Gift Guide: What Your Loved One Needs to Hike Mount Washington in Winter

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for an adventurous friend or family member on your list this holiday, but nothing you’ve seen in the stores speaks to you, consider pivoting away from the “Christmas list” and help them tick something off their bucket list instead.

A winter ascent of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington via the Lion Head Winter Route is a must-do trip for any hiker or aspiring mountaineer. When it comes to the Northeast’s tallest mountain—and the most prominent peak east of the Mississippi—reaching Mount Washington’s summit is an achievement in any season. But, it’s the mountain’s reputation for having “the world’s worst weather,” which is even more notorious in winter, that puts the Lion Head Winter Route on so many people’s life lists and makes it fairly demanding in the gear department. So, to jump-start your loved one on the path to a worthy adventure, supply them with some of the items on this list.

Alpha Guides

1. The Beta

While you can’t give the person on your list the perfect conditions or strong hiking legs, you can give the gift of inspiration with goEast’s “Alpha Guide: Mount Washington via the Lion Head Winter Route.”

2. The Right Amount of Traction

A climb up the Lion Head Winter Route begins benignly enough on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Trees protect it from the weather, and it’s wide enough for hiking shoulder to shoulder, and starting from just behind the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, climbers simply follow the trail to the cutoff for the Lion Head Winter Route. Depending on the winter, this portion may present anything from ice-covered rocks to well-packed snow. Either way, Kahtoola MICROSpikes are safer than booting up the trail without traction devices and allow for faster movement than hiking in crampons.

3. Tackle the Steeps

Next up is one of the Lion Head Winter Route’s cruxes: a steep, semi-technical, 100-foot-long rocky section. After that, it’s a steep climb toward treeline and the Lion Head proper. Equipment like the Black Diamond Sabretooth Crampon and Raven Ice Axe are essential from this steep portion to the summit.

4. Keep the Inside Warm

Many parties pause just below the crux to don their gear and replenish fluids from the first hour-plus of hiking. If the person on your list has a thermos, like the Hydro Flask 32 oz. Wide Mouth, it’s a great opportunity to have something warm to drink, and battle another of the route’s challenges—staying warm. It’s amazing what a difference a sip of hot cocoa or tea can make for keeping the body warm and spirits high.

5. Remember Their Digits

With average winter temperatures below freezing at Pinkham Notch and in the single digits on Mount Washington’s summit, preparation for the cold is key. An insulated glove, like the Black Diamond Dirt Bag, is fantastic for this section. Yaktrax Hand Warmers are another welcome sight in any mountaineer’s stocking, as they’re excellent for warming frozen fingers when tucked into gloves or mittens. Or, a hiker can throw them into a pocket near their body to warm up their core.

Credit: Chris Bennett
Credit: Chris Bennett

6. Brave the Wind

Above the Lion Head proper, hikers encounter another difficulty. The rest of the route is above treeline, thus extending exposure to the full fury of the weather, especially the wind. In fact, the second-highest wind speed ever, 231 mph, was recorded on Mount Washington.

To anticipate these conditions, the climber on your list will want a warm winter hat, like Smartwool’s The Lid, weatherproof gloves, such as the EMS Summit (men’s/women’s), and a neck gaiter (our favorite is the Smartwool Neck Gaiter). They will also want to carry goggles (ideally two pairs, in case one set freezes), a balaclava, like the Black Diamond BD Balaclava, and heavyweight mittens, such as the Black Diamond Mercury (men’s/women’s), in the event of extreme weather.

7. The Right Amount of Insulation

A good puffy coat is mandatory for climbing Mount Washington in the winter. We, in fact, like to carry two. A puffy with active insulation, such as the Outdoor Research Ascendant Hoody (men’s/women’s), is perfect for staying warm while you’re moving up the mountain on the coldest winter days. As well, a traditional puffy, like the Black Diamond Cold Forge Jacket (men’s/women’s), is great when you’re taking breaks, standing on the summit, or in case of an emergency.

8. Stay Safe

So that a dream trip doesn’t turn into a nightmare, consider getting the person on your list a GPS watch, like the Suunto Ambit3, which allows hikers to retrace a route backwards or input a route to follow. In addition, an emergency bivy, like the Adventure Medical Kit SOL Escape Bivy, can be the difference between coming home with a great story and being another statistic that proves Mount Washington’s deadly reputation. 28 people have succumbed to hypothermia on the mountain since records started being kept in 1849.

Credit: Tim Peck

9. Pack It All Up

As we’ve already mentioned, a trip up the Lion Head Winter Route requires a lot of gear. Just to name a few essentials, you’ll need crampons and an ice axe for the steep and icy terrain, a multitude of layers, goggles, puffies, and a camera for that mantle-worthy summit shot. So, help the person on your list transport everything in comfort, all without being weighed down, with a high-quality mountaineering pack, like the Black Diamond Speed 40. Designed for carrying crampons and ice axes, it also has enough interior volume to ensure no critical gear gets left behind.

10. Get Help

If you think the person on your list has the desire to climb Mount Washington in winter, but not the necessary skills to get up and back safely, consider sending them with the EMS Climbing School, the oldest climbing school in the East. EMS runs guided trips up the Lion Head throughout the season and also provides a handful of two-day trips involving an overnight at the Mount Washington Observatory.