Mount Washington Cog Railway: Ski It While You Can

Built in 1868, the Mount Washington Cog Railway has been a staple of the peak’s plentiful ski runs since skis first came to the Northeast’s highest point. But, recently, plans have come to light that could significantly change that three-mile run in the not-so-distant future.

In December, the Mount Washington Railway Company (MWRC) proposed building a new hotel and restaurant along the rail line just a mile below the mountain’s summit.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Washington has seen more human impact than most peaks. It’s not hard to find the scars of actions made decades or even centuries ago, as everything from hotels, lodges, and huts to roads and railways dots the landscape. Between a multitude of buildings, an auto road, and a railway, Mount Washington has seen more than its fair share of development, both good and bad.

No matter how you feel about the existing infrastructure throughout the Whites, it’s hard to argue that there should be more of it. The most obvious reason we don’t need another building up there? Just look at the remnants of structures built in the past, both on Mount Washington and on the Whites’ other mountains—the impact will last generations. As outdoor enthusiasts, we can almost universally agree on one thing: We should be minimizing our impact on the environment.

But, if we can’t agree on that, then maybe we can agree to not ruin a favorite ski run.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The “Easy” Way

Skiing the Cog Railway might be one of the activities that leaves me the most conflicted about Mount Washington’s infrastructure. While in the summer the railway presents an easy path to the summit for those not wanting or not able to exert the effort in getting there under their own power, in the winter, the Cog offers the most accessible way to Mount Washington’s summit for skiers and snowboarders. Ascending roughly 3,500 feet in three miles, the Cog is the shortest route to the top and involves the least amount of elevation gain. Because it is graded to be suitable for a train, it is never excessively steep, making for quick ascents and even faster descents—especially when skiing! Even better, spring is the perfect time to make the trip, as winter’s cold and windy conditions begin to subside, and the days start to get longer.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Not only does the Cog offer an easier path to the summit, it also minimizes challenging route finding. Unlike many New Hampshire backcountry ski runs, skiing the Cog has no mysteries to unlock; simply follow the rail line from its parking lot near Bretton Woods to the mountain’s summit and back down. The simplicity is incredibly beneficial when considering Mount Washington’s fierce winter weather, with the railway serving as a handrail to the summit and back.

Skiing the Cog further simplifies the logistics by reducing the likelihood of an avalanche. Unlike the more notable and steep Tuckerman Ravine, the Cog’s lower slope angle, less snow, and less wind traditionally make the snowpack more reliable and less likely to avalanche than other Mount Washington backcountry ski lines. However, in spite of its tame reputation, it’s still smart to carry a beacon, shovel, and probe, even though you probably won’t need to use them.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Summit Optional

While the Cog provides a path to the mountain’s summit, there are plenty of good turns to be had on it at lower elevations. In fact, on most occasions that I have skied there, the best turns have come down low. At 3,800 feet (a little over 1,000 feet of elevation gain), the Waumbek tank is a good stopping point for newer backcountry skiers or those just looking to run low-angle laps. Just below treeline at 4,725 feet, Jacob’s Ladder marks the turnaround point for people more interested in skiing than summiting. At a 37-percent grade, it’s also here where skiers will tackle the steepest portion of the trail. From Jacob’s Ladder, the next natural stopping point is the summit.

That is, unless the MWRC get the okay to build their hotel and restaurant. Planned for Skyline Switch, it would sit at 5,200 feet, just 1,000 feet of elevation below the summit. While some might appreciate the brief reprieve from the wind the building could offer, it would also sit blocking one of the trickier sections of the descent, as well as blemish the unique alpine landscape.

Skiing from the summit has typically involved everything from linking snow patches together to wondering why I don’t just put crampons on and walk back down. The trek to the top is mostly just for that: to touch the top. However, on a few occasions, I have been lucky enough click in and make turns right from the summit sign.

 

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Skiing the Cog Railway is one of my favorite winter trips in the Whites. It’s straightforward, offers great skiing, and allows you to descend one of the region’s most iconic peaks. Those should be reasons enough to do it, but with the uncertainty of the Cog Railway’s current state (the MWRC wants to have their hotel and restaurant open by 2019), the best time to go is right now!

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck