Mt. Washington Part II - When Plans Go Awry

At the top of Mt. Washington, 6288 ft, is a museum dedicated to the mountains notoriously erratic weather. A set of stairs leading to the museum are lined with the names of nearly 150 people who have died trying to reach the summit.

The drive up was much more relaxing than going up to Maine earlier in the year. Perhaps it was because we took an alternate route that avoided places like Boston and Providence. It was also about half the distance… It was a scenic drive, but nothing spectacular as we drove up and over the national park rather than through it, as we did on our return. The weather also began to shift in the evening. It was as if a single gust of wind blew out the summer and carried in the fall.

We arrived at Bartlett Inn  around 7pm Friday night. I was impressed how comfortable and quaint Bartlett Inn was. As we passed several other inns along the way, we were glad we had not chosen any of them. Bartlett’s main office is actually a large and old home occupied by the people who run the inn. Nick, a British expat, met us with a smile and good conversations before showing us to our cottage at the end of their lot. As expected, Sydney (my dog) fell in love with Nick and Bartlett Inn immediately. Inside our private cottage was surprising comfort: a fireplace, tv and wifi, and a hot shower.

(Left to right) Miriam Habert–Jaques, (Nicks wife), Kim Eckhardt (the Inn Keeper), and Nick.

(Left to right) Miriam Habert–Jaques, (Nicks wife), Kim Eckhardt (the Inn Keeper), and Nick.

Breakfast at Bartlett Inn is handmade to order, a great way to start a day of hiking. We spoke with Nick for about about our plans and other guests offered their own experiences as well. The original plan was to do Franconia Ridge on Saturday and Mt. Washington on Sunday. But Nick had checked the weather and informed us that the view from atop Washington would be a clear 130 miles, a rare occasion apparently. Other hikers agreed that it would be the best day to summit the mountain.

With that in mind, we headed out to the Ammonoosuc Ravine trailhead. Leading up to the Lakes of the Clouds and then connecting to the Crawford Path which takes you to the summit, the trail is considered the most direct path to the summit. Soon enough we would learn exactly what that meant.

About twenty minutes from the inn, at the end of a deceptively long and windy road, is the Ammonoosuc Ravine trailhead. If you go a bit further, you’ll come the the Cog Railroad, which will take you up Mt. Washington using an old steam engine. Our plan was to hike up the mountain and take the Cog down. More on that later. As we set up our packs and headed to the trail, a park ranger was waiting to inform us that the top of the mountain was covered in rime ice. That meant Sylvia and I were in for a slippery climb at the top. We decided to make a quick run to an outdoor supply store and grab a set of micro spikes since we had left ours at home. Convinced we were ready to summit, we began the hike.

The Ammonoosuc Ravine was a pretty standard hike for us.  Unfortunately, the area was drier than usual so the many cascades along the river were smaller than expected. But it did little to diminish the beauty of the trail. A rugged trail by any standard, we made our way to the Gem Pool and waterfall at the base of the mountain, about two hours in. After that we began the never ending climb towards the summit.

As we climbed higher and higher we began to run into people on their return trip. Several times we stopped to chat and ask if they had gone to the summit, how much farther up is it, etc. As more and more came down, not one person said they had gone to the summit. Furthermore, many of them were saying the weather was getting worse at the top and the winds were getting too strong to make it to the summit. At around 4700 feet, we saw large groups of people coming down the mountain, all saying the same thing, “The winds are too strong.”

The view from 4,778 ft

The view from 4,778 ft

A screenshot of the Mount Washington Weather Observatory's summit conditions the night of our hike.

A screenshot of the Mount Washington Weather Observatory's summit conditions the night of our hike.

As we would later find out, the winds had picked up to 50mph, with gusts upward of 75mph. The temperature had also dropped to 20F. As the groups continued to climb down, we decided it was safest to join them and began our own decent.  It seemed like we were the last ones on the entire mountain near the end, until we passed two guys in shorts and t-shirts, climbing up. We warned them that the weather had changed at the top, and had gotten extremely cold, but they seem unconcerned and continued their climb. An eternity later, we finally made it back to our car, extremely sore, and without having reached the summit.

Looking back towards Mt. Washington after our untimely descent.

Looking back towards Mt. Washington after our untimely descent.