Trip Report: Mike’s Winter Mt. Washington Hike

Towards the end of last week, our very own Mike Gaskin was getting all-sorts-of jazzed up about the forecast for Mt. Washington on Saturday. There was no doubt in his mind this would be a beautiful winter day to summit Mt. Washington. As his climbing partner backed down at the last minute, Mike decided to proceed with his intentions.

Here is an account of Mike’s day. Check out his photo gallery on Imgur.

“As I stepped out of my house at 3:30 AM, my boots squished into the muddy ground. The sky above was black and devoid of stars, and when I got in the car I opened my phone and typed METAR KMWN. The coded message it returned reported freezing fog and zero visibility on the summit. But the weather service forecast still called for a brief period of clearing at midday in between two storms, so I set out for New Hampshire.

Driving along the dark and wet highways of northern Vermont, my windshield was spattered with rain and one brief burst of snow. I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts in St. Johnsbury at 5:30AM and checked the METAR again. Still foggy, still no visibility. But the weather service still insisted that the day would be partly sunny in the morning, so I kept driving.

When the first light of day appeared over a remote stretch of Route 2, I could see some clear skies ahead. And as I turned onto Route 16 in Gorham, Mount Jefferson suddenly appeared in all of its snow-capped glory. The sight made me suck my breath into my chest, and I pushed the gas pedal down harder, wanting to get on the trail as soon as possible.

The situation at Pinkham, though, was gloomier. Fog hung over everything, and there was no sign of the mountain above. I trudged up the snowy forest road that leads to Tuckerman’s, with steam rising through my baselayer top. Heavy snow and ice still obscured the streambeds and waterfalls; ski tracks ran down one of them.

As I approached the bottom of the Lion Head Route, I heard a great deal of shouting coming down from above. Closer still, I could hear that much of it was in French. Suddenly, right where the trail turns steeply upward, I encountered a massive guided group of about thirty Canadian tourists, fully laden with overnight gear. The lower members of the group were fumbling with their crampons, while higher up they were flopping over the icy crux of the route one by one, to the shouted encouragement of their guides.

Fortunately, they offered to let me pass, so I grabbed my ice tool and motored up past them. One guy I passed was wearing a Baltoro 75 backpack with an Aether 70 strapped to it. My first idea was that he was carrying a pack for his wife, but I didn’t see any women without backpacks of their own. That’s a lot of gear for a night at the Observatory.

With the Canadians behind me, I hiked in solitude all the way to Lion’s Head. On the way there, hints of blue sky appeared above, and for a brief moment I could see the treeless ridge across Huntington Ravine. And then…it all became clear.

I burst out of the valley fog and beheld a blue sky streaked with wisps of cirrus clouds. With rock-spotted snowfields all around me, I felt like I had left New England and traveled somewhere far, far away.

With bright sunshine and little wind, it definitely felt more like spring than winter. I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be needing the more extreme pieces of gear I had acquired for the ascent, but I had always wanted to be on Washington on a sunny and undercast day, so I felt it was a good trade-off.

Despite the beach-like temperatures down below, the scene on the summit was as wintry as you could ask for. Every surface was covered in rime ice, and the wind was blowing forcibly. I spent nearly an hour up there, enjoying the view in all directions.

On the way back down, I was on the big snowfield above the Alpine Garden when I heard a boooom. Thunder?” I thought. But then I heard the shouts from below: avalanche!

I turned to my left, and there it was, about a hundred feet away. It was a very wide avalanche, and it roared over a stretch of the Alpine Garden trail where hikers had been just before, but no one was buried. It was probably set off by some skiers I had encountered just before, who had been heading off perpendicular to the trail in that direction.

Passing by Lion Head again, the snow was melting rapidly, and I encountered many late-starting yahoos who must have come out once the valley fog burned off. The melting snow and their spring attire reinforced the notion that my winter trip had turned into a spring one…but at least my pictures looked wintry.

The traffic had turned the Lions Head trail into a smooth track for glissading, and I was amazed at how far my butt could take me. By the time I reached Pinkham again, the clouds were already moving back in ahead of the next storm, and I was pleased to know that I had nailed the weather window to perfection.”

Packing List:

On body:

  • Eider Blow 1/2 Zip Power Dry top
  • Mountain Hardwear Power Stretch Union Suit
  • Darn Tough Extra Cushion Mountaineering Socks
  • Marmot Power Stretch Wrist Gaiters 
  • Capo Forma lycra hat
  • Dynafit Seraks Pants
  • Outdoor Research Speedstar Jacket
  • Outdoor Research Luminary Gloves
  • Outdoor Research Expedition Crocodiles Gaiters
  • Merrell Expedition Boots
  • Petzl Lynx crampons
  • Smith Phenom Chrome Max goggles
In pack:
  • Millet Matrix 30 MBS pack 
  • Cassin X-Dry ice tool
  • Black Diamond Traverse poles
  • TNF Shaffle Jacket
  • Valandre Oural down mittens
  • Seirus Ultra balaclava
  • Terra Nova Equipment Bothy 2
  • Osprey Hydraulics 3-liter reservoir
  • Food
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Published:March 31, 2014

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