Famous U.S. Summits: Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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No mountain in the Northeast is as famous as New Hampshire’s 6,288-foot Mount Washington. Since 1524, the year of its first recorded sighting by an explorer who spotted it from the Atlantic Ocean, it’s been the most visible and talked-about mountain in the region—and not just because it’s the tallest peak around.

The Legend

On a sunny summer day, the summit of New England’s highest peak can look deceptively unlike one of the deadliest mountains in America. There’s a visitor center, gift shop, cafeteria, parking lot at the end of the paved road to the top, and cog railway to the summit. There are no avalanches ripping down its faces, no steep pinnacles, and pretty much anyone with a decently reliable car can top out. But give it a chance, even on a sunny day, and Mount Washington will show you its less-welcoming side. As any Northeast hiker will tell you, just because you can drive a car or take a train to the top doesn’t mean climbing it is easy or to be taken lightly. Mount Washington has long been a magnet for hiking, skiing and climbing, in all seasons, and a symbol of Northeast mountain culture.

The Classic Hikes

Of all the routes to the summit, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is the most popular. At 4.1 miles one-way with 4,000-plus-feet of elevation gain, it’s a stout day hike. For 2.4 miles, the route gradually climbs to the Hermit Lake shelters at the base of the amphitheater-shaped Tuckerman Ravine. Here’s where the real business begins—there are still 2,400 vertical feet of switchbacks through the rocky headwall to the summit, in only 1.7 miles of trail. On a clear day, the view from the summit extends into four states (Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont), as well as Canada and the Atlantic Ocean.

Mount Washington also is a waypoint on two of the East’s most famous hikes: the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine; and the 23-mile Presidential Traverse, walkable in a long summer day by fit, experienced hikers, but often backpacked over three days in the wintertime.

The Worst Weather in the World

Plenty of people will tell you that Mount Washington has “the worst weather in the world.” Turns out that’s not exactly true. It is in fact incredibly harsh—the summit is home to the convergence of several storm tracks and what was for many years the highest recorded wind speed on earth (231 mph on April 12, 1934).

However, the source of that esteemed weather moniker might have been an article that found it actually wasn’t. In the December 1940 issue of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s magazine, Appalachia, meteorology professor Charles Brooks wrote a story titled, “The Worst Weather in the World.” After comparing penetrating qualities of wind, low temperatures, snowfall and freezing fog, he summarized, "It appears that while we cannot claim that Mount Washington is at times colder than anywhere else on earth, the severity of its climate at the worst seems to be equalled or slightly exceeded only on the very highest mountains of middle or high latitudes and in Antarctica's 'Home of the Blizzard.'" It’s worth noting, though, that the summit temperature has never risen above 73 degrees Fahrenheit, and Mount Washington is not a place to be caught outside unprepared, as plenty of fatalities have shown us.

Deadliest Mountain In America

Its popularity for hikers, skiers and climbers, and the bad weather that catches some of those people unawares, makes Mount Washington arguably the deadliest mountain in America. Since 1849, more than 130 people have met their demise on its heights. The temperature at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, where many summit hikes begin, can be 25 degrees warmer than at the summit—and the weather can shift rapidly. Many hikers, caught out unprepared for rainstorms and dropping temperatures, have died of hypothermia or exposure.

Skiing

Tuckerman Ravine, in addition to being the most popular summertime hiking route to the summit of Mount Washington, is also the centerpiece of East Coast backcountry skiing. Skiing Tucks is a springtime tradition; after all of the area ski resorts have closed, many a skier has gotten his or her first off-piste turns in the steep snow there. Every weekend in late April and early May, skiers hike their gear up the trail to the huts at the base of the ravine alongside hikers who just come to watch the skiing (and sometimes party).

Since the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps built a trail from Pinkham Notch to the base of the ravine and a warming hut at the end of the trail, skiers have flocked to the bowl after the spring snow has consolidated and avalanche danger has mellowed. In the early years after the hut was built, Tucks was home to ski races, from college-level to Olympic tryouts. The most famous run of Tucks was racer Toni Matt's in the 1939 American Inferno. Because of low visibility, Matt couldn't see very far ahead, and ended up schussing the Headwall, hitting an estimated speed of 85 mph and setting a course record of 6 minutes, 29 seconds—even more impressive considering the winning time five years earlier was 12 minutes, 35 seconds.

Today, 10 different lines run the walls of Tucks, all steep, and all with variable snow conditions—an adventurous first backcountry outing for any skier.

Alpinism

All that bad weather that makes Mount Washington dangerous, plus 250 inches of snowfall each year, make it a great place for alpinism. Guide services on Alaska’s Mount McKinley consider a winter climb of Mount Washington an adequate prerequisite for a McKinley trip. The Harvard Mountaineering Club, whose most famous member, the late Bradford Washburn, made many Alaskan first ascents, has long used Mount Washington as a training ground for bigger peaks. Its most famous moderate ice climb, Pinnacle Gully, was first climbed in 1930 by Julian Whittlesey and Sam Scoville—and is staggering considering it predated the invention of curved-pick ice tools by almost four decades. It remains a highly sought-after ice climb for many New Englanders.

Hike It

Once the snow melts, take a hike on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail: 8.2 miles round-trip, 4,250 feet of elevation gain.

Get an early start and bring clothing for changing weather conditions.

Getting There

From Boston, take I-95 North to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and exit onto NH 16. Drive northwest on NH 16 to Ossipee, and exit onto NH 25. Drive east on NH 25 five miles and turn left onto NH 153. Drive north on NH 153 to Conway. From Conway, drive north on NH 16 for 11 miles to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

From Portland, Maine, drive northwest on US 302 W to Conway, NH, and turn north onto NH 16 N. Follow NH 16 north 23 miles to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

From Albany, New York, take I-787 to Troy, New York, and turn onto US 7 North. Drive north on US 7 to Manchester, Vermont, and turn onto VT 30. Drive east on VT 30 to its intersection with VT 11, and continue east on VT 11 to Chester. In Chester, drive east on VT 103 to the town of Rockingham, and get on I-91 North. Take I-91 North for 93 miles and merge onto I-93 South. Drive south on I-93 to exit 40, and merge onto US 302 to Twin Mountain, NH. From Twin Mountain, drive north on NH 115 to its intersection with US 2, then east on US 2 to Gorham. From Gorham, drive south 10 miles on NH 116 to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

More information

Mount Washington Observatory
New Hampshire State Parks
Appalachian Mountain Club
Northeast Hikes

Phtography by ©Brian Mohr / EmberPhoto

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