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Travel and Adventure

Climbing Mt Washington

Climbing Mount Washington in May 2004

Bretton Woods
The Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods

IIt had been ten years since I last climbed Mount Washington and I was a bit apprehensive as I turned my Jeep into the Cog Railway parking lot. Mount Washington is only 6,288 feet (1,916 meters) tall but it has an ominous reputation for devouring some of those who dare to tread its slopes. The summit is at the crossroads of two major storm tracks and bad weather can cover the mountain in a matter of minutes. Today was May 30th, Memorial Day weekend, and the weather was cool and breezy at the base. From Cog Railway station I could see clearly to the peak of Mount Washington and southwest to Bretton Woods and Mount Lafayette. It looked like a perfect day for a leisurely hike to the top.

 
Peaks to the South and East of Mt Washington
Peaks to the South and East
of Mount Washington

After stopping at the Cog Railway snack shop to pick up a couple of Almond Joy bars and a power drink I headed out on the Jewel trail. I crossed the Cog Railway tracks and almost immediately the trail started to climb through rocky and muddy terrain. The air was cool, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but I quickly worked up a sweat. Every 10 to 15 minutes I would stop for a few minutes to give my pounding heart a rest, catch my breath and cool down a little. I was careful not to rest too long or sit down because that would only add to the difficulty of starting again. The first mile went quickly and as I approached the second mile mark the trees started to thin. Beautiful, expansive views opened from the northwest to the south. Light, fluffy clouds dotted the sky and the wind started to pick up.

Hiking through the alpine zone

Fragrant Spruce trees grew shorter and soon gave way to small evergreens bushes that tightly clung to the rocky slope. Hikers coming down the mountain were snugly wrapped in Gore-Tex suits and seemed amazed that I was only wearing a wool shirt over a lightweight tee. I was still warm from climbing but the air temperature was dropping and the winds were rising. At the 4 mile mark the only plants I saw were tiny ground hugging flowers and bushes that reminded me of the tundra environments of northern Labrador or Alaska. Inch long needles of frost adorned the bushes and rocks surrounding me. I stopped for a rest, ate an Almond Joy bar and pulled on a Gore-Tex jacket I had stowed in my pack. It worked beautifully by cutting the winds chill and helped me to stay warm and dry.

Frost Crystals Grow on Rocks
Inch long frost needles
grow on windswept rocks
Alpine Zone
An alpine environment like
that found in Labrador or Alaska
Frost Crystals Grow on Rocks
Biting cold winds give up their moisture
to create ice needles
 
Approaching the summit of Mt Washington
Frost covered cairns
point the way to the summit

The muddy Jewel trail turned to sheets of ice that flowed over the rocks like a small glacier. Every 50 feet or so a 3 to 4 foot pile of frost covered stones called a cairn, marked the trails location. The day was clear but the winds and bright sun made it difficult to stay on the trail. Every few minutes I glanced around me to make sure I was staying in line with the cairns. Soon I crossed the Cog railway tracks and started the final ascent to the summit. With every step closer to the peak the winds seemed to increase in intensity. What was a gentle breeze at the base turned into strong gusts that were almost hurricane strength. I carefully picked my way over frost covered boulders. More than once the stiff winds carried me further than I anticipated when I jumped from one rock to another. A few times I narrowly missed being slammed into the mountainside by the angry and powerful winds. My uncovered hands stung from the cold and started to turn numb as the summit came into view.

Mount Washington Summit Photos

View to the north across a tundra slope
The Presidential range viewed across
a tundra like high mountain meadow
Mount Washington - Trail's End
The trail's end at the top of Mount Washington
Alpine Zone
The Cog Railway tracks reach
to the summit of Mount Washington

Several buildings including a small restaurant, a Post Office and a television antenna tower adorn the top of Mount Washington. Soon I was I was warming myself with a hot bowl of Hungarian Vegetable soup, a fresh blueberry muffin and a good cup of coffee. Rest rooms, a gift shop and a museum added to the mountain top attractions. The Cog Railway climbs to the summit from the west while an auto road winds along the slopes from the east. I planned on purchasing a one-way ticket on the Cog Railroad for an enjoyable ride down. Unfortunately the winds were so strong that the train was only coming two thirds of the way up the mountain before heading back down. I braced myself for a long, cold and windy hike to the base of Mount Washington.

Approaching the summit of Mt Washington
Coal burning, Cog Railway
steam engine and Victorian coach

Leaving the warmth and comfort of the mountain top restaurant was not easy. I carefully picked a path over the frost covered rocks that covered the summit while winds gusted to almost 70 miles per hour. The trail flattened a little after an initial steep descent and the winds subsided. Shortly I reached the Cog Railway tracks and could smell the coal smoke in the distance. I followed the Jewel trail for about another half mile, turned a bend and could see the resting Cog Railway train just a few hundred feet away. I walked across the spongy, moss covered tundra meadow and asked the brake man if I could purchase a ticket. "Yes" he replied, "thirty-five dollars will get you down the mountain in about 30 minutes". The Victorian Era wooden coach was full so I got the most scenic spot; by the back door. I enjoyed beautiful, panoramic views of the White mountains all the way back to the Cog Railway station.

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