Hiking Mt. Washington --
The Seven Deadly Sins
by Cliff Calderwood

Every year on Mt. Washington a hiker gets into difficulties and needs
rescuing. Some year there’s more than others. On occasions the outcome is
tragic. (See related story on
hiking safety).

135 people have lost their lives on or around the mountain since 1849, more
than on Mt McKinley -- the tallest mountain in North America. There are two
primary contributing factors to this high death toll -- the size of the mountain
and its location.

Mt. Washington is one of my favorite destinations in New England. But I’ve
learned not only to enjoy the mountain but respect it as well. In this article I’ll
elaborate on the two factors I mentioned earlier. I’ll also cover the things that
get hikers into trouble and how to avoid them so you don’t become a statistic
of the mountain.

At 6,288 feet Mt. Washington is no giant. And the fact many people can, and
do, hike to the summit successfully without any prior major climbing
experience, leads some hikers to underestimate the danger lurking on its
slopes.

It’s been written Mt. Washington is within one day’s drive of 70 million people.
The point is the mountain is accessible. Every year a quarter of a million
people visit the summit -- most drive the auto road to the top or take the cog
railway.

Still, a large number wanting to get close up and personal with the mountain,
hike one of the trails to the summit. Pinkham Notch on the eastern flank is base
camp for the more popular trails. And at 8:00 a.m. on a warm and cloudless
morning with scores of people creating an almost festive atmosphere, danger
seems remote.

But this mountain is in the direct path of three major storm tracks in the
Northeast of North America, and its exposure means the difference in
temperature between base and the summit can be 30 degrees.

Snow has fallen in all twelve months of the year.

JUST FOR THE RECORD...

The Mt. Washington Observatory has recorded the highest wind speed on land
of 231 mph, and averages 256 inches of snow each year. Hurricane force winds
occur on average about every three days at the summit, which is also covered
in dense fog 60 percent of the time.

The climate on Mt. Washington mirrors that of Northern Labrador hundreds of
miles to the Canadian north. All these facts contribute to its reputation of
having the "worst weather in the world."

So why would so many thousands of people risk their lives to hike this
inhospitable and dangerous place?

Well, with the right preparation and approach the mountain hike can be made
safe ... and did I mention the views? Can you pronounce
spectacular?

The fact is there are no easy hikes to the summit -- one way or another you
have to climb at least 4,200 feet depending on the trail you choose. And some
days it really is best to turn back, even if you’re within 700 feet of the summit.
But Tuckerman’s, or Boott Spur, or Lion’s Head trails offer some of the most
scenic views in the whole of the White Mountains.  And these are views
reserved only for those prepared to shun the auto road or the cog railway and
endure the strenuous hike.

So where do people go wrong, and turn what should be one of the most
memorable experiences of their life into a deadly game with the elements?

I’ve boiled it down to seven deadly sins, which are easily avoided by common
sense, and some basic Boy and Girl Scout skills.

And the sins are...

1. "Hiking Alone  Suits me Just Fine!"

Remember the sign on trucks that say: "If you can’t see my mirror, then I can’t
see you!" Well, similarly on Mt. Washington if nobody is with you, or knows
where you’re going, then nobody will know if you don’t get there.  Hiking this
mountain with friends or a group is not only safer but also more enjoyable. A
group size of 4-6 is best, but hiking in the White Mountains on your own is for
hermits and the bears.

2. Wandering From the Trail is Fun

Also in the category of fun is wandering into dense fog, getting lost, falling
down a ravine, and suffering with hypothermia. Getting rescued on Mt.
Washington can sometimes require you spend the night on the mountain until
help arrives -- life threatening even in the summer. Above treeline keep as
close to the Cairns as possible -- they are there for a good reason.

3. The Weather Forecast is for the Beach

Blindly taking a chance the weather will be fine or get better is foolhardy.  
Check the weather reports and predictions the day before and be prepared to
postpone your hike. If you encounter poor visibility or worsening conditions
when climbing be prepared to turn around and live to hike another day.

4. Packing Extra Clothing Slows Me Down!

Heat exhaustion and hypothermia also slow you down. Above treeline the
temperature drops dramatically and the wind can pick up a "head of steam."
Dress in layers so you can add and subtract as necessary, and pack extra warm
clothing -- a fleece is good and a change of clothes in case sweat or rain soaks
everything. As a runner I can attest to the fact wet socks = blisters. Keep dry as
your body loses heat three times as fast when it’s wet.

5. Trail Maps are for Sissies

Real hikers rely on intuition and a "can do" attitude to get to their destination --
until they realize they "can’t do it" because they’re lost! Purchase trail maps
and know your route and the difficulty BEFORE you start. Getting on a trail
beyond your capability can really stress you out and ruin your day. Use the
signs and Cairns to keep you on the trail once you start. The AMC produces a
wonderful set of trail maps and descriptions you can buy at their website and
at the Pinkham Notch visitor center.

6. Survival Packs are for Scouts in the Woods

And I’d rather hike with a scout any day! As corny as it sounds -- be prepared
for the worst and enjoy the best! A basic scout survival pack takes up
minimum space and consists of: a compass, whistle, matches, rain gear, pocket
knife, extra food and water, first aid kit, and a small flashlight.

7. Getting to the Top with the Fewest Stops is the Goal

As far as I know there’s nobody at the summit that’ll greet you with a gold
medal or a lucrative sponsorship if you climb without the aid of great gulps of
oxygen. Make frequent rest stops to avoid fatigue, especially in hot weather.
Take plenty of water and energy bars. It’s easy to get wrapped-up in the climb
and then find yourself exhausted and stuck above tree line and no shade for
recovery. Also make sure you have some snacks that contain protein, because
you’ll need it for the journey down, which in many respects can be as grueling
on the body as the ascent.

A FINAL WORD...

Allow 9-10 hours for a round trip hike to the summit on one of the trails from
Pinkham Notch. Depending on the trail or trails you use you’ll be climbing
4,300 feet over a distance of 4-5 miles.

A good first time ascent trail on the eastern slopes is Boott Spur to Davis Path
and the Lawn Cut-off. Let the weather and your condition decide whether you
make the final 700 feet hike to the summit. This route offers wonderful views
and a more gradual climb -- not much though!

For an invigorating return journey to Pinkham Notch take the Lion’s Head trail
which will take you down the opposite side of Tuckerman Ravine.

Hiking Mt. Washington to the summit is a wonderful experience but it’s a
strenuous climb and demands you be in excellent physical condition. If you’re
healthy and fit and avoid the seven deadly sins others have made, then you’ll
join an elite group of hikers whose body has climbed Mt. Washington.

For more details on other destinations click here:
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The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
The summit of Mt. Washington.  Photo by Cliff Calderwood.
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...celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont!
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