Climbing Mount Washington in the winter is one of the most challenging bucket list items on the planet.In January, the average monthly temperature is 4 degrees Fahrenheit with 46 mph winds. Temperatures regularly drop below zero and sustained 80-100mph wind gusts are not at all unusual.
In composing this winter hiking gear list, we went straight to our most credible source, our Climb School in North Conway, NH. Here’s what the experts who lead hundreds of winter ascents a year say you need to bring on a winter day hike up Mount Washington.
The first thing to go onto your body should be lightweight with excellent moisture wicking properties that will transfer sweat away from your skin and to the next layer. Despite the frigid conditions, you’ll sweat a lot so your synthetic or merino wool top and bottom may very well be the most important part of your layering system.
Over-Base Layer (top only)
This light insulation layer will help retain heat while also giving sweat a place to go away from your skin. For these reasons, you should choose a thin top made of Powerstretch, microfleece or merino wool.
The right insulation layer for you depends largely on how your body responds to activity. If you “run hot,” choose a 200 or 300 weight fleece. If you “run cold” you may opt for a lightweight jacket with synthetic insulation or even 800-fill down. It’s always best to experiment before your trip to know what works for you.
Worn alone in these conditions the lightweight jacket we’re recommending would spell doom, but with all the other layers keeping you warm, it’s time to focus on keeping the weather out. Look for waterproof/breathable jackets with integrated hoods that will not blow off in the extreme winds. Pants can be bibs or full side zip-on pants made of the same waterproof/breathable material.
“Over It All” Hooded Down or Insulated Jacket
This layer stays in your pack until you need that extra bit of warmth during a rest break or on the descent when you’re not producing as much body heat. It may sound strange to put a puffy jacket over your waterproof layer but our climb school guides swear by this tactic. Just be sure that the jacket you bring comfortably fits over all of your other layers.
Our climbing guides also recommend bringing at least 3 pairs of gloves. Start with thin glove liners. These inexpensive liners are great when you need to adjust your crampons or deal with a tricky buckle. Once your liners are on, pull a pair of medium weight climbing or downhill ski gloves over them. A pair of mittens in reserve can really come in clutch when the temps bottom out and your digits start to feel numb. Don’t forget the chemical hand warmers, too!
Mom always told you to wear a hat when it’s cold outside. Trust her, you’re going to need it. And make sure it covers your ears!
Not to be confused with the flaky dessert treat, a balaclava is like a base layer for your face, head and neck. It’s also a very useful thing to put on before you head above treeline. If the wind is not fierce, it may be all you need but our climb school guides also strongly recommend bringing a Neoprene face mask. In fact, many climbers have had to turn back due to not having this crucial item in harsh windchills.
This is another item where it’s best to do a few cold weather practice runs so you know whether you need to add a wicking liner or not. Either way, be sure that you enough room to wiggle your toes inside your boots.
When you hike Mount Washington with the Eastern Mountain Sports Climb School, your plastic mountaineering boots are provided along with crampons and an ice axe. Our Climb School doesn’t like to take chances and neither should you. Be sure you have a pair of broken-in mountaineering boots that can handle cold, snow and ice.
Once you get above treeline, water in the form of fog, snow and icemay be your constant companion as early as October straight through to May. Conditions like that require the traction and stability of crampons.
You won’t be climbing sheer ice faces, but a mountaineering axe is an essential safety tool so you can self-arrest should you slip and fall on a steep section. If you don’t know what self-arrest means, you really should book a trip with our Climb School for safety’s sake.
Gaiters are like shin guards for hikers and climbers that are made to keep ice and snow out of your boots. They fit right over your pants and boots to give you an extra layer of essential protection while decreasing your chances of tripping on a loose pant leg. Protip: Size them large! Many climbers show up with gaiters that fit great over sneakers, but plastic mountaineering boots are much larger around the lower calf.
When the wind gets cranking it is impossible (and profoundly dangerous) to keep your eyes open without goggles to protect them. No matter how technologically advanced your goggles are, expect some condensation to form and freeze on the inside of the lens. This is where a second pair comes in handy.
Our climbing guides never go on a winter trip without a headlamp and neither should you.
You’re going to need a pack that’s big enough to carry all your extra layers, water and snacks without having to strap anything to the outside of the pack. Our climbing guides recommend 2,000-3,000 cubic inches or 30-40 liters. A pack with an ice axe loop is strongly recommended.
Unlike in the summer where you can refill your water bottle at the summit, winter ascents require climbers to carry all the water they plan on consuming. Wide mouth bottles are preferable because they take longer to freeze. To further slow the freezing process, be sure to pack your water bottles inside your pack close to your lower back. Our climbing guides recommend drinking ¾ of a liter before you arrive at the trailhead so you begin the day well hydrated.
You’re going to burn your share of calories on this hike so be sure to bring along plenty of GORP and any other protein rich, quick-energy combination to keep you going from start to finish. An emergency candy bar is always a good thing to have as well but according to our Climb School guides, leftover pizza salami and cheeses make the best trail food.
Questions? Our Climb School guides are always happy to help you whether you climb with them or not. Give them a buzz at 800-310-4504. Have fun out there!
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