Winter Climb of Mt. Washington with EMS Climbing School
Mt. Washington or Agiocochook (Home of the Great Spirit)
It is important to note that Mt. Washington is not (as many claim): 1) The highest mountain east of the Mississippi (Mt. Mitchell, NC), or 2) The highest mountain east of the Rockies (Mt. Harney, SD). It was for many years, however, the home to the highest wind ever recorded (231 mph, 1934), and may well be the home to the worst weather on the face of the earth. The weather is due to the prominence of Mt. Washington (most prominent in the East, 59th most prominent in the US) and the very high precipitation relative to other alpine environments. In the winter months, hurricane force winds are measured on Mt. Washington two thirds of the days, and the summit receives over 100 inches of rainfall equivalent per annum. This is a very bad place – particularly in the winter.
Despite this seemingly impossibly inhospitable environment, the summit has had permanent structures, including hotels, restaurants and a weather station since the mid-1800’s. These are accessed via an automobile road and an ancient cog railroad which still functions in the summer.
I had climbed Mt. Washington in the three “fairer seasons”, but never been to the summit in mid-winter, to see firsthand what this bad weather is really all about. This is really a rite of passage for Eastern mountaineering, and was the purpose of the school weekend at EMS.
The Team of Gary & Jill Rogers, Pete Volanakis and me was guided by Sarah, a really terrific guide from the topographically mundane state of Ohio. Sarah had taken a troop of Scouts (both Boy and Girl) most of the way up the Hill the day before, but greeted us the morning of the climb rested and raring to go. She climbs Washington at least 35 times per winter season, and has for 12 years – we were in pretty good hands.
Our team had pretty much a rest day the day before, with just a little cross country skiing and some BC skiing to limber up from our day of ice climbing. We arrived in the parking lot of Pinkham Notch at 7:45, and were headed up “The Home of the Great Spirit” by 8:00, toward the Trail up Lions Head. The temperature was around 10 degrees in the parking lot, and winds were from the WNW around 20mph – it was going to be very cold and windy on top.
Mt. Washington – A Geological Anomaly
Mt. Washington stood head and shoulders above the continental glaciations of the last Ice Age (unlike almost all other mountains in the region), and consequently enjoys a boulder strewn summit, unmolested by the continental ice sheets. The glaciations on its flanks, however, continued until very recently, and produced the world renowned Tuckerman Ravine, the birthplace of extreme skiing.
Mt. Washington is composed of very hard metamorphic and intrusive igneous rock. The stratified rocks belong to three formations, the Ordovician Albee formation, the Ordovician Ammonoosuc volcanics, and the Devonian Littleton formation. All these rocks have undergone high-grade metamorphism. The intrusive rocks belong to four magma series, ranging in age from Late Ordovician to Mississippian.
Up Lions Head & to the Summit
The trail up to the base of Lions Head is the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which is filled with hikers and skiers, and looks like a parade of Gore Tex and Polar Fleece. All shapes sizes and climbing abilities are represented, but we hustled to get in front of a group of twelve hikers who said that they, “attempt the summit every year, but haven’t made it in 10”. We did not want to get stuck behind these guys on the chutes on Lions Head. Crampons and ice axes were required equipment from the base of Lions Head, to Summit and back. Additionally, we “roped up” to descend some of the chutes later in the day.
We arrived at the top of Lions Head around 11:00, and needed to do a little readjustment of our Team, as often happens at this point. Pete was “out of gas” and the weather had deteriorated quite substantially, with winds well over 50mph and temperatures well below 0 F. Pete joined a group going just a little further across the Alpine Garden (a favorite skiing spot of mine in spring) toward the summit, and we picked up Martin, a process engineer from Austria.
The push to the summit took about an hour, in some really bad winds and low temperatures. We were well dressed (in a mountaineering sense) with goggles and full neoprene face masks and fogging was the biggest problem.
Coming to the top of Washington is always a surreal experience, with so much man made stuff (buildings, snow cats and the like) on top of the mountain in such a remote and forbidding environment. We were grateful for the shelter from the 70-mph gusts in the lee of the buildings, grabbed a couple of photos at the summit, and headed back down before we froze in the -10 to -15 degree temperatures. We had worked hard coming up, and were pretty wet. Standing around was not a good idea.
The descent was mercifully uneventful (most climbing accidents happen on the way down) and we broke out of the clouds to get a good view of Boot Spur and Wildcat by the time we got back to Lions Head.
With the exception of some congestion at the chutes on Lions Head Trail, we made good time getting off the Hill, and were out and headed home by 4:00.
The wild weather and difficult conditions did not disappoint. This was a great climb, and affords the experience of Denali-like weather at a savings of $15,000 and 20 days. Perhaps next year we’ll try the traverse of the Presidential Ridge in winter – more time on the hills, including two overnights. If we do, I’m sure that it will be with our friends from EMS – really a great outfitter and guiding service.