Long before the trip ever started, Dave and I had resigned ourselves to the fact that, as in my three prior summit attempts, this was going to be a trip to Lion Head to experience the full fury of Mt. Washington with no reasonable option to bag the summit. The prediction was for snow all week, followed by freezing rain on Friday night, and finally bitter cold temperatures, howling winds, and high avalanche danger on Saturday.|
Robert and Hector had also planned assaults on Mt. Washington for the weekend, but both trips were cancelled before they ever started. Hector "Safety" Briceno wisely cancelled his ice climb in Huntington ravine expecting high avalanche danger. Robert, who planned to traverse the Southern Presidentials, made it as far as Concord before the timing belt in his car broke. Most of his group retuned to Boston, while Haroldo and Miles joined our group for the Lion Head ascent.
As we drove toward Intervale, the stoplights in Conway danced violently in the howling wind. And then, they went off alltogether. For one brief moment, the entire town was black. The outage was brief, and soon the stoplights went into a blinking routine. A few seconds later, another brief outage. Snowballs the size of softballs darted across the road. This was not a good sign.
The wind howled all night, waking us every so often by pelting the cabin windows with debris. After a few hours of sleep at Intervale, we awoke at 4:30 and crept quietly out of the cabin so as no to disturb the sleeping cross-country skiers. We stopped for a leisurely breakfast at the 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts in North Conway, and were then treated once again to the spectacle of flying snowballs on the drive up to Pinkham Notch.
The "Current Weather" board at Pinkham validated our concerns. Summit temperature: -12F. Windspeed: 105 mph gusting to 134. General weather conditions: Freezing Fog.
So we started hiking.
We kept a farily steady pace up the mountain since long water breaks proved uncomfortably cold. The snow was crispy from the freezing rain the night prior. Despite the cold and wind, we caught frequent glimpses of the sun - a rare treat for Washington in Winter.
As we poked above treeline for the first time, we were immediately buffeted by 40 to 60 mph winds. Usually, the winds pound from the west, so the Lion's Head Ridge helps to shield ascending hikers. But today, the ridge provided little protection from the northwest winds. Donned in full above-treeline regalia, we pushed slowly up to the ridgeline, stopping frequently when strong gusts made it too difficult to move.
Arriving at the ridgeline, we were shocked by the unexpectedly pleasant conditions. Sure, it was well below zero and the wind was still blowing at a steady 60 mph - but typically, this is where we would be knocked off our feet by 100 mph gusts. Instead, with the winds from the northwest, the summit cone helped to shield us from the full onslaught of the storm. Even more remakable was the clear view to the east and the stunning glimpse into Tuckerman Ravine. Thick clouds rolled over the ridgeline to our west, but disappeared as soon as they reached the east side of the mountain.
As one ill-prepared hiker graciously took our group photo, we were distracted by the frostbite that had developed along the edge of his nose. We notified him of his condition, and immediately sent him back down the mountain.
Everyone in our group gave the thumbs up, and we pressed on.
As we approached the lee side of the summit cone, the weather continued to improve. We soon ran out of broken trail, so I pulled out my snowshoes to help make a path through the occasional deep drift. For the most part, the icy trail proved easily navigable with crampons. The route was steep, but we enjoyed the moderate protection from the wind.
For the final 50 feet of the ascent, the mountain no longer afforded any protection from the pounding onslaught. We were repeatedly brought to our knees as the gusts reached 105 mph. As we crossed the cog-rail tracks, Merritt got down on all fours to crawl into the wind, aided by her ice axe. We gathered behind the visitor's center pillars, some of which were thickened by more than a foot of accumulated hoar frost.
One by one, we made the final dash to the top, where we clung tightly to the summit signpost to avoid being blown off the mountain. By this point, we were a few hundred feet above the top of the western clouds, so we had a stunning 360-degree view of our surroundings. Unfortunately, Dave's and my cameras completely failed to function in the -5F temperatures, so we weren't able to get any summit photos, despite a number of attempts at camera rewarming.
After dawdling for far too long on the lee side of the visitor's center, we finally retreated back down the mountain for a rapid descent to Lion's Head. For the first time all day, the wind was at our backs, making it much easier to keep our eyes on the trail. As an EMS group descended the mountain behind us, they sent down a shower of ice chunks on top of us, chattering like styrofoam peanuts poured from a box.
On the return route, we reveled in our entitely unanticipated successful summit bid.
For dinner, we stopped at the Margarita Grill at the intersection of 16 and 302 near Intervale. As a strangely fitting end to the cold day, we dined on the outdoor patio, lightly wrapped in plastic and heated with a massive arsenal of propane torches. Despite being preconditioned to enjoy the whatever fare might be placed in front of us, the food was remarkably disappointing and most definitely not Mexican. One star.
After years of trying, I can finally say that I've bagged Mt. Washington in winter. The trip was the ideal combination of a successful summit bid with an opportunity to experience the conditions that give Mt. Washington its elusive reputation. Five stars.