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Winter Hiking Routes on Mount Washington

THE STANDARD WINTER CLIMBING ROUTE

The usual route of ascent for winter climbers is via Lion Head. This route begins at the Appalachian Mountain Club Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on Route 16 (between Jackson and Gorham, about one mile south of Wildcat Ski Area). The route is about an eight mile round-trip. In good conditions, the route is a reasonable day-trip for a fit and experienced climber. An early start (before 8 A.M.) is strongly recommended.

At the A.M.C. Visitor Center, you should check the latest weather forecast for the high summits of the White Mountains, check the most recent weather conditions reports from Hermit Lake (Tuckerman Ravine) and the summit, and check the latest avalanche bulletin from the U.S.F.S. Snow Rangers. You are also encouraged to sign in to the voluntary winter climber register - please remember to sign back out when you return.

From Pinkham Notch, ascend on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail.

Early in the winter season:

You should ascend about 2.4 miles to the Hermit Lake Shelter Area. The average time for this part of the ascent is about 2 hours, but of course it can vary greatly depending on your condition, pack weight, and the condition of the trail. The U.S.F.S Snow Rangers travel to Hermit Lake almost daily in winter in their snow tractor to assess avalanche conditions, and the tractor thus packs down the trail on a regular basis. If you arrive just after a storm, however, the ascent can be long and arduous.

At the Shelter Area, check in with the caretaker to find out about the most current climbing conditions, and see if there is an update to the U.S.F.S. avalanche bulletin.

Also, at this point try to objectively evaluate how you're doing. How long did it take you to get to Hermit Lake - a lot longer than the average two hours or so? How are you feeling? Are you wet with sweat, cold, tired? It's still a very long way to the summit and back --- make sure you're making the right decision if you decide to keep going towards the top.

If going up is still a sensible thing to do, backtrack a few hundred yards on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the Lion Head Trail, which diverges to the north. The Lion Head Trail ascends steeply, gaining about 1200 feet in its first half-mile to Lion Head. The condition of this section of trail can vary greatly - it can be deep soft snow, hard and wind-scoured, icy crust, or a combination. The trail ascends through moderate and then scrubby growth and around short drop-offs, crossing some potential avalanche terrain. The trail reaches treeline at an elevation of about 4300 feet, and continues steeply, marked by occasional cairns over shelterless, very rocky terrain to Lion Head.

NOTE that, as the snowpack increases through the winter, the avalanche danger on this section of the Lion Head Trail also can increase. People have died in avalanches on Lion Head. Once the snowpack reaches a certain depth, the Forest Service strongly encourages climbers to use the Lion Head "Winter Route", which is not entirely free of avalanche hazard, but which generally has less hazard than the standard "summer route" of the Lion Head Trail. (When the "changeover" occurs, the green-on-white trail signs on the lower section of the "summer route" are removed, and the black-on-orange signs on the lower section of the "Winter Route" are put up.

Later in the winter season:

Once enough snow has accumulated on and near the Lion Head Trail, the Forest Service strongly encourages climbers to use the Lion Head "Winter Route". This is a rough, steep route, which avoids some of the areas of potential avalanche hazard on and near the standard Lion Head "summer route". Please note that there ARE areas with real potential for avalanche hazard on the Lion Head "Winter Route". Attention to avalanche bulletins, attention to the snowpack, and avalanche awareness are all essential to minimize the danger of a winter ascent.

To access the Lion Head "Winter Route" from Pinkham Notch, ascend the Tuckerman Ravine Trail about 1.7 miles to the Huntington Ravine Fire Road (average time for this leg is about an hour and a half). Take a right on the Fire Road, and follow it a few hundred yards to the bottom of the Winter Route, which will be on your left. The Route at first is on a gentle slope, in an area which often has deep snow; it then begins a very steep climb, through a wooded section with some rather awkward sections. The trees become smaller and more spread apart as the Route approaches treeline, in an area which is somewhat prone to windslab avalanche formation. The Winter Route joins the summer route (the Lion Head Trail proper) at about treeline, and continues to Lion Head.

The top of Lion Head (5033 feet) is often very windy; it is sometimes blown clear of snow by the strong westerly and northwesterly winds, leaving an icy, rocky prominence. The Trail continues approximately WNW, gradually ascending in the open and, early in the season, though some low growth, until it reaches the base of the summit cone. Here the cairns often become buried by snow, especially from mid-season on, leaving no trace of the trail, which continues a steeper ascent, climbing over snowslopes about to the WNW until the Trail rejoins the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at 5675 feet, about .6 miles and 650 feet above Lion Head. The route continues on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, ascending generally northward another .3 miles (gaining 615 feet in elevation) to the summit. The cairns here can be drifted with snow, and are often covered with rime ice.

Total ascent time on the Lion Head route will vary, depending on conditions. For the summer or winter route, two and a half hours to three hours is a rough estimate for good weather and firm snow conditions. This is in addition to the one and one half to two hours on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, so total time from summit to base will be about four to five hours for a strong and experienced winter hiker with favorable weather and snow conditions.

At the summit, there is a voluntary climbing register, which visitors are encouraged to sign.

Once at the summit, remember there are NO services. Keep an eye on the time, too - whether the weather is fair or foul, be sure to allow enough time to get back below treeline and past any "tricky" sections of your route at least by dark, with some time to spare as an extra safety margin.

The descent requires considerable caution, as a slip on steep slopes can be disastrous, even fatal - several winter climbers have suffered fatal falls on this terrain. Allow at least two hours for the trip down from the summit to the base of the summer or winter route, and another hour to return via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to Pinkham Notch.

OTHER WINTER CLIMBING ROUTES

Other routes for daytrips to the summit are not often used. The Tuckerman Ravine headwall often has high to extreme avalanche hazard, and its steep, snow-covered slopes show no trace of the summer trail. Huntington Ravine should be traveled only by expert technical climbers, as its routes, with their combination of steepness, length, exposure, elevation, and remoteness, can present some of the most difficult mountaineering challenges in the east. The upper section of the Boott Spur Trail, accessed by the Boott Spur Link, is long and exposed - it could be considered by experienced climbers with an early start on a fine day. Travel on the Mount Washington Auto Road requires a trail pass from Great Glen Trails and use of skiis or snowshoes as a courtesy to other users; the road offers a gradual ascent and is normally free of avalanche hazard, but is long - a 16 mile round trip. The upper reaches of the road are fully exposed to the wind; crampons and ice axe should still be considered a requirement here.

Western approaches, such as the Jewell Trail or Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, saw few winter visits in the distant past, as they could only be accessed with a long walk in from Route 302. Since the winter of 2004-2005, the Base Road to the Cog Railway has been plowed and open to the public. Note that the U.S. Forest Service parking lot at the summer trailhead for these trails is not plowed, so that hikers using these trails in winter typically park at the private parking lot at the Cog Railway base station (a significant courtesy granted by the Cog to hikers). Be aware that hikers on the western side of the mountain do not have access to any public facilities at the Cog Railway base (no restrooms, no visitor center), nor do they have facilities higher up on the mountain. (In these respects, the western side is unlike the eastern side, with facilities at Pinkham Notch and at Hermit Lake.) Even with plowed access, these trails seem not to be used as much as the Lion Head route. Both trails are very exposed to prevailing winds above treeline. The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail can be especially obscure from a little above Gem Pool all the way to the Lakes of the Clouds.

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