Mt. Washington

Not content with just one major conquest for the summer (having already tackled Half Dome out in California), we set our sights on the king of the New Hampshire 4000-footers: Mount Washington—6288 feet high, and self-proclaimed home of the world’s worst weather. So we made our plans for the long July 4th weekend, deciding to set up base at the AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch. (For an ascent up the eastern side of Mt. Washington, you really can’t beat the location, as the trailhead is literally a hundred feet outside the entrance to the lodge.) And on morning of the Fourth of July, we were off.

Our plans had us taking the most popular route on this side of Mt. Washington: starting off in Pinkham Notch and ascending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail all the way to the summit. The initial part of the ascent was very straightforward—a steady, relentless uphill trek, but with no part being particularly steep. The trail itself on this segment was not a challenge, as it was largely hard-packed dirt mixed in with stretches of rocks.

The road ahead, with our goal in the distance.

After about 2.5 miles, we arrived at the Hermit Lake shelters and ranger station, a little past halfway to the summit. Nothing too terribly challenging so far, and we had the time to show for it, as we had made it to this point in only a couple of hours. But the real work was to start just ahead of us, for although we had covered more than half of the horizontal distance of our ascent (2.5 out of a little more than 4 miles), we had climbed well less than half of the height to the summit (a little over 1800 feet out of a total elevation gain of just short of 4200 feet). Almost right on cue, the trail almost immediately became much more rocky and quite a bit more steep as soon as we left the shelters. And in very short order, we were face-to-face with the most daunting obstacle on the trail: the headwall at Tuckerman Ravine.

The headwall at Tuckerman Ravine. From the bottom of the headwall to the top of the ridgeline is about 800 vertical feet.

Despite the fact that it was now early July, there were still a few remnants of the winter snow, including the still-standing (and quite well-known) “snow arch” at the base of the headwall. Even though the arch was now only a shell of its winter self, let’s just say that you still wouldn’t want to be downhill of the arch should it decide to break loose—the description “tons (plural) of snow” was still applicable.

Once we reached the top of the headwall (yay!), we entered into the alpine region. Translation: Rocks. Lots of rocks. Lots of big rocks with no trees to shield us from the wind. (Stupid me forgot to take a picture going up—d’oh.) In theory, there was a marked trail for us to follow across the rocks all the way to the summit. In theory. Yes, there was the occasional yellow blaze. And yes, there was the occasional cairn. But that’s all you could see—blazes (sometimes) and cairns. No trail. It was pretty much just connect-the-dots all the way up. Oh, and windy—very, very windy. (No trees, remember?) All the while, we’re telling each other “thank goodness we only have to go up this way, ’cause we’re finding another trail down!”.

But we did make it. We’ve been atop Mt. Washington a couple of times, but it was always via the auto road. Now we had done it the hard way.

After a well-deserved break for lunch at the summit building (including refilling the all-important water bottles), it was time to head back down. Oh, and that alternate way down we were looking forward to the last part of the ascent? As it turns out, the way we took up (Tuckerman Ravine Trail) is actually the easiest way down, as we were informed by people at the top. Seriously? Great…

Heading back down…

The descent was, as expected, a mirror image of the climb to the top. Going down the cone of rocks below the summit turned out to be much easier and much faster than the ascent. No, no trail magically appeared before us, but it did turn out to be easier to pick a good way down through the rocks than it did trying to find a route up. And descending the ravine headwall was still no picnic; in fact, it was actually a bit slower than coming up due to the steepness of the descent and the wet rocks caused by the mini-waterfalls cascading on and off the trail. But it wasn’t too long, relatively speaking, before we found ourselves back at the Hermit Lake shelters and station.

And this is where I did something that, in hindsight, was probably dumb. Once we left the shelters, the rest of the way down was pretty straightforward. Rocky trails for the first part, but nothing excessively steep. So I decided to put away my hiking poles. Yes, this meant we were able to hoof it down at a pretty good pace, but the downside (as it turned out) was that my knees were taking a good pounding with every heavy step down from one rock to another. And after a mile or so, my chronically bad left knee decided it had had enough and started to scream bloody murder at me. And by the time we were about a mile from the end, it had gone from just painful to being both painful and increasingly numb at the same time. Not good times. The poles did come back out, but the damage had been done.

But we did manage to make it the rest of the way down without actual incident, and in about an hour shorter time than it took for us to go up the same trail. But by the time we made it back up to the room and had showered, that knee had swelled up quite a bit, to the point where I was in no mood or condition to go up and down the stairs to make it to the lodge’s nightly family-style dinner. My sweetie went off on her own, though she was none too happy about the whole state of affairs.

When she came back, she had a surprise for me: The kitchen crew, upon hearing of my plight, had taken it upon themselves to put together a doggie plate for me with heaping helpings of that night’s dinner and had given it to my sweetie to bring up to me so that I’d have something to eat. Not only that, but the staff at the lodge also scrambled around to put together a giant ice pack for my knee, which turned out to be a godsend. (Well, so was the food, but you know what I mean.) Both of these were completely unexpected and way above and beyond the normal jobs of the staff, and for that, I was (and am) quite thankful for their consideration.

Needless to say, we didn’t go out for any fireworks show that night. In fact, I think we were in bed by 10:00. But at the end of the day, we had taken down the king of the New England 4000-footers, a feat that as recently as last summer was something I thought beyond my capabilities. Shows what I know.

The final numbers:

  • Total time (round-trip): 8 hours
  • Total distance (round-trip): about 8.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 4166 feet