Or How I Managed To Survive The World’s Worst WeatherTM
For those of you not familiar with Mount Washington here in New Hampshire, it is a mountain worthy of legend. It’s not very high as mountains go, only 6288 feet at the summit. It’s not all that difficult to reach the summit – you have the choice of hiking, driving, taking an Auto Road Stage
van, or riding the Cog Railway
Lots of people make the trip to the summit every year, primarily during the summer months. Trips to the summit are difficult, if not impossible, from mid-fall to mid-spring. The Auto Road is closed. The Cog isn’t running. Many of the trails are treacherous.
And then, there’s the weather.
Even in the summer, weather above the tree line can be severe. More people are hauled off the mountain for hypothermia during the summer than any other time. While it can be 80, 85, or 90 degrees at the base of the mountain, it might only be 40 degrees at summit with a 20 or 30 mph wind. It doesn’t take long for hypothermia to set in if someone isn’t properly dressed for the summit conditions. Of course, the argument could be made that the reason more people suffer from hypothermia during the summer months is because there are simply more people on the mountain then.
But think about it.
In the summer.
Mount Washington has its own unique climate. In fact, it is known to have the world’s worst weather. Other places may be colder, or windier, or wetter, or snowier. But no other place combines all of these conditions in a single location. The highest wind speed was recorded at the Mount Washington Observatory back in April of 1934 – 231 miles per hour.
That’s no typo. Over 200
mph. As we say around here, “That’s a might breezy.”
I’ve had the good fortune to spend time at the Mount Washington Observatory during each season of the year, including a week during one winter or another as a volunteer. To say the experience was otherworldly would be an understatement.
Though the daytime conditions during the winter can run from clear and windy to fog with rime ice, or snow so heavy that white out conditions exist where you can’t see your hand held a foot in front of your face, at night it’s downright eerie.
Think of the night scenes at the end of The Shining. Only a few lonely lights here and there, glowing dimly during a windy, snowy evening. The only other people here are the few in the Observatory. The next closest human being is over eight miles away. You almost expect a crazed Jack Nicholson to come limping out of the snowy dark carrying an axe.
There are two particular weather related experiences I’ve had at the summit of Mount Washington that will probably be with me until the day I leave this vale of tears.
The first occurred when a fellow amateur radio operator and I were repairing an antenna mounted on the turret of the Observatory. We paused after finishing a difficult repair to mounting bracket and we both happened to look to the western horizon. As we watched, the cloud cover that had hidden the sun all day broke. Just above the horizon was the setting sun, framed above and below by clouds. It was breathtaking. Though lasting for only a few moments, all I need to do is close my eyes and I can see it as I saw it then.
The second happened one summer when I was at the Observatory servicing some of the amateur radio gear located in one of the equipment rooms. I’d gone up into the turret to check the coaxial cable running between the radio gear and the antenna mounted outside the turret. As I finished checking the cable a thunderstorm rolled over the summit, bringing very high winds, heavy rain, and lots of lightning and thunder. Every time lightning struck the summit, St. Elmo’s Fire would run along all of the metal fittings, ladders, and racks inside the turret where I’d taken refuge. It was the most exhilarating and frightening weather experience I’d ever had.
One of the greatest adventures on Mount Washington can be the trip up to or down from the summit on the Auto Road.
In relating the story of his travels to and from school
, Fred at Fragments From Floyd tells of traversing Don’t Look Down Road in an effort to get there on time. The Mount Washington Auto Road has its own version of Don’t Look Down Road as well as Oh…My…GOD! Corner.
Don’t Look Down Road, Mount Washington version, is tucked along the side of one of the steeper ascents on the eastern slope. Should someone have the misfortune of going off the road along that stretch, they would have about 2700 feet to say their prayers and watch their life flash before their eyes before coming to a sudden stop at the bottom of the cliff. There is no guardrail, nor will there ever be one because there isn’t any room for one. The road is just wide enough for two midsize cars to pass each other. A guardrail would reduce the road to a single lane and that just isn’t practical along that stretch.
One of the more common aromas one will come across during the trek along the Auto Road is the smell of overheated brakes. Anyone familiar with auto racing will also be familiar with that smell. Folks ride their brakes on the way down the road often find that they become less effective the farther down the mountain they go. On more than one occasion a tourist has found that their brake pedal has become nothing more than a decorative item instead of a functioning safety system. For the most part it means they become quite familiar with the flora once the brakes surrender. Fortunately most brake failures occur well below the tree line and away from the precipitous drops higher up the mountain.
As fast as someone might travel down the road, there are actually a bunch of auto enthusiasts that try to travel quickly up
the road. The Climb To The Clouds
is a timed auto race, or time trial, pitting man and machine against the mountain road. From start to finish the course runs 8 miles and climbs over 4000 feet. Racers drive everything from vintage sports cars to street stock sports cars to highly modified high performance cars. If I recall correctly, the record for a bottom to top run is a fast 6 minutes 41.99 seconds. That’s an average speed of 71 miles per hour. The fastest speed ever recorded on the road was 113 mph. Uphill
Despite the charm, beauty, and challenge of Mount Washington, one must also remember that the mountain is a killer. Over 120 people have died on the mountain over the years, either through bad luck, bad planning or just plain stupidity. One of those to fall victim to the mountain was a good friend from work, Don Cote
The causes of death are many: hypothermia, falling ice, falling rocks, falls, skiing or sledding accidents, avalanches, train accidents (Cog Railway), climbing accidents, murder, plane crashes, drowning, car crashes (Auto Road), heart attacks, and strokes.
But that doesn’t stop those of us fascinated by Mount Washington. Nor should it stop any of the dozen or so regular readers if any of you are ever up in this neck of the woods. Just remember to dress appropriately, and don’t look down!