Living and hiking in Connecticut, I’ve always loved my weekend trips to the White Mountains, where my hiking abilities were constantly tested. As cliché as it sounds, you never know what you’re truly capable of until you test and go beyond your current comfort level. Both Mount Jefferson (New Hampshire’s second tallest mountain) and the Franconia Ridge pushed me beyond what I was comfortable with and were the tallest peaks I’ve climbed over the years.  How would I fare going up the tallest mountain in the Northeast: Mount Washington?

Besides knowing that it’s the highest peak, my knowledge of Mount Washington extended to peoples’ stories about climbing it, remembering pictures of friends at the top in June freezing with jackets and limited visibility as they posed with the sign. When I saw that EMS Schools ran a guided winter hike, the idea moved from the folder in my brain labeled ‘mountains to hike someday’ to ‘mountain to hike next’. 

Of course, I could try going up with my fiancé, Jared, or a group of hiking friends at some point in the summer when the weather might be better. But oh what fun it would be, I thought, to have the challenge and reward of a winter climb and more importantly, do it with a guide whose primary concern, I know, would be keeping us safe.

So with a simple email expressing interest and asking all of my questions/addressing some mildly irrational fears, summiting Mount Washington became an actual plan and date on the calendar. 

From the moment I received my first response from the EMS School team, I knew that safety was a priority along with having fun and giving this climb up the mountain with the reputation of having ‘the world’s worst weather’ a serious try. I received a list of gear and began mentally checking off what I already had and visited the EMS store in North Conway for the rest. While I’ve used various brands over the years, I decided to get the EMS brand for every piece of gear I needed, top to bottom, and I can now say they’ve become my most loved and trusted pieces of hiking clothing.

March 18th, the morning of the Mount Washington climb, arrived—I watched the clouds carefully on the drive to the school. It was lightly raining but the sun was hardly up so I was trying to stay positive as I saw a part of the sky ahead of us clear as we drove the 45 minutes there. As the sun came up, I definitely felt a promise and a little glimmer of hope that the weather was going to be ok that day.

Upon opening the door, our guide, Sean, introduced himself and began asking Jared and I questions about gear and shoe sizes in a way that made it obvious he’s done this plenty of times before. The only items on the gear list you aren’t responsible for bringing are the boots and ice axe— both of these are provided at the EMS School. Sean grabbed a couple boot sizes for me to try on and I felt the success of the day hinging on their fit. 

I decided to size up, as Sean said “your feet will swell as you climb and fill in the boots” and I also knew it would be impossible to escape boots that were too small. This was the first of many words of wisdom he would provide that day. Before setting off, Sean asked if we each had sunglasses to wear toward the top as snow blindness is a really thing! Goggles are on the list but these aren’t needed until close to the top if the wind is really bad.

The first mile up was not bad at all. It’s a wide path that sees lots of traffic from skiers that actually hike up to a certain point with their skis and ski down—The number of other people around put me at ease even if they weren’t all going as far up as we were. Being the only girl in the group, I was a little concerned in this first mile about keeping up. I trailed a little behind them in this first section and began to wonder if anyone was concerned with my ability to keep up, or more importantly, if anyone doubted my ability to make it to the top, possibly causing the whole group to turn back.

Photo: Kristen Valenti

But I knew in my mind that even though I was trailing behind them in this first mile up Mount Washington, I would do everything I could to keep up and prove, most importantly to myself, that I could do it. During all of these carefully planned breaks along the climb, Sean was an encouraging voice asking us to check in with how we were feeling in general and in regards to temperature, comfort, and hunger. His question “How are we feeling?” always made me feel encouraged that I could honestly express myself and that he would be there to help and not judge my responses. 

At the one-mile mark, Sean had us pull off to the side again to put on our crampons. Going with a guide who has done this climb many times before, he knew we were about to encounter the steepest section of the trail which would have felt impossible without the crampons. Wearing crampons, instead of MicroSpikes, was a first for me and the weight of the crampons told me things were about to get serious! We also had our ice axes out at this point, which Sean instructed us to do and gave a brief demo of how to use them.

This next mile up was going to bring us to the treeline but not without some serious work first. It was so steep that I didn’t even want to turn around at some points to see the view behind us because I didn’t want to slip back and lose all of those precious feet I had gained! Keeping my eyes forward and following Sean as he pointed out all the right limbs or roots to grab to hoist ourselves up. He instructed us to lean a bit forward and be very intentional with our footing. He showed how to step side by side rather than facing forward which would burn the calves quickly.

With the promise of another break at treeline, we kept putting one crampon-covered boot in front of the other until we all got to the top—The next goal was a mile to Lion Head which which we could see in the distance from the the exposed trail where we stood. The weather was still cooperating with us and we enjoyed blue skies all around as we hiked above treeline to the cairn at Lion Head. It was during this mile that I had to start my one foot in front of the other mentality. After the 2,500 feet of elevation, we had just climbed and how much more I knew we had to go, a tired feeling was creeping in.

Photo: Kristen Valenti

At Lion Head, Sean instructed us to add another layer. We were just one mile away from the Mount Washington summit and the wind was starting to pick up. It’s pretty amazing how little you can wear when you are working hard in the cold. Up until now, all I wore was my EMS wool base layer which kept me perfectly warm and comfortable, wicking away the sweat, the whole first 3 miles.

Though this final stretch to Mount Washington summit was just a mile, Sean pulled off behind a big rock for us to huddle and break again and told us to add one more layer, my red EMS shell and EMS mittens, to protect from the wind as we got even closer to the top. At this point, I also added my face covering as the 20 mph winds were starting to pick up.

Maybe it was the cold and the wind but each step felt heavy here. I was the last one in line this time and at this point, if you decide to do this hike or any hike that really tests you, I think you have to dig a little deep. I thought about our 13.5-year-old dog, Bauer, that we put down just a couple of months ago after holding on to hope and trying to make him better. I thought about how he stuck with us and kept up with us on every single hike right up until the end and likely (though we didn’t know it at the time) while in pain. I thought of him so much that tears started to roll down my face under my sunglasses and mask. I was afraid they were going to freeze with the wind but oddly found strength by letting these emotions out.

Of course, no one could see what was happening behind the mask and when I finally looked up I saw Jared at what looked like the top, at the Tuckerman Ravine sign, enthusiastically waving me to keep going. I knew whatever discomfort I was in and had been feeling was soon to be over so with just the last few steps I got to his level and started removing my mask to reveal a smile.

At the top we all dropped our bags by a hut and Sean, who at this point reminded me of a teacher in charge of kids on a field trip, told us we had 20 minutes to explore before we had to head down. I didn’t know where to go first but the obvious choice for all of us was a group photo with the snow and ice-covered Mount Washington sign. After that Jared and I ran around like a couple of kids with our cameras.

Our recess at the top went by quickly and with packs on our backs we started the descent which now allowed us to appreciate and take in the view that was at our backs the whole way up.

You may not know why you’d want to step outside of your comfort zone and do an adventurous climb like Mount Washington. But there is something inside each of us that gets awakened when we do. And when you have a guide with you to do the more technical work and thinking for you, it allows you to enjoy it more. And you never know what’s beneath the surface and the strength that you feel when you have the chance to dig a little deep.

Photo: Kristen Valenti

To follow along on more of Kristen’s adventures, check out her Instagram at @earlybirdonthetrail and