MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. — It’s the mountain that experienced wind gusts up to 231 mph in April 1934, which remains a world record. It’s had wind chills down to minus 120 degrees Fahrenheit, with an average annual temperature of only 26.5 degrees. The average annual snowfall is 256 inches (more than 21 feet) with a seasonal maximum of 566 inches (over 47 feet). Mount Washington, N.H., the highest peak in the Northeastern United States, truly has earned the title “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.”
Fortunately, I visited Mount Washington on a much calmer day in early October.
We had planned to just drive past Mount Washington so that I could get a picture of the mountain on our way through New Hampshire. Well, one thing led to another as it usually does on our “road trips,” and my husband, John, suggested we drive to the top. I don’t know who was more surprised when I agreed with his suggestion. We paid our $27 ($20 for car and driver plus $7 for each adult passenger), popped the audio tour CD (which is yours to keep) in the player, and up the privately owned Mount Washington Auto Road we went.
Listening to the CD as we drove, we heard reminders about mountain-driving etiquette and some historical information about the mountain and the auto road.
As we climbed toward the summit, we passed through four distinct growing zones. The hardwood forest of maples, oak, and birch at the base changed to the evergreen zone of spruce, fir and balsam trees, which diminished in size as we continued our ascent. The “crooked tree” or Krumholtz zone is characterized by the gnarled trees of only 2 or 3 feet, most with branches on one side because of the wind, and gives way to the alpine zone. The alpine zone, which is above treeline, is populated with lichen, mosses and alpine flowers. The Dwarf Cinquefoil, the rarest alpine plant in New England, is federally protected and grows only on Mount Washington and in the Franconia Range.
The drive to the summit is about eight miles, and John never took the van out of first gear. Even though you have the mountain on one side and a sheer drop down the mountain on the other, the scenery is so amazing you hardly even notice that there is no guardrail anywhere. I did get a bit worried when we were about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, and the paved road ended for a bit (yes, it was somewhere in the literature; no, I had not read that part of the small print).
Then we were enveloped by fog. By the time we reached the summit parking lot, we could not see 20 feet in any direction. I did experience a moment of anxiety when I started up the stairway to the summit; I realized I could not see the van, and I could not see any of the summit buildings. I could see nothing but FOG! It was eerie, and I could understand how a person’s sense of direction could vanish in an instant.
Finishing the climb, I arrived at the Auto Road Stage Office. This building is chained to the ground. The chains are huge, but apparently, they do the job. Next, we visited the Summit Building which houses the Observatory, gift shop, snack area, cog railway ticket booth and museum. It was neat to look out of the large windows and see — yes, fog. After reading the literature, I learned that fog is present more than 60 percent of the time at the summit. Next stop was the observatory where, by checking the gauges, I found out that the summit temperature was 42.6 degrees with a wind speed of 42.5 miles per hour, quite a change from the sunny 68 degree weather we left at the base of the mountain.
After checking out the gift shop, walking around outside the building and over some of the summit, we restarted the audio tour CD and began the drive down.
There are a number of turnouts available for viewing and vehicle brake cooling, a definite necessity on the drive down the mountain. We stopped at a few of the turnouts so that I could get pictures of the rocks, vegetation and the other mountains of the Presidential Range.
When you drive the Mount Washington Auto Road, you earn the bumper sticker that reads, “This car climbed Mount Washington” and a “Master of the Mountain” certificate that reads, “This certifies that (fill in name) has ascended Mount Washington, highest peak in the Northeastern United States by driving to its 6,288-foot summit over the eight mile long Mount Washington Carriage Road overlooking the Presidential Range of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.” There are also places to fill in the date of your drive and the make and model of the vehicle used.
The Mount Washington Auto Road summit drive was a phenomenal, never-to-be-forgotten experience.
However, if you are not the mountain-driving kind, there are a number of other ways to reach the summit of Mount Washington.
Guided tours are available on a first-come, first-served basis from the Mount Washington Stage Line. The stage part of the name comes from the horse-drawn wagons that were called stages and were used many years ago on the Mount Washington summit trip. The stages are now vans, and come with an accomplished Auto Road driver who tells stories, legends and history to augment your visit to Mount Washington.
Once the Auto Road closes for the season, SnowCoach tours run from December through March. The SnowCoach is a nine-passenger “specially constructed all-wheel drive with unique four-track system” van.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway, which has been in operation since July 3, 1869, offers another scenic, historic mode of travel to the summit. “The Cog,” as it is affectionately known, was the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway ever built; and its 3.1 mile long trestle with a maximum gradient of more than 37 percent makes it the second steepest mountain-climbing train in the world. Because of the historic nature of the trains and the nature of the mountain, be aware of and check about travel restrictions before purchasing a ticket. Advanced ticket purchase is recommended. Winter trips are available on the Railway’s Ride the Train with Santa and the Snowflake Express. For information, check www.mountwashington.com and www.thecog.com.
Summer and winter hiking and cross country skiing are permitted and not for the faint of heart or stamina. Your best source of information is the Appalachian Mountain Club (www.outdoors.org) or the U.S. Forest Service (www.fs.fed.us).
If you are very adventurous and physically fit, the Observatory’s Winter EduTrip program might be for you. It is open only to members, costs $459 per person, and according to the Observatory’s Web site, “Participants absolutely must be in excellent physical condition, have all necessary clothing and equipment ... be able to hike to safety in cold temperatures, high winds, poor visibility, and drifted snow or glare ice in the event of a vehicular breakdown. Trip participants have had to walk to safety on some past trips, and in all likelihood will need to walk to safety on some future trips.”
And last, but certainly not least, a reminder about how deadly Mount Washington and the Presidential Range can be for those who are not prepared: While there have been only two deaths on the Mount Washington Auto Road (a drunk driver in 1880 when a horse-drawn stage overturned and a person whose vehicle lost its brakes in 1984), there have been more than 136 deaths in the Presidential Range attributed to hypothermia, skiing accidents, avalanches, falls, climbing accidents, plane crashes and even a murder.
The title “Home of the World’s Worst Weather,” according to the Mount Washington Observatory Web site, has been earned because of the “combination of extreme cold, wet, high winds, icing conditions and low visibility consistently found atop Mount Washington.”
Also the mountain “is located at the confluence of three major storm tracks, and being the highest point in New England, it generally takes the brunt of passing storms. The steepness of the slopes, combined with the north/south orientation of the range, causes the winds to accelerate dramatically as they rise up from the valleys.”
(Photos by Barb Romick)
The Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, N.H., built in 1902, sits at the base of the famous New Hampshire mountain.
Fact BoxAbout Mt. Washington:
- Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet, is the highest in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, and is the only peak in the Northeastern United States which exceeds 6,000 feet in elevation.
- Perhaps the Presidential Range’s most remarkable feature is its extensive area above tree line, the greatest contiguous alpine area in the United States east of the Mississippi. The tree line here, which averages about 4,500 feet, is significantly lower than in mountains in the west, thanks to the extreme climatic conditions, including cold temperatures, high winds, and frequent atmospheric icing. The unusual conditions above tree line have led to a fascinating landscape, seemingly barren, but decorated with low spruce and fir scrub and a variety of alpine plants, whose bright blooming usually occurs in a brief period from mid-June to late July. (www.mountwashington.org)