Mountain Day on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington

On August 11, 2016, Japan’s inaugural Mountain Day holiday, I was climbing Mount Fuji with my son and thousands of other hikers. We didn’t know it was Mountain Day, but later, when I learned about the holiday, aimed at getting people out of the office and into the mountains, I was pleased to know we had been part of this first celebration.

In 2017, with summer racing towards its conclusion, I asked my son if he wanted to go on a hike before fall sports practices invaded the calendar.

“Let’s go on Mountain Day,” he said. “Can we hike up Mount Washington?”

Although I’ve visited the summit of Mount Washington a couple of times in recent years (including a week-long January stay at the Observatory), I hadn’t climbed Mount Washington since 1998 or so, when my husband and I, along with a friend, hoisted ourselves up the granite blocks of the Huntington Ravine Trail.  Climbing Washington would be challenging, I knew, but well within our reach as a day hike. The hike would also be a birthday “celebration” of sorts, just as Mount Fuji had been, since my birthday falls on August 10. And I could even get a Diet Pepsi at the summit!

After driving to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, we set off on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail around 10 a.m., with plans to do a loop via the Lion’s Head Trail. The forecast looked good for Mount Washington: Probably no views, with the summit in and out of clouds, and maybe a thunder shower later, but no driving winds or freezing temperatures.

In my memory, the 2.4-mile trek up to Hermit Lake Shelters was a piece of cake, a highway packed on spring mornings with ski-toting hikers jazzed to test their skill on the steep slope of Tuckerman Ravine. In middle-aged reality, this stretch, with its 1,800 feet of elevation gain, was a relentless uphill trudge, interrupted by some flatter sections. Still, we made it to Hermit Lake with no complaints and enjoyed a quick lunch break on the porch.

At Hermit Lake, I peeked inside the main lodge at the counter where on spring days, skiers and spectators can buy candy bars and other treats. That made me think of the Diet Pepsi awaiting me on Washington….and then I remembered: I had left all my money in my car. At the last minute, I’d had a brain cramp and tucked my wallet into the console, because why would I need money on a mountain?

Hermit Lake, just past the Shelters, with the Tuckerman head wall looming above.

Thoughts of Diet Pepsi continued to plague me as I slowly made my way up the steep  trail that ascends Tuckerman Ravine. We had plenty of food, I reminded myself. Water is way better than Diet Pepsi. Artificial sweeteners aren’t healthy. Still, I cursed myself for leaving those dollars in the car.

In the meantime, my son scampered ahead, occasionally waiting for me to catch up. Lagging behind, I wondered if I might find a trail of M & Ms on the rocks, like the ones I used to leave for him as motivation to keep hiking.

We rested briefly at Lunch Rocks, the gallery where spectators gather to watch the drama of spring skiing:  the dramatic falls and wipeouts, the waving hand that signifies a fallen skier has survived.

A summer waterfall cascading in Tuckerman Ravine.

Along the trail, we met other hikers, but far fewer than I expected. Compared to Mount Fuji, the weekday crowds on  Mount Washington are just a sprinkle of people, even at the summit with its cog railway and auto road.

After a steady hour or so of hiking, we emerged from the scrub and hiked over the lip of the ravine, only to face the rock heap of the final ascent.

Hiking up the rock pile as clouds move in over Tuckerman Ravine.

A multi-generational family of hikers ranging in age from 8 to 70-ish climbed over the rocks around us.  “Where’s the trail?” a kid wondered. “Do you just go straight up?”

One of the adults said he’d heard about a train on top of the mountain. If that rumor was true, maybe they could take it down.

“There is a train,” I told him. “It’s been there for over a hundred years. And yes, you can take it down.”

The kid went crazy. “We can take the train, we can take the train!”

I also knew that he could probably take a hiker van shuttle down the auto road, but I didn’t want to get his hopes up too much. With my wallet in the car, those options were off the table for us, but I’d never seriously entertained an alternate route down.  I knew I could hike this mountain.

We continued on, up and over the piles of granite rock. In the distance, I could see a piece of a tower — one of the structures on the summit. And then we were there, landing on the Auto Road, and facing the wooden staircase that led to the summit.

In the clouds on Mount Washington. What the photo doesn’t show: the small line of other visitors, many of them shivering in shorts and flip-flops, waiting patiently for their turn at a photo.

Mount Washington’s summit hosts several buildings, including a weather observatory, gift shop and the multi-purpose state park building that houses a cafeteria, post office, and the Mount Washington Observatory’s “Extreme Weather” exhibit.  The cafeteria food didn’t look very appetizing — hot dogs and slabs of pizza — but I considered making an effort to set up Apple Pay on my cellphone to buy a treat. But then I saw the “Cash Only” sign. A relief, as I didn’t really want to fiddle with my phone on a mountaintop. We would get our treat in the valley below.

The “stagecoach” gift shop building for the Cog Railway originally was the weather observatory, where on April 12, 1937, weather observers recorded the world’s highest wind speed ever,  at 231 mph. That record was surpassed several years ago, but still stands as the highest speed manually recorded by a person.  If you think about hurricanes and what they do to wooden structures, it’s amazing that the observatory building was not torn apart. It is (and was) secured with chains.

By the time we began to hike down, the clouds were drizzling rain. We began the rocky descent on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, aiming for the first left, to the Lion’s Head Trail. We wondered if we should stop and gear up with rain jackets and pants, or wait it out a bit in our damp fleece. Getting wet on Mount Washington can be lethal, but I wasn’t sure if we’d stay dry with the rain gear, given the humidity. We decided to push on through the drizzle.

Heading down the mountain towards Lion’s Head. The footing is rough and rocky as you make your away across the mountain, with little evidence of “trail” (but well-marked by cairns).

The Lion’s Head Trail travels above the northern edge of Tuckerman Ravine and then, after a short steep descent, links up with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail below Hermit Lake. I’m glad we took this route, as the descent didn’t feel overly steep, and the trail was mostly empty. We only encountered two other parties on Lion’s Head.

The Lion’s Head Trail heads down along the northern flank of Tuckerman Ravine,  offering great views into the Ravine.

By now, I was definitely feeling beat up. On Lion’s Head, I stopped to rest and take stock of my snack supply. I pulled out a Clif Bar I had tossed into my pack after reaching into the inner recesses of my kitchen cabinet. The expiration date read “16April13.”  Did that mean April 16, 2013 (which meant the bar was probably baked some time in 2012)? Or April 13, 2016? My son confirmed the former.  But the bar was sealed.  If I was waiting out a nuclear disaster, I would eat it. So I did (to no obvious ill effects).

After making our way down the Lion’s Head trail, including one ladder, we reconnected with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail around 5 p.m.  I knew my goal of getting to Pinkham Notch by 6:15 was well within reach. On the way down, we passed several parties hiking up to Hermit Lake Shelters, mostly Boy Scouts with middle-aged leaders carrying large backpacks. I felt for those guys, both for the heavy packs and the complaining kids.  As we closed in on Pinkham, one kid hiking uphill asked me if they were near the Hermit Lake shelters. I asked his leader if  we were almost to Pinkham Notch.

“Pretty close,” he said grimly, fully aware that our proximity to Pinkham meant his distance from Hermit Lake. But they were out there hiking and, in the end, would have a great time. Except that the forecast called for a hard rain in the morning. Still, the hike would become an epic tale. The boys would be proud of themselves, and the men, well, they would feel satisfied that the boys had learned they could do something hard.

We made it back down to Pinkham Notch by 6:30 and high-tailed it to Elvio’s Pizza in North Conway, a long-established pizza joint where I’m pretty sure I ate pizza after my first hike up Mount Washington, back on October 31, 1980. On that day, we had left my college campus at 4 a.m. and returned around 8 p.m., in time for Halloween parties. I got dressed up in a silver go-go girl dress with white boots that I’d found at Goodwill, danced until 2 a.m., then fell into bed. When the dorm fire alarm sounded some time later (a regular weekend occurrence), my roommates left me in my bed because they could not shake me awake.

This time, armed with a Diet Coke to keep me awake, I set off on Route 16, aiming for home. We arrive after 9 p.m., feasted on birthday cake, and then fell into bed without dancing.  An epic Mountain Day and a new tradition.  Although I could hard move the next day, we were already planning for next year. Somehow I need to work in the dancing.

Sources and resources

I planned on eight hours for this hike, because I know I am a slow uphill hiker, and I usually budget one mile per hour, including rest stops. Several sources I’ve read suggest planning on two miles per hour, with an extra half-hour for every 1,000-feet of elevation gain, which would make Mount Washington a six-hour hike.

The weather in the “higher summits” of the Presidentials can be very different from the valleys and other mountains. If you are planning on hiking Mount Washington, I recommend checking the higher summits forecast at the Mount Washington Observatory, where you also read a great article about the many who have died on the mountain, Surviving Mount Washington.

For a gripping account of the dangers on Mount Washington, I also recommend Nicholas Howe’s 1999 book, Not Without Peril.

Friends of Tuckerman’s Ravine offers many great photos, history and other information about this beautiful place on Mount Washington.

And finally, my posts from my week-long winter stay on Mount Washington:

The world’s worst weather: Bring it on!

Cat vs. Camel: An epic battle on Mount Washington provides an opportunity to write about Marty

Crisis on Mount Washington: The Empty Sugar Barrel

The wind howls, and we stir the pot

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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