Overnight at Mt. Washington Observatory
VIDEO: Mt. Washington in Winter
You don’t stay strangers when you pack together on a blue-sky morning in the cold cabin of a snow tractor rumbling up the eight-mile-long Mount Washington Auto Road at six miles per hour.
In places, the tractor has to break through 20-foot-high snow slabs, its enormous treads rolling over the mounds. Riding the snow tractor is not unlike being on a small boat in a storm-tossed sea.
Seven of us–four men, three women–have signed on for a Mount Washington Observatory “EduTrip,” an expedition during which guests bunk and eat with weather observers in the most singular mountain environment in the world. We’ve come from Canada, Pennsylvania, Maine, and New Hampshire, packs stuffed with cold-weather gear. Crampons and ice axes are stacked in a corner of the tractor’s cabin.
The few hundred people who reach the wind-pummeled winter summit find a beautiful, perilous place where storms sweep through with little warning and temperatures drop swiftly, as though you’ve left one country for another in the blink of an eye. Some visitors ignore the peril, treating a winter climb as though it’s a jaunt. Too many of them end up with their names on a memorial wall in the Sherman Adams Summit Building, among the 140 who have died in the Presidentials, most of them on Mount Washington.
This EduTrip is called “Winter Mountaineering Essentials,” a chance to learn how to move about safely on icy slopes and how to save our lives if we don’t. Our leader is Joe Lentini; his assistant is Susan Beane, from the observatory staff office in North Conway. Joe is 55 years old, and for much of his life he’s been climbing and guiding within sight of Mount Washington. Coming here with Joe Lentini to learn about winter mountaineering is like taking hitting lessons with Ted Williams in his prime.
On this morning, the higher we climb the deeper winter closes in. About eight hours earlier, the observers had clocked a wind gust of 104 mph. The day before it had been 113. But now the wind has subsided to a modest 50 or 60 mph. “A good trip is not beautiful weather,” Joe reminds us. “That’s not normal.”
Joe tells a snow-tractor story while our driver, Gus, steers the beast upward. It happened, Joe says, maybe 20 years ago. On that day, a driver was taking two inexperienced visitors to the summit. About six miles along, a whiteout engulfed the road, and the tractor hit something hard. The driver climbed out of the tractor to investigate, being careful to keep a hand on his machine. Suddenly the wind knocked him away. No matter which way he groped, he could not find his way back. His only chance was to fight his way down. Hours passed. All the passengers knew was that their driver had left them, not to be seen again. All they heard was a terrifying wind; all they saw was the blinding white.
To get away from it all, come here. There’s no it here, except the wind, ice, and snow. Everything wears a coat of rime, as if torn from a frozen planet. Then there’s the startling warmth of coming indoors into the observatory, where now you smell hot soup, homemade rolls, and coffee brewing. The observers, interns, staff scientists, and Marty the cat share spare quarters, where obsessive monitoring of weather has been a mission since 1932. They’re young, and nearly always a bit tired, since they work 12-hours shifts eight days straight.