By Gregory Naigles
Location: Mount Washington, Sargent’s Purchase, NH
Trip Length: Day Trip
Now that I’m living in New Hampshire, I figured, what better thing to do in September than to hike Mount Washington? It’s something that I had read a lot about and had always wanted to do, and Tuesday, September 15 looked to be the perfect day. It was that time of year again, the same time of year that I had hiked Katahdin the past three years. The weather report said that it would be quite warm at the base, meaning that it might not be too cold at the summit (whose average summer temperature is 52°F), and it was supposed to be a sunny day. Of course, I knew about how changeable the weather on Mount Washington could be, so I brought a raincoat, a full change of clothing, and a bunch of layers with me anyway. I made my normal peanut butter and Nutella sandwich, and then went to sleep early the night before so that I could wake up early and have enough time to do the hike.
I woke up at 5:45, and ended up leaving my apartment around 7. It took just over two hours to drive to the trailhead. Before starting out, I asked the people at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center a few questions about the conditions. They said that the temperature was nice and the sun was shining, but that it was a bit windy. I’ve dealt with some pretty strong wind before, so that didn’t discourage me.
My chosen hiking route was the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, the most popular trail on Mount Washington. I had briefly considered doing Huntington Ravine, but then I decided that, since the Huntington Ravine trail is the most difficult trail in the White Mountains, that I should wait and do it when I’m not hiking alone. On weekends, Tuckerman is apparently very crowded, which is why I decided to do the hike on a weekday. The trail is about 4.1 miles long, and ascends 4,250 vertical feet. But the first part seemed fine. The 2.4 miles to the Hermit Lake shelter are basically a wide, rocky, gently climbing road. It wasn’t too hard, but it can take away a good deal of energy if you’re not careful. And the thing was, I knew that I would need as much energy as possible in order to climb the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine.
There were a good number of other people on the trail, but it wasn’t too crowded. At the Hermit Lake shelter, there was a spectacular view of the ravine above. I could see Lion Head on the north side of the ravine (and in fact, next time I hike Washington solo, I’m going to use the Lion Head trail). So far I was making relatively good time, but I had a feeling, after seeing the immensity of the ravine, that my good time wouldn’t last. I was right.
The 1.1-mile climb from the shelter to the plateau above the headwall ascended about 1,500 vertical feet, and took over an hour and a half. The steepest part was entirely above treeline, so while I was huffing and puffing from the climb I did get to enjoy incredible views. As I approached the top of the ravine, the wind started to pick up, so I took my hat off and put it in my backpack so that it wouldn’t accidentally get blown off my head. Going up the headwall, I hiked with a German couple, sometimes ahead of them, sometimes behind them. I also met a woman who told me of the existence of a hikers’ shuttle that brought hikers down from the summit back to Pinkham Notch via the auto road. As the ascent was taking longer than I anticipated, this began to look like a better and better idea.
At the top of the headwall, it was clear that there would be no respite from the climbing; all that was left was a climb of about a thousand feet in 0.6 miles, over fragments of bare rock. This final part bore some resemblance to some of the trails on Katahdin. This part wasn’t as extreme as the Cathedral Trail on Katahdin, nor was it on a sharp ridge like the Hunt Trail below the Tableland, it was instead kind of like a much steeper version of the last half-mile of the Hunt Trail on the Tableland. I only had to use my hands a few times on this stretch, but it was still very tiring. Just below the summit, I passed a group of SCA volunteers who trying to put rocks in strategic places to make the trail more well-defined, which was definitely necessary since this stretch was not well-defined at all. I was just about spent by the time I finally reached the parking lot at the summit of Mount Washington, four hours and thirty minutes after I had begun.
The summit of Mount Washington is an elaborate series of parking lots, roads, signs, paths, and buildings. Due to the existence of the auto road and the cog railway, there were a substantial number of people at the summit. It was not too difficult to determine which people were hikers and which weren’t; the non-hikers were wearing cotton, while the hikers were not. By this time, I had already made my decision. I walked into the summit lodge and bought a ticket for the hikers’ shuttle back down the mountain.
I did this for a few reasons. First of all, if I had simply eaten my lunch at the summit and then hiked back down, assuming that the hike down took as long as the hike up (which is a perfectly reasonable assumption considering the trail – in fact, going down might have taken even longer), then I would have gotten back to the trailhead at around 7 PM. The sunset that evening was at 7 PM. Thus, if I was delayed by anything, I might not have gotten to the trailhead before it got dark. In addition, I was absolutely exhausted from the hike, and the fact is, most injuries while hiking occur on the way down, when hikers are more tired. Finally, and most importantly, I was hiking alone. If I had been with a COC group, particularly one with lots of experienced hikers and people who were certified in WFA, then I would have felt substantially more comfortable with hiking down. But since I was alone, if anything went wrong I would be completely on my own. Now, in all likelihood, if I had decided to hike down, I would probably have made it safely back to the trailhead, possibly even before 7 PM. But I simply didn’t want to take the risk that something bad might happen, especially considering that there was another option.
So I now had about 45 minutes to spend at the summit before the shuttle left. I ate my lunch, officially touched the summit cairn, and then wandered around looking at the views. The temperature was about 50 degrees, and there was not a cloud in the sky, so the weather was absolutely perfect. There were some strong winds, particularly from the west, but they weren’t too much of an issue. I was glad that I had put my hat in my backpack, especially after I saw the hats of several unsuspecting tourists get blown away (I find it highly unlikely that those hats were recovered). To the north, Mounts Jefferson, Adams, and Madison were clearly visible across the Great Gulf. To the southwest, I could see the Lakes of the Clouds Hut next to their eponymous ponds. It seemed so close, even though it’s actually 1.3 miles away from and 1,350 vertical feet below the summit. To the south I could see Boott Spur and the large, flat area between it and Mount Washington (sort of like a smaller version of the Tableland on Katahdin). And to the east the Wildcat ski area and the Carter-Moriah range reared up from Pinkham Notch. Beyond those closest mountains was a sea of hard-to-differentiate mountains in every direction. That’s probably the biggest difference between the views from Mount Washington and the views from Katahdin. From Mount Washington, you see lots of high mountains in every direction. From Katahdin, you see a few lower mountains in some directions, and then a vast, forested wilderness and a bunch of large lakes everywhere else. In addition, while the views from Washington were spectacular, there unfortunately was not a single point where I could stand and see the views in all directions at the same time. Katahdin does have a point like this.
When it was time, I hopped on the shuttle and began the ride down. Most of the other hikers on the shuttle had also done Tuckerman, and several were solo hikers as well. The driver pointed out that one of the mountains that could be seen way in the distance was Mount Blue, in Maine, which I have been to (in fact, it was my first co-lead). Sadly, Katahdin is apparently not visible from Washington even on the clearest of days. The road is narrow and has a bunch of hairpin turns, so the ride down was leisurely. The vehicles that are used for these shuttles have special braking systems designed to prevent the brakes from overheating on long, steep descents like this one. A half-hour after we left the summit, I was back at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.
Before I left, I went inside the visitor center and looked at a 3-D model of the Presidential Range, to scale and complete with trails and roads. It accurately showed just how steep the headwall of Tuckerman is, and that the headwall of Huntington is apparently even steeper. One of the AMC volunteers there showed a picture of the Huntington Ravine trail to demonstrate its steepness – the picture reminded me of the Cathedral Trail on Katahdin. With that image in mind, but with no firm plans about when I would return to Mount Washington, I drove back home.