I’m not particularly into our 45th president so to celebrate President’s Day, we chose to celebrate a mountain named after our 1st president instead, with a climb of Mount Washington, part of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains. I’ve climbed Mount Washington in winter twice before, once summiting and once not. I had some friends coming from far away to do this so I promised to take them up the “easy” trail to the summit as long as the weather was good. The Whites had received a few feet of snow earlier in the week but today was looking fantastic temperature-wise, with a high of around freezing, although not so great wind-wise, calling for wind speeds of 50-70 MPH. We decided to go for it and see how bad the wind felt above treeline.
Since it was a holiday weekend, and beautiful weather at that, I expected a ton of people to be out. My plan was to let the early birds pack the fresh powder down on the trail so we met at AMC’s Highland Center at 8:00 to use the restrooms and fiddle with gear. Then we headed over to the trailhead at Marshfield Station and got rolling. My plan worked because the lots were full and several groups were heading out just in front of us.
I was already feeling warm in my baselayer, midlayer, and hard shell standing in the parking lot – I think it was almost 20°. By the time we had walked from the car to the trail, I had to get rid of my fleece midlayer. Ten minutes later, I got rid of the hard shell and hat too. It was so warm that I was sweating even on the fairly level beginning of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. We kept leapfrogging a couple of other groups as everyone stopped to get rid of layers.
The morning started out cloudy but blue skies were moving in as we climbed higher. We took a snack break at the top of the steep section just before the trail turned away from the brook and tried to let another group get farther ahead of us. Unfortunately, some of those people decided that snowshoes were no longer necessary and switched to crampons, resulting in them post-holing their way up the trail. I couldn’t wait to catch up and pass them so we didn’t have to deal with the pockmarked trail they were leaving in their wake.
We soon popped above treeline and were in full sun. No one could believe how nice out it was with only a light wind to temper the heat of the sun. At Lakes of the Clouds Hut, we stopped for another snack break and to re-gear for the final push to Mount Washington’s summit on Crawford Path. I added back my hard shell, hat, and midweight gloves.
As we left the hut, I could feel the wind getting stronger. By the time we were ten minutes out, it had to be at least 50 MPH. I had to add back my big mittens to keep my hands warm, even though I still had my jacket vented to stay cool. Luckily, it was blowing into the mountain, so that made the one slightly sketchy horizontal traverse easier to bear. Laura and Kelly were behind me and we were moving steadily up the trail, although the wind was blowing harder with every step. It was hitting me broadside, forcing the weight of my pack to one side. I checked in with Laura and Kelly that they were warm enough and wanted to keep going. The wind wasn’t making this part of the trail dangerous, just harder.
A few minutes later, the wind started picking up snow off the ground and hurling it through the air, enough that I had to switch from sunglasses to goggles to protect my eyes, and add a face mask. Then suddenly we were in a complete whiteout. I could see the cairn in front of me so I got to it and waited to discuss the situation again. We assumed the cloud would blow over as quickly as it came in, but that didn’t help us with navigating. It had been two years since I was on this trail so I didn’t remember every turn to the top. Maybe we could just wait? But sitting in 70 MPH winds would just chill us the longer we sat still. We made the decision to turn around less than a half mile from the summit.
For a few minutes as we walked, I could see each successive cairn and know where to go, although it helped that I remembered the twists the trail had just taken and knew where to look. Then we couldn’t see the next cairn. Looking for boot prints on the icy ground wasn’t easy and the wind was churning everything up anyway. We made a plan to make a sort of chain where Laura stayed within view of the cairn we were coming from, Kelly moved a little way out from her but still within view, and I moved a little way out from her but still within view, and we were able to find the next cairn.
After about ten minutes of descending, the cloud starting slowly lifting above us and we could see the cairns more easily. By the time we were halfway back to the hut, we could see complete clear skies in that direction. And by the time we were at the hut, the summit was visible again. There was still barely a breeze at the hut and we basked in the warmth again. So it goes on Mount Washington: quick, extreme changes in weather.
We decided to try climbing Mount Monroe, only .3 mile from the hut, to grab at least one summit for the day. The boot tracks there seemed to go straight up though, and the wind got crazy again as we climbed, so we aborted that one halfway too.
Heading back down the trail got annoying as we got below treeline and had to deal with the many post holes again. The trail was very pretty though as it passed between trees that were all dripping melted snow in the sun just as if it was raining.
We soon reached my favorite part of almost any Whites hike – glissading down the mountain. The Ammo Trail has a couple of stretches where you can slide for ages. The post holes slowed me down in a few places but it was still a good ride, and vastly reduced our hike time down. We got back to the parking lot just in time to sit and watch the sunset.
Washington in winter: 2. Siren: 1.