Frozen Thumbs - A Winter attempt on Mount Washington / by Naeem Jaffer

The Descent - Photo Cred: Vaspan

It's true. Big mountains in North America are found out west, but mountains do exist out east too! On the northern tip of the Appalachian range lies a subrange of mountains known as the White Mountains, of which Mount Washington is the highest (at 6,288ft) making it the closest "high-point" to home and we went to climb it.

The name is pretty misleading, as it has no relation to Washington State nor Washington D.C. But like those two, this mountain is also named after America's first President. Mount Washington is located in New Hampshire, a state that you can hardly place on a map, but is somehow really relevant on election day. New Hampshire is the home of eastern mountaineering. During the summer months, the Whites are a popular hiking destination drawing many crowds. In fact, you can even drive to the summit of Mt Washington, but in winter it can be a vicious place. 

Despite its short height of 6,288ft, Mount Washington is known for its ruthless weather. The summit recorded the second fastest wind speed in history at 372 km/h! Couple that with a typical New England winter, and you have a challenging mountaineering objective. Altitude and it's associated effects are not an issue at this low elevation, and the peak isn't glaciated, so there are no crevasses to worry about. However the slopes are very susceptible to avalanches, a word not usually synonymous with this part of the world.

Northeast Mountaineering Guided Adventures

I was planning on climbing Mount Washington to prepare myself for my next trip, Mexico's Volcanoes. The climb covers decent elevation (4,000ft gain), cold enough, and challenging enough that I would appreciate the training. I invited a few friends who were interested in climbing, and Eric, Vaspan, and Devon agreed to tag along. I got in touch with Phil who I climbed Rainier with, and he too joined in. Before you knew it, we had a group of 5 ready to tackle this peak.

Like any mountain, there are many ways to summit Mount Washington. The "normal" route is known as the Lion's Head route is what most guide services offer. It's a standard mountaineering route that will require the use of an ice axe, crampons, and mountaineering boots. With 5 people, it was cost effective to simply hire a private guide rather than join a group. After a few phone calls, I booked with Northeast Mountaineering as they came highly recommended online.

On our long drive there, we passed through the hills of Vermont, but peaks of the Green State were no match for those in New Hampshire. Getting to North Conway - the town closest to Mt Washington - meant taking a road through Crawford Notch State Park, with towering mountains on either side of the road.  We knew that Mt Washington was one of the few that had a treeline, so we were shocked to be surrounded by large mountains rising to the clouds all covered in trees. The treeline, wherever it was, was over the clouds. That's when I realized that this mountain was bigger than I had imagined.

Enterring Crawford Notch State Park, Photos don't do the mountains justice at all.

We never got to saw Mount Washington on our drive in as it was cloud covered. We later learned that the mountain is really only visible a handful of times in winter. We arrived at our Airbnb and started packing for the climb the next day.

Being Proactive, I checked the weather, and it wasn't looking good at all. Actually it was pretty horrible, it was calling for an extremely cold day, 0F with medium to high winds (-40F which is equivalent to -40C). To better prepare, we headed out to EMS (similar to MEC or REI) to get more supplies, and left after an interesting conversation with the cashier. We definitely looked like we were from out of town, so the conversation went something like this:

Cashier: "What brings you to North Conway?"
Me: "We're here to climb to Mount Washington"
Cashier: "Oh, when are you guys going up?"
Me: "Tomorrow", and she gave me a slightly concerned look
Cashier: "It's going to be really cold tomorrow, better bundle up" as she confirms with the cashier next to her. She look more concerned as she rings me out. Shortly she said "Are you guys ready to turn around?"
Me: "Err, I guess so" She continued to look worried, she cashes me out
Cashier: "Are you guys going with a guide or on your own?"
Me: "We're getting a guide"
Cashier: "Ahhh okay, the guide will take care of you guys" as she takes big sigh of relief, as if she was legitimately concerned for our safety.

It was at that moment that I started to wonder what we were going to experience the next day. Between her worrisome look and the poor weather being forecasted, I felt that our chances of summiting the next day was very slim.

Climb Day

We had an early breakfast and then made our way to the bunkhouse to meet the guide at 7am. After a brief introduction, our guide Jordan immediately warns us that it's going to be a brutally cold day with windchills up to -40 to -50 Fahrenheit. Eric and I were the best equipped (or so we thought) as we collected an assortment of gear from my previous trips and Eric's background in rock climbing. Despite that, we were told that our boots were simply not going to be warm enough for the climb. We had to rent double boots (plastic boots urgh...) and crampons to fit them. I had a light glove, a mid-weight glove, and a heavy-weight glove - the biggest glove Black Diamond offers - and apparently that too was insufficient for the forecasted weather. I had to rent a pair of heavy mitts. We didn't bring helmets as we didn't think it was necessary for a non-technical climb such as this, but the guide insisted, and we rented those too. At 8 am, we made our way to the trailhead, Pinkham's notch.

The drive to Pinkham's Notch. The summit of Mount Washington somewhere in the clouds.

Gear check

Avalanche warnings

At Pinkham's notch, we did one last gear check, checked water amounts, and made sure we are all set to go, and at 8:30am we took off. We left pretty late and I felt that made our chances were even slimmer to summit. It takes 5 hours to get to the top on a really good day. We had a horrible forecast ahead of us, and getting to the summit in 5 hours and back down before dark seemed bleak. I think one would need to leave around 7:30am or even earlier to have enough time to get back down. If it were up to me, I'd have left before sunrise.

With trekking poles in hand, we made our way up the ascending trail. It wasn't windy at all at this point, but it was pretty cold that every step squeaked on the hard snow. We only wore two layers and we warmed up in no time. There was nothing really interesting about the trail at all. It was a well-maintained trail about 10 feet wide that sees a lot of foot and ski traffic. An hour later, we took our first break.

I only had my liner gloves on and my thumbs managed to get really cold while idling around at the break. By the time I finished snacking, they got pretty numb and I could barely move them. We got moving again, and I hoped my hands would warm up again and my thumbs would regain sensation, but to no avail. I was forced to put on my mid-weight gloves as I curled my hands into a fist to warm up. It took a really long time to regain sensation, but I eventually got my hands warmER again. Glad that didn't end my climb.

First break

25 mins later we took our second break, and this is where we had to put on our crampons, helmet, hardshell pants, and pull out our ice axe. I struggled to put on my hard shells as the zippers were too small to use with my gloves (note to self: tie some pull knots on all zippers), and it was simply too cold to expose my fingers which were already chilly. Devon helped me zip up the hardshell. I got my crampons on, which were also hard to tighten with cold hands. I started to shiver, and I decided it was time to put on my third layer - my down jacket. It's really in these extreme situations that you learn about your gear. For example, I learned that using a roll-top bag in the cold sucks as you can't undo the buckle with gloves and cold fingers, this is why alpine packs usually have a drawstring top. I also needed to find a better system of mounting my poles to the pack, it works on a beautiful summery day, but in the brutal cold, looping straps and tightening buckles was miserable. All this time while gearing up, my sweat started to evaporate, making me cold, and I started to shiver. Thankfully it didnt last long as we started moving again. 

At this point, the lion's head winter trail diverts from the Main trail, we're taken to steeper terrain within the forest requiring us to sidestep and use our ice axe. This was the best part, the steep terrain warmed us up fast. We were sheltered by the wind from the surrounding forest, I'll go as far as saying it was completely windless. The terrain got steeper and steeper. I was surprised that we got to the steepest part rather quickly. The steep part is perhaps 50-60 degrees requiring front points and using the ice axe like one would use ice tools. It wasn't all that high, perhaps 25ft, but climbing it in uncomfortable plastic boots on fresh snow had a bit of a sketch factor to it.

The steepest part. Photo Cred: Devon

One-by-one we made it up, making our way through the forest. The trees started to thin as we approached the tree line, and while we weren't exposed to much wind, we could almost feel the fierceness of the winds over of us.

Because the trail is pretty thin, and in a dense forest, there's barely any room to sit around and take a break. The route is also busy on weekends which meant we had to deal with inevitable traffic jams, especially near the top. I recall pausing for a good 5-10 minutes while waiting for groups ahead to move, it was slow.

Eric and I pausing for traffic. Photo Cred: Devon

We were immediately below the tree line when we took our final break. People were descending with a priceless "NOPE" expression on their faces. I asked a couple of climbers how far they had gotten, and they responded not very far. In fact, for most, th objective wasn't even the summit, it was "Lion's head" which I assume is a landmark on the trail somewhere between the treeline and the summit. 

The last photo I took before stepping out of the tree line, you can see the thinning of the trees compared to the photos aboce.

It was bone chilling just waiting around during the break, my mid-weight glove was simply not cutting it anymore. I skipped my heavy glove and went straight for the heavy mitt + liners, my warmest combination. The winds really started to pick up, the guides instructed us to put on our hardshells, face masks, and goggles. While idling, I even put on my parka. At that moment, I was actually wearing everything in my pack sans water bottles.

We got out of the treeline and were instantly blasted by cold harsh winds. In single file formation, I was right behind the guide. It was chaos. It was tiring simply to balance against the wind, let alone climb up. I remember telling Jordan "Wow, this is exhausting!". Trekking poles went a long way, without them I felt I'd be blown off the mountain. What a rush, literally! I could barely look around. I looked up to see where we were headed, and visibility was extremely poor, I was simply following Jordan's feet. How Jordan managed to see the way still baffles me. My fingers got cold super fast, within a minute or two above the tree-line. But we kept marching on as the guide would intermittently check back on us.

Only a few minutes up the tree line (maybe 5? 10 minutes tops?), Jordan looks back and noticed frostbite forming on Phil's nose, he stops and immediately rushed to protect his face. Eric too started to show signs of frostbite on his nose/cheeks. With conditions only going to get worse as we ascended, Jordan made the call to turn around. It was simply too cold and too windy to continue. The winds were already a challenge at the treeline, I can't fathom how out-of-this-world the winds must have been at the summit. My thumbs were really cold, they were practically frozen solid with no sensation at all. I was already wearing my warmest combination of glove and mitt for my hands, and there was nothing more I could do to warm them up (Lesson learned: always bring/wear hand warmers). There is no way we could have reached the summit in those conditions on that day, but Alas, that's the name of the game.

We spent a few minutes enjoying where we were. It was a chaotic, yet amazing scene. I haven't seen anything like it. With the sun barely shining through it felt as if we were teleported to the south pole, an absolute wasteland as the winds blasted everything in its path. I really do wish I could have taken a photo of it, but my hands were cold as is, and there was no chance in hell I was going to remove my mitts to operate a camera. Fortunately, and many props to Devon, he was brave enough to get some GoPro footage. This clip was just before we turned around.

I managed to get Devon to snap a photo, and this is only one of two photos that were taken above the treeline.

Descending the steepest section

We quickly made our way back into the shelter of the trees and took a brief break. There was no way we were going to summit that day, I strongly doubt anyone did either. It was too cold, too windy, too extreme. I checked the weather report the following day, and the observatory at the summit reported an average of -6F with a sustained speed of 68mph. For you metric readers, that's -22C with a windchill of -41C. I don't think we spent more than 15-20 mins over the tree-line.

We slowly made our way down the mountain after a short break. The descent was easier. I have large feet and couple that with large double plastic boots - I practically skied down the slope. The steep parts took some careful side-stepping, but it was nothing too crazy. On the steepest part, the guide affixed a fixed line to quasi-rappel down, making it pretty easy in my opinion. I would have affixed an 80m rope around a tree and rappelled all the way down with an ATC, but that's just me. There was a point where Devon slipped and fell towards me with all crampon spikes rushing towards my face. Luckily I managed to shift 2 feet to the right and miss it. Scary at the time, but I do wish we caught it on video to laugh about it, but sadly, no footage.

Photo Cred: Devon

Photo Cred: Devon

Photo Cred: Devon

We got out to flatter ground and took off our crampons. It was still very cold, my guess was -12, or -15C, but it felt like summer compared to what we'd been through. After a longer than usual break, we made the hike all the way back down to Pinkham's Notch. The weather was sunny, windless, and far more favorable. The difference of the weather between the valley floor and above the treeline was stark and impressive. It was 2:30 by the time we made it back to the car, meaning we were on the mountain for a grand total of 6 hours. But it was the 15 minutes of being over the tree line that made the day memorable. Unfortunately, with all the layer swapping throughout the whole ordeal, I accidentally hit "pause" on my GPS watch, and it was not able to record and get statistics on the climb.

The next day, we left the apartment to find Mt Washington clearly visible, one of the rare occasions the summit can be seen. It hurt to know that many would have summited that day to ideal (and warmer) conditions, but we took solace that it would have been slightly more boring than our attempt.

What a tease, how clear it was the following day! Photo Cred: Vaspan

Mt Washington remains unfinished business, and because it's relatively close to home, We hope to give it another try in the future, hopefully under better circumstances. At the very least we got to taste the mountain at it's worst.