We wanted an adventure and Mount Washington delivered. Three days later, my calves, quads and toes are still singing. In my head they sound like Tom Waits crooning ‘All the World is Green’. Not quite all the world. The last half mile of Mount Washington is an endless pile of grey granite rocks wrapped in 50 mph gusts and thick grey clouds.
I really wanted to reach the peak on a clear blue day. Who wouldn’t? Supposedly there are some nice views from the highest peak in the Northeast. We can confirm other rumors of the summit circus – the massive parking lot full of vehicles carrying clean people that chose to drive up. There’s also a cog railway and a visitor center with soup, cookies and pizza that looked awful but managed to tempt nonetheless.
I’m remembering the hike backwards because I’m still surprised we actually did it. Leading up to the trip, we referred to the hike only as an attempt. We were making our first attempt of Mount Washington. It’s listed as the 8th deadliest mountain in the world, Everest is 7. Unlike Everest, Washington is free to hike and, at only about 4.2 miles to the top, far more accessible. Dubbed ‘Home of the world’s worst weather’, conditions near the top don’t make for easy hiking. It has snowed on Washington every month of the year.
We took the Tuckerman Ravine to the Lion’s Head trail and back the same way. It offered some fun scrambles and allowed us to avoid the steep sections and crowds of the more popular Tuckerman Ravine trail. Like the rest of this monster, the Lion’s Head exceeded expectations. I thought we were above the treeline when suddenly the trail takes you through the alpine garden, a green oasis of protection with stubby pines hugging the trail.
This was my favorite section.
Don’t do what I did and start thinking you’re anywhere near the top. You’re not. It’s more than an endless mile away. Think a half mile ascent over stabby, sometimes loose rocks. Cairns help lead the way but there’s not really a trail. You just keep going up. This was the most mentally challenging part of the hike because it’s endless rock, you can’t see if you’re making any progress and the fog and wind made it hard to stop and rest for long because the chills would set in. A few seasoned hikers made it look so easy, a simple matter of hopping up a few rocks. I was not so steady on my feet and had to take every single step with care, announcing loose rocks with a Don’t step there. That’s a wobbly one. Raj was way ahead of me but talking out loud kept me going up, up, up. Then suddenly you’ve made it and you know you’ve reached the top because there’s a . . . . . . . parking lot.
I like that this mountain has a road to the top because anyone can experience the peak regardless of age or physical condition. But in the moment of reaching the summit after nearing it for so long, when you really feel like you’ve been through something to get there, it’s jarring to breathe in a mouthful of mountain fresh exhaust. Ah well.
Checking Mount Washington’s weather is a regular habit so it was fun to finally see the observatory up close. The visitor’s center was packed with people as expected on Labor Day weekend. I didn’t care. Raj grabbed a bowl of New England clam chowder and we found a warm spot downstairs to dry our hats and gloves and shake off the shakes. I’m wishing I’d thought to stretch my legs, but it was nice to sit and chat with other hikers.
We had considered taking the Crawford path over to the Lake of the Clouds hut for the 1.5 miles of ridge trail then up another .3 miles to Mount Monroe then about 4.5 miles back down to our car at Pinkham Notch. It’s always tempting to grab another peak and we do love visiting the AMC huts. I didn’t have it in me this time. I was already feeling shaky from some combination of vertigo and exertion. I regretted this call at first, but had we pushed on we would’ve been hiking in the dark. As it was we didn’t reach our car until 6:30 pm. We did take our time, this hike is what we drove 6+ hours to do, but I’m not sure I could’ve gone much faster if I’d wanted to.
After descending the half mile rock pile we were back below the clouds. I felt way more steady on my feet heading down. If I fell I knew I’d land on a rock about where my feet were. With the wind gusts against us going up I kept thinking about that fellow who was nearly blown off the mountain a few years ago. Scrambles that seemed tricky going up were more a matter of scooching heading down.
This is a doable hike in the conditions we faced. I tend to obsess and this time over preparation made me my own hero. We almost made so many mistakes, like leaving our outer layers in the car because it was a warm morning and the hoodies only added weight. Thanks to the summit forecast, we knew to anticipate the wind gusts and cold, damp fog. I stuffed my pack with layers just in case. We wound up wearing winter hats, gloves and those hoodies for more than half of the hike. I’m also glad I actually paid attention to my body and knew my limits on that day. Mount Monroe and the rest of the Southern Presidential Range will still be there next summer.
I think that’s Mount Washington in the distance. Didn’t see it up close, but I think we saw it from an overlook on the side of the road. Other than three bears by a hotel dumpster, we didn’t see much wildlife during our time in New Hampshire. We’re starting to think moose don’t really exist. Where are they?