Traveling up Mount Washington

I spent almost every summer of my childhood in New Hampshire. I can see now how fortunate I was to be either near Lake Winnipesaukee or Dan Hole Pond for much of the summer, rather than in the heat and humidity of Wilmington, Delaware. My father was a schoolteacher and had the summers off to work at Camp DeWitt, which gave my family the opportunity to sail, hike, canoe or swim for endless hours. Mount Washington sits proudly at 6,288 feet in the Presidential Range (various mountains are named after presidents) of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I remember it was always a great landmark, much like the Empire State Building is in Manhattan. I would gauge where I was in relation to Mount Washington. Until a few weeks ago, I had never been on top of that mythical mountain.

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Myself on top of Mount Washington and all those rocks!

If you spend most of your childhood summering in New Hampshire, you would figure I had been to the top of that mountain at least once. The issue is getting to the top of the mountain with the time and money you have allotted to spend.

Here are the various ways up Mount Washington:

Hiking

My boyfriend Roy hiked up Mount Washington on Labor Day weekend while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. When thru-hiking, one must either put up a tent in an authorized spot, like Madison Hut or stay in a hut operated by the AMC, which can cost upwards of $120 (but includes a bunk, dinner and breakfast). One can hike up from the town of Gorham along Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which is 7.9 miles long, up 4,000 feet and is indicated as “strenuous” in all hiking guides. It is referred to as the “rock pile” and takes 8 or more hours to hike. Then, once on top of the mountain (if you manage getting there), you must descend the mountain. Hiking the mountain is only recommended for experienced hikers. Mount Washington has had 137 fatalities since 1849 and it also has some of the most dangerous weather on record. Having supported Roy on his thru-hike, I can tell you that the wind speed, weather and wind gusts varied greatly from hour to hour and elevation to elevation. It has the highest wind velocity ever recorded at any surface weather station at 231 miles an hour. Based on all these stats and my current level of hiking skill, I chose not to hike up Mount Washington. I am in awe of those, like Roy, who have accomplished such a feat.

Railway

Before Roy left on his thru-hike, I imagined meeting up with him, hiking up Mount Washington, and taking the Cog Railway back down. I imagined it. Once the reality of how strenuousness the hike would be set in over the months leading up, I realized what a technical hike it would be scrambling over rocks where every footstep could result in a twisted ankle. The Mount Washington Cog Railway opened in 1868 and travels up to the top of the mountain via cogs, not rails.

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Cog Railway on top of Mount Washington

It’s three hours round trip and is remarkable because the engine is in the back of the train as it pushes the single car (with the aid of cogs) to the top of the mountain. The Appalachian Trail goes over the rack and pinion railway as it meanders through the White Mountains. It is the second steepest rack railway in the world with an average grade of 25% and a maximum of 37.5% (!!!). I ended up not taking the railway but it’s still on my bucket list.

Auto Tour

The road to the top of Mount Washington has been open since 1861. It is a 7.6 miles toll road that has always been privately owned and the road climbs 4,618 feet. When I picked up Roy as he ended his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I wanted to take the opportunity to go up Mount Washington while I was in New Hampshire. I figured I would drive up the road but, luckily, Roy suggested getting a van tour up the road. The vans that drive up and down the auto road offer rides to thru-hikers, and Roy had taken one of the rides a week or so earlier. He said that the tour was informative and interesting; that if we drove our own car, we would miss some interesting facts. Was I glad we took the tour! It was interesting but as my dad would say, “there was some hairy driving” on the way up the mountain.

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Roy next to the Appalachian Trail and one of the many cairns.

It is scenic and we had a beautiful cloudless day. This only happens about 40 days out of the year on Mount Washington. But hairpin turns above the tree line? Absolutely terrifying. I was squirming as we passed descending cars on the outside lane as the driver pointed out the sights and I prayed with each gesture that he would leave both hands on the wheel. The only ride I can think of that was more terrifying was a bus ride driving up to Machu Picchu. The view at the top? Tremendous. We were so fortunate that we went up on a cloudless day. There were the cairns to mark the Appalachian Trail, the cafeteria and museum to see the back packers and other tourists who took the far easier way to the top. If you have a choice and suffer any acrophobia, be sure to take the van instead of driving yourself.

I’m pretty sure that at least one of my brothers have submitted Mount Washington but I called my mom to confirm if I had been to the top of the mountain before. It was interesting because as I reflected with my mom, “Paying to drive to the top of a mountain is not a very Noice thing to do”. There is a reason my parents scrimped and saved and, therefore did not spend money to drive up a mountain, it was to send my brother and me to Ivy League schools. Odds are, it was my first time on top of that mountain. And the views from the top confirm that belief as I know I would have remembered those rock covered mountains and deep forbidding notches.

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