TWO OF THE TALLEST MOUNTAINS in New England are Vermont’s Mt. Killington and New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. I went to both this winter with my uncle and his 13-year-old son.
To our surprise, climbing Killington (elev. 4,229 feet) would be way tougher than summiting Washington (elev. 6,288 feet), despite the latter being 2,000 feet taller and famously having the world’s worst weather (which claimed another hiker’s life in February).
How could that be? Read on!
Uncle Steve and Aidan last winter followed me on a somewhat-grueling and sometimes-scary winter trek into the Northern Presidentials of the White Mountains, and then last summer joined me in a one-day 25-mile traverse of the Presidential Range. They still wanted more, which is how we found ourselves staring up at the snow-covered peaks of Killington and Washington in February and March.
First came Killington, which is mostly known for being a skiers retreat. We were staying nearby at a friend’s cabin on Mt. Pico, which we used as a tune-up test-climb of sorts before going for Killington itself. At left is a photo of my uncle climbing up a steep trail to the summit of Pico at 6am with me and Aidan.
Climbing Pico was especially onerous because I was operating on two hours’ sleep and a belly full of Crown Royal, which had been forced upon me by our devious cabin host. But waking at 6am, partaking in a healthy little vomit, and walking into 0-degree-weather to hike three hours up a mountain and ski down, was actually one of the best things for chasing away the hangover demons.
Later that same day, we enjoyed another “tune-up” four-hour snowshoe adventure on the Long Trail, followed the next day by some “warm-up” cross-country skiing at the excellent Mountain Top Nordic Ski & Snowshoe Center in Chittenden.
We rose on the third day with a mission to trek to Mt. Killington. By now, Aidan was afflicted with a flu-like illness from all of our “tuning-up,” so he returned to sleep while Uncle Steve and I clopped off in our snowshoes, wearing backpacks that held our ski-boards/snow-blades so that we could speed down from the summit of Killington, if we ever reached it.
I had told Uncle Steve that the hike from Mt. Pico to Mt. Killington would be a simple four-hike hike. Over the next eight hours, there were many times when he was wishing that he’d followed his son’s cue and gone back to bed.
The trek began auspiciously. The entrance to the Appalachian Trail (AT) on Route 4 in Mendon was well-marked and packed-down by previous hikers. About a mile in, we came across a camp site where I saw a bit of litter, what looked like a can of Arizona Iced Tea, so I pulled off the trail to pick up the trash, and it turned out to be an unopened can of beer! And not just any lager, but a tall can of Sip Of Sunshine, an excellent India Pale Ale from the Vermont micro-brewer Lawson’s Finest Liquids.
It was like reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Or the lost Ark of the Covenant.
It was a reward for being a steward of the environment, proof that karma does exist!
I slipped the frozen can of beer into my backpack.
Then the real trek began. The formerly firmly packed trail ended, and we now had to blaze a new trail through four-feet-deep snow along a trail that was poorly marked by white blazes — white disappeared in the snow all around up. I soon forgot about that Sip of Sunshine as I increasingly focused on simply trying to stay on the trail as all previous tracks discontinued.
“What the hell?” Uncle Steve muttered, straining his eyes to search for the next white blaze.
Soon, we were wandering aimlessly through the Green Mountains, unsure where we’d lost the trail and clueless to where we might find it. Through a clearing in the trees we could see the summit of Killington several miles away.
“I guess we just want to go in that direction,” I said.
“Right,” said Uncle Steve. He took out his phone and called Aidan, back at the cabin, to let him know we were fine but we might be a bit late coming home.
We took several steps forward, looking hard to find the next white blaze wondering if we were acting foolishly in not simply turning back the way we’d come. After all, in that terrain who knows what rivers and ravines you might encounter.
I stopped and asked Uncle Steve for his smartphone to check our GPS coordinates. In a way, I considered this “cheating.” Real hikers don’t use GPS, just like real men don’t eat quiche and women don’t fart. But suddenly the situation seemed to call for drastic measures.
Surprisingly, we had three bars of service (even though we only had one bar for much of the drive from Connecticut to Vermont). Miraculously, the map not only showed our exact location in the woods, but also gave us a sense of where we needed to go to reconnect with the Appalachian Trail. I held out the phone and an arrow appeared on the screen, pointing us to where we’d intersect with the trail.
“I guess, like, we just want to go in that direction,” I said.
“Right,” said Uncle Steve.
Not long after, Uncle Steve spotted the first white blaze that we’d seen in hours.
Not long after, we spotted the first skiers zooming down the groomed trails of Mt. Killington.
Several hour later, we finally began the final ascent to the summit from Cooper Lodge, a shelter just below the peak. I scrambled to the top and found a couple high schoolers who had taken a ski lift to the top of the mountain. They told me how to find the nearest ski trails, and I waited for Uncle Steve. And waited. I walked back down the trail to look for him and found him on all fours, crawling up the icy path and muttering, “What the hell?”
The summit of Killington was in the clouds. The high schoolers took a photo of us in front of the summit’s cell phone towers, then led us down to the ski resort’s “Summit Lodge,” where we stole some hot water to make hot chocolate and ate our remaining snacks. The beer had yet to thaw out. We enjoyed a 20-minute ski to the bottom of the mountain, and walking through the parking lot I hitched us a ride home.
Killington had nearly killed Uncle Steve.
SEVERAL WEEKS LATER we were looking up at Mt. Washington, tallest mountain in the northeast.
Uncle Steve and Aidan were prepared for the worst, the worst being something like our five-hour trek through deep snow and up steep trails last winter to reach Gray Knob Cabin (which is just below Mt. Adams). So both of them were almost giddy when in two hours we arrived to Harvard Cabin, a little-known relic of the Harvard Mountaineering Club, having barely broken a sweat.
I was a bit surprised as well by the ease of the trek into Harvard. My last winter trek here was two years earlier, which had been a much more perilous journey: I stupidly took a side-trail, fell chest-deep into a snow-covered river, and had no idea where I was because my ancient 1983 map failed to show the Harvard Cabin.
When we finally found our way there — after doubling back and asking directions from a 5-year-old and her father — the hut’s caretaker Rich Palatino rolled his eyes at us and drawled: “At whaaat point … did yoooooou decide to get off … the grooooooooomed trail?”
This time, we arrived so fresh to Harvard Cabin that we dropped our gear and hiked a mile further to Huntington Ravine, caught sight of a few ice climbers, and then whipped out our skiboards/snowblades and skied back down to the cabin like it was ’99 (1999 being the year of the snowblade at US ski resorts).
Back at Harvard Cabin, there to greet us were the hut’s famous caretakers, Rich Palatino, and his wife Marcia Steger. Somehow they live together all winter in that two-room log cabin, eating meals alongside everyone at a communal table in the first-level floor, and then sleeping alongside everyone upstairs in attic-like bunk-room. And they don’t seem to want to be anywhere else in the world. That night, Marcia cooked an amazing-looking candlelit dinner for she and Rich — yes, real candles flickered between their plates! — that made our instant soup seem meager.
In the morning, as we pulled on our snow pants and gators, Rich asked my uncle if we would be hiking or climbing that day.
“Climbing,” my uncle responded.
Rich asked where.
“To the summit of Washington,” my uncle said.
Rich rolled his eyes. “Okay,” he drolled, “so you’re aaaaaaactually hiiiiiiking.”
Rich loves to mock hikers who are either ill-prepared to ill-versed in the language of mountaineering, and he contemptuously referred to the rustic nearby town of North Conway as “the valley,” even though North Conway itself is a haven for rock-climbers and outdoors enthusiasts.
The forecast called for a 60 percent chance of snow and white-out conditions starting at 1pm, so we hit the trail early-ish. By 8am we were climbing — yes Rich, climbing! – the steep Lion Head Trail. At treeline the wind picked up and the clouds settled in as we passed the open ridge alongside Tuckerman Ravine. Visibility was less than 20 feet now. By the time we reached the summit, its prominent weather observatory and towers — often noticeable from miles away — could only be glimpsed during momentary breaks in the clouds.
We reached the summit minutes before a five-person group that was being guided by Paul McCoy of the International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS) in North Conway. We got to talking, and Paul said he was also a first-responder to emergencies on the range, so I asked if he’d been part of the rescue effort for the New York woman who froze to death weeks earlier during a solo-trek here (the story was featured in the Boston Globe, New York Post, New York Daily News, and Bloomberg Businessweek). Paul wasn’t part of that rescue, but he recalled the weather that day — temperatures of 30 degrees below zero and wind gusts of 140 mph — had forced him to cancel another guided trip into the mountain.
“Everyone was warned to stay off Washington that day,” he said. He made it sound like it was suicide to be there.
The adventure writer Steve Fagin (who introduced me to the Whites two years ago) would say after the accident that he “never would venture solo in such unforgiving conditions. It’s also difficult to comprehend how someone could have acted so rashly by putting not only her own life in danger but the lives of those who valiantly tried to rescue her,” he wrote in a column.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all that death talk put me and Uncle Steve and Aidan in somewhat apprehensive mood. Despite briefly entertaining the idea of a longer hike to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, we agreed to return back down the same path before the forewarned blizzard started to hit at 1pm.
But back down toward treeline, the sun reemerged and it was clear that the weather was better than what had been forecast. So we took the Alpine Garden Trail over to the top of Huntington Ravine, where we could hear ice climbers below us, creeping up the corners of the ravine. We trekked back over to Lion Head, descended to Harvard Cabin for a snack, grabbed the skiboards, and hiked two miles over to Tuckerman Ravine for more Spring skiing.
Earlier in the day we had seen a few skiers hiking all to the top of the bowl — the ravine is sometimes packed with hundreds of skiers in springtime. But by now it was about 5pm and everyone had gone home, and it was somewhat eerie and ominous to be all alone in that avalanche-prone ravine. We hiked up a few hundred feet, buckled on our blades, and skied out of the bowl, down the Little Headwall Trail, and along most of the two-mile-long John Sherburne Ski Trail, before trekking back to Harvard Cabin for a second night.
The following morning we packed out of Harvard Cabin and hiked as far as we could to Tuckerman Ravine, which now had a “considerable” avalanche danger (up two grades of severity from the previous day) because of overnight snow and wind from that promised blizzard. High winds had also blown all the powder off the trails, turning them into hard-packed ice-like slopes nearly impossible to ski with our dull snowblades and while also carrying 35-pound backpacks.
Slowly, we slid down the windswept John Sherburne Ski Trail to the parking lot at the base of the mountain.
SO THAT WAS WASHINGTON.
But really, that was all just a tune-up and a warm-up for the next adventure.
In conclusion: Mt. Killington had been blanketed in deep snow, and the lonely six-mile trek to the summit via the untraveled (and often unmarked!) Appalachian Trail had about 3,000 feet net elevation gain. Meanwhile on Mt. Washington, the hike from Harvard Cabin to the summit was also about 3,000 feet elevation gain, but over trails that were well-packed, well-marked, and well-traversed by fellow winter-hikers.
THE LESSON: Sip Of Sunshine is an excellent IPA.