You can’t sleep. You toss. You turn. Visions of the “world’s worst weather” pummel the sugar plum fairies trying to dance through your head. Bitter cold. Biting winds. Fickle visibility. Winter hiking Mt. Washington—New England’s highest peak at 6,288 feet—is all fun and games with the added disclaimer of avalanche danger. And to top it off, the weather report is calling for snow. Sure, it’s only one to three inches, a mere afterthought for most of the Northeast. But on top of Mt. Washington?
Why can’t you sleep?
You’d planned to go to bed early. All you had to do was test and pack your gear. Crampons were configured to the proper setting. Water bottles filled and insulated. All layers of clothing, along with goggles (two pairs) and hats and gloves of various weights, stowed in order of necessity. Chances are Jack Frost will be nipping at more than your nose, everything must be quickly accessible to keep you moving. Food, too, was carefully chosen to avoid things that will freeze. All of which took longer than anticipated. Somehow, it always does.
You check the clock. It’s after midnight. Seriously. You have to sleep.
Even without the prescribed amount of shut-eye you’re up and at ’em before the alarm clock can disrupt your slumber. You dress. Eat. And are out the door as fast as you can muster. The car’s headlights pierce the waning night as you set a course for Pinkham Notch. The radio is loud. Your adrenaline is pumping.
Who needs sleep, anyway?
You arrive at Pinkham Notch shortly after seven. Several other early birds are beginning to fill the parking lot. A couple of guys are huddled over a camping stove set on their tailgate. You hop out and join the procession of people gearing up. Boots first. Gaiters. Trekking poles set to an ascending height. What about snowshoes? The approach will be hard packed, and most of the terrain above treeline will be wind blown. You can probably do without snowshoes.
A quick pit stop at the Visitor’s Center to use the facilities and check the mountain weather. The staff at the info desk are already talking to someone. The seem jovial, encouraging. The printed weather report is calling for light snow on the summit. Nothing too threatening. None of the Forest Service workers appear concerned that there are hikers in their midst planning to summit. Good enough. You sign and time stamp the registry, noting that the Forest Service kindly requests you remember to sign-out upon return. Go figure.
The early going on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is wide open with hard-packed snow from a steady stream of hikers, snowshoers, and skiers, as well as the Forest Service snowmobiles. Even so, the trail seems a little steeper than you remember from the summer. More likely your legs haven’t warmed up yet from the long car ride. Snow is falling. Lightly. You pause for a sip of water while winter’s air cools your face. The forest is silent. You can hear your heart beating as you watch your breath steam out. Damn, this is great.
Before long you come to an orange sign marking the detour to the Lion Head Trail’s winter route. From here it’s a short distance along the connecting path to the trailhead on the left. Lion Head begins with an incredibly steep incline, making this intersection as good a place as any to strap on the crampons. There’s a small shack with two protruding beams offering a place to sit, and a young couple arrives as you work on your crampons. You exchange pleasantries.
“We’re in no rush,” the woman says. “We hope to summit, but we’ll see.”
“Same here,” you say, before shoveling down two fistfuls of trail mix. “Good luck. Hope to see you up there.”
The trail begins like a rabbit path winding through the evergreens. Then it gets steep. You reach a rocky, iced over crevice. There’s a hiker already in it, unsure of his footing. He tries a handhold, then, leery of the positioning, pauses to re-evaluate. From above his buddy offers encouragement. The stuck hiker glances back at you and gives a look as if to say, “Sorry.”
“Take your time,” you say.
The man makes it through and joins his buddy above. They both cling to trees and wait for you to pass. You climb into the crevice. The first few hand holds are easy, but then you get to where the other hiker was stuck. It’s easy to see why. There aren’t many options to support yourself, and a backward plunge here would end the hike. You slip your right foot onto a small protrusion; the crampons grind into bare rock. Now, how to pull yourself up? You dig the pick of your mountaineering axe into the wall and eye a dead tree root hanging over the crevice. It looks brittle, unable to support your weight, but its smooth, bare wood makes it clear the root has served this purpose.
Here goes nothing.
“Find a happy place,” you say as you entrust your well-being to the precarious root.
You’re in luck, the root holds. Another pitch of the axe and you’re able to pull yourself above the crevice only to see the trail’s next offering provides little reprieve. So much for that luck. The trail seems impossibly steep, ascending straight up the mountainside. Standing sideways to the slope, you dig the axe spike into the hard-packed trail. You cross your bottom foot over the top and engage the crampons, then bring the other foot around. Repeat. Step by tiny step you work your way through the krummholz and into the open.
You pause at treeline to layer up, even though the temperature is milder than anticipated. Nor is the wind fully loaded. It’s as if you’re cheating, though you’re far from in the clear. Snow continues to fall, and clouds have significantly reduced visibility. You know the Lion Head outcropping is ahead, but all you see is a wall of gray.
After a short climb, you ascend the rocky mane of Lion Head. The wind is starting to pick up, and for a moment there’s a break in the clouds around the jagged Boott Spur ridge. You stare at the opening, frozen in awe. It’s not something you’d see sitting at home on the living room couch. Your thoughts are cleansed of work, bills, and any of life’s other burdens. Even when visibility is limited, this massive mountain has a knack for putting you in your place. For making you feel so very small. So very alive.
If there were a place to turn back, this would be it. But you’re not going back. Not now. You grab a snack and eat it on the go. Slowly the Washington cone comes into view as you pass the Alpine Garden Trail junction. There’s enough snow here to completely conceal the trail; fortunately, the Forest Service has planted flags to show the way. The snow is wind-packed on the surface, but your boots dig into the slippery powder underneath. Not to worry, avalanche danger is low to moderate. You keep telling yourself this with Tuckerman Ravine mostly hidden behind you, but not forgotten.
You pass the upper junction with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and blue sky is suddenly showing near the summit. Are you getting above the clouds? No sooner do you think this than you’re once again enshrouded, thicker now than before. Visibility is twenty feet, at best. You keep plugging along, one cairn at a time. Your legs are burning. Short breaks are frequent.
A mechanical clacking sound passes somewhere before you, followed by a pervasion of diesel fuel in the air. It must be the SnowCoach. You’re close. Just ahead is a multi-level staircase, and you realize that you’ve just traversed the auto road parking lot. The stairs are sectioned off, so you loop around and find yourself on the SnowCoach path. You pass a snow-packed building on the right, known as the Stage Office, followed by the Yankee Building and Tip Top House on the left.
You can’t see where you’re going but can guide yourself to the summit on memory. The sign appears to be waiting for you, proof you’ve braved all 6,288 frozen feet. At the moment you’ve got the summit all to yourself, a rare occurrence even in the winter. There’s no view to speak of, but still, it’s picture perfect.
The SnowCoach passes back through close enough to see tourists peering out. You laugh. They must be thinking you’ve lost your marbles. On the contrary, you’ve just found them.
You feel a chill setting in. The wind is picking up, a telltale sign it’s time to get off the mountain.
The Mt. Washington cone hidden in the clouds.
A break in the clouds around Tuckerman Ravine. As soon as I shot the image the ravine was hidden again.
The Stage Office, built in 1908.