DNA X # 13 Mount Washington

September 10th, 2010 by

N 4416 / W 71 18
Weather- sunny 72F
Wind, NW 10mph

“One of the brightest gems in the New England weather is the dazzling uncertainty of it.” – Mark Twain

DNA-XMount Washington, New Hampshire; elevation 6288 feet. This is the tallest point in the northeastern U.S. The peak sits proudly amongst the other Presidents in this range – Monroe, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and others form a 12-mile long ridgeline of battered summits and alpine habitat in the White Mountains. Actually the local Native Americans had long ago given this famous peak a name – Agiocochook which means Home of the Great Spirit. When Mount Washington got it’s current name George was not yet president but a successful general fighting for our new nation. Later on the other peaks acquired names honoring our chief executives and formed the Presidential Range. This impressive mountain has always attracted attention and demanded respect. A long time ago people began to notice it seemed to have a mind of it’s own. Hiking or riding a horse to the top was popular in the early 1800’s but frequent bad weather was dangerous so intrepid developers decided to build a Road to the Sky to provide a safer means of assent. Construction began on the Carriage Road in 1854 and opened in 1861. Built with hand tools, horses and oxen and old fashioned blasting powder it is an engineering feat. Weaving and winding for eight miles and ascending 4725 feet this road is the oldest man-made tourist attraction in the U.S.

DNA-XWe had seen the cog train rattling up the steep slopes of Mount Washington before; yes they still operate a coal-fired steam engine that shoves a passenger car up, up and up. It’s reminenicent of the childhood story, ‘The Little Engine that Could’ and there’s no turning around if you get cold feet. The first horse and carriage made it to the top on the new road in 1861 and frequently carriage passengers had to get out and load up the carriage with rocks to weigh it down more to prevent being blown off a cliff. The first car to climb to the top was the Stanley Locomobile. It was an open car, no windshield or roof and attained the summit in 1899. My father once told me about how he first climbed Mt. W – in a Model T Ford! We figured that Blackie was a much safer bet for this day and age, OK, yes we are spoiled. But I forgot to mention why any of this matters anyway – it goes back to the weather, and Mount Washington is infamous for having the worst weather on Earth! We had traveled to the top many years ago in our first Blackie – a Discovery. The weather at the bottom of the mountain was 72F and sunny. By the time we got to the top it was sleeting and the wind was blowing 60 knots. (The summit buildings are chained down!)
DNA-XThe road these days is called the Mount Washington Auto Road and when you pull up to the pay station ($31.00 for 2 people) the current weather is posted on a blackboard, frequent erasing occurs. The Mount Washington Observatory, located at the summit, has been monitoring the weather since 1932 and has recorded the highest wind ever observed by man – 231 M.P.H.! There are an average of 237 days of fog, the average daily temperature is 34F and the highest temperature ever recorded is 72F. The mood of the mountain can change at the drop of a hat with calm sunny conditions being swept away in seconds and replaced with hurricane force winds and blinding snow. So as we aimed Blackie up the grade we observed that we could see the summit, it was 72F and the sun was shinning. We knew this was probably a record nice day for this mountain and we crossed our fingers. We noted that just about anyone is allowed to drive on this road and just about any jalopy can get past the guard house – as long as they pay the fee. Even though we were handed a CD and brochure it seemed that the staff paid little attention to the ability or mentality of the drivers. This road is NOT for the feint of heart! We have seen many a white-knuckled husband with petrified wife and kids hanging out the windows as thousand foot drop-offs pass inches away with no guardrail. At one point the road narrows to 1 1/2 dirt lanes edged with gullies and thousands of feet drop-offs with no guardrail – don’t look down! Blackie climbed slowly and steadily, the climbing vehicles have the right of way, (we hope the other drivers remember that).We pass above the tree line, any vegetation up here is blasted by extremes so most plant life is dwarfed and clings to life behind the numerous boulders that carpet the summit. Almost at the top we see the little cog train chugging and creaking up the final grade. We are glad we’re in Blackie and pull over to survey the area. It is a spectacular day with endless views of all the mountains. We take in the sights knowing it could vanish at any moment. Gathering our strength, we descend the serpentine road imagining how anyone could ride it in a wagon, poor horses, or steam up it in a Locomobile or Model T. The little train still does it the old fashioned way, keeping history alive. Any way you get up there, and in whatever weather you encounter, Mount Washington will make you remember it forever.