Mount Washington Hike Preparation

This weekend myself and my old college buddy Milosz are heading up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for some camping, mountain biking, and to hike Mount Washington. Just a little day hike to the summit at 6,288 ft, traversing more than 8 miles of varying terrain, increasingly thinning air, strong wind, and varied weather patterns. We’ll be making the hike on either Saturday or Sunday depending on which day looks better weather-wise.

I’m no foreigner to hiking. I’ve gone hiking in the Catskill Mountains of New York since I was a child, however Mt Washington will be the most challenging mountain I’ve attempted. The varied temperatures (typically 20-30 degree difference base to summit) and weather patterns (more on this below) that we may encounter make preparation more important than on any other hike I’ve attempted. Weather on Mt Washington is a bit of a wildcard. The best way to prepare for the unknown is by packing layers — and lots of them. In addition to being prepared for thunderstorms, Mt Washington hikers need to be prepared for winter-like conditions even in the dead of summer. Since we’re hiking the mountain late in the summer (Labor Day weekend marks the end of summer) I’m definitely sticking to the recommendations. So as not to forget anything I laid out all of my gear prior to stuffing my backpack (pictured below). I determined what to pack by reading dozens of websites along with forum and blog posting but if you’re looking for something more official please review this information provided by the Mount Washington Observatory.

Drybag, 2 emergency blankets, anti-chafe stick, rain poncho (only good for low elevation & light rain), flash lite, first aid kit, divers watch, base layer shirts (both short and long sleeve), base layer compression underwear, ExOfficio Ziwa Zip-off pants, thermal pants, fleece vest, fleece jacket, rain shell/windbreaker jacket, rain shell pants, thin and thick smart wool socks, well broken in hiking boots (Timberland Gortex -- excellent for all conditions), fast-dry ski mask (great for protection during wind storm), sun glasses, winter cap, hiking pack with integrated hydration pack.

Not pictured is a utility knife, ID, and contact card. You’re probably thinking I’m nuts for packing all this gear. After laying it all out I had the same reaction but I’ve read one to many stories about unprepared hikers getting rescued from Mt Washington and I made the decision that I’d rather be over-prepared but safe and self-sufficient than under-prepared and in need of assistance or rescue.

So now that the gear was all stowed safely in my backpack It was time to make sure the load wasn’t too heavy and that the pack was comfortable. I must admit I was having a bit of difficulty getting the pack situated comfortably. That was until I found the excellent video below. The error in my ways? I was adjusting the straps in the wrong order resulting in shoulder fatigue. Thanks REI, you quite literally saved me from pain in my neck!

Video: Proper backpack adjustment by REI

So now that the gear is set how are we going to get to the summit? There are lot’s of trails — all varying lengths and difficulties — which ones are right for us? Thanks to this excellent resource we’ve decided to start from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center making the ascent via the Lion’s Head Trail and the Decent via the Tuckerman Ravine trail. This trail selection will give us a more technical albeit a little steeper climb with an easier more gradual decent. Round trip distance clicks in at right around 8.4 miles and we’re expecting to complete the hike in under 7 hours (wether permitting of course). Hopefully we’ll reap the benefits of the less popular Lion’s Head trail — fewer crowds and great views (also weather permitting). I’ve included a trail map below.

View Mount Washington in a larger map

Mt. Washington Trails. The Pinkham Notch parking area is location on the bottom right.

One of the biggest factors that make hiking Mt Washington so difficult are the notoriously unpredictable weather conditions. Mt Washington holds a reputation for having the worlds worst weather, and, until recently, held the world record for the fastest recorded wind at 231 MPH. It’s possible to start a hike on a beautiful June morning and hit both Thunderstorms and a Blizzard before reaching the summit. Weather is so unpredictable that conditions should be checked minutes before beginning a hike and several times during before making the commitment to head for the summit. This week alone daytime summit temperatures have varied between 43 and 56 degrees Fahrenheit and when accounting for windchill the temperature has been as low as 35. Like I mentioned above — Layers!!! For inquiring minds I’ve embedded real-time weather conditions for the summit below.

Current Mount Washington Conditions

I’ll be posting a follow up sometime after the hike but it probably won’t be until sometime Tuesday or Wednesday — unless I have the strength and manage to acquire internet access on Monday. If I have a signal on my cell phone I’ll post a quick status update on twitter once we’re safely back at camp.

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3 Responses to Mount Washington Hike Preparation

  1. Your preparedness is impressive! I hope you guys have a great time, while I’ll be happy with my feet firmly planted on a non-mountain. Be safe!