100 Peaks #1: Mt. Washington, Washington and Bad Place Names

I’m writing about 100 somewhat arbitrary mountains in the Northwest.  Here’s the list.

There are fifteen Mt. Washingtons in the United States. I almost expected there to be more, given the fact that this was the third one I encountered without even trying to find them. Astoundingly, there are five in Washington State. Only five of these peaks are important enough to merit a Wikipedia page, however, and this one barely made the cut. In the same way Washington State is confused with Washington D.C., this Mt. Washington is vastly overshadowed in terms of fame by the first one I climbed, which was in New Hampshire. In fact, maybe except to Seattlelites looking for a less crowded training hike than Mt. Si, it is likely that this is the least-known Mt. Washington with a Wikipedia page. The New Hampshire peak is the highest peak in the northeast, the crown jewel of that strange state where the local pastime is climbing every peak over 4000 ft. tall. The other notable peaks in Oregon and Nevada are both probably much more interesting and difficult to climb.

Still, to me this Mt. Washington has the best claim to being the true owner of the name. Originally named Profile Mountain, it got its name because someone thought it looked like the man himself. In a nation where we are pathologically obsessed with naming things after George Washington, this is maybe the only specific claim to a reason for the name I have heard.

Granted, I have yet to find a photo that convinces me of the resemblance. And I certainly wasn’t seeing it on my hike here. It was foggy, snow-covered, and largely dark. I started maybe 20 minutes after 6 on the morning of my flight home for Christmas, anxious for something to do with my legs before sitting on a plane for hours. On the way up, I saw glittering plants and walked through about a foot of snow. I turned off my headlamp at the first sign of light and watched the blue hazy colors of everything around me slowly change. It was snowing pretty hard, and the changing light in the nearly all-white quiet was peaceful. Though I got to the top ostensibly before “sunrise,” there wasn’t a proper sunrise through the fog. And even though there was never much light at all on the morning after the solstice, there was still something comforting about watching the day start alone in the snow.

The mood couldn’t have been any more different from the New Hampshire Mt. Washington (at least when I encountered it in the summer). While this peak doesn’t even merit an official trail (hand-drawn signs lead the way and offer puzzling alternatives, such as “Bob’s”), Mt. Washington, N.H. has a museum, an observatory, a post office, and approximately 5467 people taking selfies. I had looked forward to the other peak for a while; this Mt. W was a spontaneous solo hike 45 minutes from my house. At 8 I was still at the top. At 9:45 I was home and stepping out of the shower for the airport.

As much as I like to make fun of New Hampshire’s love for peaks that just aren’t that tall, their Mt. Washington is taller than this one, 6288 ft. to this one’s 4400. (The dormant volcano in Oregon is 7789, and the Nevada peak is 11658.) Not to mention, the one in New Hampshire is a formidable place this time of year. While I jog down this hill, people are probably ice climbing in 50 MPH winds over there.

Enough about the other Mt. Washington. This hike of the seemingly redundant Mt. Washington, Washington did get me thinking about other common place names as I watched pikas scurry in front of me, illuminated by headlamp. Across the country, we are plagued by Rocky Mountains, Red, Black, and White mountains, and even several places named after spectacles, since losing one’s glasses in the wilderness is a common activity. And don’t get me started on Deep Gaps or Blue Lakes. George Washington is actually the person with the most places named after him in North America, which isn’t surprising. Luckily, he at least beats out the holdovers from colonialism like the Victorias and Louisvilles of the world. But surely a wider variety of people could be honored?

Not every place can be a fantastically named Inconsolable Range, Aasgard Pass, Mooselookmeguntic Lake, or even Goose Eye Mountain. But what if we did rename some of these places to add some magic? There is no Sprinkle Mountain, Mt. Tabei, or Chocolate Pie Ridge. What about a Particle Range, with Charmed and Strange Peaks? Naming mountains beautifully can make them part of local stories, make them more fun to climb. Why keep naming things after presidents?

This standard accessible hike gave me a wonderful chance for reflection and confirmed my feeling that if you think a hike is boring, you should do it at a different time of year and/or day. A minor peak I’d passed over for years, good old Mt. W turned out to be stunning on a winter morning. Who knows, if you go for a sunrise hike, you might also find yourself inspired to google place names for two hours on an airplane.

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