On Top of Mount Washington, N.H.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
The winds yell at you. Snow talks softly. But winter is always saying the same thing: Escape. Find some sun. Run as far from me as you can.
I listen, just like anyone, but keep suspecting a trick. A February lie. Is there some frozen secret that the season doesn't want me to see? I've hunted for it in trips to Antarctica, to Greenland, to Norway's northernmost tip. But although those places are plenty cold, tour companies and expedition cruise ships protect you from extremes with creature comforts and by running trips at the mildest times of the year.
Call me weird. But I've always been curious about winter at its whiteout worst. What can it do to me if I meet it on its turf, on its own unvarnished terms?
I haven't had much luck at finding winter in the raw.
I've stumbled on the ultimate cold-weather adventure. It isn't exotic. It's convenient: an overnight at the top of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, only a few hours' drive from my home. The 6,288-foot summit claims "the world's worst weather." Worse than Everest. Worse than the North and South Poles.
There's an observatory up there that's attacked by ice and temperatures of 40 below. In April 1934 it clocked a 231-mph wind, the strongest ever recorded on Earth. Sign up for one of its winter excursions and you get to stagger around in gusts, spend a night in a bunkhouse and watch the weather instruments go wild.
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The real job of the nonprofit Mount Washington Observatory is to make hourly weather observations at the summit and to do environmental research. In a typical summer, the mountain has a quarter-million visitors, and it's easy to get up to the observatory from May to October. Tourists ride on the Mount Washington cog railway or motor up the auto road (you've seen the "This Car Climbed. . . . " bumper stickers). But once the snow hits, only a few hundred make it to the top. That's where the observatory's winter day trips and its overnight program come in: Overnights cost $459 plus a membership fee for joining the observatory, and each features an expert instructor with an environmental lecture theme. A snow tractor takes you up and back down, and you sack out in the observatory bunk room.
The first overnight with space available is in mid-January. The Mount Washington car road and cog train are closed because of snow from October to May, so we'll be hauled to the top in the back of a snow cat.
"Since we cannot count on 100% reliable transportation," reads the flier mailed to me in advance, "you must be in good physical condition so that you can hike to safety . . . in rugged weather conditions with energy-sapping cold, chilling and buffeting winds, and through deep drifted snow." I am ready.
But then there's the detailed list of gear, a spreadsheet that falls out of the same envelope. What's an ice ax? Am I going to be chopping there? Sports Authority is out of the required anti-fog solution to apply to my ski goggles. I end up packing my flannel-lined jeans instead of the suggested wind pants, and I pick up a pair of gloves at a CVS because I don't have time to shop for "windproof mitten shells."