Guided Winter Hike on Mount Washington

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.

Joe Dodge Lodge
Joe Dodge Lodge

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.

Photos courtesy of Brooklyn Outfitters.

15 comments on “Guided Winter Hike on Mount Washington

  1. You really lucked out with the weather!! A winter summit is big accomplishment. That mountain has taken many a life, especially in the winter. Great report.. From NYC it is the ride from hell..

  2. No wonder you made it to the summit, you ate “huge bowls of spinach soap” for dinner. Great report and a very funny typo!

  3. Aaah, I stand corrected. It was soup after all. Although, if you wanted some spinach soap. I know where you can it. Now, back to the real discussion. What a great bluebird day you had! Did you see any skiers or was everyone else being sensible and hiking with crampons? I am also curious about how long the trek took, trailhead to summit and return.

  4. This was a real fun report Matt! Must have been surreal going from Manhattan to Mount Washington (even if you didn’t start in Manhattan, I like the alliteration)

  5. Interesting, exciting report. The picture of the 3 hikers with Wildcat in the background is very familiar. Tons of pictures from Mt Everest have the same look. It is a great shot. It really shows the effort needed to get to the top. How cold was it that day? It looks ok, but the truth is probably much different. Was there a crazy wind chill at the top?

  6. I believe only those who are bravery and strong can stick to the last and enjoy the scenery…Hope to enjoy this exciting skiing trip with more friends~We can contact with each other through my-travel-mate.com~

  7. >Harv fesses: I am siri – responsible for the omission of the word "northern" in front of "Appalachian" and the introduction of the concept of edible soap.

    ML – taking adventurous newbies above tree line in minus 60 windchills and returning them happy and safe to base is a real accomplishment. Nice work.

  8. BP – I didn’t bring skis because this was a hiking expedition. If I had them no way I would have summited. But I would have beaten everybody down, that’s for sure!

    Sirskier – It has the resort part down. I’m telling you, the spinach soup was luxurious!

    SBR – I did see some skiers. Not that many. They were skinning up the TRT just to do a quick lap down the Sherbie. The sherbie had pretty decent cover until the bottom quarter.

    GP – Thanks for checking it out. As of right now I can see Manhattan, so I'm just a cold swim away. Of course, with the 62 degree air temperature a stand up paddleboard would be perfectly reasonable.

    X10003q – at the top it was -14 with sustained 42mph winds, and gusts of 75mph. Wind chill was around negative 60 or so I think. It was cold. I can’t exactly explain how cold, way too cold to sit on a ski lift though. good thing we were hiking!

    Anonymous – Good luck with all that, the link looks a little too suspicious to click.

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