Top 5 Beginner Mountaineering Objectives in the Lower 48

How do you climb some of the biggest mountains in the world? Simple, you start on smaller ones.

If you have your eyes set on the likes of Everest, Denali, or even Mont Blanc, there are plenty of breathtaking beginner mountains you can start climbing in the next few months (with proper training and skill acquisition), that will help you prepare for larger summits.

But where do you begin?

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Mountaineering Basics

Mountaineering is a general term that refers to climbing big mountains in snowy and icy conditions. This style requires knowledge of movement on snow and ice, and tends to follow standard routes with less technical climbing, at least for beginners. At high altitudes, weather and environmental conditions are harsher than at lower ranges (for example, 80mph winds, whiteout conditions, and rock fall), which makes this a more challenging endeavor than hiking.

Winter hiking and backpacking are great ways to develop mountaineering techniques at lower elevations with less hazards.

Mountaineers should have experience and the skills related to glacier travel, traveling on a rope team, use of an ice axe for self-arrest and self-belay, crampon technique, anchor building on rock, snow and ice, hazard recognition (crevasses, rockfall, serac fall, etc.), traditional rock climbing, knowledge of climber’s knots, crevasse rescue, route finding, wilderness first aid, and much more. The breadth of skills needs to be paired with requisite gear and knowledge of best practices for equipment usage.

Given the broad and deep skill base, it is prudent to gradually develop your techniques and attempt increasingly more challenging climbs over time. It is much safer to refine your abilities in lower risk environments than to find yourself in a high-exposure situation lacking (or missing) the proper tools and knowledge.

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What Makes a “Beginner” Mountaineering Objective

Beginner mountaineering routes will incorporate fundamental techniques on easier terrain in the spring and summer months. For these objectives, they will take less than a day to summit and stick to Class 3 climbing and below. Generally, they will require snowshoes, crampons and an ice axe, but not roping up.

Seasons and Weather

The spring and summer are high season for mountaineering in the larger mountains in the U.S., including Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and Mount Hood. These months generally run from April through September. Compared to winter, you have longer days but also a higher risk of sunburn or snow blindness. Some routes are best attempted earlier in the season to avoid rock fall. Winter ascents are a serious advance in difficulty due to harsher and more tempestuous weather conditions.

The climate at higher elevations is much different than the forecast at the base, and weather can change drastically in the mountains. Your best bet is to wait for a good weather window, and to pay attention to the dynamic conditions. As a rule of thumb, storms come from the south in winter and north in summer. Climbers often leave early in the morning (before sunrise) in order to be on the snow and ice before the sun starts to warm things up, increasing chances of rock and icefall.

Adjusting to the Altitude

The body requires time at a higher altitude to adapt to the lower levels of oxygen. A variety of maladies can occur at these heights, including Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Cerebral Edema, and Pulmonary Edema. These can be lethal. Not everybody is adapted for life in the mountains, so you want to progress gradually and pay attention to how you are responding. Generally, teams ascend to higher elevations during the day, then descend for rest at a lower camp, in preparation of a summit push.

Now let’s put it all together and consider some beginner mountaineering routes. Let’s emphasize again, these should only be attempted after proper physical training, skill practice, and preparation.

The Mountaineer's Route is the first large snow gully to the right of the summit pinnacle. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns
The Mountaineer’s Route is the first large snow gully to the right of the summit pinnacle. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns

High Sierras, California

Mount Shasta’s Clear Creek is the standard route on the southeast face. The route is about 5 miles and 7,600 feet of elevation one way, with some Class 2 climbing through a boulder field. Note that the trail is inaccessible in winter and early spring, though snow will still cover parts of the mountain through the summer.

The Mountaineer’s Route on Mount Whitney is a class 3 route with steep trail, with about 6,000 feet of elevation gain over 5 miles. Fast parties can summit in 10 hours in the summer, and it’s a good test for your route finding skills. Mount Whitney is the high point of the lower 48 states.

Looking up at Mount Adams from a camp on te nearby Mazama Glacier. The South Ridge is to the left. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Looking up at Mount Adams from a camp on te nearby Mazama Glacier. The South Ridge is to the left. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Cascades, Washington and Oregon

South Sister in Oregon via the south side route climbs the third tallest mountain in the state but is class 3 climbing at worst. The path starts from the Green Lakes, and is 12.4 miles round trip, with about 5,000 feet in elevation gain. It also features eight glaciers, so you can practice your snowshoe, ice axe, and crampon technique.

Mount Adams’s South Spur Route route offers an easy and popular snow climb in the eastern Cascade range in Washington. It can be done in 1 or 2 days and is known to be thigh-busting, rising 6,676 feet over 5.7 miles, with a max angle of 30 degrees.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The White Mountains, New Hampshire

Mount Washington via the Lion Head Winter Route is best known for holding some of the worst weather in the world, which may surprise observers who see only the 6288-foot height of the mountain. This particular route is the least technical way to summit in the winter, but still offers a steep, icy ascent and the potential for very high winds at the top.

 

No matter where you are starting from, you can find an appropriate mountain goal to take you to the next level. Remember: Savor the inspiration that comes with big mountain climbing, be realistic in your progression plan, and research and prepare more than you think is necessary. 


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.

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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!


How Important Is Winter Sun Protection?

We all have that friend who says, “Meh, it’s January. I don’t need to worry about sunscreen,”—Or maybe you are that friend. It’s easy to think that the sun is not as strong since the average highs in the the winter months are more like 15 to 20 degrees, instead of 75. But don’t let the low temperatures have you fooled—It takes only one bluebird day on the mountain to get a second degree burn all over your face. If you’re the type that usually wears sunscreen only in the warmer months, take the following into consideration before stepping out of the cabin.

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Why is the sun so potent in the winter?

Here in the Northeast, we are pretty far from the equator, which means that for about six months of the year, we are pretty far from direct solar rays. But regardless of geographical latitude, there are some hidden factors that make winter sun exposure scary.

Elevation increases sun intensity and exposure. The atmosphere is thinner and there is less of it blocking the suns rays from hitting you than when you’re at sea level. With every 3,280 feet you gain from sea level, UV levels increase by about 10 percent.

The other factor increasing your exposure to UV rays in the winter is all that white stuff that we love to romp in. Snow can reflect up to 80 percent of the overhead UV rays, and inevitably increases the angles at which sun will hit you. Meaning, rays will be coming at you from below and the periphery, hitting spots where, normally, “the sun don’t shine.”

What parts of my body should I protect?

Fortunately, most of our skin is already protected from the sun during the winter, because of the clothing we need to stay comfortable outdoors. However, the head and upper torso are still likely to be uncovered, especially during high-exertion activities like nordic skiing and snowshoeing. Prominent facial features like your nose, cheeks, and lips are most susceptible to sun damage from the direct UV rays overhead. The areas often-forgotten are usually hit hardest by the reflected UV rays: think underneath your chin, the bottom of your nose around your nostrils, and your neck. Pay special attention to your peepers this time of year too. The intense sun overhead and reflection off a bright white layer of snow can really do a number on your eyes and lead to snow blindness: a temporary loss of vision due to sunburned corneas.

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How do I prevent sun damage?

There are a handful of options to protect your skin and eyes from harmful solar rays, ranging from skin care and apparel accessories to sunglasses and ski goggles.

Skin Care

Sunscreen is a classic option for protecting skin on your face without physically covering up. Look for a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 and broad-spectrum coverage. A really convenient option is sunscreen that comes in a solid form like Beyond Coastal’s Active Face Stick. These make it easy to apply on the spot without taking off your mittens, and it will fit in your pocket. Whatever form you choose, just don’t forget to re-apply every hour or two.

Apparel Accessories

For days when it is brutally cold or the wind is barreling out of control, physically covering your skin will likely be the best option for sun and weather protection. Balaclavas are a face mask, neck gaiter, and helmet liner all sewn into one accessory. For the best protection, opt for one that offers full face coverage, as it can always be pulled down or rolled up to allow for increased breathability. For days when it’s not frigid, neck gaiters are a versatile piece that will cover just your neck, or can be pulled up and over your cheeks and nose for all-over protection while providing a little bit of insulation.

Eye Protection

Sunglasses will be the most versatile choice for eye protection. In addition to lenses that offer 100 percent UVA and UVB protection, they should have a wrap-around frame or have side shields on the arms to provide lateral protection from the sun’s rays. Glacier sunglasses are super dark and are designed specifically for protection from snow glare and are great for winter trekking and mountaineering. Ski goggles are your eyes best line of defense when skiing or riding. Opt for goggles that feature lenses filtering 100 percent of UV rays.

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The sun doesn’t take a break at any point in the year from emitting UV radiation. Considering this is the number one cause of skin cancer, among other damaging skin conditions, it’s important to take preventative measures to protect your skin during all seasons, even if much of it is spent bundled up from head to toe. You’ll be glad when those rosy cheeks don’t turn into a blistering mess.


How to Choose Crampons

When the mountains are covered in snow and summer’s flowing waterfalls turn into ribbons of ice, traction is the name of your winter travel game. But, when your objectives get more serious, crampons should be your footwear of choice. Whether you’re simply looking to climb a snow gully or become a mixed climbing master, you’re going to need crampons to keep from sliding off the snow and rock. Different crampon types suit different needs, though, so you’ll want to make sure you have the right hardware.

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The Three Types

How you attach a set to your boots distinguishes one crampon type from another and offers insight into their intended use. There are three common attachment methods:

Step-In

Providing the most secure attachment, step-in crampons are a popular choice for technical objectives. In fact, you’ll frequently see them adorning the feet of ice climbers, technical mountaineers, and ski mountaineers. Step-in crampons use a lockable heel tab and a wire toe bail to securely stay in place on the boot. This setup requires that your boots have heel and toe welts for the tab and toe bail to clip into.

Almost all types feature some kind of webbing. For step-in models, the webbing prevents the crampon from taking a ride to the bottom of a route, in the event the attachment comes loose.

Hybrid

These crampons use the same lockable heel tab found on step-in models, but, instead of a step-in toe bail, have a flexible plastic loop that extends over the toe box. Hybrid crampons are commonly used with alpine climbing boots, which sacrifice an integrated toe welt for improved climbing ability without crampons.

Because of this, the webbing loop plays a more significant role on hybrid crampons. It helps keep the front secured to the boot and the heel lock engaged.

Strap-On

Because you can use them with almost any type of footwear, including mountaineering boots, hiking boots, snowboard boots, and approach shoes, strap-on crampons are the most versatile type. For this reason, they suit the person looking for one pair to do it all, although they’re best for walking activities, as opposed to climbing. Using the same type of flexible toe piece as hybrid models, strap-on crampons replace the lockable heel tab with another flexible plastic piece that wraps around the heel.

GO: Step-In | Strap-On

Courtesy: Petzl
Courtesy: Petzl

Number of Points

The number of points featured further indicates a crampon’s intended use. In general, there are two configurations: 10-point and 12-point. 10-points are ideal for basic mountaineering routes and snow climbs—for example, the Lion Head Winter Route. 12-points, meanwhile, are better suited for technical mountaineering routes and ice climbs, like Shoestring Gully.

Front Points

The orientation of the front points also shows where they will excel. Crampons with horizontal front points are best used for snow climbs and glacier travel, as the wide footprint provides more purchase in soft conditions, such as snow.

Vertical front points are the clear choice for ice and mixed climbing. In these instances, the points act like the pick of an ice tool, making them more adept at penetrating hard ice. Also, because the orientation aligns with the ice’s grain, vertical front points fracture ice less than horizontal front points.

Mono and Offset Front Points

Front points also have a number of other distinguishing characteristics. For vertical front points, mono points (i.e., a single vertical front point) have increased in popularity with ice, mixed, and alpine climbers. Mono points offer more precision than dual points and can fit into pockets, cracks, and grooves more easily.

Many high-end crampons allow users to switch between dual and mono points (modular front points). This feature enables climbers to reconfigure their crampons for particular activities and objectives. As another advantage, the front points can be replaced. As a result of sharpening, front points become shorter and less effective over the course of time. To learn more about sharpening your crampons, read 8 Tips to Prep for Ice Climbing Season.

Offset front points are another recent trend. Specifically, the crampon has two front points but one is longer than the other. Offset crampons, whether horizontal or vertical, offer the increased precision of a mono point with the better stability of a dual-point model.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Secondary Points

Secondary points also determine whether the crampon is intended for basic snow travel or technical climbing. As a good rule of thumb, the more aggressive and significant the points directly behind the front points are, the better the crampon is for technical and vertical climbing.

Materials

Crampons are primarily constructed using two materials: steel or aluminum. Steel offers superior durability and corrosion resistance compared to aluminum. Therefore, these crampons are ideal for technical ice, mixed climbs, and alpine climbs. Steel’s strength comes at a cost, however, as these are heavier than aluminum crampons. Due to their lighter weight, aluminum crampons are fantastic for glacier travel, ski mountaineering, and snow climbing.

Anti-Balling Plates

These small pieces of plastic prevent snow from getting packed between your boots and crampons, and are essential if you’re going to be traveling on snow. Anti-balling plates attach to the crampon’s bottom to prevent snow and ice from caking up and sticking while you hike or climb. And, because you’ll likely see at least some snow, they come standard on almost all modern models.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Sizing Crampons

Most every crampon consists of two components, the front and heel pieces, connected by a center bar. The center bars typically have a string of holes, which let you adjust the crampons. In turn, the pair covers a wide range of foot sizes and can be sized to your specific boot. If you have really big feet, however, keep in mind that you might need to purchase a longer center bar from the manufacturer.

Pro Tip: If you already own mountaineering boots, bring them to the shop to test the crampons’ fit. Some brands might fit better, and it’s preferable to figure that out before you’re staring up at that dream ice climb.

Courtesy: Petzl
Courtesy: Petzl

So, Which Crampons Should I Get?

For snow climbs and classic mountaineering routes like Avalanche Gulch on California’s Mount Shasta, a lightweight pair of 10-point crampons with horizontal front points and anti-balling plates, like the Black Diamond Contact, is ideal. Step-in crampons offer better security, but any attachment method will work. Focus on finding a good fit between your crampon and mountaineering boot.

For more technical objectives involving snow climbing and steep ice, such as the Adirondacks’ Trap Dike, 12-point crampons with horizontal points and anti-balling plates are the perfect choice. A step-in attachment—like what you’ll find on the Black Diamond Serac Pro—is preferable.

For vertical ice climbing in the Adirondacks and the White Mountains, a 12-point crampon with vertical front points is the best choice. Crampons like the Black Diamond Cyborg Pro feature a step-in attachment and modular front points, so you can switch between a mono and dual setup. In turn, you can match your setup to the terrain or simply see which way you are more comfortable climbing. And, if you’ll be using your crampons with boots with and without toe welts, consider the Petzl Lynx Modular, known for adjustable bails depending on boot type.

For missions where weight comes at a premium—think alpine routes with some snow climbing sections or ski mountaineering missions in Tuckerman Ravine or on the Cog Railway—check out the ultra-lightweight Black Diamond Neve Strap Crampon. Weighing in at just 1 lb., 4.3 oz., these babies pack a punch without taking up much space in your pack.

GO: Crampons for Mixed Climbing | Mountaineering | Vertical Ice | Winter Hiking

 


How to Choose a Climbing Harness

Your climbing harness is a vital piece in the safety chain. But, unlike your rope or helmet, it not only needs to be functional and safe, but it also needs to be extremely comfortable. Every time you take a fall, make a rappel, or sit back to work out a few moves or haul on some gear, your harness becomes the seat you’re sitting in. The bad news? You’ll come across a ton of options out there, all with different features and comfort levels. As such, for both new and seasoned senders, it can be dizzying to know which is right for you. So, how do you make sense of it all?

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Climbing Harness Construction

Step one: Know what you’re looking at, and for the type of climbing you plan to do, know which features are important.

The Belt

The belt, also known as the waist belt or a swami belt by old-school climbers, plays a vital role. It connects the climber to all other parts of the harness, as well as to the rope. More so, no other aspect is more integral to the harness’ overall comfort.

Made from a diverse collection of materials, harness belts come in a wide variety of widths and padding levels. As a good rule of thumb, models with more padding are more comfortable and aimed at climbers who will spend considerable time hanging in the harness, like multi-pitch and big-wall climbers. Harnesses with less padding, meanwhile, are streamlined for those who will not be hanging for an extended period of time—for example, sport and gym climbers.

Belts are more commonly adjusted using a single buckle. However, some styles—usually those accommodating a wide range of waist sizes—use two. While most modern harnesses feature self-double-backing (or speed) buckles, some buckles still require climbers to manually double them back. While speed buckles are great for convenience, you’ll have an easier time putting on a harness while wearing crampons with a manual option.

Pro Tip: Whichever closure method you choose, get in the habit of ensuring your harness is closed properly before you leave the ground. As well, confirm that your knot is tied correctly and your belayer’s device is threaded the right way.

Leg Loops

Usually padded and ventilated to match the belt’s material, leg loops come in two types: fixed and adjustable. Fixed leg loops are built with some stretch to accommodate different leg sizes. For this reason, they provide a fast and easy on-and-off solution for gym, sport, and other climbers who will not be mixing and matching multiple layers under their harnesses. Adjustable leg loops, meanwhile, are great for ice and alpine climbers, who may be wearing thin softshell pants one day and then multiple layers the next. As well, adjustable leg loops are ideal for climbers needing one harness to do it all.

Much like belts, adjustable leg loops use a variety of buckles. Make sure you’re familiar with the type of buckle your leg loops use, and get in the habit of making sure they’re closed correctly before you leave the ground.

GO: Adjustable Leg Loops | Fixed Leg Loops

Courtesy: Petzl
Courtesy: Petzl

Gear Loops

Most harnesses today come with four gear loops, which are designed for holding everything from quickdraws to cams to cordelettes. Made using a range of materials, gear loops come in a variety of shapes that affect how your gear is carried. For instance, you’ll find molded plastic on Black Diamond harnesses and sewn loops on Petzl models. Additionally, positioning varies between brands and impacts how easy gear is to access.

Pro tip: Almost any harness with four gear loops works for sport, gym, and top-rope climbing. However, if you’re planning on carrying a rack on your harness, consider trying the harness on with the rack first. This way, you can make sure you like how your gear is stored, see if it’s easy to reach, and test how it clips and unclips from the loops.

Ice Clipper Slots

If you’ll be using the harness for ice or alpine climbing, consider purchasing one with ice clipper slots. These small pieces of fabric allow for the use of ice clippers—a special piece of gear for racking ice screws and axes. Without the clippers attached, the slots are barely noticeable and add minimal weight. When the clippers are installed, they make organizing winter essentials on a harness easy.

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Haul Loop

Many harnesses feature a haul loop—a loop of cord, webbing, or plastic—on the rear. A useful addition, haul loops let you bring a second rope up routes that require full-length rappels, and further offer many other functions. For example, they’re a great spot to clip a chalk bag or to attach shoes for routes that you walk off.

Pro tip: The haul loops found on most harnesses are not rated to carry weight. Even if a haul loop is rated, you should never belay from or tie into it.

Belay Loop

Designed primarily for belaying another climber, this load-bearing vertical loop connects the two tie-in points. The width varies by the intended use: Many sport climbing harnesses have thinner belay loops to reduce weight and bulk, while general use and trad-focused harnesses often have more robust options to increase lifespan and durability. A feature on some models, wear indicators—different-colored nylon underneath the belay loop and tie-in points—indicate when it’s time to retire a harness.

Tie-In Points

Used primarily for tying into the rope, the tie-in points are the two loops connected by the belay loop. One is on the waist belt and the other is right in the middle of the leg loops.

Pro tip: What’s the difference between a belay loop and a tie-in point? The latter is ideal for use with fabrics, such as climbing ropes, personal anchor systems, and slings, while the belay loop is built for metal products, like carabiners.

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Fitting a Harness

Because everyone is shaped differently, the easiest way to determine a harness’ fit is to try it on. To get the ideal fit, you first want to position the belt above your hips and also be in the middle of adjusting the belt and leg loops. When you tighten the belt, it should be snug but not uncomfortable.

As well, you’ll come across women’s-specific harnesses, which, beyond the colors, are designed differently from the men’s models. Specifically, a women’s harness has a differently shaped waist belt, an increased rise (the distance between the leg loops and belt), and larger leg loops relative to the waist size.

Pro tip: How do you know a harness fits well? The belay loop and tie-in points are centered on the front of your body. If a gear loop sits at your belly button, try another size.

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Suggestions

Top-Roping, Gym, and Sport Climbing

Because almost any harness works well for these activities, make sure to prioritize comfort and fit. As well, none of these climbing styles require carrying an extensive amount of gear, so the number and location of the gear loops aren’t as important.

Traditional Climbing

Trad climbers need a harness with gear loops large enough to accommodate such gear as cams, nuts, and draws. The harness should have enough space for the equipment and carry the weight comfortably. For this reason, and because trad climbers frequently find themselves hanging in their harnesses for extended periods of time, these models typically have more padding than other offerings.

Ice Climbing  

Most ice gear racks fit better on a harness with ice clippers. Because of this, any harness for ice climbing should have these slots. As another feature, adjustable leg loops better accommodate the fluctuating layers worn over the course of the winter climbing season.

Mountaineering

Compared to other climbers, mountaineers don’t spend as much time sitting in their harnesses, and on routes measured in miles rather than feet, ounces quickly turn into pounds. For these reasons, many mountaineering harnesses are stripped down to the essentials. Also, for putting a harness on over crampons and skis, look for leg loops that open all the way.

GO: Aid Climbing | All-Around | Caving | Glacier Travel | Rescue | Steep | Winter Climbing | Work

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How to Choose a Camping Tent

Shelter is undoubtedly one of the most important items in your pack. While there are lots of options for shelters (hammocks, bivy, lean-tos, etc.), tents are still the most commonly used option in the backcountry. But, because of the huge variety out there, a lot goes into finding the one that’s right for you. What type should you get, and what size do you need? What features should you have? Knowing all the ins and outs will help you decide and ultimately make you satisfied with your (very important) purchase.

To start, think about how you will be camping. Will it be out of your car, kayak, or canoe? Or, at a campsite off a trail somewhere in the woods? What about the season and conditions? And, how many people will be staying in it? Will you be bringing your dog with you, and do you want space for your gear?

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Capacity

How many people need to fit into your tent? Unfortunately, there’s no industry standard for how cozy or spacious a tent should be. Thus, a three-person tent from one brand may feel more crowded than one from another. Generally, car camping tents are a little more spacious than backpacking or mountaineering models, which tend to be more snug and compact to reduce weight.

But, to make it as easy as possible, the tent size is typically noted right in the name. For example, the EMS Sunapee 4 is a four-person tent. If you are planning on purchasing a backpacking tent and want to bring your dog or store your gear inside, you may want to think about sizing up one person larger than your group.

As a good baseline to follow, if you are looking to store gear in the tent and want some wiggle room, you should average about 20 square feet per person. If you are more interested in the ultralight movement, don’t mind storing your stuff outside, or being cozy with your neighbor, closer to 15 square feet per person will work.

GO: 1- to 2-person | 3- to 4-person | 5- to 6-person | Greater than 6-person

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Activity Type

For car camping:

For car camping or camping out of a kayak or canoe, weight is not as much of an issue. As such, consider a more spacious structure with lots of add-ons or neat features. Car camping tents typically weigh significantly more, and are sometimes tall enough to stand up in.

GO: Recreational/Car Camping Tents

For backpacking:

You will want something lighter in weight that you won’t mind carrying on your back for longer periods of time. You may need to compromise, depending on what you care most about—weight, features, comfort, or price, to name a few factors. Generally, backpacking tents will be more cramped, with no room to stand up. For comparison, a three-person car camping tent will feel much larger than a three-person backpacking tent.

Going further, some backpacking tents are classified as “ultralight.” The material feels very thin, and the poles are very lightweight; however, they are often stronger than the traditional, heavier options. The downside is, they tend to be more expensive. But, many hikers find the price is well worth the significant drop in weight.

GO: Backpaking Tents | Ultralight Tents

More often, these structures are categorized as three-season tents, which are designed for spring, summer, and fall weather. The lighter weight withstands heavy rain and even light snow, but not harsh winds, heavy snow, or more violent conditions.

EMS-Winter-Camp-Mountain-7517

For winter and alpine camping:

You will need a more resilient tent—particularly, a four-season model, which tends to have more poles and heavier fabric. While some very basic ones resemble backpacking tents in shape, actual alpine or mountaineering tents have a geodesic-type body. The dome structure allows them to withstand high winds and even the weight of snow.

Some four-season tents are single-walled, meaning they don’t have a mesh body covered with a waterproof fly. As a result, they are easier to set up in rougher conditions. However, they don’t always perform well in milder weather, as they get stuffy and condensation can build up easily.

GO: Mountaineering Tents

EMS-SP-17-CAMP-HIKE-013147

Livability and Comfort

Your tent should be comfortable! Pay attention to these factors to make your tent a sanctuary during a storm, rather than an uncomfortable coffin.

Peak Height

Height is just as important as surface area and capacity. Particularly, a higher peak will make your new home feel more spacious. The peak height is measured from the ground to the top of the tent’s outside, which includes the fly. So, to calculate the interior height, it’s a good idea to subtract three inches from the actual peak height.

To sit up and be comfortable, look for a tent with an interior height of roughly 3 feet, 6 inches. A tent with more vertical walls also offers more shoulder room and, in return, will feel more spacious.

EMS-Winter-Camp-Mountain-1889-(1)

Entrances

Having multiple doors is nice, but they will increase the structure’s weight. But, if you plan on sheltering multiple people, more doors may ease how cramped you feel. You’re also less likely to climb over someone for a bathroom break in the middle of the night.

The door’s location is also important. Many tents have doors along the sides, but some place them at your feet. Side doors are larger and easier to pass through, but having a single door by your feet is ideal for multiple campers and makes the tent more sturdy in rougher conditions.

Vents

Vents and mesh are some of a tent’s most important but often-overlooked features. Ventilating hot, humid air makes the tent feel less stuffy, and helps keep condensation to a minimum. Especially when choosing a single-walled tent, vents are incredibly important.

Storage

Vestibules are floorless storage places for your gear, and are made by staking out the rainfly away from the tent’s body. Typically, five square feet is enough for a full-sized pack. Some tents may have a few vestibules, or may need a separate vestibule extension.

Color

Rather than being simply decorative, color influences how comfortable the shelter will be. Lighter colors allow more sunlight to pass through the walls, making the interior less dark and more pleasant if a storm keeps you tent-bound and out of direct sun for hours…or days!

EMS-SP-17-CAMP-HIKE-012944

A Note About Weight

Tent manufacturers put a lot of information on the tags, including a “packed weight” and a “trail weight.” Packed weight is how much the shelter weighs when you pull it off the shelf—all the bits and pieces included. So, you’re taking into account any dry bags, stuff sacks, tent stakes, and the like.

Trail weight is typically the bare minimum—tent body, rain fly, and poles. Trail weight usually does not include the stakes unless noted, and won’t factor in any included repair kits or splints. In reality, unless you are really into the ultralight movement, your actual trail weight will fall somewhere in between the two, likely closer to the packed weight. This number plays an important role when you decide how much your pack will weigh for your trip.

EMS-SP-17-CAMP-HIKE-013033

What Else Should I Pay Attention To?

Footprints

Another often-overlooked feature is the footprint, which creates a barrier between your tent’s floor and the ground. Not all tents have one, and some must be bought separately. Having a footprint will extend the shelter’s life expectancy, saving the floor from the wear and tear of stones, branches, and the occasional stray pinecone. If you don’t have a footprint available, tarps, plastic sheets, and other materials cut to the floor’s size can be used.

Clips vs. Sleeves

Many tents have plastic clips to attach the structure to the poles, and others will have fabric sleeves. Clips create more space between the tent’s body and the rainfly, providing more air circulation and reducing condensation. Plus, they’re much easier and quicker to set up. Sleeves, however, will be sturdier.

Unique Tents

Some tents have special setup requirements. For instance, some ultralight tents use your trekking poles partially for support, and others have to be staked out tightly to be properly set up. While a hassle if they aren’t set up correctly, these tents allow hikers to drop even more weight. For another lightweight choice, tarp tents are very popular!

Still Deciding?

Don’t be afraid to ask store employees if you can try out a tent. Many locations allow you to open the tents and set them up, so you can see for yourself what the structure is like.

EMS-Winter-Camp-Mountain-1869-(1)

What Else Do I Need?

Tents have plenty of add-on options! Some can be very useful, and others are just for fun.

Solar washes help restore the tent’s water repellency and also protect it from UV rays, thus extending its life. As well, consider a repair kit. Patches, sealant, shock cords, splints, and accessory cords prove to be valuable if things go wrong in the backcountry.

For your supplies, additional vestibules or extensions expand the room for gear and living space. For some models, gear lofts clip into the tent’s roof to increase your storage options. Particularly, it’s a great place for headlamps, small electronics, and that book you’ve been trying to finish!

GO: Tent Accessories

 


The Day I Thought I Might Die

Zack asked me a pretty interesting question for the video this morning: “Are you scared?”

My answer was a bit of a surprise to me, but it would be the same as I write this now.

I’m not scared for me, per se. I’m not scared of getting sick, getting cold, getting blisters, or getting hit by a rock slide. I’m not scared of dying, not because the odds of summiting are low, and certainly not because I welcome death.

I’m afraid of failure. Not failing the summit. Who gives a crap? Four days ago, I spent an entire day with kids battling terminal illness. They are fighting for their lives, their families by their side.

I’m fighting for, all things considered, a fairly meaningless accomplishment. We’ll have about 20 porters carrying our stuff and setting up camps, and a guide to lead the way.

This isn’t chemotherapy. It’s not close.

I’m at ease about maybe not getting to the summit. Once my feet hit the trail tomorrow, I only have two options: up or down. I can’t control AMS, HAPE, or HACE, so I’m not afraid of them.

I’m afraid of letting my team down—this team with me and my Flowfold team back home. I’m afraid I pushed the limits of the crew with a 5.5-day ascent. I just don’t want to let anyone down. That’s really all I’m worried about.

Because that I can control.

Other than removing and cleaning up a few swear words (I apparently curse like a pirate when fatigued and stressed), this is verbatim from my journal, written during the trip. What you see below is exactly what I was thinking and feeling along the seven-day journey atop Mt. Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest free-standing mountain.

Credit: Chris Bennett
Credit: Chris Bennett

Sunday, March 4, 7:04 p.m.

High Camp, 12,539 feet

I thought I might die today.

But, I’ll get to that. Let’s start here: I summited. 19,341 feet. Check.

As predicted, I couldn’t sleep. At 10:30 p.m. last night, I took all my summit clothes that I had packed a few hours before and put them in my sleeping bag. I spooned them for about 15 minutes to get them warmed up. I got changed, packed up, and met the team for some tea, and we started our summit push around midnight.

It was a full moon but cloudy, so we went slow, working step by slow step under headlamps until around 6:30 a.m. By that time, we were meaningfully higher than we’ve ever been (I’d assume near 18,000 feet) but still hours away from the summit. It was right around then that I started to get emotional.

It had been a cold and dreadfully slow 6.5 hours, but the conditions were tough, and the mountain demanded difficulty. My toe warmers felt frozen at this point and may have been working against me. I was cold, very cold. But, as light started to hit the horizon, I turned behind me to see our porters lending a hand to other members of the Flowfold team by carrying their bags (on top of their own bags, mind you). They were holding the struggling climbers by the arms, encouraging them and even singing to them. I was blown away by the showcase of human spirit.

Although I had no signs of AMS [acute mountain sickness], several on the team were pushing themselves beyond the limits that any of us thought possible. It was was gut wrenching and heart warming at the same time. My heart broke for a member of our team who had to turn back. She fought so hard. Harder than anything I’ve ever seen in my life. I am amazed by her as I write this. But, the mountain was not worth her life. It was the right decision for her to turn back. It was a brave decision. Without the guides, I think two other climbers would have likely turned back with her. I’m not a spiritual person, but the guides were angels for us that day—myself included, as I would later find out.

Credit: Chris Bennett
Credit: Chris Bennett

We continued to climb on well into the morning, until we reached Stella Point (18,885 feet). Although not the summit, this is effectively when the push is over. We had been told that it was just a short trek to Uhuru Peak, the true summit at 19,341 feet, and that Stella Point was the real challenge and even had the better views.

The views didn’t matter much. We summitted Uhuru in a whiteout and could basically only see the person’s heels in front of us. We all completely broke down in tears at this point. Zack was trying to interview me, but I was sobbing too hard to actually say anything. All I was able to get out was, “I’m just so proud of the team.” Then, I saw Matt crest the summit, porters by his side and Jerald, our head guide, singing to him. I walked over to him and embraced him with Chris and Adam. We stood there, holding Matt, all crying as he just kept on saying, “This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” I will never, in my life, forget this moment. I really hope Zack got it all on camera.

Up until this point, my climb to the summit of Kilimanjaro had been comparatively and relatively easy. But, I did not escape her without my own hardship. Ironically, everything went bad for me after I summited.

We took pictures at the summit but started heading down as quickly as we could. Conditions were worsening, and the normal six- to seven-hour summit push had taken us over 10. It was late to be on the summit, and we needed to get down, quickly.

I didn’t have goggles (the rainy season had come early, and no one was expecting conditions like this) and had to wear sunglasses to protect my eyes from the blinding snow. But, because of that, I couldn’t wear my balaclava to protect my face. My sunglasses would fog up, leaving me blind. So, I had to decide: Do I protect my eyes or my face?

“Luckily” for me, I had sort of prepared for this. I had purchased a specific type of sunscreen designed for high-altitude mountaineering. It was supposed to shield my face from the sun and wind. The wind was sending snow directly into our faces at this point. It was unrelenting. So, I lathered my face and lips with the sunscreen. A thick coat. In a twisted case of irony, I had saved this sunscreen for this very moment. I hadn’t tested it before. This could have cost me my life.

Credit: Chris Bennett
Credit: Chris Bennett

As I started walking back down towards Stella Point, I made it about 200 feet before my lips and face started to burn. And, then, my eyes started to water. And, then, my face started to swell up. I didn’t know what was happening, but when both of my index fingers (the fingers used to put the sunscreen on my face) became red and burned like my mittens were an oven, I knew I was in trouble. I knew I was having a reaction to the sunscreen. I’m on top of a mountain at this point, 19,000 feet up, and when my lips started to swell up, I thought I might actually die. In my mind, I just assumed my throat was next or my eyes would swell up, and I wouldn’t get off the mountain.

Remember when I said there was something spiritual about Jerald? I don’t really understand this next part, but here goes. Jerald was never around me during this hike. He was always helping other people. I was in good shape for the whole hike, so he didn’t need to pay attention to me. But, as soon as I realized I was in trouble, I got myself off the trail. I took off my hat and my gloves, and I used the rest of the water to wash my face.

I used my hat to wipe off as much sunscreen as I could, but I didn’t have a towel or any wipes or anything, and it all still burned. My lips were still swollen, and I was still terrified. Then, out of nowhere, Jerald appears with a full jar of Vaseline. A whole thing of it. What was he doing with that on a summit day? I lathered it all over my face, and the burning and swelling started to go down. My heart rate relaxed, and I continued onto Stella Point.

But, I wasn’t out of the hot water yet. Not even close. It’s hard to describe Kilimanjaro. She was mean. She was equal parts stunning and wicked. Beautiful and conniving. It was freezing cold, windy, and snowing on the way up to the summit. But, here I am, 19,000 feet up, having an allergic reaction to sunscreen, and the weather turns. From Stella Point on, from about 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., it was the hottest I’ve ever felt in my life. I cannot describe just how uncomfortable it was. All of us took every layer off. Long johns, fleeces, hats, and gloves, it all came off. There was this strange haziness everywhere. You couldn’t see without your glasses on.

I couldn’t see the sun, but it was the brightest day I’ve ever seen. It was blinding, and we were completely exposed. We were prepared for bone-chilling cold. We didn’t have bandanas or flat-brimmed hats on us. We were on the trail roasting, for over three hours with no shade anywhere. We were 18,000 feet up. Trees don’t live up there. To make matters worse, my face was covered in Vaseline. As I write this, my lips are swollen, and I’m in a tremendous amount of pain. I’ve been told I don’t look good. I don’t know what I’ll look like in the morning or whether or not I’ll need medical attention. I’m in rough shape and I’m scared.

Credit: Chris Bennett
Credit: Chris Bennett

Monday, March 5, 6:04 p.m.

Aishi Machame Hotel

I don’t think I need medical attention. My lips feel like they have a mix of chemical burn and sunburn on them and are extremely painful. But, I was able to shower and wash my face off. At this point, the swelling has gone down, and I’m no longer dealing with the allergic reaction. I simply have to deal with the burn. I have the feeling it’s going to be an uncomfortable few days flying home.

I’ve had a little time to reflect at this point, and the overwhelming feeling I have now is gratitude. I’m about to go have our last dinner with the team, and I’m so grateful for them. I’m so proud of them. They all fought so hard. I’m likely done documenting at this point and plan to soak up any time I have left with the team.

Bottom line, we survived, and this has been the single greatest accomplishment of my life.

Time to go home.

 

Editor’s Note: James Morin is the COO and President of Sales at Flowfold. This post has been excerpted from his blog post documenting the climb. Read the full post here

Credit: Chris Bennett
Credit: Chris Bennett

MntnReview: 'Meru'

Meru_PosterwebThere isn’t a “wrong” time to watch Meru. But, the best time may be after a trip that didn’t quite go as planned.

Maybe you were a half-mile shy of the summit when a massive storm rolled in and turned you around, and torrential rains made the descent a little spicier than you’re used to. Maybe your day at the crag got cut short after a whipper left you too shaken to get a good grip on even the juggiest holds. Or, maybe you had to call it quits and head into the lodge while your friends kept skiing because you tried to make a jump and ended up snapping one of your skis (but thankfully not your leg) in two.

These kinds of days are best for a film like Meru. You and I both know that, even though your luck didn’t hold this time, it’s not going to stop you from trying again another day. And, that’s exactly the point Meru so beautifully proves.

This mesmerizing 2015 documentary, recently released for streaming on Netflix, tells the story of one of the toughest first ascents in climbing history. In 2008, Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin—two of the world’s most notable expedition climbers—attempted to summit the Shark’s Fin route of the Himalayas’ Meru Peak with up-and-comer Renan Ozturk. However, the trio ended up stranded in their portaledge for four days. Snow pummeled down on them, and their rations became low.

When the weather finally broke, they set out, determined to summit before depleting their remaining food supply. Yet, they bailed 100 meters from the top, because each of the men were totally spent. It’s funny how that happens when you try to make seven days’ worth of food last for more than two weeks. And, completing the route would have also required bivvying at 20,000 feet—a risk they were unwilling to take.

When the weather finally broke, they set out, determined to summit before depleting their remaining food supply.

Three years and several less-ambitious-but-still-badass trips later, the team agreed to try summiting Meru again. However, on a video shoot in the Tetons with snowboard legend Jeremy Jones five months out from the trip, Ozturk suffered near-fatal injuries in a skiing accident, while Chin watched helplessly. Four days later, once Ozturk was stable in the hospital, Chin returned to finish the project, only to get swept away in a 2,000-foot avalanche. Miraculously unscathed (physically, at least), Chin took some time off from adventuring before ultimately concluding that “the idea of not skiing and not climbing and not being in the mountains was too much to imagine.”

Somehow, despite two-thirds of the team coming face-to-face with mortality mere months earlier, Anker, Chin, and Ozturk managed to return to Meru in September of 2011. While team members had not fully recovered and may have suffered a stroke halfway through the expedition, they successfully summited the Shark’s Fin this time around.

“It’s hard in this really complicated way. [It’s] defeated so many good climbers.”

During the 90-minute film, Jon Krakauer describes Meru as, “Not just hard. It’s hard in this really complicated way. [It’s] defeated so many good climbers. It will probably defeat you and me. It will defeat everybody for all time. That, to a certain kind of mindset, is an irresistible appeal.”

Meru is an extreme example, of course, and is out of the question for most of us. But, those of us who routinely heed the mountains’ siren song indeed possess Krakauer’s mindset, even if it is on a smaller scale. Whether you’re a weekend warrior tackling a 4,000-footer or a team of professionals scaling a previously unsummitable 21,000-foot peak, adversity is part of the game. And, it just so happens that it’s the part that appeals to us most. Specifically for us, there’s nothing more satisfying than defeating the obstacles that try so hard to defeat us first.


Alpha Guide: Mount Washington via the Lion Head Winter Route

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Take on a genuine mountaineering challenge by going for a winter ascent on the Northeast’s tallest peak. 

Mount Washington is the pinnacle of winter mountaineering in the Northeast, and the Lion Head Winter Route is the trail of choice for many looking to summit this iconic mountain. Although this is the least technical way to summit the “Rock Pile,” mountaineers will be challenged by everything from the route’s steep, icy terrain to the mountain’s notorious “worst weather in the world.” Depending on the day, you could find yourself huddling behind one of the summit’s buildings, trying to escape the wind, or proudly posing in front of the summit sign while taking in grand views of the Presidential Range.

Quick Facts

Distance: 8.2 miles, out-and-back
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: November through March
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recarea?recid=78538

Download

Turn-By-Turn

Parking for the Lion Head Trail is at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in Gorham, just north of Jackson on Route 16. It’s about a 25-minute drive from North Conway or Gorham.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Gearing Up

The Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (44.257320, -71.253052) is a great place to get ready. The gear room, in the basement, has tables and benches that are perfect for getting organized, tying your boots, and doing those last-minute gear checks. It also has bathrooms and a water fountain, and snacks and meals can be purchased upstairs.

Equally important, the AMC posts the Mount Washington Observatory’s daily Higher Summits Forecast and the Mount Washington Avalanche Center’s daily avalanche forecast on a cork board in the visitor center’s basement. Make sure to read both! And, while you’re there, sign the winter hiker register, too.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Starting Out

To get on the trail, leave the basement, and follow the sidewalk towards the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center’s main entrance. Continue past the entrance and around the back of the building to the large sign marking the beginning of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which you’ll take for the first 1.7 miles and more than 1,000 feet of elevation.

The easy-to-follow Tuckerman Ravine Trail begins as a very rocky dirt road and is wide enough to allow side-by-side hiking. Depending on the weather, trail conditions range from ice-covered rocks to packed snow. In most cases, starting out in MICROspikes is usually a good idea.

From the Visitor Center, the trail is moderate for the first few minutes, and then begins to climb consistently. As it climbs, an occasional path cuts off to the left, heading over to the Sherburne Ski Trail. A bit higher up, there is also a signed cutoff to the right for the Huntington Ravine Trail (44.261887, -71.269882). Hikers should ignore all of these cutoffs.

Trees protect this portion of the trail, keeping the wind and wind chill at bay. And, although the trees also limit the views—especially compared to the awesome ones you’ll get once you’re above treeline—the Tuckerman Ravine Trail does pass a few key scenic spots as it climbs out of the valley. The most notable are the two bridges that cross the Ellis River and the Cutler River and the waterfall—or icicle, in this case—Crystal Cascade. It might be tempting to dig the camera out, but don’t stop. You have a long way to go, and the days are short this time of year.

If the weather permits, you’ll also get a preview of the Lion Head as you move up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, giving you an appreciation for the route’s expansive scale and how much distance you have left to travel.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Cut Off

After about 1.7 miles, the junction with the Huntington Ravine fire road (44.263844, -71.277946) is on the right. The junction is well-marked, with a sign pointing toward the base of the Lion Head Winter Route. The wide, flat fire road makes for easy hiking. Take it a short distance to a junction (44.264603, -71.279106). Look for a rescue cache on the trail’s opposite side for confirmation.

The flat area at the Winter Route’s base is a great spot to grab some food and water and add a layer. Most people, too, put their crampons on here and get their ice axe out.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Rock Step

The steeps on the Lion Head Winter Route come pretty quickly. Climbing along a tree-lined trail, the route gains almost 1,800 feet in elevation.

While most of the climbing is on steep but easy snow, there is a short, 30-foot, rocky section near the beginning that has some exposure. Almost all the guided parties carry a short section of rope to use as a hand line, but it is probably unnecessary if you are comfortable climbing in crampons.

Pro Tip: The Lion Head Winter Route is the Whites’ most popular guided winter route, and there is sometimes a bottleneck at the rock step. So that you can maintain your pace, try to stay ahead of guided groups, if you see them gearing up at the base.

Above the rock step, the route continues up, staying in the trees until it eventually breaks treeline. Around treeline, you’ll find numerous spots along the side of the trail to take a break (44.264332, -71.286575) and enjoy the excellent view of the Wildcat Mountain Ski Area across the notch. Since you’ll be fully exposed to the wind from here on, now is a great time to don your above-treeline gear. On windy days, remember full-face protection, including goggles.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Lion Head

From treeline, the trail continues up over open, rocky terrain towards Lion Head proper (44.264.042, -71.291275). As you climb, you’ll probably feel the wind speed increasing. And, be on the lookout for another steep and exposed section just before the Lion Head. It’s easy, but you don’t want to fall.

As you approach the Lion Head, you should evaluate the weather, the wind, and your group’s motivation. If the wind’s too strong, the weather’s getting worse, or it has taken longer to get here than anticipated, this is a good place to turn around without significant consequence.

Crossing the Alpine Garden

Above the Lion Head, the trail continues along the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, crossing the Alpine Garden. If it is a nice day, enjoy the view of the ravine in all its splendor. But, don’t get sucked too far left, especially if it’s windy. You don’t want to get blown in!

This section is also likely to be one of the hike’s windiest segments. Since the trail here is mostly flat, it’s a great idea to hustle across as quickly as possible. The prevailing wind is west to northwest; so, once you are in the shadow of the summit cone, you’ll likely get a brief reprieve.

After a short time, the trail intersects with the Alpine Garden Trail (44.265045, -71.295603). Some scrub here makes a passable wind break, but you’ll probably want to keep going. From the junction, continue straight on the Lion Head Trail.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Split Rock

The trail begins climbing again after the junction, crossing a couple of open snowfields on the way towards Split Rock (44.265850, -71.301437). Since there are few landmarks here, route finding is critical. Moreover, the consequences of a sliding fall on this section are significant, so make sure to have your crampons on and ice axe ready.

Split Rock is easily identifiable: As the name implies, it’s a large boulder that is split in half. Split Rock is also the last place that offers passable protection from the weather before you reach the summit. Many parties choose to take advantage of the flattish area and windbreak to grab a snack, make a final determination of the weather, and prepare for their summit push before following the trail through the boulder itself. Once you’re ready, the next junction (44.265980, -71.302155) is just a few minutes ahead.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit Cone

The Lion Head Trail traverses west for a short ways before connecting with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at a large cairn. From here, turn right and follow the cairns uphill on the final 0.4 miles to the top. Frequently, this section provides a respite from the wind. Enjoy the break, as the wind will only increase as you near the top.

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads to the first sign of civilization—the Auto Road (44.269550, -71.302048). Shortly thereafter, you’ll pass the tracks for the Cog Railway, before you come to the final small hill leading to the summit (44.270424, -71.303375).

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit Pose

If it is a nice day, spend some time to enjoy the summit view of the Presidentials and the surrounding White Mountains. More likely though, ripping winds and cold temperatures will have you taking shelter by the buildings and putting on an extra layer before you make your way to the summit sign to get the requisite shot.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Getting Back in One Piece

To quote the world-famous mountaineer Ed Viesturs, “The summit is just a halfway point.” Although getting back to Pinkham Notch is as simple as reversing course, you have ample opportunities to get lost or disoriented above treeline, especially when the weather is at its worst. So, take the time at trail junctures to ensure you’re descending in the right direction, and look for memorable landmarks. Most notable are the large cairns marking the Tuckerman-Lion Head junction, Split Rock, the scrub at the Alpine Garden Trail junction, and the flat area on top of the Lion Head. As you make your way towards treeline, look for several sets of reflectors attached to the trees for descending at night or in deteriorating conditions.

The final crux for hikers will be reversing the rock step and the terrain just above it. Once again, many guided parties use a rope here, but those comfortable climbing in crampons should be fine simply downclimbing.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • The Lion Head Winter Route is steep and often icy. Because of this, an ice axe and crampons are essential equipment. The Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe and Contact Crampons are great choices.
  • The combination of high winds, snow, and ice often necessitates the use of goggles, like the Smith I/O 7, to protect your eyes and maintain vision. We suggest bringing a second pair in the event one freezes.
  • Summiting Mount Washington in the winter is a long day even in the best conditions—not to mention, the days are shorter this time of year. A headlamp like the Black Diamond Revolt helps prevent getting caught in the dark and provides peace of mind if you fall behind schedule.
  • It’s easy to get disoriented or lost above treeline on Mount Washington, especially if it’s snowing and the wind is howling. A route plan, pre-set waypoints on a phone-based mapping app like GAIA GPS, and a map and compass as backup are all extremely valuable when you’re trying to stay on course no matter the weather.
  • A heavy puffy coat, like the Black Diamond Stance Parka (Men’s/Women’s), and summit mittens, such as the EMS Summit (Men’s/Women’s), are must-haves for extreme cold. Using chemical hand warmers is also a great way to keep your hands warm.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Mount Washington’s reputation for the “world’s worst weather” is well-deserved, and weather conditions play a huge role in any successful ascent via the Lion Head Winter Route. Before you head out, make sure to read the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast. If the conditions don’t look right (for instance, high winds are forecast or the temperatures at higher elevations are just too cold), consider a different trip for the day: A hike up to HoJo’s at the base of Tuckerman Ravine or skiing the Sherburne Trail is a nice alternative that never leaves the protection of the trees.
  • Similarly, if the weather starts to turn during your hike, bailing is a smart decision. After all, the weather rarely gets better the higher you go, and the “Rock Pile” isn’t going anywhere.
  • Before leaving the Visitor Center, take a moment to make sure the Lion Head Winter Route is actually open. Its opening depends on the amount of snow received, and in recent years—like the 2017-2018 winter season—it has not opened until late December.
  • Early starts on Mount Washington are par for the course. The AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge is a great place to stay if you want to roll right from bed to the trail. Accommodation options include private and bunk rooms, with most options encompassing breakfast and dinner.
  • Not confident doing this journey yourself? Consider a guided ascent of Mount Washington with the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. EMS guides have climbed the “Rock Pile” hundreds of times each winter, and have the skills and knowledge to get you up and down the mountain safely. And, if you’re looking for more than just the up-and-back, consider combining a guided climb with an overnight at the Mount Washington Observatory.
  • Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co., or simply The Moat, is the place for Conway-area climbers to eat, grab a pint, and brag about everything from their successful summits to just how bad the weather was above treeline.

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the Lion Head Winter Route on Mount Washington recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


9 Tips for Staying Warm While Ice Climbing

A day of ice climbing in the winter is a day well spent. But, when you’re planning for hours of ice-cragging with a group of friends, it’s easy to underestimate how cold it can really get. To stay outside and happy for the whole day, and hopefully avoid the screaming barfies while you are at it, start with the following tips.

1. The puffier, the better

Bring a big, fat puffy belay jacket to wear when you aren’t climbing. It doesn’t have to be high tech, new, or even pretty. It just has to be warm. And, the bigger it is, the better. However, this isn’t a super-light alpine-style ascent we are talking about. If your jacket needs its own XL stuff sack for storage, then you can bet you won’t be cold while you’re wearing it.

2. Stay off the ground

At some point during the day, you might want to sit down. Camp chairs are nice, but they’re bulky and can get in the way at a crowded climbing area. Instead, bring a small foam or inflatable seat pad that you can sit on when you need to take a load off. Otherwise, you will be losing lots of heat through the seat of your pants.

Courtesy: Keith Moon
Courtesy: Keith Moon

3. Plan to get wet

It may be 10 degrees out, but the waterfall you are climbing will most likely still be spraying some liquid water. To anticipate this, a waterproof outer layer keeps you dry while you climb. If you are one of those people who prefers something more breathable, however, wearing high-quality, quick-drying fabrics makes the difference between climbing all day, and heading home early because your clothing has turned to ice.

In all cases, keep your down jackets away from the water. Most down loses its insulating properties once it gets wet.

4. Warm from the inside out

During a day of ice climbing, frozen granola bars just won’t cut it. So, grab a couple of insulated bottles to bring along some hot tea and broth-based soup. And, if you have enough to share, you are sure to make some new friends. Being warmed from the inside out is almost as good of a feeling as sending that lead.

Credit: Mark Meinrenken
Credit: Mark Meinrenken

5. Climb, climb, climb

This one is easy. Get on the ice, and get your blood flowing, as the more you climb, the warmer you will be. Just make sure that when you untie from the rope, you put some insulating layers back on. Heat loss happens quickly whenever you stand around.

6. Keep moving

If you are waiting for a free rope, and aren’t belaying your buddy, keep it moving! For a suggestion, hike around to check out the condition of a nearby flow, or even have a dance party. Ultimately, the more you move, the warmer you will be.

7. Carry multiple pairs of gloves

Bring a minimum of two pairs of gloves: a thinner set for climbing, and thicker ones for belaying. Don’t try to wear them at the same time, however. Rather, keep one pair inside your jacket, where they will stay warm. If they get wet, it is even more important to keep them from freezing and help them dry out.

Credit: Keith Moon
Credit: Keith Moon

8. Don’t wear too many socks

Socks are great, but if you wear too many pairs, you will squeeze the blood from your feet and get some awfully cold toes. Circulation does a great job at keeping your feet warm, so wear one pair of good socks and give your feet some room to let the blood flow.

9. Keep your head warm

When picking out what shirts and jackets to wear, opt for choices that have hoods. Lots of blood pumps into your head, and it all flows through the neck. As a result, keeping your head and neck seamlessly covered prevents warm air from escaping through the top of your shirt, and keeps those drops of ice-water from surprising you with a cold shock down your spine.