Huntington Ravine: Climbing the Most Difficult Trail in the White Mountains
Huntington Ravine Trail is the most difficult, dangerous trail in the White Mountains. It's the pinnacle of the Terrifying 25 list and has quite the reputation among the New Hampshire hiking community. The AMC White Mountain Guide says that, "the exposure on several of the steepest ledges is likely to prove extremely unnerving," especially for inexperienced hikers. I'm not sure words or pictures can convey how steep and treacherous Huntington Ravine is, but all of that being said I think it's my new all time favorite trail.
When my friend Rob proposed Huntington Ravine last night I immediately agreed because I love a good scramble and the weather looked perfect. I knew if I passed up this opportunity there may not be another for a while. Huntington is only able to be hiked a few months out of the year without technical ice or rock climbing gear, so with the weather being so dry the past few days it was now or never. A fall in many places can be deadly, so waiting for a dry, clear day is a must.
After double and triple checking that I had all of my equipment, I packed up the car and started on my way to Joe Dodge Lodge for a 5:30am start time. When I arrived at the trailhead Rob was super excited, but I was more hesitant. I had brand new Altra trail runners that had yet to be broken in, and this hike seemed too high stakes to be testing new equipment. Also, for those of you who don't know I'm 5'2". My height is not normally a problem for me, but when it comes to climbing extremely steep rock slabs it can be really hard for me to reach potentially imperative hand holds. My last source of anxiety was that I had no experience hiking Mt. Washington besides my Presidential traverse last August where I didn't use any of the approaching trails. Tackling the most difficult trail seemed like a less than friendly introduction to this beast of a mountain.
The hike started out on Tuckerman Ravine Trail, a wide and rocky path with a gradual but steady incline. Slivers of bright orange light from the recent sunrise glimmered on the path in front of us. We were surprised at how difficult the first mile of the hike was, but once our muscles warmed up we found our rhythm and rode it to the intersection of Huntington Ravine Trail. Not 100 yards into the trail we came across this warning sign pictured. It was unlike any of the others I have become so accustomed to seeing in the Whites, so the gravity of the trail we were about to attempt really started to set in.
Huntington Ravine Trail started out relatively flat. It was more narrow than Tuckerman Ravine, but the gradual and steady incline was about the same. After just a few minutes we came up to a small brook crossing. We couldn't see where the trail connected on the other side and the crossing looked kind of messy, so after consulting the GPS we decided to stay on that side of the brook and keep ascending. After about 100 yards of bushwhacking through thick brush, we realized that we were no longer on the trail and the GPS had led us astray. We ended up crossing that tributary higher than intended, bushwhacking through the woods for about a quarter mile, and then rejoining the trail at the next crossing. It was an adventure to say the least.
As we made our way up to the floor of the ravine we were serenaded by birds chirping and the sound of the river flowing beside us. Eventually we got our first glances of the headwall in the distance. When I saw the steep rocky face I started to get really excited! After a nice break on a rock looking in at the ravine, we made our way to the "Fan," the start of our steep climb. The Fan is a steep boulder field leading to the base of the slabby climb up the headwall. This boulder hopping was reminiscent of climbing the summit cones for some of the northern Presidential mountains. We made our way up starting towards the left hand side hopping from rock to rock and scrambling our way up the boulders. Way to our left we could see climbers scaling the Pinnacle, the huge rocky structure bulging out of the side of the ravine. We were both a little jealous that we weren't climbing with them!
When we got to the top of the Fan we took a quick snack break and then attacked the first slab. Steve Smith, editor of the AMC White Mountain Guide, author of The 4,000 Footers of the White Mountains guide, and owner of The Mountain Wanderer bookstore, described this to me as the "crux" of the climb. I often stop by his shop after hiking, for he is a wealth of knowledge on hiking in the Whites. This first section was one of the trickiest, with very few hand holds and fairly smooth rock. I really had to trust the tread of my new shoes on this one, and luckily they prevailed.
As we climbed higher and higher, each section was extremely challenging in its own way. They were steeper than anything I had ever hiked before, and at times I looked up and had no idea how I would get to the next blaze. A fall here would spell disaster, so my usual clumsiness was not an option. Surprisingly, I wasn't afraid while ascending. The was no place for fear, only focus and concentration on where I could find the next hand or foot hold. Every time I came to another slab that seemed impossible to get up, I took a few seconds to search with my eyes and run my hand along the face until I found a good way to pull myself up.
There was only one point where I was truly frightened on this trail. It was in this spot near the top where we came to a particularly difficult chimney. Rob went up the right hand side and then crossed over the jagged edge with ease. I followed with a similar technique but quickly realized it would prove much more difficult for me. There was only one hand and foot hold on the right side, with another minuscule hold fitting two of my fingers on the left. This left my left leg dangling since it was too short to reach the other foot hold. In one movement, I clutched the hand hold and a half and kicked my right leg over the knife-like edge to give me enough leverage to keep me on. Unfortunately, my leg didn't swing quite high enough and I was left holding on with my one hand and a half and my legs dangling down below. With no foot holds and no way to see down, I pulled my torso high enough to shimmy my leg over and straddle the pointy rock. Once I was safely laying face first on the rock I felt the fear twist knots in my stomach.
After that, the climbs went back to difficult but doable scrambles and before we knew it we had topped out over the ravine. At that point we couldn't even see the bottom, and the climbers we had seen back down on the Fan were tiny specks in the distance. As crazy and ridiculous as that trail was, I was sad it was over. It was so much fun climbing up the difficult slabs!
We rode the high of the feat we had just achieved all the way through the Alpine Meadow, still adorned with beautiful little wildflowers even late in the season. At the intersection of Lion Head Trail, we decided to descend via Tuckerman Ravine Trail rather than head to the summit of Mt. Washington. We were both ambivalent about visiting the bustling summit full of tourists, and with Lucy waiting for me at home I wanted to get back to her as soon as possible. Some might ask, "what's the point of climbing all the way up there and not going to the summit?" Well this hike wasn't about the summit for either of us. This was a pure "it's about the journey not the destination" hike and we loved every second of it, especially not having to fight crowds to take our picture with a sign.
Descending Tuckerman Ravine Trail was an interesting experience with lots of other hikers ascending and slick rocks threatening to take my feet out from under me. It was steep in the initial descent, but leveled out to a gradual downhill slope quickly. The remnants of a large snowfield lifted my spirits and took my mind off of my throbbing ankles for a short section. I was delighted to find a little chunk of snow on the trail! I love snow! The floor of Tuckerman Ravine was filled with lush greenery and birds chirping once again. We made good time to Hermit Lake shelter where we filled up on water, had a snack, and used bathrooms with running toilets! Crazy I know! The rest of the way down was mostly the same as the way we came up Tuckermans and we were both exhausted once we got back to the parking lot.
Although this hike was one of my most challenging to date, it has made it to the absolute top of my favorites list. It was exhilarating looking down after each difficult slab and seeing how far I had come. Finding each route was like a mental and physical puzzle waiting to be cracked. I loved every second of it and felt like a complete badass the whole time. This was one of those hikes that made me feel like I could do anything in the world.
Even though we didn't summit Mt. Washington, I felt like I was on top of the world. I'm actually glad we didn't go all the way to the top, because I know seeing the masses up there and waiting in line for my picture after working harder than ever would have put a damper on my good mood. A big shout out goes to Rob for being an excellent hiking buddy and leading the way on most of the scary stuff. Today was a big day and surviving the most difficult trail in the Whites is a personal win in my book. I conquered my fears, learned to trust myself, and had a great time doing it!
Hutington Ravine Tr, Alpine Garden Tr, and Tuckerman Ravine Tr [9.42 mi, 3400 ft, 8:10].
Follow me on Instagram @lexi.brocoum for more pictures!