Climbing Mt. Washington is not for the faint-hearted, especially when you do it in January.
The observatory at the top of the mountain has a small building with a staff that works to record wind speed and temperature conditions. In 1934, the observatory recorded a wind speed of 231 miles per hour. That record was broken in 1996, but it remains the highest wind temperature ever recorded that wasn’t associated with a tornado or tropical cyclone.
You can view the current conditions on Mt. Washington here.
The Highest Mountain East of the Mississippi?
I’ve previously stated on my blog that Mt. Washington is the highest peak east of the Mississippi, but I was mistaken. It’s actually the most topographically prominent. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure I fully comprehend what that means. What I think it means is that relative to its base, it has the most elevation gain, but in terms of actual feet above sea level, it’s not the highest. That would be Mount Mitchell in North Carolina.
Here’s a wikipedia article about topographic prominence if you want to dive deep into this. But just know this: it’s pretty damn tall. However, compared to other mountains throughout the world, it isn’t that tall.
The challenge of climbing this mountain isn’t so much its height, but the terrible weather. You will be exposed to extreme wind speed, wind chill, and cold temperatures. Since 1849, more than 150 people have died trying to climb Mount Washington, mostly due to poor planning and naivety about what the weather would be like.
It’s definitely vital that you plan well, wear the right clothes, and have the right gear.
How Tall is Mount Washington?
Mt. Washington is 6,288.3 ft (1,916.7 m) above sea level.
If you’re going to be doing this trail, you’ll need to study your route well in advance. You’re taking the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail for just over 2 miles, until you reach a sign that directs you to the Lion’s Head trail.
We started early in the morning, hitting the trail at 5:30 AM, since the climb takes 8-10 hours. The journey begins at Pinkham Notch Visitors Center, which has lots of parking available.
The climb starts off as a steep, uphill hike through the woods. It will be early in the morning, you’ll need your headlamp to see in the dark. After a brisk warmup of uphill climbing, you hit the bottleneck: a pretty technical spurt of climbing. It’s about a 20-foot section of steep cliff that gets covered in ice. Someone needs to climb head and secure a rope so you can pull yourself up.
I did this with 2 ropes, wrapped around my wrists, feeling a lot like Mulan.
Getting Above the Tree Line
On the mountain, there is a point where the trees no longer can survive. This point is known as the tree line. After emerging out of the woods, the trees are no longer there to stop the wind. You enter a new world, where gust of winds cut your face and the snow is deep.
Before your trip, you’ll need to rent an ice axe, mountaineering boots, and crampons. I rented mine through International Mountain Equipment (IME) in North Conway.
Summiting the Mountain
Unfortunately, this year, the weather was too intense with very low visibility due to snow blowing around. We had to turn around before we summited.
This video depicts our climb in the year 2018. That was my first time doing the climb, and I was told that the weather was unusually calm. You can see pretty well!
Check it out: