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Hiking to and from the Summit

Mount Washington is a popular peak among experienced hikers. Part of its draw is that it is the highest peak in the Northeast – and people are attracted to superlatives. It also has challenging trails, an intriguing natural environment, good views (in fair weather) and sometimes rugged weather.

Hikers should not confuse the trails on Mount Washington with smooth "nature walks". All the trails on the mountain are rugged, rocky, muddy and slippery when wet, and steep. While Mount Washington is lower than many mountains out west, the "relief "– the vertical gain from bottom to top – is about 4,000 feet, so it is similar to the ascent one makes when climbing some western mountains. The most popular routes are not "technical" in that they do not require rock-climbing equipment and techniques, but they generally do include some areas where hands are likely to be used for balance, and some have steep places where slips or stumbles could have serious consequences. The most direct of the usual routes include 8 to 10 miles of hiking (round-trip).

Before hiking Mount Washington, it is recommended that hikers gain at least some basic experience in hiking on rough terrain, be familiar with their clothing and equipment, and be in good health and good physical condition. A few "shake down" hikes elsewhere in the White Mountains (or on similar terrain elsewhere) are good training for a Mount Washington trip. Gaining physical fitness by regular walking, running, or other such exercise will also make your trip a more enjoyable one.

Is hiking Mount Washington safe?

No. There are no guarantees that hikers will escape the mountain unscathed, so if absolute safety is what you require, then avoid a visit. More than a hundred people have died on Mount Washington, from such causes as falls and hypothermia, from avalanches and ice falls, and from natural causes (e.g. heart attacks). However, MOST hikers have only a pleasant (if sometimes tiring!) experience here, and you can make that outcome more likely by being in good physical condition, by being prepared for cold, wet, and windy weather, and by using appropriate caution and prudence throughout your trip. It is estimated that about 50,000 people hike up the mountain each year, and most of those do so without accident or injury.

Preparing for Your Hike

In addition to being in good health and good physical condition, getting familiar with the rigors of hiking on a rough trail, and having appropriate clothing and equipment (see the separate section on clothing and equipment, below), there are other things you should do to prepare for your trip, such as:

Learn how to read a map and use a compass.

Learn basics of first aid, including how to treat (and better yet, prevent) blisters, and to recognize, treat (and better yet, prevent) hypothermia.

Become familiar with the route you are planning to take, side trails, etc.

Check the weather report and forecast as the planned day of your trip approaches.

As well as:

Write down your full trip plans and give them to someone responsible, so that if you do not return as scheduled (with a margin for routine delays) that person will contact appropriate authorities. (For the summertime, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is responsible for search and rescue activities on Mount Washington; they can be reached during normal business hours at 603 271-3361. At other hours, a Fish and Game officer can be contacted through New Hampshire State Police via the toll-free number 1-800-525-5555 which can be used by callers in New Hampshire. 911 can also be used.)

Plan from the outset to keep your group together, even if some are going faster and others are going more slowly. Splitting up a group is all too often asking for trouble!

Be prepared to make a reasonable change to your plan – such as turning back and heading down – should weather, ground conditions, or your own condition deteriorate. Even if "this is our only day to hike all summer", don't be lured upwards when prudence dictates descent.

Set a "turn around time" – a time at which you start heading back down, whether you've reached the summit or not. As the day draws on, you are bound to be getting more tired – be sure you are saving enough energy for a safe descent, when wobbly legs can make secure footing more difficult. While experienced hikers can travel by flashlight, it definitely is more difficult than traveling by daylight, and a slip is more likely. Also, travel above treeline in foggy conditions after darkness falls, even by an experienced person with a good flashlight, can be very, very difficult.

By any of the common hiking routes, you should allow a full day for the trip, with an early start to allow maximum daylight. A very rough estimate of time for the trip –assuming an experienced hiker in good physical condition with cooperative weather – is 4 to 5 hours up and 3 to 4 hours down. If, during the course of your ascent, you find you are traveling at a much slower rate, you should reconsider your plans and think seriously about turning back – to arrive at the summit late in the day, exhausted, and with four or five rough miles to descend would be unenjoyable at best and dangerous at worst.

For additional background information, please visit www.hikesafe.com

In Case of a Hiking Accident..

While search and rescue assistance is sometimes available on the mountain, hikers should consider organized rescue as a last resort. They should strive to avoid any need for a rescue, and should be prepared to effect self-rescue in the event of an accident. Hiking alone thus has more challenges (and more hazards). Every hiker should be familiar with basic first aid, and recognize that, in typical mountain conditions, hypothermia can all too easily beset the victim of any accident, especially above treeline.

In the event of an accident, the individuals on the scene should do what they can to effect first aid, including doing their best to make and keep the patient(s) warm and dry. If the patient can walk out, or can be assisted in walking or can safely be carried by the individuals on the scene, that's great. If there is a need for greater assistance, then a message can be relayed to the proper authorities, via contact with a staffed facility (such as Lakes of the Clouds Hut, the Hermit Lake Shelter Area in Tuckerman Ravine, or the summit State Park) or via a phone call, whether from a valley building after your return to a trailhead, or via cell phone (if you have a working phone and if you can "hit" a tower).

For the summertime, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is the lead agency for search and rescue activities on Mount Washington; they can be reached during normal business hours at (603) 271-3361. At other hours, a Fish and Game officer can be contacted through New Hampshire State Police at via the toll-free number 1-800-525-5555 which can be used by callers in New Hampshire. 911 can also be used. Please remember that these numbers are intended for emergency use. If you call 911, be prepared to describe your situation and your location very clearly --- most 911 dispatchers have little experience with backcountry, offroad situations. You may need to make a point of stating your desire to contact the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. Calling 911 from a cell phone may also connect you with a 911 system in another state (e.g. Maine) . so be prepared for such a possibility.

Information which an emergency dispatcher is likely to ask you includes: your location (as exact as possible), nature of the emergency, health history of the individual(s) involved, age, weight and height of the individual(s) involved, present weather conditions, resources on the scene, and your plans regarding the situation (stay put, keep moving, etc.).

(A note about cell phones----- In the last few years, more and more individuals have been hiking with cell phones. Cell phones do have the potential to speed a needed response to a true emergency -- BUT growing experience suggests some misuse of cell phones. Some hikers seem to bring a cell phone instead of warm clothing, rain and wind gear, water, map, compass, flashlight, etc. Some hikers seem to think that having a cell phone is a suitable substitute for good trip planning, good judgment, and a willingness to turn around if their own condition or weather conditions deteriorate. Some hikers have limited knowledge of cell phone technology and its limitations (such as the inability of a cell phone to transmit effectively from some locations, or the failure of batteries in cold conditions, or the possible need to contact a service provider ahead of time to allow a call-back when one is away from one's normal service area). Some hikers are unaware of the nature of search and rescue in the White Mountains - including the fact that all searchers and rescuers are exposed to hazard in any search or rescue operation, many rescuers are volunteers and are not available at a moment's notice, and that helicopters are seldom used and cannot be used in times of high wind, low cloud, icing, or poor visibility. Please, be prepared, do your best to avoid accident, injury, or illness, and utilize a cell phone only as a provisional part of your safety back-up plan.)

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is the lead agency for most search and rescue responses on Mount Washington (the U.S. Forest Service is also involved, depending on location of the incident and the time of year). The Fish and Game Department recognizes that accidents can occur even to careful, fit, and well-prepared hikers. However, the Department also knows that, from time to time, "accidents" may occur due to avoidable circumstances. If an emergency response is occasioned by a hiker who is poorly prepared, with inadequate clothing and equipment, with inadequate skills for the activity in question, unfamiliarity with terrain and weather, and /or lack of fitness, the Department may charge the individual(s) in question for some or all of the costs for a search or rescue operation. New Hampshire law allows for some cost recovery from those assisted whose "reckless" or "negligent" conduct led to the need for an emergency response.

Clothing & Equipment

Some Specific Hiking Routes

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