Correction to This Article
A Dec. 19 Travel article incorrectly said that New Hampshire's Mount Washington Cog Railway is the only one in the world that ferries skiers to the top of a ski slope. Cog railways at Wengen and Zermatt in Switzerland, for example, perform a similar service.

The Little N.H. Cog That Could . . . Ski

By M.J. McAteer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004

Quad chairs and T-bars and rope tows, ho hum. For the upwardly mobile skier, just so much pedestrian transport.

For a real lift, the snow bored should consider poling over to New Hampshire this winter to visit a small, new alpine area where the ride up promises to be more of an adventure than the ski down.

Starting this month, for the first time ever, anywhere on Earth (weather permitting, of course), skiers can ride a cog railroad to the top of a ski slope. Nonskiers are welcome to go along for the ride too, downloading aboard the train as all but the slowest snowplowers outpace them down slopes bisected by the cog's track.

The Mount Washington Cog Railway, the oldest operating cog in the world and a National Historic Landmark, is like the Little Engine That Could. It has been huffing and puffing its way to the 6,288-foot summit of the Northeast's highest peak since 1869 via a gear system that drags the train upward one tooth at a time. But until now, the steam-powered train largely had suspended commercial operations in winter because the weather atop Mount Washington is brutal -- winds clocked at a planetary surface record of 231 mph and an average January temperature of 5 degrees. Hardly tourist temperatures and less than ideal ski conditions, which is why the cog will keep to the lower elevations in its new role as a ski train.

Doug Waites, former sales and marketing manager of the cog railway, thinks the ski train is a novelty that will build up a real head of steam.

"People always want to ski Mount Washington," he says, "but it [skiing] has been limited to Tuckerman's Ravine."

For the uninitiated, Tuckerman's, to paraphrase the New Hampshire state motto, is a lift-free-and-maybe-die kind of place. The only way to get there is on foot via a 4 1/2-mile trail to the base followed by another hour-long slog to the top of the ominously and accurately named Headwall.

The so-called slope descending from the Headwall really is a cliff, which is closed to skiing until late spring, until enough snow has accumulated to camouflage that fact. Tuckerman's has a grade of 45 degrees; by comparison, most expert ski slopes have a grade of 25 degrees. The extreme difficulty of Tuckerman's has, for 70 years, made it a must for the macho.

The slopes at the cog, however, will be no Tuckerman's. They will instead be "suitable for snow bunnies," Waites says cheerfully. "Skiers will have an opportunity to experience Mount Washington in the winter -- but without the danger."

The cog is located within the federally owned 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, but it predates the government takeover of the land and maintains ownership of 99 feet on either side of its track, which is where it has created four trails with a 1,100-foot vertical drop. The Mount Washington Cog Railway Ski Trains, as the area will be called, will have the usual ski amenities -- snow-making, grooming, instruction for skiers and snow boarders, a ski shop with rentals and a cafe. It's the transportation that will be -- in a legitimate use of a brutally overworked word -- unique.

The ski trains will run to Waumbek Tank, which at 3,800 feet is about a third of the way to the summit. In good weather, the engines will take on water at the tank before continuing the journey to the peak. The ride up will take about 15 minutes. That translates to about 76 feet per minute because the cog's method of locomotion is so painstaking.

In the cog system, the outer rails bear only the weight of the train. The power to climb comes from a wheel attached to the engine's drive shaft. The teeth on this wheel hook over the rungs of a "rack," or ladder-like device between the tracks.

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