This body climed Mt. Washington

Posted on September 17, 2006 by Chris Lumens in hiking.

Today, I finally climbed Mt. Washington with my friend Lon. It was an amazing experience, and full of strange contradictions that I’m still sorting out in my head. It was perhaps the most difficult hike I have done this year. While the Franconia Ridge hike might have matched it for elevation gain, the Mt. Washington hike took a few fewer miles and was therefore much more steep.

Pictures from this hike

We set out from Nashua at 6am, driving up across the Kancamagus highway, then up 16 into Pinkham Notch. From the notch, we could tell the weather was going to be perfect. It was cool with a light breeze, sunny, and not a cloud in the sky. Some of the summit buildings were visible way off in the distance from the parking lot with blue skies behind. Days like this are almost unheard of on Mt. Washington - the summit is in the clouds 60% of the year. We hit the trail at 9:15am, heading straight from the visitors center up the Tuckerman Ravine trail. It climbs at a steady and rather steep pace, going up 1800’ in the first 2.4 miles to get into the base of the ravine. Once we reached the shelter at the base, we had our first good view into the ravine. Tuckerman Ravine is a massive glacially carved bowl with a steep headwall and two huge arms reaching out on either side. The headwall climbs perhaps 1000’ from the floor of the ravine. You can also look out of the bowl back towards Wildcat across the notch. I was left speechless.

The next half mile is rough. It’s steep and requires you climbing a long series of stone steps as you make your way up the headwall. We passed first aid caches and avalanche rescue equipment along the way, reminding us of how crazy this place is in the winter. The views continued ravine, though still with a substantial climb ahead of us. The area above the ravine and extending north is called the Alpine Garden which is basically a broad, flat alpine region at the top of all the ravines. Rising 1300’ from the garden is the summit cone of Washington. It looks as if someone set another mountain on top of this huge flat area. I’d love to come back to this place and explore a little bit some other time, perhaps skipping the summit entirely.

Anyway, we hung out at the top of Tuckerman for a while and snapped a couple pictures. Then we turned back to the task at hand - climbing first to the top of the ridge, and then to the top of the mountain. It was a daunting task given the moonscape of the high Presidential Range. All of these summits are basically giant piles of sharp rocks. It took a long, long time to pick our way up this last 0.6 miles. I believe it was every bit as steep as the Tripyramid slides from last month, though possibly easier because it’s not rock slabs. Off in the distance, Eisenhower and Monroe looked insignificant. Chocorua was a tiny bump in the distance. Tuckerman Ravine sat huge behind us.

Now things get really weird. As we approached the summit, you could start seeing parked cars appear behind the rocks. We climbed a bit more, and the trail dumped out into a parking lot with a road and then a wooden staircase behind. See, Mt. Washington has an auto road up the side and a state park on top. To get to the summit, we then had to very carefully cross the road without getting clobbered, climb up the wooden staircase, walk over the cog railroad tracks, and finally fight past the tourists to get to the summit marker. Of course, we did all this very quickly and without showing how much pain we were in from the ascent. Then we went into the summit building to eat at the cafeteria (there’s also a weather observatory, museum, rail station, gift shop, and forest of antennas). I had the most unhealthy lunch of all time - a chili cheese dog, Coke, and 600 calorie cinnamon bun. But man, was it filling. We then walked around with the crowds for a bit looking out at the northern Presidentials, down to the railway base station, and refilling our bottles. After a long break at the top, we were off again.

We took a slightly different way down, following the Tuckerman Ravine trail to the Lion Head trail, then back to the Tuckerman Ravine trail. The first part was every bit as rough as the ascent, though we made better time. We then branched off onto the Lion Head trail which was even more difficult going due to the huge rocks to pick through. Lion Head is a large arm of Washington that forms the north side of Tuckerman Ravine, ending with a distinctive rock that’s supposed to look like the head of a lion. Then the ridge immediately drops down to the ravine below. Lon suggested this trail because of the long amount of above treeline time and the great views to make the way down seem better. He was right. Once we got down to the Alpine Garden again, the views really opened up down into the ravine, across the notch, and across the entire eastern face of the mountain. Where the Lion Head ridge drops off was especially spectacular. I could have stayed there for quite a while just taking in the views.

Unfortunately, we had to drop back down into the ravine from another direction. This was the most difficult part of the descent, I think. It was every bit as slow and rocky as the top, but now without the great views. We slowly made our way down the rest of the Lion Head trail and back to the shelters where we picked up Tuckerman Ravine again. The way out was kind of a blur to me. I was on autopilot these last 2.5 miles as I just wanted to be done with the constant rock pounding. We were getting really discouraged towards the end because we hadn’t seen the trail junctions we noticed on the way up, but it turns out we were just watching our feet instead of the signs. Before we knew it, we were back at the car.

So, it was a pretty amazing hike. It took us 7.5 hours to hike 8.3 miles and climb 4250’. About one hour of that was spent sitting on top, though. I had a rough time on a lot of the terrain and went pretty slowly, but I eventually made it. I feel like I could tackle any trail in the Whites given enough time to do it. The weather was simply perfect which made this trip even better, and the views were incredible. Climbing up from the east appears to be the more scenic way, though Lon says climbing from the west is easier. I need to try that. However, the summit is a pretty weird experience with all the car noise, tourists clogging everything up, and all the facilities. I would definately do this hike again though probably not for a while.