Story posted February 04, 2011
We started our trek up the Lion Head route early Saturday morning. With the summit of Mt. Washington far above and out of sight, we set out from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and patiently followed the switchbacks of the trail, gradually gaining elevation. Snow fell gently in the protection of the forest and we encountered other trekkers, some equipped with snowshoes, others with telemark or cross-country skis. Everyone we met was genial and excited to see what the mountain had in store. Some were fellow New Englanders on a day trip; others had travelled from far away and spoke unidentifiable languages.
A while after I lost track of how much time passed, we reached the first sharp ascent of the trail and stopped to break out crampons, ice axes, and helmets -- as well as some Snickers and granola bars. A steep wall of rock and snow replaced the wide, gently ascending path. The gnarled vegetation shrunk as we scaled the mountainside. The support and camaraderie of the group erased any hesitation I felt about the challenging terrain. Trusting our crampons, we pointed out good holds to each other and patiently waited while others found their footing. From our new vantage point on the mountain, we looked out into the abyss of snow and clouds. It was impossible to tell how high we had climbed, as the valley below had disappeared. But looking ahead, there was still a lot of ground to cover. When we finally passed the last few scraggly trees and emerged above the treeline, we had our first glimpse of the beautifully rugged alpine garden. The terrain leveled somewhat, and we were rewarded with swirling clouds, stunning flashes of blue sky, and incredible views across Tuckerman Ravine.
We stopped for a short lunch break about a mile below the summit. The best way to stay warm in the swirling snow was to keep moving, so we headed onward and upward after a quick bite to eat and a drink from our iced-over water bottles. Wind gusted and visibility dropped in the last half-mile, but then the ice-encrusted summit emerged out of the whiteness. It was milder on the summit than expected. There wasn’t much of a view, but the sign said it all: “Mt. Washington Summit, 6,288 ft.” It was hard to imagine the same summit in summertime, with hikers mingling with tourists who had opted for the cog train or driving routes to the top. But in January, the summit was cold, lonely, and forbidding – after photo ops and a short break we were ready to descend. We briefly envied other climbers who had carried sleds up the mountain, but our trek down the mountain was relatively easy. We left the otherworldly landscape of ice and rock behind and soon trees surrounded us again. Triumphant and tired, I was glad to finally see the Visitor Center again. As we loaded up and headed for Brunswick, I looked back at the highest peak in New England, but it was completely lost in the clouds.