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.
This meshing of gears is what enables the cog to drag itself up grades that a regular train couldn't possibly manage. At one point on the trip to the top of Mount Washington, for example, a grade of more than 37 percent creates a funhouse effect of a 14-foot tilt between the front and the back of the passenger coach.
Cog engines also push rather than pull their loads up the mountain. On the descent, the seats in the 70-passenger coaches are flipped to face downhill, and the engines go first with their weight acting as a brake. A rather unsettling feature of the system is that the engines are not coupled to the passenger coaches. This independent operation is for safety: If an engine or a coach derails, it won't take the rest of the train with it. The loud, metallic clicking sound that characterizes the cog also is a cause for reassurance: It is created by a device that drags over the rungs of the rack and prevents slippage.
The cog engines -- including the Ammonoosuc ("a stony place for fishing"), the Chocorua (named for a Pequawket chief) and the Agiocochook ("home of the great spirit") -- will use a quarter-ton of coal and 300 gallons of water in their round-trip ski runs. In fair weather, cinders from the burning coal can blow in the windows of the hand-painted coaches, but grit shouldn't be an issue when the windows are shut. The rail company also has been refitting its engines to burn cleaner and eventually will convert them to oil, says Wayne Presby, who has been president of the railroad for 21 years.
The trains will run continuously to produce a lift capacity of 350 passengers an hour. Beginners will be able to debark at a platform partway up the slopes at Cold Spring Hill; more advanced skiers can stay aboard the heated train until Waumbek.
The novelty of the train is quite a lure, as the train's 136-year history as a tourist attraction attests. But once that excitement wears off, its slopes are unlikely to hold the interest of advanced skiers for more than a few runs.
Not to worry. Bretton Woods, New Hampshire's largest ski area with 101 trails and 434 acres of terrain, has the same owner as the cog and is just six miles away. The plan is to offer a combination ski pass along with a free shuttle between the two areas.
If the budget will stretch, visitors might consider patronizing still another property with the same owner: the Mount Washington Hotel, between the Bretton Woods ski area and the cog railway. Rates at the hotel climb faster and go higher than the cog, but, oh, the hotel is a grand sight.
The National Historic Landmark is a huge, white, rambling castle-like structure with red-roofed towers silhouetted against Mount Washington. Although landlocked, it somehow brings to mind the Titanic.
When it was built in 1902, the hotel was the first in New England to have private bathrooms in every room, and in its heyday, as many as 57 trains a day delivered guests to its door.
The hotel, now with a mouthful of a name -- the Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods -- features a 230-foot-long lobby, an indoor tiled pool and the "Cave," a Prohibition-era stone-walled speakeasy. Its winter activities include Nordic skiing, sleigh rides, ice skating and snow tubing. People are required to dress for dinner in the hotel's formal dining room -- that means jackets and no jeans -- but the payback is being serenaded by a roving orchestra as you spoon down your sorbet.
In keeping with the spirit of the old cog and the old hotel, the adventurous might want to consider chucking those fancy parabolic skis they bought last season and strapping on a pair of vintage 77-inch-long wooden ones with leather bindings, something like those worn by the famous Austrian skier Toni Matt when he schussed the Headwall at Tuckerman's back in 1939. "Schussing" means that Matt went straight down the ravine -- no parallel turns and certainly no wimpy stem christie or snowplow turns either. The result was that he reached a speed of 85 mph.
Then again, maybe schussing is best left to the Austrians. Better to stick with the forgiving shaped skis and the equally forgiving slopes at the cog, and be around to hear the band play on at dinner.