View Full Version : Help needed -- is it ever too cold to summit Mount Washington?

01-24-2011, 09:44 AM
Hi, I have surprisingly not seen this question addressed, which causes me to think the answer is, "No -- If you are prepared / dressed properly, you can summit in any temperature."

My friend and I are due to climb Mount Washington over President's Day weekend. I'm not sure what the temperature will be then, of course, but recent reports of -31 degrees Farenheit and -79 degree windchill have given us pause. We'd like to know if there is a set temperature that makes it truly too cold to climb.

We have climbed Mount Washington before with a guide in late March and early April (40mph wind, 30 degrees).

I understand if you are caught out for a night in -79 degree windchill, that would be terrible. But if you are well prepared and have taken all the precautions, can you summit with -79 degree windchill? Will the rangers let you attempt it? Have people done it? Have there been summits in recent days in atrocious conditions?

Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

01-24-2011, 10:47 AM
I am not aware of any "Ranger Police" that say you cannot hike or try to summit. If you see any Rangers, they might advise against being above treeline on a specific day. Winds in the winter are stronger than in the summer and combine that with low temperatures you have very dangerous conditions. Any exposed skin will freeze in minutes or even faster. There can be NO exposed skin - period.

Can it be done in these extreme conditions? Probably. Would anyone want to do it knowing they will have hours to get back to warmth and "recovery"? I know I would not do it.

01-24-2011, 03:10 PM
I second what Brad said. Unless you are just wanting to see if you can do it, why would you want to? Extreme cold weather is not easily taken care of with the best clothing and equipment. Like Brad said, you MUST be aware of your own personal limits and realize that if you did not get down in time or were not prepared to have a back-up plan should something go wrong, then it is just not wise. There is a book called -148 which details a winter ascent of Denali. The group had specially made gear. The title is what the thermometer read in Fahrenheit on one occasion. If the wind is making the temp. dip that low, you probably wouldn't want to be on the summit for that reason alone. Even in the Summer, strong winds are not a good idea unless you are made of mercury. Be safe.

01-24-2011, 06:05 PM
Climbing above treeline in conditions like those listed today is foolhardy. A small misstep can turn into disaster. Conditions below treeline on a day like today can certainly be tolerable, but venturing above treeline for long would be ill advised. You can always hike up the lion head winter route(provided you have the skills, training and proper gear) as you are generally in the lee side of the most common windpaths. Once you poke up above treeline - you'll get quite a blast of frigid air, (the likes of which you can't even imagine) and common sense should be your guide at that point. If you need further convincing, read this:


I climbed Mount Washington the week after this disaster with several of the guides who attempted to rescue the victim, and their story will convince you to be cautious.
Estimating ones maximum tolerance is difficult, it depends on your experience level and other factors. An experienced climber would know not to remove gloves, facemask etc for example when looking through his/her pack for instance, while a novice could make a critical mistake and have a glove blow away for example... In these conditions, that hand will swell and become unuseable within seconds. Or a pair of goggles can easily freeze over making you essentially blind. If you are far from shelter at that point, things will become critical within minutes. Your judgement can become impaired as hypothermia sets in... You get the picture.
Good Luck,
p.s. - also remember that conditions get worse rapidly, the higher you go. And remember - the mountain will always be there.

01-24-2011, 06:28 PM
I have responded in a past forum about the difficulties of rescues (http://www.mountwashington.org/forums/showthread.php?6560-In-need-of-rescue-on-top-of-Mt-Washington-mid-winter&p=45251&highlight=#post45251) in general up here but in conditions like those on Sunday/Monday, rescues are even more difficult if attempted at all. If someone needed help yesterday, the summit staff would not have gone out to make any attempt at a rescue until possibly today. The reason is all of us are volunteers up here when it comes to SAR, so if we have to go out and we get injured, we are not covered by workman’s comp or any other work related coverage. So we would not put our lives on the line for a blatantly reckless hiker. Fish and Game may have attempted a rescue from below but it's hard to say.

In that thread above, I listed that on a good day under optimal conditions our snow tractor could possibly get someone down and to a hospital in 6 hours but with conditions like Sunday into Monday, the snow tractor wouldn't have even attempted a trip up since its fuel and hydraulics start seizing up in conditions that cold. And if the tractor can’t move, several peoples lives then get put on the line.

So while no one is going to bar you from going up, if you get into trouble, you are on your own for several hours if not days. And like climbabout said, it only takes seconds for your skin to react to the cold. Last night, I was using a mirror to make sure I had no exposed surfaces before going out and even then I would come back in to find some white splotches of frost nip from places I may have missed. While nip will go away after a while, bite is with you for life. So is it worth the risks? In my opinion, no. Is it worth not even being outside for? If you stick below treeline or really know what you are doing, then I think it is “fine”. But, if you can choose a better day, why risk it. The mountain has better days and will always be here.

01-25-2011, 12:54 AM
depends on weather or not your body & mind are strong enough to continue moving while basically in a state of Hypothermia.... The human body is amazing and can endure (ever talked to a marine about their training regiment) .....however there are two kinds of people in the world: those who role over and die on the mountain & those who say no way and make it back to the car cold, really cold! Not like I've experienced that ( Sam Adams & Jacuzzi )

However, having just wrote that beat left pectoral beat right pectoral statement above.... I 100% agree with what climbabout and what others wrote above! It is rough up there and you can seriously get hurt and people have died. This is not what climbing is about, but rater climbing is about learning, climbing is about teamwork, climbing is about becoming part of the natural environment, climbing is about learning to overcome, climbing is about being 1000% over prepared with redundancy in every knot you tie or caribeaner you lock!

People that try to unpreparedly climb Washington just to prove something to themselves are SILLY, and they'd probably have much more fun buying a sports car ( I am in no way directing that to the poster, especially noting the posters smart prior decision to hire a guide, but rather just saying it as a general statement )

01-25-2011, 06:22 AM
A good book to read before attempting Mt Washington in any weather - especially if in the winter - is "Not Without Peril". And when you are done, read the list of people who have died up there and note the dates. They are pretty much every month of the year.

I have hiked with small groups up Mt Washington (mainly in the summer) and have run across a very few people who are not safe to be with. I will not hike with them again. They will not listen to the others - will not stay with the group. They would not take the extra clothing they could have needed. Being safe is #1. Going into weather conditions that are bad or harsh above treeline makes no sense.

Read the book.

01-25-2011, 09:09 AM
Awesome guys -- thanks you for your insight. The consensus I seem to be hearing is, "Yes, it is possible to summit in near any temperature, but the margin for error decreases so much as for it to essentially be irresponsible." We will definitely heed this advice! We are committed to long climbing careers and know the number one priority is safety -- that of ourselves and, very importantly, others. We want to be good members of the community and that, I think, includes not attempting to summit in conditions such as those seen the other day (-31 farenheit, -79 windchill).

In difficult but not atrocious conditions, we'll want to push ourselves. But we won't negate common sense. I think the poster was right when he said once you pop up above the tree line, the decision to advance or not advance will boil down to common sense.

We'll be sure to post a trip report.

Best Regards,
Ryan and Shawn

01-25-2011, 11:25 AM
You got it. Most people who inquire about such things here don't.

01-26-2011, 05:26 AM
I have hiked with small groups up Mt Washington (mainly in the summer) and have run across a very few people who are not safe to be with. I will not hike with them again. They will not listen to the others - will not stay with the group. They would not take the extra clothing they could have needed. Being safe is #1.

Read the book.

LOL... finding a good climbing partner is pretty much a miracle as most either fall into 1 of 2 categories: what you listed above OR phone call the night before that their bailing :(

I recently found that a buddy who is comfortable doing 5.11 moves so I'm stoked about that as I have two conferences upcoming this spring that will bring me within striking distance of your beautiful mountains........ hmmm hmmm pinnacle & shoestring gullies is what I've been studying & dreaming about lately!