Preparing for a Winter Mt Washington Climb

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An atypical sunny summit.

You may have been tossing the idea around, perhaps debating with yourself — you know, about climbing Mt Washington in the winter. Maybe you’ve been wondering if you have what it takes, physically and mentally. Perhaps you’ve had concerns about the mountain’s well-documented dangers (it is one of the deadliest mountains in the world, after-all). But here you are, maybe you’ve done it already: you’ve clicked the button and registered for your winter climb. Now what? What’s next? This guide is meant to help you answer those questions, and more.

Pyhsical Preparation

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Traversing the Southern Snowfields.

Ask a hiker what the best training for hiking is and they will invariably answer with: hiking. We agree. And since climbing Mt Washington involves a lot of hiking, with some slightly more technical snow and ice or rock scrambles thrown in to test you a bit, you will need to start doing some hiking. A lot of it, in fact. The ascent and obligatory descent of Mt Washington takes hours. Six to twelve hours, in fact, depending on conditions and group speed. As such, you must work those “slow twitch” muscles and your cardio. Here are some ideas:

  • Hike mountains or hills if you have access, plus the right gear and knowledge, or try stair stepping machines in a gym setting, or simply take the stairs — a lot of stairs!
  • Riding a bike and running may also help. Especially biking since some of the same muscles will get worked. Do it for hours if possible, but know that anything you do will help.
  • Lose some weight. The heavier you are the more energy will be required of your legs to move you up the mountain and the more impact there will be on your joints coming down.
  • Get flexible and tough. Practicing yoga or a martial art can really help. A great range of motion along with a balanced sure-footedness can aid both safe ascents and descents.
  • Learn and use rest-stepping to conserve energy. Also monitor your breathing, sweating, hunger, and thirst. Being well will better your chances of success and lessen the demands.

There’s not much more you can do to prepare yourself physically. Do try to train if you can, and also try to be in touch with yourself. Know your body and your body’s limits. The half way point in this climb is the summit nearly a mile in the sky and 4.2 miles away (or wherever we might turn around in bad weather), and you will want three-quarters of your energy available at that point.

Mental Preparation

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Tackling the first pitch of the Steeps.

One of the biggest challenges of climbing Mt Washington in the winter occurs not under your feet, but in your head. It’s a mental game. It’s different for everyone. Our guides, for example, climb the mountain a lot so their mental challenge differs from someone doing it for the first time. The new climber may find themselves “digging deep” to continue their upward progress (as may we at times). They may be tired or feel battered or chilled by the weather; it can be hard on the soul. Breaking a frozen face into a smile might be difficult. Here are some tips to help you get through the day:

  • Aim high. Instead of focusing on that summit 4.2 miles away, include the return trip as well, 8.4 miles away. It will make that first 4.2 seem less daunting.
  • Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. As nice as the views are, looking up and seeing less forward progress than you’d like can be tough. Don’t think so much.
  • If you do think, think about anything but how hard it is or how much you’d like to throw in the towel and seek a warm shower. The rewards will come if you put in the effort.
  • Speaking of rewards, when you do stop for rest breaks, try to enjoy the mountain. If there are nice views, relish them; if there is snotty weather, embrace it. Be positive.
  • Lose yourself in thought after you acquire a rhythm (it will happen). It’s okay to daydream while hiking. Think about how cool it will be after it’s done. Or how you’re not at work. Or how snug you are in your hardshell…

The mental game is a big one but the more your understand the phases, so to speak, the better you will be able to deal with them. This is true not only of mental challenges that come with the physical aspect of the climb, but even overcoming fears of the weather or “The Steeps,” as well. This article, The Metamorphosis of a Hike, might help you understand.

Skills Preparation

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A little ice axe / crampon training.

Plain and simple: a Mountaineering Skills Course should be on your required list if you’re new to mountaineering and experience didn’t teach you these things previously. Even if they had, say for instance you climbed Mt Rainier a decade ago, a skills refresher will most certainly make your day on the mountain a safer and more enjoyable one. Here is a sampling of the skills you will need to know… or learn in advance:

  • How to gear up for winter.
  • Understanding layering.
  • Knowing how to pack.
  • Nutrition and hydration.
  • Using trekking poles.
  • Master rest-stepping.
  • Compression breathing.
  • Using crampons, how to step.
  • Understanding an ice/snow axe.
  • The choreography of snow climbing.
  • Rope/hand-railing use.
  • Self-arrest training.
  • Managing yourself in steep terrain.
  • And that ever-popular “more!”

Weather Preparation

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Sheltered break at Split Rock.

Ask a White Mountains hiker what the best training for the sometimes ridiculous Mt Washington weather is and they will invariably answer with nothing. There is no good answer. How does one train for hurricane force winds and sub-Arctic temperatures? The climate above treeline on Mt Washington is said to compare to that of Labrador. That said, if you really want to experience that environment, you’d have to go to Labrador, on a cold day, during a terrible storm. Or climb Mt Washington with us and find out in person. The fun way.

If you want more Mt Washington weather insight, there is no better source than the Mt Washington Observatory (MWOBS) located year ’round on the mountain’s summit. There you can get a short term forecast, access hourly conditions, recent recordings, and more. Our guides use this source as well as others.

Another consideration, one closely related to weather, and certainly part of preparation, is understanding the danger of avalanches. Please bear in mind, the specific terrain we travel in, the default route as you will, is less prone to avalanches than other parts of the mountain such as the ravines, but where there is angled snow, possibilities exist. As we are concerning having a forecast, we are lucky to have avalanche insights via the Mt Washington Avalanche Center located on the mountain as well. Our avalanche-trained guides use this source in combination to their own insights.

Gear Preparation

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All geared up, ready to roll.

There are essentially two ways to prepare yourself with the right gear. Either consult your local outfitter and potentially spend hundreds if not thousands for the purchase of brand new mountaineering gear, or just rent it. Since we do offer rental gear, we can this make part of the experience simpler. Do, however, see the Winter Mountaineering Gear List as many items needed you may already have thus saving you some money. Comment or contact us with your specific questions. We will try to advise you the best we know how. Not only do we know what gear will keep you alive and ready to climb another day, we also know what looks cool and can help you rock your Facebook Profile Pic.

Experience

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Gaining experience one step at a time.

Ultimately, experience itself will be the best preparation. Learning as you go, so to speak, using your experience for your next step. Then, later, for your next adventure. Come with us and get some training, then experience it. Use this article and the resources linked to make Mt Washington yours this winter season. Conquer the tallest mountain in the Northeast… the one with “The World’s Worst Weather.”

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