6 Skills to Know Before Climbing Mount Washington This Winter

Hiking Mount Washington is a feat in the warmer months, but a winter summit exposes you to extremely volatile and ferocious weather conditions on the tallest mountain in the Northeast, which means there are specific skills that you’ll want to know for this climb that may not have been as important on other winter excursions.

READ MORE: Mount Washington via the Lion Head Winter Route

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

1. Check the conditions ahead of time

Mount Washington holds records for the most extreme weather in the world. Between frigid temperatures (year round!), regular hurricane force winds, and lots of snow, you’re going to want to know what you’re getting into ahead of time. Be sure to read the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summit’s Forecast before you start climbing. The risk of frostbite and hypothermia is real, and if the wind is over 50 mph, the summit temperature near zero, or heavy snow is expected it may require you to postpone your climb. In whiteout conditions, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the amazing summit views anyway.

Avalanches are not something we often expect to need to be prepared for while hiking in the East. However, these are a real danger on Mount Washington, so check the Avalanche Forecast before you head out.

READ MORE: Safe To Climb, Reading Weather Reports for Mount Washington

Courtesy: Mount Washington Observatory
Courtesy: Mount Washington Observatory

2. Be prepared for wind to avoid frostbite

Frostbite becomes a real danger when temperatures and wind are as wild as they are on Mount Washington. Be sure to bring a balaclava and ski goggles to cover any skin from being exposed to these harsh elements. Be sure to test out the equipment before you actually leave for your hike.

3. Know how to walk in crampons

Crampons are important on Mount Washington’s icy summit but walking in them is quite different than walking in winter boots and MICROspikes.

READ MORE: How to Choose Crampons

Each foot has to be lifted horizontally off the ground and stomped into the ground in the same manner, with knees flexed and shoulder width apart. This is known as the French (or flat foot) technique, and is best for flat ground or minimal incline.  It is very easy to rip a pair of hiking pants or tripping over yourself, so be aware of your footing!

Once your trail becomes a bit steeper and you are unable to keep your feet flat on the slope, the technique that is required is known as “front point.” As you face directly into the mountain, kick the toe of your boot straight into the slope. Take very small steps, and remember that you are only using the front spikes of your crampons rather than the entire foot. This technique can be extremely tiring, so a hybrid technique may help on certain slopes.

Practice this on snow beforehand: High on Mount Washington is not the place to attempt mastering walking in crampons.

TK_EMS-Conway-6638-CH

4. Learn how to self-arrest

Attempting to summit Mount Washington in the winter is definitely more of a mountaineering feat than your average winter hike. One skill to practice and be comfortable with is using your ice axe to self-arrest and stop a slide on snow.

Hold the ice axe at the head with the pick of the axe pointing backwards. If you do slip and start to slide, bring the ice axe across your chest diagonally at shoulder level with one hand on the top of the axe with the pick now facing out, and the other hand on the shaft. Keep your arms tucked into your sides and a very firm grip on the axe. Once in this position, place as much pressure as you can on the pick of the axe to stop your slide. Arch your back, keep your knees wide, try to keep your stomach off the snow, and continue to put pressure on the pick until you slow and stop.

Take a mountaineering course from Eastern Mountain Sports Schools to get proper instruction on self-arrest, and practice is regularly before climbing Mount Washington via a snowy route like Tuckerman Ravine.

5. Stay hydrated

We have all been there: Several hours into your winter hike, starting to get parched and you reach for your water only to find that the top has been frozen. Being stuck on Mount. Washington without water is less than ideal. To prevent this from happening, fill your water bottle with boiling hot water and bury it deep in your backpack with your insulating layers, or use an insulated water bottle or Nalgene Thermos. You will probably need 2 to 3 liters of water for your hike up Mount Washington.

Credit: Andrew Drummond
Credit: Andrew Drummond

6. Don’t go at it alone

Usually hiking alone isn’t a problem, but the tough terrain on Mount Washington may make you think otherwise. If you have never hiked mountains in the Presidential Range in winter, it may be recommended to try these before you try Mount Washington. Even if you do feel you are experienced enough, the terrain is tough, cairns are often nearly impossible to find, whiteout conditions are common, and ferocious winds can make hiking alone extremely dangerous. Going with a group of similarly-experienced winter hikers, may make the dangers more manageable and enjoyable!

Do you have any other tips for climbing Mount Washington in the winter? Leave them in the comments!