Spending a week in January on a mountain billed as having the world’s worst weather isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. But, I say, why go to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun with everyone else in the world when I can have an all-inclusive experience at the Mount Washington Observatory for the cost of a warm hat and a new pair of heavy-duty mittens?
I’ll be leaving Kittery well before sunrise next Wednesday to catch an 8 a.m. Snow Cat ride up the Auto Road, a six-mile trip that can take up to four hours in the winter. My all-inclusive deal includes work as a volunteer cook (along with a friend) for the Observatory crew and others who might be at the summit (sometimes up to 20 people in very close quarters). Drinks are strictly BYOB. If the stream of visitors (EduTrip guests, state park construction workers, and others) is non-stop, my friend and I could be working 18-hour shifts with only mini-breaks, but the schedule thus far suggests that we will have plenty of free time to enjoy winter views from the Rock Pile.
Of course, I hope to do some hiking around on the 6,288-foot summit during my week-long stay But whether or not we get outdoors for more than a few minutes at a time depends on the weather. Winter brings bitterly cold temperatures to the mountain, but wind is the main factor in determining how often and how long we can stay outside.
Mount Washington, according to the Observatory, holds the record for the highest surface wind speed ever recorded by a person, at 231 mph, in a wild storm in April 1934. Most mountain weather watchers, however, know that a higher speed of 253 mph was recorded in April 1996 when Tropical Cyclone Olivia passed through Barrow Island, Australia. A 2010 review by the World Meteorological Organization confirmed the Olivia wind speed as the world record, but the Observatory bases its claim on the fact that a human actually recorded the measurement during the wind event.
Today the temperature at the mountain is 12 degrees, with winds of about 12 mph and freezing fog (i.e. zero visibility). So far this month, temperatures at 6,288-foot mountain have ranged from -24 degrees F, with hurricane force wind gusts, to a record high of 40 F. Hiking above treelike, I’ve encountered wind gusts of “only” 45-50 mph and those gusts will keep me standing even if I lean hard into the wind. “Hurricane force” will be a new experience.
These photos from a March 1953 issue of Life magazine offer a good preview of what I can expect; my photos will be in color, but otherwise probably much the same.
Although I expect to be safe and snug in and near the Observatory, Backpacker magazine has billed Mount Washington as one of “America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes.” The mountain also regularly shows up on lists of the 10 most dangerous mountains in the world. More than 130 people have died on the Mountain (although this list includes deaths on the mountain from natural causes and suicide).
Part of the danger stems from the fact that thousands of people climb the mountain each year, and many are not fully prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions that can occur on the mountain’s upper slopes. But while inexperience and ill-preparation contributes to the mountain’s foreboding reputation, the conditions on the mountain itself account for much of the danger: whiteouts and fog create scenarios in which a single misstep can send hikers hurtling over the edge of deep ravines or into crevasses, especially in Tuckerman’s Ravine.
In the spring, hundreds of skiers make the trek up to the lip of Tuckerman’s Ravine, then strap on their skis and push themselves over The Headwall to ski down the steep slope into the bowl. Watching these skiers drop over the ravine’s edge, it seems impossible that they won’t be killed, especially if one of them falls. Over the years, several have died from falls. In 1994, a skier was killed after completing her run when an ice boulder bounced into the bowl and struck her. Several hikers also have died in falls or avalanches while hiking in or just above the ravine. 2012 was an especially bad year when on three different occasions, hikers — all experienced and well-prepared — slipped on the edge of the Ravine and fell to their deaths. Just recently, two winter hikers above Tuckerman’s Ravine triggered an avalanche and slid 800 feet with the snow. Both were very lucky to survive with minor injuries. As winter hiking has become more popular, every winter brings reports of hikers slipping, falling or getting lost in the massive folds of the mountain.
I’ve double-checked the gear list: new mittens, borrowed micro-spikes and plenty of microlayers. Thank goodness I still have my 1990s Michelin Man down jacket, completely unflattering, but it will keep me warm. I don’t own an apron, so will throw in an extra t-shirt to wear while cooking. I’ll pack sneakers, as my best shot at exercise may be walking laps inside the closed state park building.
Bitterly cold temperatures and hurricane force winds. Cabin fever. The possibility of non-stop cooking in a tiny kitchen. The potential for a week of nothing but a constant view of gray fog from the observatory window. Why go at all?
I can’t fully explain the pull of winter on top of Mount Washington. It’s my way of experiencing Antarctica, I suppose, of pushing the boundaries of my life, but in my own way. I will never ski down Tuckerman’s Ravine. I lack the expert skiing skills to make it safely down the ravine. Even if I possessed those skills, the thought of going over that headwall rim is way way too scary.
But I know I can size up a pantry and create some good meals with whatever I find. I can bundle up and stay warm — at least for a while — on a minus-30 degree day. I can conquer cabin fever with books and writing and a few episodes of Lost.
So, Mount Washington — bring on your worst, or your best, or, ideally, a mixture of both. I’ll be ready.
Sources and resources
I will try to post daily updates while on the mountain, provided the internet isn’t all clogged up. In the meantime, enjoy this Mount Washington time-lapse photography video, by Weather Observer Mike Dorfman.
And if you are interested in experiencing the world’s worst weather — and dealing with the highs of crystal clear perfect days and the cabin fever of days on end when you can’t even leave the cramped quarters of the observatory — consider dusting off your cookbooks and becoming a member of the MWOB .
For additional information on those who have died on the mountain, see MWOB’s article, Surviving Mount Washington.
For more photos of Nin and Inga, see the MWOB Creatures of Comfort Photo Gallery.
For a gripping account of the dangers on Mount Washington, I highly recommend Nicholas Howe’s 1999 book, Not Without Peril.
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center provides daily updates on changing snow conditions on the mountain.
Friends of Tuckerman’s Ravine offers many great photos, history and other information about this beautiful place on Mount Washington.