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Proving ground Hell hath no fury like a mountain scoured. Hurricane-force winds pummel the summit and pile snow onto avalanche-ready ravines, making this a classic big-weather peak. On a clear day, you’re on an island of white above a sea of New England green.
Wind chills The Northeast’s highest peak makes up for its stumpiness with its climatic unruliness. Average midwinter temps hover around 5°F, but can drop to -45°F. The wind topped hurricane force on 100-plus days last year, whipping around an average of 256 inches of snow. But its greatest claim to fame is the highest wind speed ever recorded anywhere: 231 mph in April 1934.
The summit Paradoxically, the 6,288-foot peak, which lords over New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, is easier to climb in winter (in fair weather) than in summer, when you have to clamber over a half-mile of talus. Risk Washington has claimed 134 lives to date-more than any other North American peak. Most common causes: falls, hypothermia, and avalanches.
Trail Hike from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (sign in and out) up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to Lion Head Winter Trail. The 4.1-mile trek gains about 1,000 feet per mile and takes 4 to 5 hours. At 4,400 feet, the forest gives way to an icy alpine zone.
Forecast Get updated weather and avalanche reports from the Mt. Washington Observatory (www.mountwashington.com).
Do or die No matter where you are, start heading down at 2 p.m.
Food Pack easy-to-eat food like PB&J sandwiches and fill an insulated thermos with soup or tea. Gear Aside from protective layers, firestarter, and headlamp, bring crampons, an ice axe, compass, altimeter, and a balaclava. Pack extra goggles, mittens, and socks.
Skill Know how to self-arrest.
Navigate Write out compass headings and GPS coordinates and keep them with your map in a map case and out of the wind.
Stay dry Adjust layers and pace to minimize sweat, which increases the risk of hypothermia. Sleep Rent a bunk at the AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge ($59, 603-466-2727) or crash at Hermit Lake Shelters ($10), a short detour from Tuckerman Ravine. The three-sided shelters have no heat, but there’s a new water pump and the caretaker has daily weather and avalanche info.
Guide Alain Comeau of New England Mountain Guides is a skilled veteran who charges $130. (207) 935-2008