Hiking Mt. Washington

About a month ago, Ivan and I celebrated our 11-year wedding anniversary the same way we celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary: we climbed a mountain.

In fact, we climbed the same mountain both times. Mt. Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont, is a fun day hike. It’s not for complete novices, but you don’t need a lot of experience to manage the hike. And since we did it both times with relative ease (there are a few tricky spots) and were rewarded with aching legs the day after (That’s a sign of a good workout, right?), I decided it was time for us to climb something a bit higher.

Ivan doesn’t get a lot of vacation, so finding a mountain close by was important. Lucky for us, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi and north of the Carolinas happens to be a short 4.5 hours away. So, a little over a week ago, we climbed Mt. Washington.

While trying to plan for our trek, I was having a hard time finding many personal accounts of the climb and the information that I was able to snag from a selection of blogs, park pages and trail maps seemed to indicate that I should simultaneously prepare for a mildly challenging hike to a potentially lethal 12-hour test of survival. That made packing a little tricky. Do I need a flare gun, 5 days’ worth of provisions, night-vision goggles or will a handful of Gu packs and a sense of adventure sustain me?

In the hopes that this is in some way helpful to anyone else planning the same climb, here is my account of our experience:

Some Specifics

Date: June 19, 2018

Weather at the Base: Clear skies, sunny and low- to mid-70s

Weather at the Summit: Intermittent clouds, winds 50 mph with gusts up to 80 mph, mid-40s

Departure from Base: 9:00 am with a 4-hour ascent

Departure from Summit: 1:40 pm with a 3.5-hour descent

Our Route

Ascent: From Pinkham Notch, we followed the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the Lion Head Trail to the Summit

Descent: From the Summit, we followed the Davis Trail to the Boott Spur Trail to Pinkham Notch

What We Packed

Clothes: Hiking shoes, hiking pants, short-sleeve shirts, long-sleeve shirts, water- and wind-resistant jackets, buffs, hats and gloves

Food: 6 Gu packs each (we did not eat them all), 2 jerky strips each — note that there is a small cafeteria at the summit where you can buy food

Safety: Bandages, anti-chafe stick, ibuprofen, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, compass with paracord string bracelet

Extra: Phones (although we had no signal), DSLR camera

Our initial plan was to make the full ascension via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. However, the ravine part of the trail was closed because of ice and snow conditions (yes, in June). So we branched off of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and finished the ascent via the Lion Head Trail–a steep, boulder-ridden incline.

From the base at Pinkham Notch, Tuckerman Ravine Trail was wide, rocky and fairly easy to traverse. Even the most beginner hiker/climber will have no problem whatsoever. The trail would be great for kids and dogs as well. It is well marked and popular, so you’ll certainly run into other hikers. Initially it is wooded and your views are limited to the trail ahead and behind, with trees flanking you. On a couple occasions, you will cross some basic wooden bridges over a small river and pass by a couple waterfalls.

When we reached the intersection of the Lion Head Trail, we continued straight, along the Tuckerman Ravine Trail for a little bit, just to briefly visit the Hermit Lake Shelters and the Caretakers Cabin. There, we took a quick photo at the scenic lake, noted the bright orange signs that warned us not to continue along the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, and doubled back to the intersection. There, we turned left and followed the trail to Lion Head.

The Lion Head Trail was, as I had been forewarned, a much steeper path than we had been following. The trail narrows a little bit and you will begin your true ascent, rapidly moving up toward the mountain’s summit. There are some truly breathtaking views and we definitely took our time, stopping frequently for photo ops and to leisurely catch our breath in between steep boulder climbs and even a wooden stair climb.

For those of you who are relying on this post for insight into your own Mt. Washington climb, Ivan and I are fairly athletic people. We do basic strength training at home and are avid runners. We do not do a lot of trail running or train on hills. But we are in good shape and enjoy working out. We do not have a lot of experience climbing, so this hike was definitely strenuous and tiring, but was also enjoyable and I would happily go again without hesitation. At no point was I concerned that we wouldn’t make it to the end before nightfall and the day after, we were only a little sore. There were no sections of the trail that I was concerned about losing balance and falling and there were no sheer drops that made me nervous or dizzy. It is simply a LONG hike and it requires a considerable amount of effort.

About halfway up the Lion Head Trail section, you will emerge out of the treeline and enter the boulder stage. Get ready to climb. It’s uphill from here on out.

At first the boulders are interspersed with ground cover and shrubbery. The views are phenomenal and the temperature is still perfect. But the uphill goes on and on. If you look up, you can see a distinct outcropping of rock. That’s the perfect place to stop for a moment, take a panoramic photo, have a snack and change into your warmer clothes.

Because it’s about to get colder and windier.

From the giant boulder (photo above) on the Lion Head Trail, we could get a perfect view of the closed ravine of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail (photo below) that was still snow covered.

After a break at that boulder, we moved on, weaving along a narrow trail along a barren field of hearty grass and rocks. At the final intersection, we found a sign directing us toward Mt. Washington–the summit–and headed onward and upward. The final climb consisted of us traversing a boulder-strewn hill in the shroud of cold, shifting clouds. The climb went on and on. Looking upward, there were only more boulders, driving endlessly into the white blank mist and below, the same. We followed beacons of rock piles that snaked upwards and crept along, across rocks covered in green and rust colored lichen for ages.

Reaching the top is a little jarring. After you’ve climbed and hiked and exerted so much energy, you suddenly emerge from a pile of boulders to… a really busy parking lot and tourists everywhere! You’re physically exhausted and feeling a bit triumphant, but right next to you is a family of five piling out of an SUV. It can be a little off-putting.

So, not wanting to spoil your conquest, I recommend darting inside really quickly for a bite to eat, a quick respite and then heading off back down the trail. (If you don’t have the second half of the hike in you, taking a van back down is always an option if you have some cash.)

Having already taken the Tuckerman Ravine Trail/Lion Head Trail up, we wanted a different view for our descent. So we skipped along a couple quick segments to escape the summit and got ourselves situated on the Davis Trail. For much of the initial descent, we were moving at a gradual downhill on a remarkably open valley that was spotted with the rock pillars that marked the crisscrossing trails. It was utterly gorgeous with stark blue skies and crystal clear views. But the gusts of wind were reaching 80 mph–stronger winds than I’ve ever experienced in my life. The climb down was pretty tough at first. We tried compensating for the gusts of wind, but when they momentarily let up, we were sent staggering off of the trail. On two occasions we had to stop and get down on our hands and knees to not be blown over. We passed three hikers that doubled back because they couldn’t withstand the winds.

Once we reached Boott Spur Trail and got below the treeline, the weather evened out and we kept a steady pace as we descended into thicker trees and warmer air. The descent was a bit lengthier than our ascent, so it took a little longer than we were expecting. The entire hike was probably about 8 miles. And, if I’m being honest, I was so exhausted on our way down, my legs were shaking with the perpetual descent. But we made it to the bottom, grabbed a souvenir or two at the visitor center and drove off for dinner and a beer at Moat Mountain Inn.

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