My return to Mt. Washington

Almost exactly 50 years ago I first climbed Mt. Washington. I had just started college and some older guys said, “You want to go climb Mt. Washington?” And I said, “What’s that?” and they said “the highest mountain in east coast” and I said “how high?” and they said “6000 feet” and I sorta laughed. Just two years earlier I’d been living in Montana and 6000′ is a hill, not a mountain. So, of course, I said sure, wanting to see New Hampshire for the first time. Now there are two gotchas: a) while the mountain is only 6000′ the trail starts at 2000′, so it’s a 4000′ climb, and toward the end seriously rugged and steep, and, b) Mt. Washington has recorded the worst weather (wind and/or temperatures) in the lower 48 states. But I was young and stupid so up we went, hitting fog so thick I literally could not see my hand in front of my face (good thing or I would have known we were climbing the headwall, not for the faint of heart), then freezing rain, then snow. Of course I wasn’t prepared, no boots, only a sweater, no food or water. Upon reaching the summit we then read about all the people that have died doing this, falling off the mountain in zero visibility (check, know about that), freezing conditions even when it’s pleasantly warm down below (check, know about that).

Just to make things more fun my first ever backpacking trip was on the Great Gulf side (come from the north of the summit), in a freakin’ hurricane. Yes, I knew Boston was in the hurricane (lots of rain, not much wind), but (stupidly) thought it wouldn’t go inland and further north. I ruined a new set of boots walking many miles on the trail that was now a river, forded a stream up to my waist that I’d walked on the rocks without getting wet the day before.

So Mt. Washington and I have a history.

I’m now in Boston for the Centennial celebration of the local chapter of my fraternity and I realized this is 50 years since I first arrived in Boston. So I added a day to my schedule so I could return to Mt. Washington, almost to the day 50 years later.

Now if you’ve been following my adventures in weight loss you know I’ve been doing a ton of exercise and so relatively long hikes in Nebraska (up to 12 miles, but on completely level ground). Since I know the weather can be awful (and reports indicated freezing temps and some snow) I only planned to go up to the headfall which I thought would be about 8 mile roundtrip (it’s more like only 5 miles). Even though I know I’d be doing a lot of climbing I figured I could easily do this especially as some of my hard hikes in Wyoming were at 9000′ and above.

Boy was I wrong (and I’ll be paying for it with stiff and sore for my social events in next three days. So here’s a few pictures along the way (with my new camera that I discovered I don’t really know how to use, properly, yet).

It starts innocently enough with this:


Yes, it’s a mere 4.1 miles to the summit and only 2.4 miles to the shelter where I expected to go (and, btw, WF, I’d forgotten this was the Tuckerman Trail, believing it was Pinkham Notch trail, as you mentioned you’d do it).

So off we go:


Piece of cake, a walk through the woods, even with the climbing I’ll be there in no time.

BUT, the early part of the trail was just suckering me (although this is also how I remember it, steep, but good trail):


Oops, is this a trail or a dried up stream bed! Boulders and more boulders, and


and it wasn’t just that one stretch, the whole way up! and worse, down! was extremely rugged trail. In fact, there was even “construction” on the trail (I’d seen a warning at the trailhead, big deal, so some rangers are digging in the trail). BUT, I encounter a full Caterpiller tractor, backhoe and grader. The guy running it (not there on way up, but met on the way down) had driven the thing up there and was cutting erosion preventative “ditches” about every 50 feet, so a new obstacle was all the very slick mud his machine kicked up. Oh joy, this is the hardest trail I’ve ever done.

But I kept plugging along and got to:


the shelter, as advertised about 2.4 miles (just over 4km on my GPS). A welcome rest. Now the time I backpacked in the hurricane there was a shelter just like this, naturally completely filled with people trying to get out of the rain. I remember just wanting to sit in the shelter to get out of the rain and the people who had already claimed its space kicking me (literally) to get out. So it was interesting to see this one empty (and while there were a few sprinkles, also almost completely dry).

So now we’re getting close to my turnaround:

DSCN0160(small)Now, just below the clouds we can see the “bowl” (I met another guy who comes up here in the winter time and skis this and he referred to it as the bowl, i.e. the somewhat flat area just at the base of the headwall). This shot is actually from a short viewpoint trail at the shelter.


Just a bit further up the trail is a ranger station with a better view. Note the clouds completely obscuring both the headwall and the summit.


There is a nice lake also just below the bowl (in the background):


And this is the “base camp”, mostly for winter skiers and climbers with a nice deck, but by now it’s in the low 40s so a bit chilly to see on the deck today.


If the boulders in the “trail”, plus steepness of the trail, down below looked bad, it only gets worse trying to ascend above the base camp into the bowl.


And this sign is announcing the serious change in the ecosystem due to elevation, now about 2000′ above the trailhead, but still 2000′ below the summit:


You can see we’re getting near the treeline as most of the forest is lower (this photo looks back down toward the trailhead, where it’s sunny). And:


up in the fog (that hill is NOT the summit, probably only half as high as the summit which is somewhere off to the left), but it’s getting tough for plants up here (remember this is only about 4000′ and in the Rockies the treeline is usually above 9000′, tells you something about how harsh the weather is here in comparison to “real” mountains of the west). And:




now we’re looking down the “trail”, guess how much fun that slope is on 68YO knees going back down. In fact, this is basically where I realized going higher might jeopardize whether I could get back down without falling, so this is as far as I went, still a bit short of the bowl, which was completely fogged in anyway. So:


there is the summit, somewhere up there, with temps already below freezing and the wind was gusting to 20-30mph here! (Mt. Washington has huge winds, driving chill factor far lower, in fact, the highest winds recorded in the U.S.)


after very slowly coming back down the “steps” I took another shot of a different lake. You can just barely see a set of waterfalls coming down from the bowl. Naturally I used my 1000mm zoom on my new camera to get a nice shot of the falls, BUT, let the camera auto-focus and it picked nearby trees, not the water fall (I should have manually set the focus to infinity to get the waterfalls), so sorry I can’t show you the falls.

So all in all a successful trip, but that extremely rough trail really strained my knees and ankles, but also whatever muscles we have that keep us from falling while going down a steep slope, which in my case are weak since treadmill in the basement only goes uphill, not down. I’ll be paying for this tomorrow, not to mention my shoulders from my way too heavy pack (compensating for my youthful climb where I had nothing!)

Just in case anyone thinks I’m making all this up, here’s my tracklog:


That’s New Hampshire route 16, the parking lot at Pinkham Notch where it starts. Put the final coordinate (in red) in Google Earth and take a look.

And here’s the vertical profile of this tracklog:


Pretty steep climb, eh! You try it sometime.




About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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