Outdoor shots from French Alps and one from Glacier National Park

Mt. Washington Links Table of contents
Website Pointer Description
Details What's so hard about it? Details on and ramblings about the climb
You can't touch this FYI: Some other climbs I've sampled that don't come close
Profile For the data hounds here's a profile of Mt. Washington From Jos Jans's "The Mountain Site"
Auto Road Home Home page of the Mt. Washington Auto Road
Current conditions Current Mt. Washington summit conditions courtesy of The Mt. Washington Weather Observatory
Norms and records Chart of weather norms and records courtesy of The Mt. Washington Weather Observatory
Races on the mountain Information on the race, er um races, up Mt. Washington

Mt. Washington: The hardest climb anywhere?

The climb up the auto road at Mt. Washington is my pick in the "Hardest Climbs in the World" contest.

Mt. Washington - A Bear of a Climb
Length 7.6 miles (12.3 K)
Average % Gradient 11.8%. No, this is not a typo. The gradient averages 11.8%!
Pavement 65% of length paved, 35% dirt
The Weather Viscious winds. Frequently sub-freezing temps.

The Pavement

About 35% of the road is hard packed dirt strewn lightly with small stones. It's quite good for a dirt road though and manageable on conventional road tires. The dirt stretches are interspersed irregularly with no apparent rhyme or reason. I asked an Auto Road staff member about it once and they told me that the dirt sections are the places where the pavement kept washing away so they stopped trying to pave it. Was he BS-ing? I dunno.

The Weather

It's not only the steepness of the climb that sets Mt. Washington apart. It is also the fierce weather. The organization ran the bike race in September for years but evidently after having to cancel it so often due to bad weather the racers began to complain and arrangements were made to move to race to August.

The Wind

The ascent runs east to west and the wind is almost invariably coming out of the west which of course makes for a headwind. Now you might think that at the slow speeds that one rides at on such a climb riding into a headwind wouldn't make much of a difference. But these are no light summer zephyrs. The highest wind speed ever recorded was recorded at the weather observatory at the top of Mt. Washington - 231 mph (372 kph). And it's not just windy up there every once in a while. It's always windy up there. A more telling figure is the average annual wind speed of 35.3 mph (56.8 kph).

The wind typically starts to pick up on the top half or third of the course (you know you're in for it if you start feeling the wind before you get above tree line) and is often brutal enough to force cancellation of the race.

An Auto Road tour van driver once told me that motorcyles aren't allowed on the road when summit winds hit sustained speed over 50 mph (~80 kph). That day we'd all just raced the bike race and the summit wind speed had been a steady 48 mph. (I'd spent a minute or so staring at the anemometer in the summit house. The needle was holding so steady it was almost as if it was broken.) Years later I still remember the feeling that day in one short stretch where the wind was at my back for about 20 pedal strokes. It felt like a push from some invisible hand. "If I stop pedalling", I thought, "I'll keep moving." Up a 12% grade no less. Scary! And then the road turned back into the wind.

The Temperature

The fact that the highest ever temperature recorded on the summit is 72° F (22° C) sorta tells you this is a pretty cold place. Generally when the race is held in August the summit temps are between freezing and the low 40's (5° C) at race time. (Yes, yes, the average high in August is a toasty 53 but the race runs in the morning.) The highest temperature I've ever experienced there was around 60° F (15.5° C). I've been to the top around 10 or 15 times between mid-June and mid-September. Anecdotal yes, but there you have it.

The temps aren't such an issue when you're grunting along up the hill since you're putting out so much heat but they do become a problem if you have to stop, especially if the wind is blowing, making for a nasty wind chill. The worst thing is when they run the race when precipitation is a possibility but hasn't started yet. (If it's raining or snowing at the top before they start the race they are more likely to postpone it which is good.) The last time I rode the race (1999) it started to rain a cold rain just after I finished. The summit temp was right around freezing so it could have easily turned over to snow; the road was icing up in spots. I went inside the ample summit house and was shivering from the cold even inside. (But it seemed to me that the, shall we say, frugal keepers of the summit house had turned the heat off. "All these sweaty bikers generate enough heat, Jim. Turn it off." ;^)

The Training

Training for this climb is very difficult for a few reasons. The most obvious one is that since it's so much harder than anything else it's hard to find something similar to train on. Short steep hills abound in New England but none compare to Mt. Washington.

Next, and not obvious, is the unfortunate fact that the folks who run the Auto Road will not permit bicycles on the road except on the day of the race. Urban legend has it that some yahoo mountain bikers decided to race down the hill one time, terrorizing motorists, and the ban was born. I'd tend to believe this was the last straw so to speak in the minds of the folks who run the road and that they were finding us cyclists as, frankly, a nuisance, gumming up the smooth flow of motor traffic. But that's just my opinion. In a nutshell, if you want to ride Mt. Washington you have to ride the race. The Auto Road is privately owned so the owners of the road call the shots.

On a positive note, in recent years the organization that runs the race has convinced the Auto Road folks to open the road up for one additional day around one month before the race as a "practice run" but, last I heard, you had to be registered for the race to ride it.

New England training locales for Mt. Washington

Some information here about local (read "New England") training options for Mt. Washington.

I have made excellent use of Mt. Ascutney in Ascutney Vermont as it is half as long as Washington and yet only one tenth of a percentage point less steep - 11.7 to Washington's 11.8. The road is in a state park as you can see if you follow the link above. Cyclists are welcome to ride the mountain. They'll charge you once to ride up but then you can ride it as many times as you want.

Another climb that I've used for steeps training and equipment shake out is Pack Monadnock in Miller State Park in Peterborough, NH. This is a shorter climb at 1.? miles but it is also very steep and has the advantage (for me anyway) of being closer to metro-Boston than the other options. This one is not as steep average-wise as Mt. Washington but it still averages over 10% as I remember and it ends in a ~100 meter grade that is excrutiatingly steep. A park ranger once told me it was the steepest paved stretch in New Hampshire. That may or may not be correct but that last grade is steeper than the notorious finishing stretch of Mt. Washington and much, much longer. (Of course on Mt. Washington by the time you get to that super-steep finish you've already been riding uphill without a break for over an hour.)

For Les Habitants coming down from Quebec in search of climbing there is Burke Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom of, well, northeastern Vermont. I never used for training when I was racing Mt. Washington having only discovered it after I'd decided to give Mt. Washington a rest for a while. I rode this climb once at a higher than racing weight with a 39X26 low and struggled on a prolonged stretch which my cyclometer (which has an altimeter and memory functions) showed as 18% average.

How does Mt. Washington compare to some of the Euro-climbs?

Mt. Washington is light years harder than any of the climbs I've personally done in Europe. Including:

  • l'Alpe d'Huez
  • Ventoux
  • Grannon (Steep climb north west of Brianšon. Greg Lemond commented on its difficulty in his book.)
  • Galibier
  • Tourmalet
  • Hautacam
  • Stelvio
  • Marmolada

Note that I haven't done Moritrolo, Zoncolan in Italy or the Angliru in Spain

Bike Races

There are now (evidently?) two bike races up Mt. Washington.

Of these two, I've only done the edition run by Tin Mountain, a charitable organization whose mission is to get kids out into the woods. They've been running it for a good many years now.

The support is superb. There are volunteers at the summit with cartloads of blankets and as soon as you cross the finish line they throw a blanket over you. There is a team of folks strung up the mountain (the local HAM Radio club I think) starting at the tree line. They have walkie-talkies so that if you have difficulty they can offer assistance (most likely just a warm coat) and report it to the race officials. This is very reassuring. In the old days before they did this you had to pack extra clothes in your pockets for fear that if you had a mechanical and had to stop you'd need the extra clothing to keep warm.

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