Five friends set out to tackle the highest summit in the northeast, home of the “world’s worst weather” in the dead of winter. The forecast called for clearing skies; but upon departure, the winds at the summit were howling at hurricane force with temperatures in the lower single digits and zero visibility. A little while later, hunkered down just above the tree line, the frigid winds ripped in from the west and the blowing fog and snow made it difficult to distinguish up from down. Alone and fighting the cold, the group faced the decision of whether press on, or retreat back down the mountain to warmer climes.
A winter ascent of Mt. Washington has been on my radar for quite a while, but it’s a long drive, life gets busy, and my car is, well, not all that reliable. However, a recent move has substantially shortened the drive to the Whites. Things came together once I spotted a good weather forecast for the long weekend (good by Mt. Washington in February standards), and we called up some friends in NY who were eager to make the trip. Originally, we planned to climb via the classic Lions Head route, but while hiking the Osceolas on Saturday I chatted with another hiker who recommended going up from the west via the Ammonoosuc Ravine. After reading a bit more about Ammonoosuc, I settled on this. Game on.
We arrived at the cog base station trailhead around 7am under mostly cloudy skies and intermittent flurries. We suited up in the parking lot and talked briefly with a few other hikers and skiers heading up for the day. After a few minutes we started out in snowshoes, following a well-packed trench through the woods. The trail was probably hard packed enough to lose the snowshoes, but occasional knee (waist!?) deep post holes on the periphery seemed a good reminder to stick with the floatation. We came to a small pool labeled on the map as Gem Pool, the trail climbed steeply above this. In no time, we left the hardwoods below us and continued into a mix of firs and scrub. The higher we climbed, the deeper and more impressive the snow became. Near the tree line we ran into a solo hiker on his way down, having turned back due to poor visibility. He joined us in hopes that he’d have better luck with a group, and shared stories of his climbs up Denali and Aconcagua. We continued up in snowshoes until just above tree line where a flow of thick glare ice warranted a switch to crampons. During this time we took stock of the weather. It was not good. The visibility was limited to maybe 100 feet, and without trees or rocks to stand out, the ground and sky merged into one. Another group coming up behind us reached tree line and abruptly made the decision to turn back, and the solo hiker who joined us earlier turned with them. Yelling back and forth to each other over the wind, we strongly considered following suit. I mean, the mountaineer who’s climbed Denali just turned around. Would we be stupid to try to continue?
Then, for a very brief moment, the fog thinned enough to see that ahead maybe 200 yards was the Lakes the Clouds Hut, covered with rime and tucked into the snow, offering us a break from the wind to collect our thoughts and weigh our options. Then, as soon as it appeared, the view was gone, but now we knew the direction, so we headed up. We got into the lee of the hut where it was calm and rested, sipping hot chocolate.
Hiking/climbing is a constant struggle to find the line between fear that’s just in your head, and legitimate danger. Today was one of those days where we had to bring all of our focus to ensure we stayed on the right side of that line. At the hut we tried to acclimate to let the initial fear of the poor conditions subside and consider the situation. The visibility was BAD. It wasn’t that the fog itself was terribly thick, it’s that the ground was completely white with snow and rime. This fact made the ground the same color as the sky, which reduced visibility from what may have been a couple hundred feet to less than fifty. Walk 100 feet away from the hut, and it would be invisible. With the signs and cairns all rimed over, they would provide little help. All that said, by objective metrics, the weather wasn’t THAT bad. It was cold, though not too cold (10 degrees), and while the wind was strong, it wasn’t knocking us off balance. I put it at a stout 35mph with occasional gusts to near 50mph. This was much better than this morning’s higher summits forecast suggested we might encounter. Add that to the fact that it was early and the weather was forecast to improve throughout the day, and I wasn’t quite ready to call it. After a few minutes and some coaxing, I convinced our group to head the 0.4 miles over to Monroe and see how that went. We developed a plan in which we would try to cairn hop up the slope using each other as visual markers to make sure we didn’t get lost along the way. I planted a snowshoe within visual range of the hut to make it easier to find our way back, and off we went. We started off towards Monroe, keenly aware of how easily we could get disoriented and wander off into the abyss. The cairn hopping kind of worked for a bit, but we pretty rapidly lost the cairns. No matter, as long as we were still going up, we were going the right way. But it wasn’t finding our way up I was concerned about, it was finding our way back down. Even with compass bearings and good route finding, it was pretty disorienting. It is abundantly clear how people routinely get lost up there in the fog. However, on the way up, I came up with a plan to chisel out rocks from the ice, providing a black marker to stick out against white backdrop. This actually worked pretty well, and I was confident we’d be able to use these breadcrumbs to help find our back to the hut.
After a little wandering around the summit ridge we did eventually find the true summit, then headed back down following our markers and compass bearing until we reached the base of the mountain where the trail splits off in multiple directions. Looking around, we noted that the only thing visible in the “distance” was a small red snow shoe sticking out of the snow, confirming the way to go. Soon we were back at the hut, only now there were a number of hikers there all taking shelter deciding whether to keep climbing or turn around. A few headed off toward Monroe, a few others remained at the hut, and others simply headed back down the mountain. From what we gathered from the folks at the hut, no one could remember seeing anyone head off toward Washington, perhaps one group of two? So here we were, and now we had to decide whether to forge on and give Washington a shot, or quit while we were ahead.
After about 15 minutes of contemplation and rest, we decided to go for Washington. At this point, the visibility had improved slightly (or maybe I was seeing things), and I was still holding out hope that it would clear up. We got a couple of skeptical looks from people at the hut … and at least one lecture, before heading off, but shortly after heading towards Washington we were joined first by a solo skier, and then another hiker, who didn’t want to make the trek alone. Shortly after leaving the hut we came across a sign encased in snow and ice. I used my ice axe to knock off the ice and snow, and the sign was the infamous “STOP: world’s worst weather…” sign… an ominous sign in the swirling fog and snow.
As we made our way up, following a compass bearing (and cairns when we could find them), we chiseled out rocks and cairns from the ice to help us find the way back if the visibility didn’t clear. But as we climbed, we first started to get short breaks in the clouds, then some patches of blue sky, and finally a little direct sun. As we climbed higher, the visibility continued to gradually improve, and soon we could see the broad slopes of the summit cone looming ahead. As we made the final approach to the summit, the skies cleared, and the few remaining clouds broke around and below us. We continued to chip the occasional cairn out of the ice just in case, but route finding was easy now. Then we were on top. We walked over and hid out in the lee of the wind with a couple of other groups who came up from Lions Head and dropped pack. We wandered around the summit for a little while taking pictures, eating, drinking, etc. The winds were quite strong and it was quite cold, but with the improved visibility and sun in and out, we didn’t care. We ran all over the summit, taking in the views, ducking in and out of the wind, and snapping photos.
Then it was time to pack up and head back down the mountain. With any remaining clouds above the summit and with gravity on our side, we made our way back to the Lakes of the Clouds hut pretty quickly. The ridge was amazingly white, nothing penetrated through the snow and rime, no rocks, no signs, only the trail of black dots that we chipped out of the ice to lead us back. We snacked at the hut and then proceeded back down the mountain, butt sliding and laughing all the way back to the car.
Given its notoriety, I was happy to have to work for a winter ascent of this peak, and I feel as though it would have been a disappointment had it been a straightforward and mellow ascent. And I’m not exaggerating about the visibility, I’ve seen it bad on Marcy and Algonquin, but here I felt swallowed up like I never have before. At times I started to get paranoid and I would wonder if my compass was telling me the right direction, or if there was iron in the rocks messing with the needle. I’ve hiked the ridge between Washington and Monroe probably half a dozen or more, and in that fog I could barely tell up from down. All in all, a great and challenging experience, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.