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Winter Overnights on Mount Washington

For those who wish an extended experience on Mount Washington, it is possible to overnight in some locations on the mountain. Because of the heavy use of the mountain, and the need to protect the vegetation from damage, there are some regulations regarding camping and overnight stay. Because of the inherent weather-related hazards, any camper should recognize the serious nature of a night out on the slopes of Mount Washington.

photo - see caption below; click to enlarge
Photo submitted by Shawn Ottavio (click to enlarge)

Regulations

Most of Mount Washington is within the White Mountain National Forest, and is subject to Forest Service regulations. In a nutshell, the particularly pertinent camping regulations are as follows:

In the Cutler River Drainage (most of the eastern side of Mount Washington - from the summit down to Pinkham Notch, from Nelson Crag south to Boott Spur) overnight stay is very limited. Within this area, you may stay ONLY: in the Harvard Mountaineering Club Cabin below Huntington Ravine (or at the designated tentsites at the cabin) and in the Hermit Lake Shelters in Tuckerman Ravine (or at the designated tentsites near the shelters). No advance reservations for either the HMC Cabin or the Hermit Lake Shelters are possible. Please note that the entire Alpine Garden area is within the Cutler River Drainage, and thus NO CAMPING is permitted there at any time. NO CAMPING is allowed along the Lion Head Trail (summer or winter routes), either.

The Hermit Lake Shelter Area is operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club by special arrangement with the US Forest Service. There are eight shelters, with a total capacity of 86; three of the shelters are mostly enclosed with shutters, making them crudely cabin-like. There are also three sites (platforms) for tents. Absolutely no wood fires are allowed in the area. Individuals wishing to stay the night in the shelters or at the tent sites must sign up and pay for space at the front desk of the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. The overnight rate is $10.00 per person per night for the shelters, and $10.00 per person per night for the tent sites. For individuals who already have basic winter camping skills and who wish to extend them a bit in a high mountain environment, Hermit Lake can be a good place to learn.

The HMC Cabin is principally for ice climbers who are visiting Huntington Ravine. Sign-up for the HMC Cabin and its tentsites is via the sign-up book located at the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center; there is a total of 16 places in the cabin and a few sites (capacity of 16 people total) for tents. Overnight rate is $15.00 per person per night for inside the cabin (the rate includes use of the cabin's propane stove for cooking; there is also a wood stove, to be operated by the caretaker only, for taking the worst of the chill off the cabin at night) and $7.50 per person per night for tenting (which does not allow use of the cabin cookstove, so bring your own). The overnight fee should be paid to the caretaker at the cabin. The cabin and tentsites are open from December 1 through March 31, and CLOSED at all other times.

Within the National Forest outside the Cutler River Drainage, a few general rules apply: camping is generally permitted above treeline as long as one is camping on two feet or more of snow (enough to give some protection to the fragile alpine vegetation) and not on frozen bodies of water, provided no other restriction is in force (such as at Lakes of the Clouds). (Be aware that not all that is legal is smart - more on this point later.) Camping is generally permitted if one is 200 feet away from a trail or stream (a regulation in some areas (such as along the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail) a minimum recommendation in all areas) and 1/4 mile away from a densely used area such as a shelter site and 1/4 mile from a road. Please check the U.S. Forest Service website on Backcountry Camping Rules before your trip for complete information.

CAMPING ON THE SUMMIT OF MOUNT WASHINGTON IS PROHIBITED

The summit is a New Hampshire State Park, and camping there is not permitted for several reasons, including that there would be no effective way to manage the concentration of human waste which camping would lead to, and that the summit is so incredibly exposed that any camper would be asking for extreme trouble and would have no practical way to bail out in harsh weather (which is most of the time in winter).

LAKES OF THE CLOUDS HUT IS CLOSED FOR THE WINTER

There are no services no bathrooms, no water, no nothin' at this hut from mid-September until early June. While there is a very small and uncomfortable "refuge room" at the hut which is kept open for EMERGENCY PURPOSES ONLY, and which provides shelter from the wind and blowing snow but nothing more, this room may be locked up in the future since so many hikers in the past have counted on it for routine (clearly non-emergency) camping purposes, and the area around the hut is suffering from the concentration of winter mis-users. Camping is not permitted within 1/4 mile of the hut, and is not permitted on the Lakes of the Clouds when they are frozen.

Elsewhere on the Presidential Range, the A.M.C hut at Madison Spring is closed for the winter - no refuge facilities are available here, and the best course of action if seeking shelter in an emergency in this area is to get down below treeline, with the typical "bail out" route being the Valley Way. The A.M.C. hut at Mizpah Spring is also closed for the winter; visitors to the area can camp at the neighboring Naumann Tentsite, though they should expect all the tent platforms to be buried under snow. The "camps" operated on the slopes of Mount Adams by the Randolph Mountain Club -- the Log Cabin, the Perch, Gray Knob, and Crag Camp --are available for winter use; there is a caretaker resident at Gray Knob, who patrols the camps and collects the overnight fees. (www.randolphmountainclub.org).

BE AWARE

The often extreme weather conditions above treeline make camping there questionable even for experienced mountaineers, even when following all pertinent rules and otherwise respecting the environment. The cold, the poor visibility, and especially the WIND above treeline typically will make an attempt to camp there at best exceptionally uncomfortable (and no fun at all) and at worst a struggle for survival. Wind can easily blow down, blow apart, or blow away even the best mountaineering tents. If you insist on having an above-treeline camping experience, please be sure to observe all regulations, respect the environment, camp near treeline so you have a short (though not necessarily easy) bail-out route if your tent fails, anchor your tent well (a free-standing tent could become a free-flying tent unless extraordinarily well anchored), surround your tent with big, thick snow walls to break some of the force of the winds, and be prepared for an epic, sleepless night, perhaps even a brush with disaster. If this sounds a bit like camping on Mount McKinley (Denali), well, it is. If it sounds like a lot of time and effort will be involved, well, you're right there, too. If it sounds like it might be a better idea to camp below treeline, with at least some trees to break the force of the wind- well, you're right on that point, too.

SPECIAL ARRANGEMENTS AT THE OBSERVATORY

By special, advance arrangement, it is possible for fit, properly prepared, properly clothed, and properly equipped individuals to spend a night at the summit Observatory. This is possible through the Observatory's EduTrip program and also through climbing trips operated by Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School, by International Mountain Climbing School, by Mooney Mountain Guides , and by the Synnott Mountain Guides . Please make your inquiries about these special programs well in advance of your visit to the mountain. There are absolutely NO facilities for drop-in visitors to spend a night at the summit.

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