Leave it to Bill Bryson to brilliantly recount the epic event that occurred on April 12, 1934. On that date, the highest wind ever measured on Earth — 231 mph — was recorded at the summit of Mount Washington, the highest point of the northeastern United States.
An intrepid soul tied a rope around his waist, had two colleagues take a firm hold of both ends to keep him from taking off like a human kite, and pushed the door of Mount Washington’s weather station open with great difficulty to struggle over to a permanently mounted outside instrument and take the wind velocity reading by hand. “How he managed to reach his weather instruments and take readings is not known, nor are his words when he finally tumbled back in, though “Jeeeeeeeesus!” would seem an apt possibility,” Bryson writes in A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.
I’ll admit, that’s what I had to say more than a few times during the morning of October 2.
Looming 6,288 feet into the sky, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington offers exceptional visibility on clear days, with a view extending into four states, Canada and the Atlantic Ocean.
It also has earned a reputation for having the worst weather of any mountain in the world, with temperatures plunging to nearly 50 degrees below zero. No wonder this forbidding mountain attracts the adventurous, the curious and, in our case, the reluctant.
Some choose to hike their way to the top, since it’s crossed by the Appalachian Trail that traverses through 14 states along America’s eastern coastline.
But it’s not a leisurely stroll. Guidebooks and trailhead parking lot signs constantly warn that the weather in the White Mountains can change instantly, from sunny warmth one moment to swirling mist, falling temperatures and freezing fog the next. Some 150 deaths have occurred on Mount Washington since records started being kept in 1849. Surprisingly, the majority of casualties have happened in warmer months, often to young male hikers, from exhaustion and exposure after they encountered bad weather above the tree line.
Others choose to ascend the mountain on a three-mile, almost two-hour ride on a cog railway that has been transporting tourists since 1869. Vintage one-car coaches with tilted seats are powered by steam locomotives, climbing upward on a narrow-gauge, ladder-like track with a slotted rail in the center, gripped by the teeth of a cogwheel. The trip is a steep one, with a maximum 37-percent grade.
Still more opt to drive on a privately owned and operated auto road that climbs 4,723 feet from the base, located on Route 16 in Pinkham Notch, and reaches more than a mile into the sky. Since 1861, people have been making the eight-mile journey in their own vehicles, on guided tours, or in custom four-track winter-weather drivetrains known as SnowCoaches.
We opted for a guided tour in a mountain van with Lincoln, who enthusiastically pointed out all sorts of sights along the way. Traveling through four different ecological zones, we stopped at scenic pull-offs to check out amazing views, including a waterfall; see Mountain Ash trees, together with Alpine and arctic plants; and hear about the snowshoe hares, ermines, pine martens, foxes and black bears who live there. We learned about krummholz, the trees stunted by stiff winds named for the German word for “crooked wood”; rime, the frost build-up from supercooled clouds; and wind-sculpted snowdrifts known as sastrugi.
Lincoln explained that Mount Washington’s unpredictable weather is the result of being right where high-altitude weather systems from Canada and the Great Lakes meet the moist, warm air from the Atlantic and the southern United States. As a result, snow falls here every month, is fogbound at least 300 days of the year, and experiences hurricane-force winds 40 percent of the time.
As the van labored up the last steep stretch of the rocky slope to reach the summit, also called the Rockpile, or Misery Hill, we prepared ourselves to be ready for anything. When we arrived, it was foggy, misty, and gusty, to put it mildly. The temperature was almost 30 degrees lower than it was when we started at the base.
Holding on to each other in very low visibility, we felt our way to a stark concrete building with double-paned windows covered with wire mesh, and secured to the ground with heavy chains and bolts as protection against wind, storms and flying chunks of ice. People were wandering around everywhere inside, shopping, snacking and reading the posted list of casualties on the mountain. Downstairs, a small museum presented displays on Mount Washington’s climate, geology, history, and distinctive plant and animal life.
Upstairs, we toured a weather observatory. Since 1870, it has been staffed year-round by resident meteorologists who observe and record daily sky conditions, temperature, dewpoint and wind speed. The weather reports they broadcast are used in forecasting New England’s weather and for reporting skiing conditions. They also utilize the natural weather conditions at the summit to test cold-weather gear and study the sudden and heavy formation of ice on planes while flying in clouds, setting up scale models of aircraft parts and trying out anti-icing devices.
Our last stop was the Tip-Top House, a small stone hotel that was built at the summit in 1853. Presidents Hayes, Pierce and Grant stayed there.
On our descent, we noticed the looks on drivers’ faces as they gingerly made their way to the summit along the narrow auto road. They earned their “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper sticker.
For more on Mount Washington, read The Worst Weather on Earth: A History of the Mount Washington Observatory, by William Lowell Putnam, and “The Cog Turns 150: Celebrating the Mount Washington Cog Railway,” in the May 2019 issue of Yankee magazine. To see how gusty it is on the summit, watch “Breakfast of Champions,” an amusing video made by Mount Washington meteorologists.