Mt. Washington via Huntington Ravine
September 26, 1999

Hikers: Matthew Reagan, Paul & Susan Rozelle, The Octopus, Ian Farrell, Amanda Regan, and Chris.

Most "serious" outdoors types seem to have given up on Mt. Washington, which isn't all that surprising considering how developed and commericalized the mountain has become. Now, I admire nice 19th century engineering like the Auto Road and Cog Railway as much as the next technogeek, but it is a real shame to finish off a tough climb with a Macadam parking lot, diesel fumes, gift shops, and lots of signs that seem to suggest that hikers and backpackers shouldn't disturb the respectable paying customers.

But, it's still an awesome mountain, and if you go there off-season you'll find that there's nothing more impressive than a tourist trap abandoned due to brutal weather, drifting snow, and terrible cold. Nearby, the cirques and valleys feed into large areas of forest and wilderness. Why not simply ignore the summit and the crowded trails that feed it? It's the climb that matters here, not the summit. There is a lot more out there than the easiest way up!

With that in mind, we decided to attempt to climb, not just walk up Mt. Washington. The Huntington Ravine trail is advertised as the steepest hiking trail in the East, if not in the country, and I wouldn't doubt it. The day started with the usual parking squeeze at the Pinkham Notch base camp. After some equipment adjusting and gear swapping, off we went up the wide and forgiving Tuckerman Ravine Trail.

About a mile and a half into the walk, the Huntington Ravine Trail branched left from the highway to Hermit Lake. Amanda and Susan, perfectly satisfied with the concept of simply ascending a large mountain by the most direct route, decided to continue on up the Tucks trail, while the four men (and a green octopus) figured that extra risk of injury or death was a good thing and that it was best to do it the hard way. Taking our leave, we headed into the woods, following a less-travelled path across the Cutler River and through numerous blowdowns and rooty side paths. An hour later, we reached the emergency cache at the floor of the ravine and perched on a boulder to assess the challenge to come.

We had some serious work to do. The trail attacks the headwall in a direct route across the scree fields and straight up the ledges to the north of Pinnacle Gully (left). Note that in this picture the camera is already tilted upward at a 45-degree angle. We sat for a while, enjoyed the scenery and had some lunch, then tightened up our packs and set off across the boulder field.

The trail dipped around, over, and under large boulders, then passed through a steep section of rocky scrub. It entered the scree field, known as the Fan, and traversed left and then right to stay on top of the smaller rocks to provide safer footing. Soon the climbing began in earnest, and after twice crossing the small stream draining the gully, we attacked the slabs (right). The view back down the Ravine was beautiful but dizzying, and we realized the magnitude of the climb and how much work still lay ahead.

We inched up the slabs using cracks for handholds and depended on new boot soles for traction. We moved on to an even steeper section of ledges, many with significant exposure or nasty ten- to forty-foot drops beneath. Although ropes weren't necessary, it really did feel more like climbing than hiking (left). Blazes marked the easiest path at all times, but certain sections demanded a long reach and long legs to find the next handhold or foothold. Since I have neither, I found myself taking necessary shortcuts, digging into my meager repetoire of climbing skills and experiencing an extra bit of unprotected exposure. Acrophobics need not apply.

The grind continued--1,700' of headwall in all--passing over several hanging ledges (right), up a steep chimney, and finally a more moderately-graded set of walkable slabs. Then suddenly, we were at the top. The oversized cairn and trail junction with the Alpine Garden marked our return to the world of conventional hiking. The Octopus took time out to celebrate (left).

We had a 1:30 appointment to meet Susan and Amanda at the top of Tuckerman Ravine, and it was already 1:45. We set off down the Alpine Garden trail at an aggressive pace, which soon became a fast pace, and later an excessive pace. Ian and Chris held back until Lion Head, then disappeared into the boulder fields above Tuckerman Ravine. Arriving at the trail junction around 2:00, Paul and I were somewhat confused as to where to go. We didn't see Ian and Chris, and we didn't see Susan or Amanda, either (or so we thought). After a twenty minute lunch break to ponder the options, we explored higher, stopping at the middle and upper Tuckerman trail junctions.

We found Amanda and Susan, but no Ian and Chris, just above the upper junction. They had sailed up the headwall and missed the Alpine Garden Trail due to the fact that new the sign only points uphill. They had been only a hundred yards ahead of us, and they were in the group we had seen leaving the junction just as we approached. It was getting late, but the summit towers and the smell of diesel lured us toward the summit (right). The summit was everything we expected, of course: parking lots, tourists in jeans and flip-flops, beanie babies on sale, and even a nice lady who asked the traditional question "did you guys WALK up?!?" No, we didn't walk up--this time we climbed up.

After a quick trip through the tourist-trap souvenir stands (where the ugly looks from the staff suggested that grungy hikers are not valued customers), and a more interesting tour through the Observatory store (worth a visit), we began the routine descent through Tuckerman Ravine. We found Ian and Chris back at Pinkham (their insane pace had carried them over the headwall and down the trail in record time).

We finished the day with a troughload of food at the Scarecrow in Intervale. It's not such a bad mountain after all, I'd say. Let's do this route again in the winter...

photos by Matthew Reagan and Paul Rozelle

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