MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. -- I wanted to walk to the top of the tallest mountain in the Northeast.|
It would have been four miles and a head-pounding elevation gain of more than 4,000 feet, but that didn't scare me.
Neither did the common claim that Mount Washington's peak is home to "the world's worst weather."
What scared me off were the elements at the bottom, which would have trailed me at every step: steadily drumming rain, thick fog, and a forecast for "small hail, sudden gusts of wind and frequent lightning."
Sounded like why God invented not only cars, but the one road that travels to the top of Mount Washington.
Sure, the sign at the bottom of that road - "If you have a fear of heights, you may not appreciate this driving experience" -- lent pause. But I was ready to brave it.
Then I met a second round of rejection. At the guard station, I was told the weather was too foul even to drive up in a private vehicle. That left one route: a guided tour with someone whose job is traveling up and down Mount Washington five or six times a day.
So just past a twisting, tree-studded valley cut by a fast-moving stream, I visited the Mount Washington Auto Road visitor center and handed over $30.
I was given a postcard to commemorate the event, a simple black-and-white cartoon image of a car chugging up the famed Auto Road with blank space for me to write in the summit's temperature (an unseasonably warm 47 degrees) and wind speed (45 miles per hour), both of which were under constant monitoring by staff down below.
When you claim the world's worst weather, it becomes a point of pride.
That weather also fuels Mount Washington's strange allure. At 6,288 feet, its peak isn't terribly high (look no farther than North Carolina or Tennessee for higher summits east of the Rocky Mountains), but it rises in a corner of northern New Hampshire that puts it in the path of three major storm tracks.
Many of the storms crossing North America, whether starting in the West, Atlantic or the Gulf, collide at that very point.
Hence the world's worst weather, which is supported by the statistics. The lowest temperature ever recorded at Mount Washington's summit: 47 degrees below zero. Highest wind speed: 231 miles per hour (it's one of the fastest wind speeds ever recorded, besting the strongest hurricanes).
Highest temperature: 72 degrees. Yes, the highest temperature ever recorded atop Mount Washington is an ideal and not unreasonable day most anywhere else. Snowfall averages 200 inches a year and it falls year.
Soon a guide was hollering out names and motioning eight of us into a van that has spent its 24,000-mile life doing exactly one thing: driving up and down Mount Washington's 7.6-mile road. The van couldn't do much else: It has been refitted with a lower gear structure that allows the engine to climb and descend most efficiently.
Rick Ruppel, a gray-haired, boyishly fit 61-year-old, was at the wheel. He leads tours to the top of the mountain while waiting for the next ski season and has developed a certain savvy for dealing with visitors.
How long had he been leading tours to the top of Mount Washington?
"This is my first time driving up!" he said.
Ruppel told us that the week before had seen 90-mph winds and a wind chill of 25 below. Then, he added, "I wouldn't drive up in that even when I've had enough vodka!"
Everyone chuckled at our seasoned guide, who then reminded us he works for tips.
The Mount Washington Auto Road, built by entrepreneurs in the 1850s and still privately owned, is among the most fascinating stretches anyone can pass. The ride begins at an elevation of about 1,565 feet, which in fall means yellow and orange leaves hanging in all directions.
We got a bonus almost immediately when a woman from Pennsylvania, sitting in the van's back row, spotted a moose munching its way down a steep, grassy slope to our left. The hornless female was black, long-faced and unconcerned as the flashes from our cameras lit up the van's interior.
On we went, rain pelting the van's roof, and saw things even more riveting than a moose, namely, the mountain.
Because of the dramatic weather, every mile up the road is equivalent to traveling 150 miles toward the North Pole, which means we passed in just under eight miles an astonishing number of climate zones -- from northern hardwood forest to arctic.
The legendary weather prevented much of a view beyond a few hundred feet as we ascended farther in that grumbling van, but I hardly felt robbed; the show wasn't in the distance, it was in the changing landscape, which seemed even more dramatic amid the gray mist.
In a remarkably short time -- probably about 4,500 feet -- the trees disappeared altogether, giving way to squat, scrubby bushes.
At close to 6,000 feet, a mere 20 minutes in the van, we crossed into an arctic landscape of moss-covered boulders. It happened at about half the elevation where such a change happens in mountains of the West. That's what Mount Washington winds do.
Finally, we reached the wind-whipped visitor center that's open only during the most temperate months of the year (when the weather is slightly less awful), a low fortress of concrete and glass that would be fit for a James Bond nemesis plotting world domination. It looks that way to withstand the wind.
An unfathomably brave, raw-faced hiker was thawing out in there -- he told me he was a recovering drug addict whose new addiction was climbing Mount Washington -- but the rest of us had come the easy way.
We ate chili from the small cafeteria, browsed the gift shop where everything was 40 percent off because the tourist season was ending, and visited the lower-level museum that included images of the view on a clear day.
Then we piled back into the van and left the arctic behind. Thirty minutes later, we were back among tall trees, a light breeze and our cars.
I dropped my postcard in the mail and made a vow: Next time I'm walking.
If you go
Situated between North Conway and Gorham, N.H., and just off State Highway 16, Mount Washington is readily accessible. But the closest large airports are a drive: Portland, Maine (90 miles); Manchester, N.H. (125 miles); and Boston (165 miles).
Mount Washington is within the massive White Mountain National Forest (tinyurl.com/cwhwqq) in northern New Hampshire and western Maine. The summit of the mountain comprises the 60-acre Mount Washington State Park (tinyurl.com/6n55cov).
The mountain is open for year-round hiking, but summer is the most popular season. Be warned: Conditions can be so extreme that hikers get into trouble with exhaustion and hypothermia year-round. The visitor center at the summit, which includes a rudimentary cafeteria and gift shop, is open to the public from mid-May to October.
If you don't want to hike to the top, try the Mount Washington Auto Road (mtwashingtonautoroad.com) $30 for a guided tour, $25 for a private car and the driver, $8 for additional adults and $6 for kids between 5 and 12 and a railway (thecog.com; prices vary between $28 and $62 depending on the passenger and the season) that will take you to the summit.
Both the road and railway are privately owned and have been operated since the 1860s.
Rock island, IL Details
|(More Print Ads)|