This prominent mountain is located in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. The summit stands at 6288′ above sea level and is the highest peak in the northeast. It was known to the original inhabitants of the area as Agiocochook. There are a few translations for the name such as “home of the great spirit” or “home of the storm spirit”. Each can be considered appropriate, especially the latter, given the history of the mountain’s weather.
The first person of European ancestry to climb Mt. Washington was Darby Field, in 1642. He was an Indian translator and was aided by them on his journey. The purpose of Darby Fields climb remains debated. Some say he was looking for treasure or seeking shorter fur trading routes. The mountain might have been called Cristall or Crystal Hill by some early settlers. In 1874 it received the current name in honor, of course, to General George Washington.
In the following years, the summit would be climbed for scientific study and recreation. In the mid-1800’s the first of many summit buildings were built to accommodate guests drawn to the windswept peak. In April of 1934, a record surface wind speed was recorded on the summit at 231 MPH.
Today, Mt. Washington is climbed by adventurous hikers looking for a challenge. To do this safely, hikers must take into account the unpredictable weather characteristics of the summit as well as the surrounding mountain range. It is best to carry clothing and gear appropriate for the worst conditions possible and pay close attention to the conditions should they begin to change. The old saying “prepare for the worst and hope for the best” applies here.
Hiking up the Lions Head Trail
The hike below was done in mid-October just after the New England fall foliage erupts in color across the White Mountains. It was October 17, 2003. A little past peak, but the valley trees still had a bit of color left in them. The higher elevations were starting to receive light snow on the colder days which can add another level of difficulty as well as an even more rewarding sense of beauty.
I decided to hike up the Lions Head Trail. Which is the preferred winter route. The weather at the summit was 20F with 50-70MPH gusts (-5F wind chill), light snow and freezing fog. The valley forecast was 50-55F, 10MPH winds and sunny. I decided on the Lions Head route thinking if things got to dangerous I should be able to get back down to an elevation that was suitable for a safe retreat.
Starting near the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center, I hiked up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the junction with the Lions Head Trail. The trail was dusted with light snow and the cloud cover was on and off with the winds. Just the kind of wild weather I had read about for the mountain. As I hiked above treeline I ran into another hiker named Bill. He had climbed mountains all over the world and was doing a training hike for an upcoming winter trip in the Adirondacks. We decided to stay together for safety reasons, especially since we had not seen any other hikers in a while.
The trail above treeline in the snow, wind and freezing fog was certainly challenging but doable. The cairns marking the trail remained visible and we had the right clothing for the conditions. Rime ice was thickly stuck to any trail signs or protruding obstacles. Once we reached the summit, we were fortunately able to go inside the visitors center for a warm up and a rest. It did not close for the year yet (I think it was going to close in the next couple days for the season).
After a rest on the summit, we suited back up into our winter gear and headed out. We decided with the deteriorating conditions, to walk down the Mt. Washington Auto Road. It was closed to traffic and easy to follow in the stormy conditions. We followed the Auto Road down to a trail called the Old Jackson Road which was able to bring us back over to the starting point of our hike at Pinkham Notch.
Lions Head Trail Via Tuckerman Ravine Trail to Mt. Washington Summit:
Distance: 4.1 Miles
Elevation Gain: 4,250 Feet
Mt. Washington Auto Road to Pinkham Notch via Old Jackson Road: 7.5 miles
For more information on Mt. Washington: https://www.mountwashington.org/
AMC White Mountain hiking guide with maps:
The United States Forest Service Site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/whitemountain/home