Mt. Washington Winter Lions Head Route

The divot in my thigh has almost healed and I have yet to write about the climb that nearly took much more than a chunk of my leg.

Mt. Washington is known as the deadliest little mountain in the world. It holds the record for the strongest ground winds on earth. The day I summited the gusts where 97 mph and it was -50 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind-chill. Needless to say the mountain deserves much more respect than its modest altitude implies.

The first day on the Mt. Washington the goal was simple. Get to the top, follow the path of least resistance, tag the summit and safely get down. The most straightforward path to the top is following the well cairned Lion Head Winter Route. On a nice winter weekend the trail is a well-beaten cattle path to the summit.

The day I set out for the summit the weather was definitely not nice and eight inches of dry powder had obscured any semblance of a trail. The classic northeastern foul weather was in full force once I made it to tree line. The wind was an ever-present concern in my mind. I would be leaning heavily into the wind but that was not nearly enough to battle through it. With regular occurrence the air would suddenly become still and I would be off balance. I quickly learned though, when the breeze died, even momentarily, instead of relaxing and standing straight, I needed to brace myself for a monster gust to come crashing into me.

Besides tossing me to and fro, the wind carried extremely fine frozen silt that felt like an industrial strength sandblaster on my already frozen skin. To combat the barrage of ice pellets I covered every patch of flesh that had a remote chance of being exposed to the foulest weather in the world.

I sincerely wished I had a true balaclava because the makeshift neck gaiter I used left a gap between my sunglasses and the gaiter. This allowed the ice to freeze to my face. All too often I would try to blink and realize that my eye lashes where frozen together. In addition I neglected to bring a pair of goggles. This would prove to be a rookie mistake that I will never make again. The value of goggles became apparent as soon as the lenses of glasses froze over with the fog from my breath.

The most technical portion of the winter route is below tree line, which keeps the wind and snow at bay. The snow slope goes 75 degrees vertical for short periods and a second tool is helpful. The section is not particularly dangerous. This route is so popular that the snow is compacted along the route and if you get off route the snow is powdery and acts as bumpers to keep you on trail. It is not unlike a very steep waterslide. The only difference is that instead of ending with a refreshing splash, this slide ends in a dull thud as you crash into a tree.

Once you clear the slightly technical section at the beginning of the route the terrain levels off and I traded my ice ax for trekking poles and prepared myself for a long snow slog which would involve post holing the entire way.

After three hours of toiling in freezing weather and intense gusts I reached the rock outcropping that gives the Lion Head route its name. Exhausted, I found a refrigerator sized boulder to curl up behind and take shelter from the howling wind. I had to take off my gloves to dig through my pack to find a few frozen Snickers and the map. That was a mistake that I would not repeat for the rest of the trip. Within two minutes of having my fingers being exposed to elements they turned a ghastly white and became firm to the touch. I say firm to the touch but that is kind of a lie because I couldn’t really feel that. Instead I tried to squeeze my fingers but saw that they were blocks of wood. I didn’t have the screaming barfies yet but I knew that as soon as I started moving I would.

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