Considering a Mount Washington winter hike? Climbing the Northeast’s highest peak amid ice and snow has big challenges — and rewards.
By Ian Aldrich
Jan 24 2020
Success.Photo Credit : Ian Aldrich
For years, a Mount Washington winter hike had been a maybe-sort-of bucket-list item for me. A tempting idea, but also a challenge I wasn’t sure I was entirely up for. The weather there is famously bad and requires a kind of technical skill I knew I didn’t possess. “People die up there,” a colleague often reminded me. He wasn’t overstating things. In fact, in February 1995 Yankee ran a big story about this New Hampshire peak’s fatalities. “Killer Mountain” were the words blazed across the cover.
So, what finally pushed me to make a Mount Washington winter hike? My job. In the late fall of 2017, we at Yankee began outlining a winter package for our January/February 2019 issue on expert-guided winter adventures. One of the early ideas was an icy climb to the peak of the Northeast’s tallest mountain. I was tasked with writing it.
The most popular winter trek up Washington begins at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. The four-mile climb covers a robust 4,200 feet of elevation, and when the trails get icy, the physical toll can be considerable. The same colleague who reminded me of Mount Washington’s inherent dangers had done a similar trek years ago. He still grimaces at how tight his calf muscles were at the end of the day. “I had to get on my hands and knees to make it up the stairs,” he said.
So, yes, it’s important to be in shape. But technical skill, or climbing with someone with experience, is crucial, too. While this is not a mountain for novices at any time of year, during the winter it’s especially treacherous. A single misstep, a brief lapse in concentration, a misjudging of the conditions or weather once you’re above treeline — all can be catastrophic. Even deadly.
On that cheery note, I will state that I did not do this Mount Washington winter hike alone. I had a guide — and not just any guide. Stephen Nichipor has worked and climbed the Whites in all seasons, under all conditions, for some 25 years. His résumé reads like that of a guy who earned his Ph.D. in Washingtonology. He’s guided independently as well as for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS). He worked on the AMC’s “hut croo” fresh out of college and later lived in their mountain huts in the off-season. He spends the bulk of his free time skiing, climbing, and hiking the Whites.
For the past decade, the easygoing 46-year-old Connecticut native has worked as an outdoor guide for the Omni Mountain Washington Hotel. “He’s our go-to guy,” says Craig Clemmer, the hotel’s director of marketing. When Good Morning America wanted to film a segment on a winter climb up Mount Washington, the hotel turned to Nichipor.
My Mount Washington winter hike with Nichipor began at 8:30 in the morning at Pinkham Notch. A sign inside the visitor center details how hikers should dress for a winter climb: namely, “like an onion.” Which means layers. And layers I had. Multiples of long underwear, a few different jackets, thick gloves and mittens plus thinner pairs to match, different socks, and … well, you get the point. I rented plastic boots and crampons from International Mountain Equipment in North Conway, and I borrowed an ice axe from Nichipor, who also loaned me ice spikes and trekking poles for the first mile of our journey.
Sandwiched in between all that clothing was my food: bagels, cheese sticks, peanut butter, crackers, organic turkey sticks, and trail mix. I largely hike to eat, you see, and Mount Washington afforded me an opportunity for wonderful caloric intake. In my pack’s side pockets I had two liters of water.
From Pinkham Notch, we followed the wide Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail, which had recently been groomed by a snowcat. The climb began in earnest on the Lion Head Trail, a steep, icy ascent that necessitated crampons and gave an early preview of the sights that would prompt more than a few picture-taking stops once we were above treeline. “Look at that view of Wildcat,” I said early in the climb. “What a view of Wildcat,” I said a few minutes later, then repeated it soon after. And again after that. I was stuck on repeat, and Nichipor took my nonstop marveling in stride. “It gets better and better,” he said.
Much of the rocky Lion Head Trail runs above treeline, and on most days the winds can blow something fierce. Snow can quickly move in, rendering visibility almost nil. It’s where so many people have gotten into trouble. But we were lucky. That famous Mount Washington weather never showed its face. Many of the layers I had in my pack stayed put. The views were never compromised.
Along the trail, we peered into Tuckerman’s Ravine, a late-winter destination for serious backcountry skiers who wish to test their mettle against its headwall. At the base of the summit cone, Nichipor and I took a quick rest (food!) and then made our final push to the top. What awaited us was about as wintery a picture as I’ve ever seen. The entire parking lot and the final stretch of the auto road were covered in ice. “I’ve never seen it like this before,” Nichipor said. Rime ice and snow covered most of everything else. We were in a bicolor world. White below and around us; blue overhead.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Nichipor said, as we sat out of the wind and scarfed down a couple of bagels.
No, it does not.
Below are some favorite shots from that adventurous day.
Would you ever attempt a Mount Washington winter hike? Have you? Let us know!
This post was first published in 2018 and has been updated.