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Summer Sessions - Mount Washington
Article & Photos by: Tim Fater
Ski The East Correspondent
For many East Coast skiers, I would be willing to say that we spend most of our time in the mountains during the winter months. We certainly don’t ‘forget’ about the mountains amidst summer’s heat and haze; we are just endlessly distracted by all of the other vices we are so fortunate to be surrounded by here in the East. After a few consecutive weeks of summer fun in and around the ocean, I gathered a crew for a change of pace – and headed north.
Our destination was New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. Washington’s summit is a common goal for hikers due to its big mountain setting, the variety afforded by the mountain’s numerous trails, and a welcoming base camp: the Appalachian Mountain Club’s visitor’s center at Pinkham Notch. The summit, notorious for being home to the “worst weather in the world”, is the 2nd highest peak this side of the Mississippi, topping out at 6,288 feet. The hike from Pinkham Notch to the summit rises about 4,000 vertical feet and typically will take somewhere around six to eight hours round trip.
Somewhere on the 6-8 hr. roundtrip on Tuckerman Ravine Trail with Tuck's in the background.
Our group met up for a not-so-ambitious alpine start at 10 a.m. one cloudy, early summer Sunday morning. We geared up in the parking lot alongside guys and girls, young and old. I had never been to Tuckerman Ravine in the summer and was curious to see the guts of the East’s backcountry skiing mecca. We boulder-hopped our way along the well-defined Tuckerman Ravine Trail under the forest’s thick green canopy. The day was relatively cool given the consistent heat we’ve experienced this summer, and the sky was a slightly unnerving steel-grey. I have seen 60 degrees and sun change to near freezing, sleet, and zero visibility in a matter of minutes near the top of Washington once before, and hoped to avoid that situation again. The weather report that I had checked before we set off was fairly stable though, so I trusted in our judgment and as we continued up the trail.
After just under two hours we arrived at Hermit Lake – a popular resting spot and the mark of a transition from a relatively mellow hike to the more challenging vertical that will be gained just beyond by way of Tuckerman’s rock walls. We had some lunch, re-packed, filled up our water bottles from the natural spring well, and set off for the 40 minute hike to the base of the bowl.
As we approached, the sound of rushing water became louder. Nearly the entire East side of Mount Washington is drained by the Cutler River – which runs roughly from Tuckerman’s Headwall all the way down to Pinkham Notch. The massive cliffs of the ravine, drenched in green, encircled us as the grade of the trail steepened. The flanks of the bowl – more commonly known as Left Gully and Right Gully in the winter, were covered in shrubs, moss, small trees and other alpine vegetation. Tuckerman’s gigantic headwall, on the other hand, is pure rock. It is a series of foreboding cliff bands and cascading runoff waterfalls. I couldn’t help but think how different this place looks draped in white.
We followed The Tuckerman Trail directly up the ravine’s headwall. The trail meanders somewhere between where two of the most challenging ski routes in the East, The Lip and The Sluice, lay in the winter. The trail is more of a goat path in the summer, winding beneath huge rock outcroppings and traversing high above the ravine floor. Much of the trail was soggy and fairly unstable due to the mountain’s drainage. As you approach the ravine’s summit lip, Mountain Washington’s massive summit cone appears.
Cairns marking the ridgeline trail.
From here, you can continue to the top, head south and west towards Boott Spur, or traverse east above Right Gully to connect to the Lion’s Head trail. The top of Lion’s Head offers great views of the eastern Whites and Wildcat Mountain. We followed the steep trail back down to Hermit Lake where it reconnects with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail leading back to Pinkhman Notch.
We dragged ourselves down the last portion of the trail, finishing the hike in just under six hours. We threw our gear down and hung around the Notch’s parking lot for an hour or so unwinding and enjoying our ice cold rewards. The long hot days of summer are a welcomed change of pace, but it isn’t long before thoughts of snow creep back into our minds. There is something to be said about the seasonal changes we are blessed with here in Northeast – and the way we live our lives around those changes. It won’t be long now before Washington’s gullies and trails are filled back in by the season’s first snow. And for another winter, we’ll be heading right back up there.