Preparing to Hike the Deadliest Mountain in America
When I moved from the West Coast to the Northeast, I scoffed at the tiny mountains. After all, the tallest mountain in New England is Mount Washington at 6,288 ft (1,917 m) - this is a foothill in the West. And the mileage? Not much at all - only 4-5 miles from the base to the summit, depending on your route. So why was everyone bragging about conquering this peak? After six seasons as a hiking guide in the White Mountains, hundreds of peaks bagged, and multiple ascents of the highest summit, I can tell I was wrong to underestimate this hike. Here’s how to prepare to hike the deadliest mountain in America.
Know your Route
Get yourself a quality trail map. I use the AMC Whate Mountains Trail Map #1 along with the AMC White Mountain Guidebook. All routes are challenging but some more than others. Huntington Ravine Trail for example, is extremely strenuous with 4,300 vertical feet gain over 4.2 miles traversing over a rock pile with extreme exposure. The “easiest” approach is the Jewell trail, but the path up 4,000 feet of elevation gain over 5 miles of boulders is no walk in the park. Research your route and make sure you’re familiar with the challenge.
Watch the Weather
I asked my fellow White Mountain hikers what a newbie should know about conquering the Northeast’s most notorious peak. “Crazy Weather” was the most common phrase. Mount Washington claims the worst weather in the world. The topography of the area pushes high speed jet stream winds over the summit. Even in the summer, the base could be a balmy +70℉, while the summit is near freezing. A fault of many White Mountain transplants is a miscalculation of the weather and a lack of proper gear. Even in the warm summer months, I pack extra layers, emergency shelter, mittens, warm hat, and scarf. Lastly, when it comes to the weather, turn around when it becomes unsafe. There will always be another opportunity. Keep track of real-time summit weather on the Mount Washington Observatory website.
Pack Smart and Pack Safe
Unfortunately, many have made the mistake of dressing and packing for a casual day hike when Mt Washington is anything but. Pack the essentials and know how to use them. In addition, bring extra warm layers. I love the Jack Wolfskin Pack and Go Collection. My Pack and Go puffy and rain jacket don’t take up much room in the pack and I know I’m prepared. Bring extra caloric foods to supply yourself with energy. Lastly, pack at least two liters of water. There are no available water sources on the climb up. However, during the summer months, hikers can refill water at the summit visitor center.
Get in Hiking Shape
Sorry - running and weight lifting isn’t going to be enough. Not because it’s not important - cardiovascular and strength training are important steps to be a prepared hiker. However, I’ve witnessed “super-fit” friends and family suffer injury on this climb and it almost always had to do with the uneven footing. Mount Washington’s nickname is “The Rock Pile” for good reason. The first time I took my mom up part of the peak she asked “Is this a dried up river bed?”. No...it’s the White Mountains. Minutes later she sprained her ankle. So while cardio and strength are absolutely important, it’s really crucial that hikers train by doing similar trail hiking. I prefer to hike Mt Washington in early fall after a couple months of doing nearby and similar rocky peaks. By then, my body and mind are used to climbing and ready to tackle the challenge. Need ideas on ways to train at home? Check out this piece for non-gym ways to get in hiking shape.
Worth the Trek
If the weather is awful and the hike so hard, is it really worth the trip? Absolutely. I’ll be honest, as a regional hiking guide, I actually put off this peak - not because I didn’t want the challenge...but because in the summer you can drive or take a train up as well. What’s the fun of hiking up to a crowd? The journey. Every time I’ve hiked this peak, I’ve had a different experience - from calm and sun, to climbing through an understory of clouds, to bracing against the wind - Mt Washington is both the deadliest and also the most loved northeast peak for a reason. Just be sure to check the weather.
Originally from the West Coast, Lindsey Lapointe moved to New England after college and found a permanent home in New Hampshire with her husband, two kids, and her dog. She’s held a lot of titles including marine biologist, wilderness instructor, teacher, writer, and mom. Part of the joy of being a mom is sharing her passion for adventure and the outdoors with her children. She shares more outdoor adventures on her blog, The Freelance Adventurer. Instagram: @freelanceadventurer