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Wintry marvels await the ready hiker

Step by step up Mount Washington, snowy, shadowy sights on all sides

By Jeffrey Romano
Globe Correspondent / January 15, 2012
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As the highest peak in New England, Mount Washington attracts countless visitors to its rocky summit each year. Famous for dangerous and rapidly changing weather conditions, the mountain has claimed the lives of more than 130 visitors since its first recorded fatality in 1849. In fact, the mountain’s notorious weather unfortunately contributed to the fatality of a hiker last week. This is a sober reminder that while Mount Washington is potentially hazardous throughout the year, winter often poses the most life-threatening obstacles with short days, cold temperatures, persistent wind, abundant snow, and treacherous ice. Yet, when one approaches the climb with ample preparation, respect, and planning, there is no more beautiful location to behold in the Northeast than winter atop Mount Washington, a landscape I had the pleasure to witness firsthand last March.

The night before, I went to sleep with great anticipation. With my gear packed and food prepared, I eagerly awaited departure. En route to the trailhead early the next day, I caught my first glimpse of the snow-draped mountain. The summit was aglow in the early morning sun. It was as I had dreamed the night before, a perfect day in the White Mountains.

Soon, I arrived at the Cog Railway Station, the start of the day’s ambitious journey. Resembling a ghost town this time of year, the crowded summer attraction serves as a popular winter base from which to scale Mount Washington. As usual, my brother had beaten me to the parking area and was waiting patiently. On this glorious winter day, we chose to ascend the Jewell Trail.

Crossing the rail tracks and a swift moving stream, we quickly entered a cool mountain forest. Fortunately, the well-trodden, hard-packed surface made for good footing and before long the blood flow amply warmed our bodies.

Well-protected and straightforward for much of its course, the Jewell Trail is an inviting winter path. As we ascended higher, the trail softened with increasing snow. We slipped on snowshoes to maximize traction and continued up the challenging climb. Soon our persistence paid off. The trees grew increasingly shorter, until finally they nearly disappeared altogether. Now atop the upper reaches of the ridge, we enjoyed our first breathtaking vista of the day.

When the weather fails to cooperate, this spot at the edge of the alpine zone is the optimum location to rethink previous plans and consider turning back. This day, however, we were blessed with ideal conditions as the light winds, blue skies, and sun’s warm rays drew us higher up the mountain.

At a junction, we veered right onto the Gulfside Trail. Now completely on hard-packed snow and ice, it was time to switch from snowshoes to metal crampons. Around the rocky summit of Mount Clay, we meandered across a low saddle to reach spectacular views into the remote reaches of the Great Gulf Wilderness and the impressive northern peaks of the Presidential Range that rise high above it.

After catching our breath, grabbing a bite to eat, and downing some water, we started up the difficult, final climb to the highpoint. Fortuitously, there were plenty of distractions and many excuses to stop, snap a photo, and stand mesmerized with the incredible natural beauty in all directions. Awe-inspiring in warmer months, Mount Washington leaves one breathless in the heart of winter, as the gray rocks of summer lie covered by a clean carpet of white, highlighted by both sparkling ice and shadowy crevices.

Continuing up the last incline, we crested the final pitch and arrived at the apex of New England. While it is more crowded in August, there were nonetheless dozens of fellow hikers scattered about the collection of icy buildings that dominate the summit area. Appropriately respected for dangerous weather, on this day Mount Washington was showing off its tamer side. We decided to take full advantage of the situation by savoring the boundless scenery and enjoying a well-earned lunch.

Although relatively mild, the temperatures were below freezing and this time of the year one’s body has a tendency to cool down quickly. Our hearts were telling us to stay, but we wisely decided to begin the journey down.

Looking for a change of pace, we headed south along the Crawford Path. The longest continuously-used trail in the White Mountains, the Crawford Path is also one of the region’s most scenic. Departing the summit, we were quickly rewarded with tremendous views of the Southern Presidential Range and the nearby Dry River Wilderness, as well as countless peaks from western Maine to Vermont in the distance.

No longer feeling the pressure on the lungs that dominated our ascent, now the emphasis focused on our legs. In the summer, this descent can be quite punishing as one’s feet pound from rock to rock. On this day, hard-packed snow was the surface. Our crampons dug firmly to ensure safe passage, but they did little to ease the pain associated with fighting the force of gravity.

The trail eased as we approached the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club, the hut is nestled near a collection of small, shallow ponds high above tree-line. In winter, the building remains closed, yet the location often offers protection from winds and on a good day, ample afternoon sun. It proved to be the perfect spot to soak in the day’s beauty one last time before dropping back into the forest.

From the hut, we joined the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. At its upper reaches, it can be difficult to follow in the winter, but we were able to track the footsteps of previous hikers and recall our memory from past excursions to safely make our way down. Once back into the thick boreal forest, the path remained steep, but more obvious. With the leg muscles still burning, we finally reached Gem Pool. From here the final 1.4 miles back to the parking lot become much more gradual. Finally, we could remove our crampons and walk freely again.

Paralleling the rushing, yet still frozen, mountain stream, the trail provided a perfect end to an amazing day on Mount Washington. My brother and I recounted the day’s journey and everything we had witnessed. Upon returning to our vehicles we took in one last glance of the mountain we had so thoroughly enjoyed.

Jeffrey Romano, author of “100 Classic Hikes in New England’’ (2011) and “Best Loop Hikes: New Hampshire’s White Mountains to the Maine Coast’’ (2006) can be reached at www .jeffreyromano.com.

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If You Go

Climbing Mount Washington in the winter is not for everyone and frequently weather conditions make it impossible even for seasoned hikers. Fortunately, the White Mountains offer countless winter treks that are ideal for people looking to gain more experience or for days when weather conditions dictate caution. Keep in mind that Mount Washington can be just as beautiful to witness from afar as it is up close. Two hikes you may want to consider are Mount Avalon, which leaves from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center Lodge in Crawford Notch and the Imp Face, whose trailhead is located on Route 16, 5.4 miles south of Gorham. Less than 5 miles round trip, each hike is challenging, but with minimum exposure to the elements. Both destinations also showcase tremendous views of Mount Washington and nearby peaks and valleys.
For more information visit www.mountwashington.org.