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My Experience Climbing Mount Washington in the Winter

Living and hiking in Connecticut, I’ve always loved my weekend trips to the White Mountains where my hiking abilities were always tested! But of all the longer hikes in CT and the hikes with lots of elevation, how would I do going up the tallest mountain in the Northeast?

As cliche as it sounds, you never know what you’re truly capable of until you test and go beyond your current comfort level. Both Mount Jefferson, New Hampshire’s second tallest mountain, and the Franconia Ridge pushed me beyond what I was comfortable with and were the tallest peaks I’ve climbed over the years. 

Besides knowing that it’s the tallest in the Northeast my knowledge of Mount Washington just extended to peoples’ stories about climbing it, remembering pictures of friends at the top in June freezing with jackets and limited visibility as they posed with the sign. 

For years, it remained a thought and distant peak that people would point out from different points along the road to the summits of Pierce, Jackson, and Franconia Ridge.

But when I saw that EMS Schools ran a guided winter hike up the tallest and most dangerous mountain in the Northeast the idea of hiking it moved from the folder in my brain labeled ‘mountains to hike someday’ to ‘mountain to hike next’. 

Of course, I could try going up with my fiance, Jared, or a group of hiking friends at some point in the summer when the weather might be better. But oh what fun it would be, I thought, to have the challenge and reward of a winter climb AND more importantly, do it with a guide whose primary concern, I know, would be keeping us safe.

So with a simple email expressing interest and asking all of my questions along with expressing some mildly irrational fears, summiting Mount Washington became an actual plan and date on the calendar. 

From the moment I received my first response from the EMS School team, I knew that safety was a priority along with having fun and giving this climb up the mountain with the reputation of having ‘the world’s worst weather’ a serious try.

I received a list of gear and began mentally checking off what I already had and visited the EMS store in North Conway for the rest. While I’ve used various brands over the years, I decided to get the EMS brand for every piece of gear I needed from top to bottom and I can now say they’ve become my most loved and trusted pieces of hiking clothing.

March 18th, the morning of the climb arrived, and after hemming and hawing about whether or not to eat breakfast (not a big breakfast eater!) I finally ate the egg sandwich I made at the Airbnb on the drive over to meet our guide at the EMS School in North Conway. (I think in more instances than not, we regret not eating or bringing enough food more than we do eating and bringing too much!)

I watched the clouds carefully on the drive to the school that morning. It was lightly raining but the sun was hardly up so I was trying to stay positive as I saw a part of the sky ahead of us clear as we drove the 45-minutes there. As the sun came up, I definitely felt a promise and a little glimmer of hope that the weather was going to be ok that day. 

Pulling into the lot, I could see someone inside the school assembling gear and wondered if it was our guide. If so, this would be the person that was going to (possibly) make our Mount Washington winter summit dream come true! I was nervous and excited to start the adventure.

Upon opening the door, he looked up from laying out the boots and immediately gave off a calm, confident vibe that put me at ease. It was our guide, Sean, who introduced himself and began asking Jared and I questions about gear and shoe sizes in a way that made it obvious he’s done this plenty of times before and I felt I could relax for now.

The only items on the gear list you aren’t responsible for bringing are the boots and ice ax, both of these are provided at the EMS School. Sean grabbed a couple of boot sizes for me to try on and I felt the success of the day hinging on their fit. And just as I had gone back and forth about the egg sandwich, I was now in between boot sizes. I knew this could make or break the day as my feet, the parts of me that would literally get me up that mountain would need to be comfortable! 

I decided to size up, as Sean said “Your feet will swell as you climb and fill in the boots” and I also knew it would be impossible to escape boots that were too small. This was the first of many words of wisdom he would provide that day. 

Aside from Jared and I, two others signed up for this climb and after we were all comfortable with our boot selection we headed out into what was now a bright morning with the sun fully up and carpooled over to the Pinkham Notch parking lot where our climb would begin. 

Before setting off, Sean asked if we each had sunglasses to wear toward the top as snow blindness is a real thing! Goggles are on the list but these aren’t needed, if at all, until close to the top of the wind is really bad. Two people in our group ran back to the car to get theirs and then our hike began.

The first mile up was not bad at all. It’s a wide path that sees lots of traffic from skiers that actually hike up to a certain point with their skis and ski down, doing this over and over again! The number of other people around put me at ease even if they weren’t all going as far up as we were. 

Being the only girl in the group, I was a little concerned in this first mile about keeping up. I trailed a little behind them in this first section and began to wonder if anyone was concerned with my ability to keep up or more importantly, if anyone doubted my ability to make it to the top, possibly causing the whole group to turn back. 

But I knew in my mind that even though I was trailing behind them in this first mile, I would do everything I could to keep up and prove, most importantly to myself, that I could do it.

Sometimes you just need the first mile to get warmed up and going and, also, as proved to me later on in this hike, sometimes when you go full steam ahead in the beginning you pay for it later.

Though the trail was mostly packed down, walking in and on the snow is tough work, and Sean had us stop ¾ of a mile in and instructed us to have some water and a few bites of a snack. Standing close together with the group on the side of the trail so others could get by, I figured he knew better than us what was ahead so even though I wasn’t particularly hungry I decided to have a bar. 

During all of these carefully planned breaks along the climb, Sean was an encouraging voice asking us to check in with how we were feeling in general and in regards to temperature, comfort, and hunger. His question “How are we feeling?” always made me feel encouraged that I could honestly express myself and that he would be there to help and not judge my responses.

After this first break of about 5 minutes (they were all pretty short so you don’t get too comfortable or cold!) we moved along and at the one-mile mark, Sean had us pull off to the side again to put on our crampons. Going with a guide who has done this climb many times before, he knew we were about to encounter the steepest section of the trail which would have felt impossible without the crampons.

This next mile, for me, felt like where the climb began. The wide mile path leading up to this point didn’t feel much different than anything I had done before but wearing crampons over microspikes was a first for me and the weight of the crampons told me things were about to get serious! We also had our ice axes out at this point which Sean instructed us to do and gave a brief demo of how to use it.

This next mile up was going to bring us to the top of the treeline but not without some serious work first. It was so steep that I didn’t even want to turn around at some points to see the view behind us because I didn’t want to slip back and lose all of those precious feet I had gained! 

I kept my eyes forward and followed Sean as he knew and pointed out all the right limbs or roots to grab to hoist ourselves up. He instructed us to lean a bit forward and be very intentional with our footing. He showed how to step side by side rather than facing forward which would burn the calves quickly. 

With the promise of another break at top of the treeline, we kept putting one crampon-covered boot in front of the other until we all got to the top. This time I knew I was hungry and didn’t have to question whether I should have a snack and we quickly ate on the side of the trail before continuing on. The next goal was a mile to Lion Head which we could see in the distance from the exposed trail where we stood.

The weather was still cooperating with us and we enjoyed blue skies all around as we hiked above treeline to the cairn at Lion Head. It was during this mile that I had to start my one foot in front of the other mentality. After the 2,500 feet of elevation, we had just climbed and how much more I knew we had to go, a tired feeling was creeping in. 

But being second in line behind Sean at this point, I felt a little boost from being able to keep up and that was motivating enough! I concentrated on the prints in the snow where he was stepping so I could step there too and this kept me distracted for a while.

We took another short break at Lion Head and Sean instructed us to add another layer. We were just one mile away from the Mount Washington summit and the wind was starting to pick up. It’s pretty amazing how little you can wear when you are working hard in the cold. Up until now, all I wore was my EMS wool base layer which kept me perfectly warm and comfortable, wicking away the sweat, the whole first 3 miles. 

I started seeing people heading down with goggles and big puffy jackets so I knew where we were headed was going to feel different than where we were standing. We continued on and passed Tuckerman’s Ravine on the left. Untouched by footprints it had an icy smooth sheen and as we walked alongside and above it I kept wondering what would happen if you happened to step off the trail where the tracks were and started to slide! Luckily, 

Sean showed us a few times how to use our ice axes to stop if we ever did fall and start sliding. But his suggestion of making your steps very intentional really rang true here and I just focused on finding and stepping in each footprint in the snow knowing the crampon would catch and dig in.

Though this final stretch to Mount Washington summit was just a mile, Sean pulled off behind a big rock for us to huddle and break again and told us to add one more layer, my red EMS shell, and EMS mittens, to protect from the wind as we got even closer to the top. At this point, I also added my face covering as the 20 mph winds were starting to pick up.

A group passed us on their way down, and when asked how it was up there they said they didn’t make it. When I asked Sean why he thought that was he replied, “Probably fitness level”. At that point, I gave myself a mental boost by thinking of all the difficult hikes I’ve done in the past and reminding myself that this was, at the end of the day, just another hike.

Coming out from behind the rock we entered the wind and started the last push to the top. Even though it was so close the people at the very top still looked so small and I kept my head down focusing on where I was stepping so I didn’t get discouraged. 

Maybe it was the cold and the wind but each step felt heavy here. I was the last one in line this time and at this point, if you decide to do this hike or any hike that really tests you, I think you have to dig a little deep. I thought about our 13.5-year-old dog, Bauer, whom we put down just a couple of months ago after holding on to hope and trying to make him better. 

I thought about how he stuck with us and kept up with us on every single hike right up until the end and likely (though we didn’t know it at the time) while in pain. I thought of him so much that tears started to roll down my face under my sunglasses and mask. I was afraid they were going to freeze with the wind but oddly found strength by letting these emotions out.

Of course, no one could see what was happening behind the mask and when I finally looked up I saw Jared at what looked like the top, at the Tuckerman Ravine sign, enthusiastically waving me to keep going. I knew whatever discomfort I was in and had been feeling was soon to be over so with just the last few steps I got to his level and started removing my mask to reveal a smile.

Not letting me get too excited, Sean said, “Should we keep going to the top?!” in a way that I knew the summit was just a few steps away. Walking up alongside the frozen staircase on Mount Washington I thought about all the people that get to walk around here in the summer, getting off the $20 train ride that takes you up. 

What a different feeling it must be but what a beautiful place nonetheless. At the top, we all dropped our bags by a hut and Sean, who at this point reminded me of a teacher in charge of kids on a field trip, told us we had 20 minutes to explore before we had to head down.

I didn’t know where to go first but the obvious choice for all of us was a group photo with the snow and ice-covered Mount Washington sign. After that Jared and I ran around like a couple of kids with our cameras.

I felt warm enough to remove my gloves for a couple of minutes here and there but after a little bit it I was reminded that it was still very cold and we had a long way to go to get back to the car. 

Our recess at the top went by quickly and with packs on our backs we started the descent which now gave us the opportunity to appreciate and take in the view that was at our backs the whole way up. 

And what a distraction those views were for the first mile or two. To take in all the sights with your head up rather than focusing so much on your feet and your next step over and over again. We passed more and more people that were making their way up and over and over I held back from telling them that they were almost there or some other encouraging message to keep going. 

I decided that this hike was different. There was something about it that felt personal like each person is on their own journey and that I should let it be that way. And so I did.. 

You may not know why you’d want to step outside of your comfort zone and do an adventurous climb like Mount Washington. But there is something inside each of us that gets awakened when we do. And when you have a guide with you to do the more technical work and thinking for you, it allows you to enjoy it more. And you never know what’s beneath the surface and the strength that you feel when you have the chance to dig a little deep.

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2 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed your story! Having summited out all of the Presidents in January and February during the full moon with only natural light showing the way. Then bivouacking until Sunrise! A sight to behold and never forgotten. The years were 1970 – 1982, that’s when the children started to arrive. So, I’m closing in on 67 and the kids are grown. You got me thinking, do I have it in me? After all, it is just another hike and although making it to the top can be the destination, it doesn’t really have to the goal!

    I wonder….

    1. Wow, I got chills thinking about your experience and how this post might inspire you to give something a try! You are right, it’s just another hike. One foot in front of the other. Have you ever been to the AMC Highland Center? Just camped at Dry River Campground in Crawford Notch but just discovered that place right up the road from campground. Great spot to reserve a night up there if you don’t want to camp and want to try a day hike… you are still young! There is time..

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