Published in The Toronto Star
The taller the peak, the more seductive the mountain. So it goes, and in the northeast quadrant of the United States, Mt. Washington is the magnet.
Nearly a quarter the height of Mt. Everest, the 1,886-metre-high summit reigns over the White Mountains of New Hampshire and is one of New England’s most popular destinations. Despite the fact that early Native Americans considered the mountain sacred and were believed to have rarely stepped foot on its top, thousands of hikers today ascend its slopes each year, following more than half-a-dozen different well-signed, blazed, and cairn-marked routes.
Thousands more drive to the summit on a 13-km-long paved road with 100 turns while listening to a cassette that tells tales of the mountain and the road’s 139-year-old history. Visitors join van tours, and they climb aboard a cog railway that beelines to the top with claim to the second steepest railway track in the world. Moreover, Mt. Washington is host to annual run, bike and automobile race-to-the-top events.
At the mountain’s base there’s a museum, a restaurant and gift shop. On its rounded top, there’s a weather observatory, a weather observatory museum, an 1853-built stone cabin, the Tip-Top House, that once served as a hotel, along with a parking lot and cafeteria.
Get to the top on a clear day and you can see the Adirondacks of New York, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Laurentians of Quebec and the coast of Maine. You’ll also have a great view of the Presidential Range: a dozen of the highest peaks in the White Mountains, many of which are named after former U.S. presidents.
Get there on a clear day and it’ll seem as if New England’s highest mountain couldn’t be more welcoming and user-friendly. But don’t be deceived. While Mt. Washington doesn’t look menacing under a sunny sky, it’s actually the second deadliest mountain in the world, next to Mt. Everest in terms of the number of people who have died on its slopes.
Early Native American Indians called Mt. Washington the “Dwelling Place of the Storm Spirit”. Today, bumper stickers declare “Mt. Washington: Home of the World’s Worst Weather”.
Fact is, clear skies don’t come around too often or stay too long. The summit is shrouded in clouds 65 percent of the time. It’s battered by high winds and prone to receiving to cold fronts causing sudden temperature drops.
It can snow in July and August. Whipping winds from the west of 80 to 100 km/h are usual. Not unusual are hurricane strength winds, as well as summer ice pellets that lash so hard they strip the vegetation off the windward slope. The Storm Spirit is not just severe, it’s unpredictable. Weather changes fast and furiously.
Since the early 1800s, more than 100 people have died on the slopes of Mt. Washington, many in summer while hiking, mostly due to hypothermia. That is: to unprotected exposure in cold temperatures that caused a drop in core body heat.
“People underestimate the mountain because you needn’t be an experienced mountaineer to climb to its summit,” said Rob Burbank, public affairs director for the Appalachian Mountain Club.
“However, Mt. Washington lies in the path of three major storm tracks. It’s a low mountain by world standards, but mountaineers the world over recognize it as one of the most challenging peaks on earth because of the sudden and severe changes in weather.”
The day I tackled the inhospitable mountain, I went prepared – carrying a backpack stuffed with long pants, a fleece jacket, a windbreaker, a rain jacket, two litres of water, a whole lot of food and a wool hat. How ironic the sun shone all day.
Friends and I followed the most popular, 6.6-km-long route from the Tuckerman Ravine Trailhead at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Noted for its spectacular views once above treeline, this route would take us from leafy hardwood forest into spruce-fir, then into a sub-alpine zone where century-old trees stand thigh-high, and finally into alpine where tiny mountain cranberry and Labrador tea plants manage to survive.
For every 300-metre gain in elevation, there would be a temperature drop of 4 degrees Fahrenheit; from base to top, a 16-degree difference. The ascent would get steadily steeper and tougher with points where we’d need to use our hands. Estimated time to the top: four hours. My group’s reality: seven hours.
The trail starts peacefully alongside a stream under a canopy of maple, oak and beech trees. Then it steers onto a three-metre-wide bed of rocks between earthen embankments. We’re lead to the base of Tuckerman Ravine, a steep snow bowl famed for its spring skiing conditions that last to July. On any given spring weekend, up to 3,000 hardcore skiers and snowboarders make the pilgrimage to this site in a ritual that now spans three generations.
We eat lunch on the deck of a national forest cabin with hordes of fellow hikers and carry on. The route becomes more rugged and narrow. We’re climbing through rock crevices, up wooden ladders and over steep piles of boulders.
Above treeline, we’re following cairns to a prominence called Lion Head on the rim of Tuckerman’s glacial cirque. We gaze at waterfalls below, at a succession of ridges on the horizon, and at the monstrous pile of silvery-gray boulders that make up the summit cone above.
The summit cone glistens in the sunlight. The rocks are composed of mica schist, a flaky mineral that sparkles like a diamond. It’s that brilliance which gives the White Mountains its name. (Called the Crystal Hills by the early settlers, these mountains were thought to hold jewels.)
We’re scrambling from cairn to cairn on the boulders. The top doesn’t look far away, but never seems to get any closer. Indeed reaching it takes forever, and arriving finally is anti-climatic. We land in a parking lot.
Just then, a group of hikers begin their trek back down. Says one, “This guy who climbed Everest and other spots around the world says if you can hike year-round in the White Mountains, you can hike anywhere.”
We all stop and watch them. Then we agree to try and hitch a ride back down.