasional helicopter flight to deliver gas for cooking and to remove waste.
The staff are full of characters who cope with the circumstances and challenges of isolation with great resourcefulness and love to relay their stories.
Good fortune gave the promise of clear weather for our ascent and so it was as we left the Hut, with headlights on, at around 5.45am. Clear, means clear skies too and add that to a bit of wind and my, does it get cold! Was really thankful for the diligent packing, especially as the assumption is that as one gets near to the 6288 feet summit it may get perilously and dangerously cold. Even the early, steep, vigorous climb above the tree line, just in time for dawn, failed to do little more than keep us just about warm.
Sunrise, uncovered crystal clear vast horizons, clouds (which deposited a crust of rime ice over everything), rolling up the mountains and a constantly changing color scheme. My friend who had climbed it 38 times had never witnessed such clarity before – I was just really lucky. The downside was that in all those years he could not recall his hydration system ever freezing either!
Surprising Mount Washington
As we approached the cone of Mt Washington and embarked on our final climb a few things began to surprise me:-
- Thanks to the simply magnificent ‘wall to wall’ sunshine the rising midday sun was actually beating our ascent and the temperature was rising regardless of our ascending altitude! It was aided by a stunning decline in windspeeds. All exactly the opposite of what is the norm and dire conditions that one should prepare for at any time of year.
- On the negative side, the pile of boulders that make the summit and take a good hour and more to scramble over were icy and quite dangerous. Seemed to me that the trail stops and it becomes a free for all as you try to get to the towers that you can temptingly see 700 feet above you.
- Having met no more than half a dozen people for the previous 5.5hrs suddenly in the last 30minutes out from the summit, it gets busier. Then at the Summit Sign, that is like a circus there was a line, 75 yards long, of people waiting for that Instagram photo opp’! How out of place was this contrast to the previous 21 hours of remoteness and vigorous activity.
Due to the steep climbs, ice on the trail and endless boulders we only did just 1 mph which we expected . Onwards past Mount Eisenhower, Mount Monroe to the landmark that was the, closed for the season, Lake on the Clouds Hut (at 5000 feet).
Not Done Yet
Mount Washington was not done with me yet though! We left the crowd behind at the summit as we navigated the sloping boulder field this time down the East side towards Tuckermans Ravine. Again the going was tough and really slow for the first mile. Leaving the boulders the trail changed to a steep rocky descent which demanded equal caution and slow speed. Only .5 mile from Pinkham Notch did the going get easier and dusk was imminent as I stumbled into the Lodge.
Wow, was I lucky with the weather! I can now truly see how a pleasant plan can turn into disaster as Mount Washington is not to be taken lightly – at any time.
AMC Highland Center Crawford Lodge
Mizpah AMC Hut
AMC Lake in the Clouds Hut
Pinkham AMC Lodge