by Hank Leukart
January 21, 2014
Climbing into the worst weather in America
Summiting New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in winter.
Hikers catch a glimpse of the Lake of the Clouds Hut below Mount Washington's summit. (view all Mount Washington, NH photos)
INCOLN, New Hampshire — “Once we pass the Lake of the Clouds Hut and start up the mountain’s summit cone, it’s serious,” Alex says. “At that point, we’ll put on our balaclavas, facemasks, and goggles. The forecast tomorrow with wind chill is 1 degree Fahrenheit, with 35 mile-per-hour winds. Absolutely no skin can be exposed. We’ll check each other carefully. This is not a joke. If you get frostbite, you’ll have to live with the consequences for the rest of your life.”
My friend Sarah, a Vermont-based solar energy technician, and I are standing with Alex — an expert climber and mountaineering guide — and six other hikers at the peak of Mount Dickey in the White Mountains, during the middle of a ruthless, polar-vortex-infused New Hampshire winter. We — four seemingly tough Israeli men living in New Jersey, two 32-year-old women from Queens, Sarah, and me — have hiked up here, wearing crampons and carrying ice axes, as a practice run before our winter summit attempt tomorrow on Mount Washington, a mountain peak known among climbers to have the most dangerous and unpredictable weather in the U.S. In January, the average wind speed on Washington’s summit is 46 MPH (with a record high of 172 MPH), and the average temperature is 5 degrees Fahrenheit (with a record low of -47 degrees Fahrenheit).
“Remember that, after I assess the weather conditions and how fast we’re moving, I will be the one to make a final decision about whether we attempt to summit or if we have to turn back,” he says sternly.
“So, basically, after we pass that Hut, we’re all going to die,” I whisper to Sarah.
“Sounds like it,” she says. But she doesn’t look scared. She looks like she’s salivating, as though she’s just been told the secret location of the world’s biggest, most delicious pepperoni pizza.
In the evening, after recovering from our disappointment that both Lincoln’s Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train and Hobo Hills Adventure Golf Course are closed for the winter season, Sarah and I join the two New York girls, Stephanie and Lisa, at the Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery for dinner and craft beer.
“This is my second summit attempt on Mount Washington,” Stephanie tells us. “The first time wasn’t so good. I was on a bad blind date, one of my boots was hurting my foot, and I didn’t even make it close to the top.”
“You went on a three-day date with someone you didn’t know to climb up a mountain?” I ask. “That’s intense.”
“Yeah, and the worst part was that my date made it to the summit. You should hear about the time I slept with a married man on the way up to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro,” she says. Sarah bursts out laughing.
“Well, I slept in his tent, anyway,” Stephanie adds.
“God, I hope we make it to the top,” I muse.
“Me too,” Stephanie says. “I have to prove to my bad blind date that I can make it.”
In the morning, my iPhone alarm goes off at 4:45 AM, but I’m so tired from our hike the day before that I don’t even move to turn it off. Sarah throws a pillow at my head.
“I’m just going to lie here,” I groan. “I’m too tired to go.”
“Fine, I’ll let you know what it’s like to reach the summit,” Sarah says as she gets out of bed to pack her backpack. Soon enough, we’re both hiking with the group at the bottom of Mount Washington, through a beautiful forest covered in a blanket of sparkling snow. It feels like we’re in a fairy tale, complete with a foreboding ambience. Over steep ice sheets on the trail, we continue climbing, using crampons affixed to our double-plastic mountaineering boots.
We’re about halfway to the summit, with about 2,000 feet of elevation still to go, when one of the climbing guides, Bob, asks me and Sarah how we feel.
“Great,” Sarah says. “This is amazing!”
“I’m great too,” I say. “If the rest of the way is an elf-filled winter wonderland like this, it’ll be no problem.”
“Well, let’s see what the weather is like above the Hut,” Bob says.
“It better be scary,” I say. “I was promised a crazy snowstorm and lots of cold and pain!” Sarah rolls her eyes.
Finally, we reach the Lake of the Clouds Hut. We hide behind it to gulp down our lunches as the snow and wind begin to pick up.
“Okay, who wants to try to make it to the summit?” Alex says. “If we’re not at the top in one hour, we have to turn around. The weather can change in an instant, and I’m afraid that some of you may not make it.” To my surprise, two of the tough guys from New Jersey immediately announce that they’re heading back down the mountain.
“You still want to go to the top, right?” I ask Sarah. I feel like I still have lots of energy in reserve.
“Definitely,” Sarah says. She looks like she’s still drooling over that sublime, imaginary pizza on the summit.
“Okay, for those of you set on going, we’re going to split into two groups.” Alex says. “I’ll take Hank, Sarah, Eyal, and Ilan. Stephanie and Lisa, you’ll go with Bob. The weather is getting worse. It’s now or never guys. Let’s book.”
With Alex leading and Sarah seemingly super-glued to his backpack, the eight of us begin speeding up the mountain as fast as we can. But it’s been snowing all night and day, and two- to four-foot snow drifts blanket the mountaintop. It takes a huge amount of energy just to take a single step and then pull our legs out of the resulting hole in the snow. After about 20 minutes of climbing, I look behind us. Bob, Stephanie, and Lisa have vanished.
“They’ve already turned back,” Alex says as I scan the landscape. I feel despondent, sad that Stephanie’s second Mount Washington winter summit attempt has been unsuccessful.
“I didn’t expect this much snow,” Alex says, snapping my attention back to our own situation. “This is tough.”
Alex’s verbalization of the situation makes me feel better, validating the fact that every step in the deep snow seems to sap all of my remaining energy.
“How are you guys doing?” Alex asks when Eyal and Ilan catch up to us. They’re not moving quite as fast as Sarah and I. Everyone murmurs that they’re feeling good, but it’s clear that everyone’s energy reserves are dwindling rapidly — except Sarah’s.
As we continue slogging through the deep snow, over thousands of ankle-twisting rocks, we pass a sign that reads, “STOP: The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.” As if on cue, the wind seems to have reached over 25 miles per hour, the temperature is dropping, and the snow blowing through the air is causing an almost-total whiteout.
I think to myself that if I were on the mountain by myself right now, I’d probably turn back, not being able to see a route to the top. I’m worried that Alex is going to force us to turn back. We’re well behind our summit schedule, barely still within our safety margin. But Alex has summited the mountain tens of times, and his resolve does not waiver.
“Let’s do this,” Alex says. His confidence acts like a huge jolt of caffeine, and we continue marching toward the top with seemingly newfound energy. I’m exhausted, and all I can see ahead of me is a sea of cotton, but it feels like an invisible rope, tying me to Alex and Sarah, is dragging me up the mountain.
Suddenly, a 30-foot-tall, white structure that looks like a clock tower emerges from the snowstorm, appearing 10 feet from my face. I’m surprised to see hikers from another group huddled against it. I realize that we’ve reached the observatory on the summit.
“We’re here!” I yell. We congratulate each other and take photos in front of the “Mt. Washington Summit” sign, but our celebration is short-lived. The wind is increasing and it’s getting significantly colder.
“We have to get off this mountain,” Alex says. Then, like a human GPS device, he starts guiding us down the mountain at a breakneck speed — so fast that I know that he perceives real danger. I’m moving as fast as I can, but I feel like I’m running through a bowling ball factory with my eyes closed. Mount Washington’s summit is covered in rocks, and since they’re covered in a blanket of snow, it’s impossible to see what I’m stepping on until it’s too late.
I trip on the rocks over and over and over, trying as hard as I can to avoid crashing into the snow, but the whiteout makes it nearly impossible to see anything. On one rock that I trip over (maybe number 63?), I bash my boot into it particularly hard. When I try to stop myself from falling, one of my crampons gets caught on my pant leg, ripping it to shreds. In a gloriously anti-balletic move, I smash into to the ground, badly twisting my knee. When I look up, I see Alex and Sarah fading into the infinite white.
“Sorry… I fell… my knee…” I gasp when I finally catch them again. I look behind me and Ilan and Eyal are gone. We wait, and in about a minute, they emerge from the bleached expanse. Ilan looks like he’s been run over by a truck carrying ten tons of snow.
“I… can’t… see,” Ilan pants. “My goggles.”
At an unbelievable speed, Alex, like Mary Poppins, magically pulls a clean pair of goggles from his backpack, grabs the iced-over ones on Ilan’s face, and puts on another pair.
“Okay, let’s move,” Alex says as he heads down. At this point, it feels like we’re running down the mountain, and Alex, Sarah, and I are moving faster than Ilan and Eyal.
“CAN WE TAKE ANOTHER BREAK?” we hear Eyal yell.
“GUYS, THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO TIME TO STOP,” Alex yells. “YOU MUST KEEP WALKING FORWARD.”
“HE CAN’T SEE,” Eyal yells back. Ilan’s goggles have been completely covered in ice again.
“CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING?!” Alex yells.
“NOT REALLY!” Ilan yells. “I CAN BARELY MAKE OUT THE BACKPACK IN FRONT OF ME!”
“GOOD ENOUGH.” Alex responds. “WE DON’T HAVE TIME TO STOP. THE WEATHER, GUYS. THE WEATHER IS GETTING DANGEROUS.”
“Shit,” I say to Sarah. “Our elf-filled forest winter wonderland has turned into a death trap.”
We’re nearly running down the mountain, and as the wind speed nears 50 miles per hour, it feels like we’re flying. Three separate times, I think I see through the whiteout the outline of the Hut, but each time, it turns out to be a mirage. I realize that I have no idea where I am. I can’t stop tripping on my shredded pants.
“I keep thinking I see the Hut, but it’s just mirages,” I say to Sarah.
“Yeah, I think maybe we already passed it and we’re taking a different route…?” Sarah wonders.
And then, seemingly by a miracle (but really due to our guide Alex’s prowess), my fourth mirage turns out not to be a mirage at all. We’ve made it back to the Lake of the Clouds Hut.
“It’ll get easier from here,” Alex yells as we head down the trail back under the tree line. On the way down, we pass a dejected Stephanie and Lisa, who tell us, sadly, that they didn’t have the energy to brave the storm. After trying to cheer them up and being careful not to mention Stephanie’s bad blind date who reached the summit, we head back to the parking lot, though my knee is screaming in pain.
After saying goodbye to the group and thanking Alex and Bob profusely, Sarah and I jump in the car and turn on our heated seats. Then, we drive directly to Elvio’s Pizzeria in Lincoln, New Hampshire and order the world’s biggest, most delicious pepperoni pizza. At least, as we’re eating it, that’s what it tastes like.
As I’m driving to the Boston airport the next morning, a news story on NPR catches my attention. The reporter says that, yesterday, four hikers became lost on the Mount Washington summit in the whiteout and had to be rescued in the middle of 0-degree temperatures and 95 mile-per-hour winds a bit before 3:30 AM. I realize that they were hikers from the group that I saw on the summit. Suddenly, my inelegant, knee-twisting crash while dashing down the mountain doesn’t seem so bad anymore.
How to Climb Mount Washington in Winter
- OVERVIEW: There are four primary trails up Mount Washington: Tuckerman Ravine, Lion Head, Ammonoosuc Ravine, and Jewell Trails. In all cases, the hike is between 8 and 10 miles and covers between 3,800 and 4,250 feet of elevation gain, round trip. See the Mount Washington Observatory web site for a detailed description of all the four common summer routes and the common winter routes. Most winter hikers use Lion Head Trail.
- DIRECTIONS: Fly into the airport in either Boston, Massachusetts or Manchester, New Hampshire and rent a car. For the Tuckerman Ravine or Lion Head Trails, take I-93 North to NH-104 East to US-3 North to NH-25 East to NH-113 East to NH-16 North to North Conway, New Hampshire. For the Ammonoosuc Ravine or Jewell Trails, take I-93 North to Lincoln, New Hampshire. In those towns, you can stay in a hotel and head to the trailhead in the morning.
- LOGISTICS: Despite the fact that I usually prefer to avoid guides, we decided to hire REI Adventures mountaineering guides for this trip to teach us mountaineering skills and make planning easier. The excellent guides leading our trip, Alex and Bob, can also be hired directly for a variety of other mountaineering and climbing trips through their company, Mooney Mountain Guides. While hiking up Mount Washington even in winter is barely technical (usually only crampons are required), having a guide who knows the dangers and the route is very helpful for inexperienced and intermediate hikers and climbers. The guides instruct untested mountaineers on necessary gear, crampon usage, ice climbing techniques, and ice axe procedures. Experienced hikers and mountaineers can attempt this trip themselves as long as they’re careful to pack the right gear. To ensure preparedness for Mount Washington’s extreme weather conditions, hikers must have double-plastic mountaineering boots, crampons, hiking poles, a parka rated to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, a good, wind-proof hard shell, expedition mittens, expedition gloves, mountaineering goggles, a facemask, and a balaclava. It’s also essential to start hiking at sunrise and attempt to summit by around noon to avoid dangerous weather in the afternoons.
- ROUTE: We took the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, which is 9 miles with 3,800 feet of elevation gain, round trip. Keep in mind that, once you reach the tiny lake called Gem Pool, this route can be hard to see buried under snow. Do not attempt to hike above the Lake of the Clouds Hut without GPS assistance if you’re not familiar with the trails. In a snowstorm, it is easy to get lost.