Mount Washington is a long way from New York City in more ways than one. The gulf between the two landmarks is greater than the 380 miles that separates them: the northern Appalachians tallest peak has one of the most challenging environments in the east. The drive feels especially long if you’re a young guide entrusted with a group of city dwellers who’ve never faced the challenges of an alpine zone.
Recently, I made the journey with a group of inexperienced adventurers from the city. I tried some bad snowboarder jokes to try to lighten the mood and help speed the trip; but the only true cure for lingering anxiety is diligent preparation. Once you’ve prepared, success hinges on determination and knowing when to abandon a summit bid. If you do make it, the reward is significant. Nothing beats the feeling of standing on top of Mount Washington in the dead of winter surrounded by teammates.
Hurricane force winds and sub-zero temps aside, mid-winter is actually a good time to make the big journey to Pinkham Notch, NH, to appreciate the views. Joe Dodge Lodge specializes in taking the sting out of the cold, and we took full advantage. After our arrival, we ate an immense family-style dinner of fresh baked rye bread, huge bowls of spinach soup, and large servings of roasted meat.
Only a handful of people in the entire dining room had ever summited, and many were planning easier, lower elevation hikes. I told more jokes in an attempt to boost spirits in the face of reports of extreme weather up high. After dinner, our Brooklyn Outfitters team retreated to the cozy comfort of a roaring propane fire and talked about safety and teamwork, without mentioning either of those words. Our message was clear: summiting was optional, but return to base was mandatory.
We demonstrated the proper use of an ice axe to self-arrest, gave the basics of snow safety, and discussed both prevention and remedies for hypothermia. The Appalachian Mountain Club had an old TV with the Everest IMAX movie on VHS, which provided a mood-appropriate backdrop as the group talked on, into the night.
The morning came quickly and just as forecast: breezy and beautiful. As guides, we took comfort in the fact that we had gone through each team member’s pack to ensure that they were properly equipped. We evaluated each person’s clothing choices to make sure they’d start cool and have the appropriate attire to stay dry and warm.
Our ascent up Tuckerman Ravine Trail passed quickly. A packed powder surface made the going relatively easy, smoothing over the loose rock beneath us. When we reached Lions Head, climbers from various groups were suiting up to face a relentless wind. Remembering the Everest movie, I felt as if we’d reached our own Hillary Step.
The group was dedicated and serious. We kept an eye on each other making sure that our faces were protected from frostbite, and as guides we reminded our clients to drink water and eat snacks. It was impressive to see so many committed souls looking out for each other. We pushed ahead, and an hour later, we reached the summit.
The views to the east were almost endless, stretching to the coast of Maine. To the west, we could see intense squalls depositing what seemed like feet of snow into the big bowl. As the sun shone through the blowing snow, it created a ghostly visage in the alpine garden, rendering the experience in the brightest shades of grey.
We enjoyed our descent, arriving safely back at the trailhead. Back inside the familiar warmth of the Joe Dodge, I didn’t feel the need to purchase a patch for my bag or a sticker for my car. I had a acquired a souvenir on the summit — a smile frozen in place — that’s going to take a long time to thaw.