A Great Cause to Climb For: Seeking the Peak on Mount Washington
Words & Photos by Matt Morelli
A bead of sweat was forming on my brow as we packed up our gear in the parking lot of Pinkham Notch, more than 4,000 feet below the summit of Mount Washington. I had seen the forecast from the Mount Washington Observatory’s website the night before, and now it was the only thing on my sleep-deprived mind at seven in the morning. It was going to be hot, a near record-setting day. We quickly strapped on our daypacks and booked it to the trailhead. For this ascent, Erin, Dylan, Brock and I all decided to go for something none of us had done before, the Huntington Ravine Trail, also somewhat ominously known as the most terrifying hike in the White Mountains.
The Mount Washington Observatory, perched high on the peak, was built in 1932 to gauge the weather on the summit and has since recorded some of the most extreme weather in the world. In fact, the world record for ground wind speed (not associated with tornadoes or tropical cyclones) was recorded on the summit, topping out at 231 miles per hour! The lowest temperature recorded by the Mount Washington Observatory was negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chills colder than -100! The weather is so gnarly that the observatory must be manned year-round to attend to the inevitable instrument malfunctions.
Despite the at times horrific weather, every year, over a quarter-million people make Mount Washington an adventure destination! Whether they are hiking, climbing, or skiing from the top, everyone depends on the most up to date weather information available, and the Mount Washington Observatory delivers it daily. Despite this, an alarming number of adventurers, both professional and novice, are caught in dreadful weather that can have deadly consequences. Mount Washington claimed its first known victim in 1849 and has since claimed over 150 more lives, the majority being lost to exposure in the notoriously bad weather.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear team, however, was more than ready for the scariest hike in the Whites. Comprised of four members, we traveled quickly on the approach to the main climb. Erin, the head of Research & Development, Brock, a coordinator for the Shelters Department, Dylan, half of the Customer Service duo, and I, the Marketing Intern, all joked and talked as we weaved our way through tall pines and over streams. Eventually, a view of our climb opened up before us, and our hearts began racing in excitement.
Though we couldn’t tell while on the less traveled Huntington Ravine Trail, the infamous mountain had more traffic than almost any other day of the year for an annual event called Seek the Peak. From all across the North East, outdoor enthusiasts, the four of us included, swarmed the Presidential Range. This hike-a-thon event is the single largest fundraiser for the Mount Washington Observatory. In the months leading up to Seek the Peak, hikers form teams that call upon friends, family, neighbors and businesses to fund their teams. Hikers who raise over $200 are entered into a raffle at the end of the day. This year alone hikers raised nearly $160,000, all of which is donated directly to the Mount Washington Observatory!
Soon enough, the forest floor began to incline slightly more with each step before we broke into the bright sunlight of a boulder field that ran its way to the base of the headwall. This is what we had come for. We took a brief break for some water before the long and exposed climb. Being as hot as it was, breaks were important, but there was a tension building the longer we waited. We wanted to climb with every fiber of our being! “Shall we?” I asked. It was like firing a gun at the start line.
Dylan, whom I met on the Appalachian Trail, was halfway up the boulder field before I could blink. Erin, an avid rock climber and trail runner, was hot on his heels. Brock, another AT thru-hiker, and I set out after them in the blazing heat. Single file we weaved our way on top of, between, and even under boulders the size of Chevy Suburbans. Occasionally we found snow still deep in the belly of the slide, and we relished the cool air it emitted. The more we climbed, the more breaks we began to take–not because of exhaustion–but for the beauty of the views opening up around us.
During a long break, we chatted with a group of climbers, the only other people we saw on this section, who were about to begin a pitch that flanked one of the sides of the Huntington Ravine Trail. Being a ground walker, I was fascinated as we watched the group tie into their past-vertical pursuit. Erin explained to me what they were doing, why they were doing it, and even pointed out their probable route, all with a noticeable tone of excitement in her voice. We packed up from our break spot and continued our rocky ascent.
By 11 am, we topped out of our chosen route and got our first view of where the summit should have been. The Mount Washington Observatory had predicted cloud cover on the mountain’s peak, and their predictions proved accurate. But less than a mile from the summit, we were baking in the direct sunlight. Nevertheless, we decided it to be worth our while to cross the shoulder of the mountain, via the Alpine Garden Trail. Even through the heat and sun we found pleasure in the yellow flowers that painted the Alpine Garden. We laughed and nearly skipped through this paradise, ever thankful for a beautiful day on a mountain that gets roughly 40 sunny days a year!
Our glee was soon dashed, if only for a moment, at the end of the short trail. We found the crowds that we had dreaded for the last week. A steady stream of hundreds of people, like ants to sugar, was meandering from treeline far below to the summit, a thousand feet above. Initially, this spectacle left me with a sense of distaste, but soon, it filled me with some hope and pride. All of these people had come out to support a nonprofit, scientific endeavor. Not only does the Mount Washington Observatory provide indispensable scientific data, but it is also the first line of defense in saving people’s lives on the deadliest mountain in the United States.
We made the last turn to ascend the final mile to the summit. Low hanging clouds and a stiff breeze broke the sweltering heat. Quick smiles and brief how-do-you-dos were exchanged as we passed people going in both directions. The clouds tightened their embrace on the mountain, swallowing us with it. We stretched our legs across the parking lot and did a quick dash for the last 50 feet. We considered waiting in line for a photo with the summit sign but instead opted for a quick round of zealous fist bumps and a snack. Normally, the chorus of children running around, car doors closing, and train horns blaring would be a maddening way to end an intense climb. Today though, we found ourselves smiling at the crowds that had gathered, for everyone was up there in unity. With our hearts full, minds happy, and backpacks light, we retreated down the mountain of majesty.