Our first adventure after school ended in June was to Joe Dodge Lodge at the foot of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. The Lodge is one of eight Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) lodges where all of us non-campers can get as close as we are willing. As in, bunk rooms, yes, hard ground camping, no. Warm food prepared by others, yes. Scratchy blankets, check. Privacy, no. Family-style dinner and breakfast which was not fun for me (crabby vegetarians across from me taking all courses first, investigating them for animal products) and very fun for my husband who found a new business associate amongst the group. It’s a crapshoot.
The Joe Dodge Lodge is a year-round facility which means that around now the crazy Tuckerman Ravine skiers are making their reservations. Actually it’s probably too late for winter reservations. For our trip in June, I had made reservations in February which means that we had no idea what our weather would turn out to be…and if you know anything about Mt. Washington, the weather forecast has often nothing to do with the reality. It is one wicked badass mountain.
Just as an intro, Mt. Washington is the tallest mountain in the northeast. Yeah, all you Alps people and Coloradans will roll your eyes when I say it is 6288″ feet. Yes, I too have climbed bigger mountains (Kilimanjaro springs to mind in case anyone is competing here). The issue is not the altitude, it’s the weather. It is like New England crappy weather on speed. Where in Weston it is sunny and 60 degrees on one day and then cold and 23 degrees the next, Mt. Washington takes it up to the next level: 55 degrees and cloudy one moment, -10 windchill and driving rain the next. I’m not even exaggerating for once.
On the surface, Mt. Washington seems like a doable hike with 10 year old boys: 4.1 miles one way, well-marked trail, great view from the top,hot breakfast to start out with in the morning. But things are seldom what they seem. Good thing I actually read guidebooks though because the cautions go like this:
AMC site: “Note: Inexperienced hikers sometimes misjudge the difficulty of climbing Mt. Washington by placing too much emphasis on the relatively short distance from the trailheads to the summit. ” Also from that site: “climate similar to northern Labrador.“”
From Hike Mt. Washington (Earthlink): “Mount Washington has the reputation of being “Home of the world’s worst weather”. Severe storms, including snow, can happen at any time of the year. The combination of severe winds, cold and wetness can exhaust the strongest hiker. Never continue upwards in deteriorating weather, as it gets worse at higher elevations.”
It goes on and on. So when we saw the weather report change to rainy on the Friday we had planned for our big hike, we were as prepared as we knew how to be. Rain pants, long underwear, rain jackets, multiple layers of shirts and sweaters, hats and gloves. We were carrying enough food and water. We ate a good breakfast.
The Tuckerman Ravine Trail is not one I love. It is steep enough to be constant work, and frequently covered with rocks and boulders of a size that strains one’s torn hamstring. Yes, I had one of those as we took off that fine June morning in 65 degree misty clouds.
We climbed and switchbacked and peeled off clothes in the humid closeness. We got passed by small groups of college friends in shorts and t-shirts. We met hikers on their way down covered in clothing and rainwear, looking exhausted. We didn’t ask.
The rain began and we put on rain gear over our sweaty wet clothes and cooked humidly. Up up we climbed, over a new bridge and around and around. An hour and a half passed and finally we passed a ranger who told us to look out for a moose and her foal–the mom might be a bit miffed if we strayed close. We were close to the Hermit Lake Shelters where we stopped for a snack. And the temperature dropped. And the winds picked up.
We piled on layers over the wet inner ones. We kept going to mile 2.4 at the ranger station at the base of Tuckerman Ravine (unmanned when we were there). At this point we had on every last piece of clothing and still shivered in the wind. We gazed at the bowl of Tuckerman Ravine where people have hiked up and skiied down for generations–given how long winter stays around there on Mt. Washington, it was still possible to ski there, though we did not see any intrepids. Actually we didn’t even see Mt. Washington anymore…the clouds had moved in closer and closer.
Here we made our best decision, which was to turn back. The following 1. 7 mile hike would be much steeper, open to the howling wind and rain. And at this point, my leg with the torn hamstring was quite visibly shaking.
Later that evening my husband talked with one of his breakfast buddies who had climbed all the way up with his 15 year old daughter–they were both cross country runners and at an optimal fitness level. The guy said he regretted their decision to continue. The winds were running to forty miles an hour and they had not packed enough layers. His daughter came close to hypothermia at the top, and they shuttled back to the Lodge rather than descending the mountain. Mt. Washington is not to be messed with.
We ourselves got ourselves back down the trail and into hot showers back at the Lodge. With the weather prediction continuing to head south, we packed up a night early and headed home after stopping for a pleasant WARM dinner in North Conway. While others basked in the 60 degree weather (us New Englanders are weird), I was cold down to the bones. My husband wants to go back and attempt the summit again…me, I think I’ll stick with easier mountains like say, Kili.
Don’t let me discourage you though–on a nice day, I bet this hike ROCKS (literally, sheesh). I might be the one who next sports a “This car went up Mt. Washington” bumper sticker. Meet you at the top.