Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s White mountains is known for hosting ‘the worlds worst weather,’ and despite being in the ‘lowly’ Appalachian mountains, there isn’t a sense of sarcasm or exaggeration in this label. I found out first hand how much this mountain truly packs a punch when I took a long weekend trip out to New England in the third week of March. The snow covered, staggering peaks of the white mountains, amongst a less crowded atmosphere really took me by surprise and made me wonder why I had not come out here before. In middle to late March, most people tend to fly to warm, ambient beaches to chillax on the beach, have a few margaritas and forget about the cold and gloomy winters they likely just experienced. And if you live in the Midwest and opt to kick it at home, one is often treated to at least a few days of strange warm weather that allows for shorts and t-shirts in late March. Welp, I pretty much said screw that idea this year and opted to fly out to a state that had just experienced an nort-easter (blizzards characteristic of New England) was notoriously known for it’s cold climate, all to climb a mountain that I have had a strange fascination with ever since I read about it in social studies class in elementary school.
When it comes to Climbing, Skiing, hiking or any other activity that one does in the mountains, most people living west of Appalachia tend to think of the Rockies as the Mountain Playground of choice. In fact growing up in the Midwest, many people I knew weren’t even aware that going East to ski and hike was even an option. While those reading who are from the Eastern United States are probably scoffing at this notion, there was no doubt that Colorado was the designated utopia for outdoors people among my friends, peers, coworkers and wider community growing up (and not for any bad reason I must add). Perhaps this inflates the stereotype that Midwestern people tend to not be the most geographically knowledgeable but in my perspective, the rockies are just a much more advertised and romanticized region than Appalachia. Yes theres the Appalachia trail but theres also the Pacific Crest trail. Theres also the fact that the Rockies are much bigger and taller than the mountains of the Eastern United States, so why even bother visiting the latter? Well as I found out, there is actually quite a good reason to bother with them if one is a passionate hiker, climber, skier and all around mountain person.
My interest in Mount Washington was first perked when I read that the top of the mountain can routinely have conditions that resemble a hurricane. In 1934, it recorded an insane 231 mph wind speed and for almost 62 years after, held the world record for the fastest wind gust ever recorded on the surface of our planet. I had to read that part over more than twice just for it to settle in. As someone who has a very reflective nature, I could not help but ponder how interesting those facts were considering that the mountains of Appalachia were so much smaller and considered ‘inferior’ in scope and majesty to the rockies and other ranges. Why wasn’t this more common knowledge, I wondered. A mountain out east, that is often used as a training ground for mountaineers preparing to climb Denali and peaks in the Andes and Himalayas, yet it is still relatively unknown among the people close to me who were avid outdoorsmen and mountain people. Years past and each year or every other one when my family and friends and I would take a trip to the mountains, I still always ended up out west. Then one year I took a three month backpacking trip through Asia that included treks through the Himalayas and the Jungle infused mountains of China, Laos and Thailand. I came home energized and estatic from such amazing hiking experiences that I only wanted more. But unfortuntely for me, the real world reeled its ugly head and I no longer had quite the freedom or finances to embark on another long trip in the near future. So for the time being to satisfy me travel bug, I would have to go on short and quick adventures. Around December, I saw an ad in an email from an online outdoors magazine that was advertising a special on a guided climb up the most prominent mountain east of the Mississippi; Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It took me less than a week and without a thought to ask for time off in advance to buy the deal and secure my spot on what i knew would be an incredible experience.
When I told my friends what I was doing, the most common response was just a, “cool dude” and instant change of subject as most do not share the love for adventure and travel that I do and are much more focused on their careers, the new furniture they bought for their house, their families, moving up the corporate latter and all the while perplexed as to why I am not doing the same. The only friend that expressed an interest in what I was going to do, is a navy seal and a very well traveled individual who knew all about the white mountains of New Hampshire. After I told him, he looked at me and paused for a moment and then said, “You know that mountain is no joke right? It has some of the most horrendous weather in the world” I nodded and then he followed, “have you considered doing it in the summer months instead?”
This coming from a person who has been through some of the most grueling training in the world, solidified for me that this adventure was not going to be for the faint of heart. Its not that he didn’t think I was tough enough to do it, our friendship was rooted in the blood and sweat filled wrestling room of the high school we went to but it was true, I was no experienced mountaineer. It wasn’t going to be the hardest climb or hike in the world, it was not Denali or Rainier and if I came prepared with the right gear I would survive but nonetheless it was still Mount Washington and as I came to know, anyone who knows a thing or two, knows what that means.
When I arrived in Boston via Logan airport, I picked up my rental car from Avis and made my way north out of the city and through the hordes of Traffic that defiantly was not any less abhorrent than Chicago which I was accustomed too. I crossed the New Hampshire state line after around 30 mins and within another hour and a half, I began to come into White Mountain Country. It was cold, and it was obvious the region had been just blasted with a norteaster. The white mountains themselves looked–big, very big. They were not what I had envisioned considering how small in elevation they are in respect to the Rockies. Another aspect that became apparent rather quickly as I arrived and drove around that day, was that this region seemed much less crowded than out west. It seems to be very stereotypical to think of the western states as wide open country full of space and beckoning landscapes and while it surely is proportionally way less populated, I found Colorado to be any thing else than lonely during my visit there this past year. The lines at the ski lift took an surprisingly super long time. While its obvious that my one visit to a certain part of Colorado does not sufficiently sum up going skiing or hiking out west, it still is interesting to note that here in New England exists such beautiful and majestic mountains, all seemingly without hordes of tourists.
I checked into a hostel that caters to Appalachian trail hikers and displays a welcome mountaineering atmosphere with prayer flags hanging all around and pictures of elegant peaks from around the world. I met the people I would be hiking with, all of whom and went to bed at 830 to make sure I was plenty rested and ready to wake up at 530.
The next morning I met my guides and we sent out to the base of Mount Washington. We would be ascending by the Ammonoosuc ravine which would take us through beautiful alpine country and eventually steep climbs where we would ascend to the tree line. The snow was incredibly deep and for awhile it really felt like we were post holing it through the forest before we got to the steeper terrain and put our crampons on. It was a tiring hike thus far but nothing outside the bounds of what I had done before or beyond my endurance capacity. It was really enjoyable however and the frozen rivers, waterfalls, tall trees and snow covered mountains to be seen through every clearing, made me extremely happy and feel fortunate to be able to see such beautiful country. I often thought about how deeply the Native Indians revered this mountain and what it would be like for the early colonial explorers to set foot in these mountains for the first time. Such a cold and hostile region to be exploring and without all the modern equipment and clothing that we now have today, those early French Trappers must have been truly tough SOB’s.
When we climbed past the treeline and stopped behind a completely frozen over cabin to take a rest, is when things really started to come alive. Past the Tree line of Mount Washington, truly looks like a different world as the hurricane like weather contorts and shapes the environment in a way that could not help but remind me of what the frozen Arctic plains of the South Pole must look like. We put on our goggles, extra layers and made sure every centimeter of our skin was covered, as our guide said, “Ok we are about to go into the abyss for awhile, lets stay together and soon we’ll be on the summit.” As soon as we left the cabin and proceeded into the wide open and steep terrain directing towards the visible summit, it dawned on me on how accurate a term “the Abyss” was. The winds were absolutely atrocious and tried to throw us off course in every step we took. My feet which were fine up to this point, began to get incredibly and severely uncomfortably cold. I realized quickly that if one did not have goggles, it would be impossible to summit. In fact it would be impossible to summit if one didn’t have every crevice of their body good and covered. The terrain was winding, sharp and very steep at times and my quads began to feel the brunt of it pretty quickly. While it had been a good workout up to this point, it quickly turned into one of the most trying athletic endeavours i had ever done and I cursed myself for not bringing more to eat to help refuel myself at our last stop. The exhaustion of the constant hike up, combined with the 70mph gusts, was just a brutal environment for any person but especially for an un experienced mountaineer like myself. I could not help but constantly think at this point, “man this is the real deal.” Eventually we made it to the summit but instead of feeling elated, I was gassed and honestly on the verge of authentically freezing my ass off. I could not stop shaking or even feel relaxed as the winds were just tearing and ripping through you at every second. I wanted to get some pictures of the summit but I could not bring myself to go through the work of fumbling my phone out of my pocket and most likely having to take a glove off to get at least one quality pic. I am lucky that my guides were able to snap a few good pics of us with their speciality gopro camera.
Unfortunately, instead of starting our descent quickly, we had to wait for some group members who had fallen behind us on our final ascent to the summit and this may have been the hardest part of the whole ordeal. Standing still and being idle on the summit with these conditions was absolutely not an option as the winds and the -50 degrees temperature assaulted your toes, feet, fingers and hands at every moment and made it difficult to think straight. While waiting, we constantly ran in place and did jumping jacks and did a little walking to keep us from frostbite.
Finally we started the descent and man, was I ready to get back below the tree line again. The weather only seemed to worsen at the summit and at the start of our descent and our guides were also quite ready to get down. Despite my arse still freezing, the route we took down which went right by the cog way that takes the train up to the summit in the summer months, made for some fantastic views. The scenery here and the views unblocked by trees or steep terrain, is absolutely gorgeous and one really gets the sense of being in a truly majestic environment and region. While being on the summit of Washington is only a little over 6000ft, one feels that they are much higher and observing the surrounding mountains and landscape is the definition of breathtaking. Our descent down, was marked by constant halting due to one of our group members suffering from severe fatigue and while I was tired as well, I found the constant stopping to make my already cold toes, much colder. Eventually we made it down the mountain at 545pm. Just in time for a cold brew and a burger at the Woodstock Inn and Brewery.
My adventure to New England turned out to be one the most awesome and rewarding adventures I had ever taken. While I am no experienced mountaineer, I can confirm what many others have said about Mt. Washington and the White Mountains. They truly are no joke and are beyond a shred of a doubt, a wonderful place to come and hike, climb and be in the outdoors. Yes the western states are awesome and the Rockies are not only bigger, but have more trails, hikes and possess beautiful landscape to satisfy any, but the White Mountains of New Hampshire have something great to offer on its own. And if you are looking for a challenge, Mount Washington and the Presidential Traverse will push your endurance and reveal a side of Mother Nature that you thought only existed in the poles. To quote famous mountaineer and physcist, Bruce Normand winner of the Golden Ice Axe (the highest award in mountaineering), “I’ve climbed mountains all over the world,” he says. “And I’ve never seen worse than Mount Washington in February—negative 33° and 80-mile-per-hour winds. In the high mountains you wouldn’t dare go out. In New England, you just suck it up.”
Sources: 1.) https://www.technologyreview.com/s/517916/bruce-normand-phd-93/