Climbing Mt. Washington

Luke and I had decided to climb Mount Washington a few months before my vacation to Maine (2001). He had attempted Washington two times in winter before, but was turned back each time because of weather. The weather on this trip turned out to be better than we expected.

Monika, Luke and I rolled into North Conway, NH on Saturday night, and proceeded directly to Eastern Mountain Sports and International Mountain Equipment to buy a few things we would need and rent some gear for me. This would be my first mountaineering experience, but I had read up on the topic in Freedom of the Hills and had lots of experience living in cold weather. The route we were doing up Washington was called the Lion’s Head Route, and was fairly steep, but not steep enough to require being roped together. I rented a pair of plastic mountaineering boots, crampons and an ice axe from IME (if you are in NH and renting gear, rent from IME. They know what they are doing). I could have used strap on crampons with my leather hiking boots because they are insulated, but I was afraid my feet would get cold, so I went with the plastics and step in crampons. The ice axe was a traditional straight shaft mountaineering axe, 50cm long. I bought a face mask to complement my balaclava, because I knew it would probably be a little windy on the summit.

The next day we woke up, ate breakfast at the hotel, and drove to the Pinkham’s Notch visitors center. We had packed the night before, and started up the trail. I started out hiking in my base layer, thermal underwear, shorts and a fleece. The trail was packed down from the traffic the past few days and rangers on snowmobiles. It was easy hiking up to the start of the Lion’s Head trail. From Pinkham’s notch to the summit was 4 miles, and we would be ascending approximately a mile. The summit of Washington is at 6288 feet.

We arrived at the start of the Lion’s Head trail and put on our crampons and took our axes out of our packs. This is where the climbing started! The challenge to climbing in crampons is really not the climbing itself, it is not ripping up your pants with the points. I could not fit gaiters over my snowboarding pants, and I did not want to go out and buy some mountaineering pants, so I used duct tape on the cuffs. The snowboarding pants had internal gaiters, so they were sealed around the boots. The duct tape ended up not working as well as I had hoped, and my pants did sustain some injuries from the crampons.

Mount Washington, NH Mount Washington, NH Mount Washington, NH Mount Washington, NH Mount Washington, NH

The Lion’s Head route was enjoyable, and we soon reached treeline. Just before treeline we ate and put on some more clothes. I put on my snowboarding pants and balaclava, and my shell jacket. We hiked up into the Alpine Garden and up to the summit, pausing to take some pictures of us against the other side of Tuckerman’s Ravine. Up at the summit the winds were probably 30-35mph and it was getting a little chilly. We ate again in the entryway to one of the buildings (there is a weather station on the top) and tried to keep warm. I had sweat a bit in my fleece, and my shell and fleece had frozen already. I put on my down jacket, and tried to keep my hands warm. We headed down and after about 5 minutes I was able to take off my down jacket and put my shell back on.

Mount Washington, NH Mount Washington, NH Mount Washington, NH Mount Washington, NH Mount Washington Summit
Coming down is where you’ll put more holes in your pants than any other time. I injured mine some more, then arrived at the treeline. Luke and I were able to glissade (that’s French for “slide on yer butt”) down much of the steep route! It was a blast, and by far the most fun on the climb. The switchbacks made the trail like a luge course, and we slid down guiding ourselves with our axes. At the bottom of the route we took off our crampons and hiked out. It was a terrific day trip and a great day for climbing Mt. Washington, often the windiest place on earth.