Mount Washington, standing at 6,288 feet tall, has several claims to fame. It was named by Backpacker Magazine as one of the ten most dangerous hikes in America, and it’s also famous (or infamous) for having some of the world’s worst weather as the conditions are arctic-like year round, with constant snowfall, high winds, heavy icing, and dense fog.
Winds exceed 40 mph 110 days of the year, which is considered tropical storm force, making it very difficult to hike and extremely dangerous when temperatures are below freezing. In spite of that, many hikers attempt to climb it during the winter, and if you’re one of those brave souls, here’s what you need to know before strapping on your hiking boots.
Climb with an expedition or other experienced winter climbers
This is especially important if you’ve never previously attempted a winter climb. We would recommend climbing another of the Northern Presidential peaks (Madison, Jefferson, or Adams) before Washington to get some winter climbing experience. Once you’ve done that and you feel prepared, create a climbing party of experienced winter hikers who have previously summited Mount Washington, and climb with them.
Summiting Mount Washington isn’t your average winter hike; the terrain is harsh, and the clouds and fog make it difficult to locate the trail marking cairns. You will need more gear than usual, as an ice ax and full crampons are required to reach the summit, along with mountaineering skills. Whiteout conditions are prevalent, and the winds are generally ferocious. Having a mountaineering guide who you can rent the gear from, or a party of experienced winter climbers, will increase your enjoyment and more importantly, your safety.
If the weather is bad, delay or reschedule your hike
The daily forecast of the weather is posted at 4:50 am by the Mt Washington Observatory and you should definitely check it out before you start your hike. It’s wise to reschedule your summit until the weather improves if the winds are more than 50 miles per hour, the forecast for the summit temperature is near zero before you subtract wind chill, or heavy snow is expected.
Cold or windy weather in Mount Washington make the risk of hypothermia or frostbite very real, and substantial snowfalls will mean snow is whipped up by the wind, severely obstructing your view and increasing the possibility of getting lost.
Severe weather will significantly delay help, so you want to avoid getting into a situation where you will need rescuing. We understand that you want to schedule your hike months in advance, so you have time to prepare, but don’t be so rigid with the date, as you shouldn’t attempt to summit when the weather is severe. If you’re not from the area, allow a few days leeway so that you can do the hike during good weather.
Stay in your group
Make sure you stick with your group during your hike, as visibility can be as low as 15 yards when there are clouds or fogs in the mountain. Catching up or seeing your party won’t be easy in these conditions, so don’t hike off without them or fall behind. Roaring winds can make hearing each other difficult, so before you begin, establish a system of hand signals to communicate.
Use wide-mouth insulated bottles for your water
The best way to keep your water from freezing during the day is to bring boiling hot water in an insulated bottle. You can either bury your bottle deep in your backpack along with your insulating layers or use a neoprene sleeve. Any other type will freeze during these extreme conditions, so stay away from them. We recommend that you take three liters of water for your climb and drink at least two liters before you begin.
Get some nourishment before starting your hike
The amount of calories you’ll burn climbing Mt Washington is around five to six thousand, so it’s best to eat a big calorie-fueled breakfast before you climb. Even snacking frequently will still put you in a caloric deficit, so boost your metabolism with lots of food to generate heat and keep you warmer.
Be an early bird
To be off the mountain by dark, you need to start early in the morning, as winter days are a lot shorter. Summiting Mt Washington means hiking for over 10 miles and gaining over 4000 feet of elevation. Say you walk around 1 mile per hour, you’ll need at least 10 hours to climb and descend, and since winter days have approximately 11 hours of sunshine, you’ll need to begin early in the morning.
Layer, layer, layer
One thing you want to avoid is overheating and then sweating, as you will get cold when you stop moving. Therefore, it’s best to dress in layers, so you can take them off when you get warm and put them on when you’re cold.
It’s not uncommon for people to wear a short sleeved t-shirt when climbing below the treeline, as you can be sweating profusely. Above the treeline is where you will need to wear an insulating middle layer, and for the final summit ascent, you can don your shell outer layer.
Here, you will also need to add a hat, gloves, ski goggles and a facemask. When you reach the summit, that’s when you’ll want to put on a heavy down coat so you can stay warm.
You’ll need full face protection, including goggles and a facemask
As we previously mentioned, a genuine danger is frostbite, especially in below-freezing temperatures. To ensure you don’t have any exposed skin, make sure to pack ski goggles and a facemask, so your face is protected when the wind starts blowing, and the temperatures drop.
Get some practice beforehand by hiking with goggles and a full balaclava, as it can be treacherous enough to walk over ice-covered rocks while wearing crampons without adding fogged up goggles to the mix. Before attempting the peak, be sure to work out any fogging issues, so you won’t be forced to turn around halfway up the mountain.
Train for your climb by hiking other 4000 ft summits during winter
It may seem obvious, but the only way to practice winter hiking is by winter hiking. Knowing how to dress, when to add and remove layers, practicing your ice ax skills and crampon footwear, along with being comfortable hiking in freezing temperatures, and on top of that organizing and packing all your winter gear can’t be practiced at the gym or on sunny summer hikes.
When you train for a Mount Washington summit, its best to practice a few climbs up other mountains above 4000 feet. Make sure that the summits have a long approach hike, a significant above treeline section and similar weather conditions. Some good peaks to help you develop your climbing skills and stamina are Mts South Kinsman, Moosilauke, South Twin, Eisenhower, Carrigan, Garfield, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Lincoln or Lafayette.
Pack heavily insulated boots, full crampons, an ice ax, and the Ten Essentials
A winter climb up Mt Washington will be more of a mountaineering trip than just any other winter hike. Therefore, you’ll need to carry the Ten Essentials including emergency shelter, a stove, sleeping pad and sleeping bag, along with an ice ax to help you when self-arresting and stopping bad slides, and full crampons to give you purchase on hard ice. You need to keep your safety in mind, so while packing light is recommended, under packing is not.