Alpha Guide: The Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle

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The Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle offers moderate climbing in an incredible setting on one of the Northeast’s most iconic mountains.

Break away from hopeful summiteers on the Lion Head and Tuckerman Ravine Trails and head to Huntington Ravine and the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle to find relative seclusion on one of the region’s busiest mountains. This must-do moderate alpine climb on Mount Washington, New England’s tallest and most infamous mountain, racks up the fun while delivering incredible exposure, an unprecedented view of Huntington Ravine, and one of the best pitches you’ll find anywhere, the Fairy Tale Traverse.

Quick Facts

Distance: Roughly 6 miles, loop up the Pinnacle and down the Lion Head.
Time to Complete: Full day
Difficulty: ★★★★ (5.7, Grade III)
Scenery: ★★★★★


Season: Late-May to October
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://www.fs.usda.gov/whitemountain 

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Turn-By-Turn

Most climbers approach Huntington Ravine from the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in Gorham, about a 30-minute drive from North Conway. Getting to Pinkham Notch from North Conway is very straightforward: Simply follow Route 16 North. Roughly 12 miles past the Glen intersection, the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center is on the left.

Directions are just as easy for climbers coming from the north. From Gorham, just follow Route 16 South for approximately 12 miles, and the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center will be on the right. Ample parking is available in the main lot. However, it’s common for the main parking lot to be full on busy weekends; in this case, use the overflow lot on Route 16, just south of the Visitor Center.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Approach

The approach to the Pinnacle takes two to 2.5 hours for most climbers. It begins on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail (TRT), which starts in back of the Visitor Center. This segment of the TRT is a rocky dirt road that consistently heads uphill. Follow it for about 1.7 miles, until it intersects with the Huntington Ravine Fire Road.

At the junction (44.263844, -71.277946), turn right onto the Huntington Ravine Fire Road, and follow it for about a mile, until it intersects with the Huntington Ravine Trail (HRT) (44.267830, -71.277084). The fire road is wide and flat and ideal for making good time.

Once on the HRT, follow it uphill into Huntington Ravine. The trail starts off quite mellow, but turns to boulder hopping and then talus slogging as climbers get farther into the ravine. Pinnacle Buttress is the prominent ridge on the climber’s left (south) side, and as the ravine’s most striking feature, it is hard to miss. Keep hiking up the HRT, until a well-worn climber’s path branches off left. Follow it across a stream coming down Pinnacle Gully and to the left-facing gully that marks the start of the climb. There’s a nice spot to gear up at the climb’s base (44.274509, -71.288536); just be conscious of rock fall.

For a faster approach, drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road to the seven-mile mark and then hike down the Huntington Ravine Trail, until it intersects with the climber’s path. The descent takes hikers across the Alpine Garden and then down into Huntington Ravine. Once in the ravine, the HRT is steep and exposed, so exercise caution, especially if the rock is wet. This approach isn’t for everybody, but it only takes about 40 minutes, and for an additional advantage at the end of the climb, your car is right nearby.

On top of the first pitch. | Credit: Tim Peck
On top of the first pitch. | Credit: Tim Peck

The Opening Pitches

Most climbers break the route’s first 300 feet into two 150-foot pitches. Marking the start of the climb, the first begins by climbing the bottom of the prominent left-facing gully (5.easy) to a ledge, and then continues up and right over a slab and a right-facing corner. The final corner is the pitch’s crux (5.5), but it is well-protected and easy to read. There’s a nice, albeit mildly exposed, ledge to belay on atop the corner.

The second pitch follows a well-worn footpath around bushes and over a couple of slabby sections toward an obvious alcove below another right-facing corner. The climbing itself is generally quite easy (5.2), with the crux being a step out of a runnel and onto a slab. At the alcove, there are ample gear options on climber’s right for building a belay anchor.

Pro Tip: Since getting off the Pinnacle in a storm can be an ordeal and will require leaving gear, it’s a good idea to plan on re-confirming the weather as you enter the ravine and again before you start climbing. And, while going up may not be the best option, if you’re caught in bad weather mid-climb, there are easier variations on climber’s left.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Business

The third pitch leaves the alcove and climbs the right-facing corner. Although not apparent at first glance, the corner protects well enough, with a pin in the middle and options for gear both above (medium cam) and below (small nut). The mantle onto the ledge atop the corner is the crux of the climb (5.7).

The third pitch continues above the ledge, and it is easy to get off route here. The most obvious route climbs directly up, eventually reaching an overhang with several fixed pins. But, that’s the 5.8 variation. If you do it, some thoughtful climbing takes you straight up through two pins. Then, step out left for a couple of strenuous and exposed moves protected by two more pins. Above the overhang, easy terrain heads up and right toward the Pinnacle’s final pitches. Belay here.

Remaining on the traditional route (and thus keeping the grade at 5.7) requires splitting the third pitch in two. Once atop the initial corner, head left to another corner and then climb back right up a ramp to a belay. From the belay, leave the ledge, and head down and left on a ramp until you’re under a chimney. Climb up through the chimney and to another belay ledge near the Pinnacle’s final pitches.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Interlude

Whichever variation you choose, the two routes rejoin in the easy terrain just below the Pinnacle’s last pitches. Most climbers do a very easy and short fourth pitch to get to the bottom of a large, bushy area.

Pitch 5 heads through the alpine scrub and toward a small rock step. If you’re heading for the Fairy Tale Traverse—and you should be, unless the weather is starting to turn—climb the step’s right side (5.6), hugging the edge of the arete. Continue along the edge of the arete for about 100 feet, until you reach a ledge and block near the start of the traverse. Belay here.

Since the climbing along the arete is awkward and has considerable exposure, it may feel like you’re off route. You’re not, however. If you’re at all uncertain, there are a couple of pins just left of the arete that serve as signposts.

The Fairytale Traverse. | Credit: Tim Peck
The Fairy Tale Traverse. | Credit: Tim Peck

The Money Pitch

As you belay atop Pitch 5, glance around the block. You’ll see a horizontal crack cutting straight across a smooth granite face. A little below, the face drops away, and Pinnacle Gully opens up. The upcoming pitch, known as the Fairy Tale Traverse, is fantastic. The climbing is excellent, the setting is one of the best in the East, and the exposure is tremendous. Once you start traversing, be sure to savor the moment; climbing doesn’t get much better than this.

From the belay, step down below the crack, and begin traversing, using the crack for your hands and friendly edges for your feet. Traverse the crack (5.5, ample protection) across the face, and then, follow it up for about 20 feet to a large platform. Belay here or top out first by climbing a small 25-foot step up to the blocky terrain atop the Pinnacle.

The final pitch before the top of the Pinnacle. | Credit: Tim Peck
The final pitch before the top of the Pinnacle. | Credit: Tim Peck

On Top of the Pinnacle

With the technical climbing behind you and ample places to sit comfortably, the top of the Pinnacle provides a perfect setting for switching from climbing to approach shoes, stashing the rope and rack, and getting ready to make your way back to Pinkham Notch. Before leaving, take a moment to soak up the fantastic view, with the Wildcats and Carters stretched out before you and Henderson Ridge to your left.

Pro Tip: Have a windshirt and puffy coat somewhere easily accessible in preparation for the unknown weather ahead.

Crossing the Alpine Garden. | Credit: Tim Peck
Crossing the Alpine Garden. | Credit: Tim Peck

Crossing the Alpine Garden

From the top of the Pinnacle, climbers should continue moving up the mountain, following a well-traveled footpath through the delicate alpine grasses. Eventually, the footpath gives way to a steep section of rocks and boulders that leads to the Alpine Garden Trail (44.273743, -71.292091). While it can be tempting to forge ahead toward Mount Washington’s summit or Pinkham Notch, the boulder field offers a great view of the top of the Pinnacle, and puts the route’s exposure into stark relief. Give the route one last glance before you continue on.

Located on the unprotected flanks of Mount Washington, the Alpine Garden Trail will likely have conditions different from what you experienced in Huntington Ravine. If you stashed a windshirt or puffy at the top of your pack, you’ll likely be reaching for it here. To head down via the traditional descent, follow the Alpine Garden Trail (AGT) south for a little over a half-mile to its connection with the Lion Head Trail (44.265045, -71.295601).

If you’re intent on continuing up to the summit (or if you took the Auto Road approach), turn right on the AGT and aim directly for the humongous cairn atop the intersection of the AGT and the HRT. From there, head uphill on the HRT for 0.3 miles, until it intersects with the Mount Washington Auto Road at the junction with the Nelson Crag Trail. Follow the Nelson Crag Trail 0.8 miles to the top, or if you parked at the junction, hop into your car and drive down.

Pro Tip: If you’re making a summit attempt, use good judgment, and consider the weather, time of day, and your own energy reserves before heading up. While it’s only a mile, the steep and rugged nature of the climb— combined with the weight of a rope and rack—can make it a long, slow slog.

Descending Lion Head with Tuckerman's Ravine in the background. | Credit: Tim Peck
Descending Lion Head with Tuckerman Ravine in the background. | Credit: Tim Peck

The Normal Descent

Assuming you take the normal descent route, the Lion Head Trail (LHT) below the Alpine Garden isn’t made any easier by your climbing gear’s additional weight. Hugging the outside of Tuckerman Ravine, the LHT offers a rocky, steep, and direct path to treeline. If the weather cooperates, the Lion Head proper (44.264.042, -71.291275) is a great place to stop, admire the view, and give weary legs a rest.

After dipping below treeline, the Lion Head Trail’s steep and rocky nature changes. Specifically, this section features some short up-and-down areas, slabs, and tree roots. Pay careful attention when navigating, as it is frequently wet. Finally, 1.1 miles after joining the LHT from the Alpine Garden, the trail connects with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail just below HoJos.

Back on the trail where the day began, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads climbers down the final 2.3 miles to Pinkham Notch while losing 1,800 feet in elevation. Don’t let the width deceive you, however. The trail is very rugged and presents more of a challenge than most will want at this point in the day. On a positive note, it allows you to walk side-by-side with your climbing partner, and offers an opportunity to relive the day’s best pitches, which always seems to make the descent go by faster.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • The average high temperature on Mount Washington’s summit in July is 53°F. Because of this, it’s smart to always pack a puffy coat, like the lightweight, packable, and hooded Arc’teryx Atom SL (men’s/women’s).
  • A trip up the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle involves a lot of hiking through rough terrain with a heavy pack, which is made easier with the use of a trekking pole. Black Diamond’s Distance FLZ Trekking Poles (men’s/women’s) offer the support needed for the hike in and out of Huntington Ravine, and can easily be stashed up and stowed away in your pack while you’re climbing.
  • Hauling climbing gear into Huntington Ravine is no easy task. Luckily, you can lighten your load with Black Diamond’s new Ultralight Cams (.5, .75, #1, #2, #3).
  • A lightweight rope is another easy way to keep pack weight down. The Sterling Nano IX 9.0 mm is a great choice for those heading into alpine terrain. First climbed in 1928, the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle has no monster pitches, and 60 meters is more than enough rope.
  • The Black Diamond Speed 22 is the perfect pack for a trip up the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle, big enough to handle a rope, rack, and multiple layers, plus food and water, and also compresses well and fits great while you’re climbing.

On the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck
On the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Mount Washington has rightfully earned the reputation as “home of the world’s worst weather.” So, consult Mount Washington’s forecast before leaving, and if the weather isn’t in your favor, consider another objective.
  • The Northeast Ridge is a classic route on one of the Northeast’s most popular mountains. Consider getting there early or climbing during the week to avoid the crowds.
  • This route has no bolted anchors. So, if you’re planning on three-piece anchors at every belay, plan your rack accordingly. A normal rack for the route might be 10 cams (0.3, 0.4, 0.5, 0.75, 1, 2, 3, with doubles of 0.5, 0.75, and 1), a size run of nuts (5-13), a couple of small tricams, and eight to 10 alpine draws. Climbers comfortable at the grade might bring a little less, while leaders near their limit might want to bring a little more.
  • A big day on the Rockpile deserves a big meal. Margarita Grill is located right near the intersection of Routes 302 and 16, and serves drool-worthy nachos and gigantic burritos.
  • If you’re not sure you’re up for leading the route but really want to climb it, the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School will be happy to guide you up it.

Current Conditions

Have you recently climbed the Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle? What did you think? Post your experience in the comments for others!