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Winter Hiking on Mount Washington

Many individuals are not content with visiting the mountain's lower slopes in winter, and want to go higher, and to try for the summit. Hundreds of people do climb to the summit in winter, but anyone who tries this should be well aware of the following important points:

THERE ARE NO PUBLIC FACILITIES ON THE SUMMIT IN WINTER. This means no shelter, no food, no water, no bathrooms, no phone, "no nothin"! Plan you trip accordingly.

photo of hiker sign

Weather

Mount Washington's weather has been called "the world's worst", since the fiercest winter conditions on the mountain rival those of the polar regions and the highest mountains on earth. Among the challenging, sometimes fatal meteorological conditions on the mountain in winter:

Temperature: The average mid-winter temperature on the summit is about 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Typically a daily high would be in the low teens and an overnight low a few degrees below zero. All-time-record mid-winter high temperatures have made it into the 40's - such temperatures are very unusual; temperatures above freezing in winter are often accompanied by rain. Record low mid-winter temperature is -47; temperatures near or colder than -40 have been recorded in December, January, February, and March. Very cold temperatures are often accompanied by high (hurricane force or higher) winds, which speed the rate of heat loss.

Winds: The highest surface wind ever clocked on earth, 231 miles per hour, was observed on Mount Washington in April 1934. Such extraordinary winds are unusual, but very strong winds are quite common in winter on the mountain. Mid-winter sees daily average winds of between 45 and 50 miles per hour. Typically, two days out of three will yield hurricane force gusts (73 miles per hour or greater). It is a rare winter month which does not see winds over 100 miles per hour on some occasions, and a rare winter which does not see winds of 120 miles per hour or greater. Winds have several effects on winter visitors - they accelerate the rate of heat loss (a typical "wind chill equivalent temperature" would be about -20 F.); high and typically gusty winds buffet and tire hikers and climbers, and can lead to treacherous mis-footing on rocky terrain, or falls on steep slopes of snow or ice; and winds keep loose snow in the air, which obscures visibility, making route-finding truly challenging.

The power of the wind is one of the toughest challenges to harsh-weather travel on the mountain, and, for a prudent traveler, may be the limiting factor - even mountaineers experienced on some of the highest mountains in the world recognize the wisdom in heading back down when high winds rage above treeline.

Precipitation: Each winter month typically yields between 40 and 55 inches of new snowfall; the all-time record snow season, in 1968-1969, dropped about 566 inches of snow on the mountain. Routefinding below treeline can be made much more difficult by the accumulation of two, three, or even six feet of snow, which hides route markers and can cover any hint of a trail - this can be especially problematical when trying to find a trail in scrubby growth at or near treeline. High winds above treeline sometimes keep the accumulation of snow in windward areas at a minimum, and create deep drifts in lee areas. Traveling in terrain that in one location has glare ice, in another location has exposed rocks, and in yet another location has deeply drifted snow can require real skill and patience. Accumulating snow, and especially wind-transported snow, can create very significant avalanche hazard on steep terrain (most notably in open areas, but even in wooded areas). Drifted snow can obscure or cover many of the cairns which mark trails above treeline. Falling snow, especially when blown about by the wind, can limit visibility drastically; usually, when it is snowing high up on Mount Washington, the high slopes of the mountain are in the clouds, so that visibility typically will be very poor - perhaps only one or two feet! Blowing snow also penetrates any opening in one's clothing, making it that much more difficult to keep one's clothing dry.

Unfortunately, snow is not the only precipitation to fall in mid-winter - occasionally there are rainstorms, usually wind-driven, or storms of freezing rain, which coat all surfaces with treacherous glare ice. In any such storm, staying dry - and therefore staying warm - can be very difficult. Travel in winter rains is best avoided.

Fog: The upper slopes of the mountain are in the fog about 60% of the time. Fog limits visibility, often to 50 to 100 feet; in conjunction with falling and blowing snow, fog can lead to "white out" conditions, in which visibility is limited to only a few feet. It is very easy to become totally disoriented in such conditions, where even the steepness of the slope one is standing on is uncertain; accurate navigation and safe travel in such conditions challenges even the most experienced mountaineer.

Fog at temperatures below freezing (the norm in winter) also causes rime icing to form on all exposed surfaces - including the trail-marking cairns -- covering them in white and causing them to become further obscured.

Visibility: In foggy conditions, visibility would often be 100 feet or less; cairn-to-cairn travel is typical, with prior experience on and familiarity with the mountain, and expertise with map and compass, necessary fundamentals. With fog, falling snow, blowing snow, rimed surfaces, and snow-covered surfaces, visibility can be limited to a very few feet; it's best to avoid traveling in such conditions.

Remember to check recent Backcountry Weather and Trails Conditions to get an idea of surface conditions, check the current forecast to get an idea of what weather is likely for the immediate future, and to check the latest USFS Avalanche Bulletin. THINK about what the combination of weather factors will bring - for instance, heavy snow with high winds will yield terrible visibility, increasing avalanche danger on lee slopes, tough trail packing below treeline, and such.

LIMITED DAYLIGHT

Especially in December and January, the hours of daylight are limited. Trail finding and trail breaking can be time consuming; experienced winter hikers know that everything seems to take longer in the winter. Get a very early (even pre-dawn) start, and plan your trip with a "turn around time" - a time at which you will head back down, whether you have reached the summit or not. Specifics for a turn around time may vary, but at a minimum you would want to be back down to treeline and below any difficult terrain (in terms of steepness or route finding) before dark - plan to achieve this, with an extra margin of time, too. (Of course, you should also be carrying a good headlamp with extra bulb and batteries, keep the batteries warm to prevent loss of power, and have a back-up light, too.)

YOUR PHYSICAL FITNESS

Trekking up and down Mount Washington in winter is hard work. You may be packing trail on snow or plowing through snow drifts; your pack will be heavier than in summer. You say you're fit enough to make it to the top? Well, remember you have to make it all the way back to the bottom, too. Don't try the trip unless you are in good shape. Be willing to keep assessing your condition all along the way. Don't be embarrassed to turn around and head back down if you're feeling tired - turning around is usually a mark of good mountaineering judgment.

STAY WARM, PROTECTED FROM THE WIND, HYDRATED, AND WELL FED.

If you need to be told too many particulars about this advice, you should reconsider your plans and review your basics of mountain travel. For the cold, windy conditions typical on the mountain in winter, you will need good gear to insulate, to keep out the wind, and to keep dry. Your gear should include plenty or insulating layers, insulated boots (plastic shelled, insulated mountaineering boots are the norm), gaiters, wind pants, full coverage handwear (no exposed wrists!), facemask, and goggles. Water or other non-diuretic beverages should be carried in insulated bottles; it does you no good unless you drink it!. Lots of food should be carried and eaten.

SPECIAL GEAR AND KNOWLEDGE

Access to the summit of the mountain is principally via routes which, in part, often include steep hard-packed or icy slopes. Falls in such places have caused several deaths. To travel safely in such areas, you must have crampons and ice axe and know how to use them.

As an extra emergency item, a bivi sack or equivalent should be carried; though a plastic tarp might suffice below treeline, the typical winds above treeline would limit its usefulness.

AVALANCHE

Access to the summit of the mountain is principally via routes which, in part, often include steep slopes which often have avalanche hazard. The U.S Forest Service Snow Rangers regularly post avalanche hazard bulletins, which provide critical guidance to winter climbers, but any winter climber should also strive to learn more about avalanche hazard, how to recognize it, how to avoid it, and should also learn basic avalanche rescue procedures. Avalanche is not an idle or theoretical threat; There have been several avalanche-related fatalities on Mount Washington.

More and more climbers are taking the avalanche threat with the full seriousness it deserves, and are including avalanche beacons, shovels, and probes or probe-poles, as well as the knowledge of how to use them, on their trips.

EMERGENCIES

While search and rescue assistance is sometimes available on the mountain, climbers 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. Solo climbing thus has more challenges (and more hazard). Every climber should be familiar with basic first aid, and recognize that, in typical winter conditions, hypothermia and frostbite can all too easily beset the victim of any accident.

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 regular 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 totally clueless about 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 the drop of a hat, and that helicopters are seldom used and cannot be used in times of high wind, low cloud, icing, or poor visibility.

To repeat what was noted above: While search and rescue assistance is sometimes available on the mountain, climbers 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. There are times when a true emergency makes use of a cell phone to call for assistance appropriate, but every attempt should be made to avoid any such necessity.

Note:

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department has given notice that it is prepared to charge hikers and climbers for Fish and Game expenditures for searches and rescues in situations where the Department concludes that reckless behavior has led to the need for a search or rescue. In addition, a 2008 New Hampshire state law allows for cost recovery when authorities judge that negligence led to a search or rescue response, for instance for a missing or injured hiker. The Department recognizes that there is risk inherent even in responsible backcountry adventures, but when poor planning, inadequate clothing or equipment, a low level of physical fitness, or a lack of experience has brought about the need for a search or rescue, the Fish and Game Department is willing to send a bill to the individual who has benefited from Fish and Game's assistance.

SUMMING IT UP

If all these considerations seem daunting - they should! Climbing Mount Washington in winter is not a simple task. But those who don't already have suitable training and experience can get it in a number of ways - from experienced friends, from organized groups, such as college outing clubs or other outdoor clubs (provided their leaders are suitably qualified), and from outdoor schools, climbing schools or guide services. Ideally an aspirant climber would gradually gain knowledge and experience to allow the eventual trip to the summit as a fully qualified climber; if an individual's schedule is more insistent - if he or she really wants to get to the summit this winter - then participation in a guided climb, with a mountain guide who is properly qualified to oversee the activities of a novice or intermediate climber, would be the best bet.

There are several guiding firms in the area which regularly offer group climbs on the mountain, and/or which are available for custom guided trips. Among these are the following, which we offer here for information purposes only, not as an endorsement:

 

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