I spent the first 18 years of my life in northern New Hampshire, surrounded by the White Mountain National Forest, with the Presidentials looming on the southern horizon. Technically, the famous Mt. Washington was in my home zip code. In terms of east-coast mountains, this is as big and bold as it gets. We climbed up and down it and on the surrounding mountains many times in the Scouts and after I came home from college. Even after two decades living elsewhere, including 12 years living amongst mountains twice as tall or more, the old rock pile is a source of great home-town pride for me.
I’ve always been fit, but I wasn’t particularly athletic or ambitious until my mid-20s. Somewhere in the midst of grad school, I got bitten, in rapid succession, by the rock climbing, back packing, and caving bugs. Then I moved to Colorado and became a mountaineer and trail runner. Mighty deeds were done in the larger-scale geography out here, but in the back of my mind was always my home-town hill. How fast could I go up there with my new light-weight style and with Colorado-trained lungs and legs? Finally I got the chance this summer and it was… interesting.
Amongst those who pay with sweat and toil to get up the mountain (car and train are also options), the Tuckerman’s Ravine trail is the most popular route. It’s short (4 miles base to top), fierce (4200’ of elevation gain), and about the most dramatic bit of mountain climbing I can think of east of the Mississippi. Tuckerman’s itself is one of several verdant cirques on the east face of the mountain. It’s the only real alpine terrain in the east and is a popular spot for winter mountaineering training and off-piste skiing in the spring and early summer. I’ve been up this way a number of times, so this was the logical testing ground for my time trial.
I drove over to Pinkham Notch (elevation 2000’) to start things off. The weather was warm, but unthreatening on a mountain with famously bad weather. I deployed my poles, took a deep breath of the thick air, hit ‘Start’ on the GPS, and started up the wide, rocky trail at a brisk pace.
As I said, it’s been 15 years since I last climbed Mt. Washington and certain memories fade with time. I’d forgotten that the trails in the White Mountains date from before the invention of switchbacks, so they are steep and rocky, not graded for livestock or at least sustainability as most out west are. Tuckermans is steeper (21% on average) and gnarlier than most. I’d also forgotten how beautiful it is. Sweeping alpine views are all well and good, but there’s something really great about working up a healthy sweat amongst towering trees, moss, lichen, and chipmunks.
So far, so good. I made it to the Hermit Lake Shelters (commonly called HoJos) in 45 minutes, then another fifteen to the floor of the cirque itself. I recall the famous Headwall of Tucks being the most intimidating section from my previous ascents. This time it wasn’t bad. Very steep, a little scrambly, and clogged with hikers, but only 500’ of gain and it only took another 15 minutes.
1:15 on the clock. Time to put down the hammer and see how fast I could really go. Fortunately, there’s only one more section of trail left before the summit. This part I remember correctly as being harder and longer than it looks. It feels like the steep part should be over, but it’s just as steep as the trail up the Headwall. If feels like the trail should be straight-forward because there are man-high cairns every fifty feet, but on-trail looks the same as off-trail and it’s all a huge talus field of especially-gnarly felsenmere. And it feels like it should be only about a quarter mile or so because you can clearly see some of the buildings, antennae and cars on the summit, but in reality you’ve still got a thousand feet of gain and nearly a mile to do it in.
Even with Colorado lungs, I was completely gassed when I hove onto the parking lot amongst the flip-flop-wearing tourists, took the wooden stairs two at a time, trotted across the train yard, and tagged the summit cairn. Bleep-de-boop! 1:37. Not bad. Not a course record by any means (someone on Strava recorded a 1:21 ascent), but a solid top-10 performance.
I ate lunch with my family (who’d driven up), toured the new Extreme Weather museum (very nice), looked into the Tiptop House (fascinating), and poked around a bit amongst the other buildings and antennae.
Then I started down. Here’s where it became really humbling as the technicality of the trail really kicked in. Hiking up knee-high talus is one thing but trying to run down it is quite another. For some reason, I thought I remembered the Lions Head trail as being a less-technical option to Tucks. It wasn’t. It was ludicrous. There were ten-foot cliff bands to negotiate and relentless boulderfields which would put anything on Longs Peak to shame.
I was relieved to reach the relatively smooth trail where the Lions Head trail meets the standard Tuckerman’s route just below HoJos. I started running and almost instantly tripped on a rock and went face-first into a small stream, breaking my toe and bruising knee and elbow. So much for running! The last two miles of painful hiking were a lot less fun than the rest of the trip. What took 1:30-something to ascend took 2:30-something on the way down. That’s not the usual way it works.
In any case, it was a wonderful return to the mountains of my youth. Despite it’s diminutive size by Rocky Mountain standards and even leaving out the weather aspect (which wasn’t an issue today), Mt. Washington is no joke. I’m pleased with my ascent performance, but humbled by the descent.