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Overnight at Mt. Washington Observatory

Overnight at Mt. Washington Observatory
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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.

They live in this building, but they live for what happens outside. The weather room is packed with computers, instruments, and charts. They’re a world onto themselves, every day hoping a great storm will stop by and make every hourly venture outside to check this or that device a battle of will against wind. For fun they challenge one another to see which of them can walk around the icy observatory tower in a 100 mph blast without touching a rail or toppling over. They call it the Century Club. On the tower the wind punches your breath away. It’s dangerous–irresistible to any observer, intern, or staffer who knows the lore and legends of all the men and women who have lived here before them.

We learn the rules right away. “Nobody leaves without checking with me. Nobody goes out alone,” Joe says. If we go outside, we must never lose sight of each other. We sleep with all outdoor gear within reach. If there’s an emergency and we have to scramble outside with the wind chill at minus 50 degrees, there’s no time to say, Oops, no mittens. Water is scarce; no showers. The air is so dry people get dehydrated, so we have to drink a lot of liquids. Joe urges us to go to the tower to see the sunset, and to wake at 5:30 for sunrise. Many days and nights you see nothing but fog, but when it clears, Joe promises, it’s like nothing we can imagine.

Joe readies us to feel the mountain under our feet. Washington is not a forgiving mountain, so we need to strap crampons on our boots and know how to use an ice axe. Joe grabs our attention.

“It was April,” he says. “Two men hiked up here on a windy day. It was the iciest I’ve ever seen. It was scary being up here, hard to get your crampons into the surface. These two guys made it to the top and were standing in the parking lot. And they relaxed and put their ice axes down. And a gust of wind hit them. They went over on their backs. One guy went maybe 200 feet and hit a rock and broke his femur. The other guy went more than a mile. And that’s why I went up there, to bring his body down. It could have happened to anyone. So when you walk out here, always have your ice axe in your hand.”

Walking with crampons on hard snow and slick rocks, you become aware of every step: lift foot, put foot down, lift other foot. Aware of every breath. We wear hoods over our hats, and goggles over our hoods. Our faces are covered with balaclavas. We’re thickly layered from top to bottom. It’s a strange feeling to be so cocooned in the bitter cold. Joe guides us to a moderate slope above the Lakes of the Clouds. Just beyond, the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine is lovely in the rare sun.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Monday, December 29th, 2008

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5 Responses to Overnight at Mt. Washington Observatory

  1. joann dudgeon February 3, 2009 at 2:03 pm #


  2. Yoma Hitchcock February 3, 2009 at 10:54 pm #

    I loved your story Mr Allen……I was up to Mt Washington this summer. I lived in Alaska for seven years….Your story brought me right up that mountain with you. What a experience and I can see you have to be physically fit to make a trip like that..

    I think it is wonderful these fellows actually live up there and observe the weather. I even felt a chill!!!!!!

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  3. Judith Davis February 4, 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    Although I was born in Maine but have lived in Fla. for over 40 yrs., it still brings back memories of the days long past of climbing up snow covered hills just to go sledding. And just how hard the wind can blow,(not like yours) of coarse but wow! It took my breath away just reading your story. Hey! Be Safe!!

  4. Mel Allen February 10, 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    The great thing about this experience is so many people can do it. I know a lot of us can’t climb to the top, in winter, or even summer; but to go on an edu trip, to hang out with the weather observers and see the most amazing night sky you will ever see, or the rime ice that clings to everything…well that is within the ability of so many of you.

  5. jay allain December 24, 2009 at 9:54 pm #

    Say, one can imagine the grinding tedium the meteorologists confront but playing “Century Club” on the summit sounds a tad risky… I mean: If a sudden gust blows through, a promising meterologist could quickly be in trouble. You make the Club and you’re what: brave and stupid? You get blown off and you’re brave, stupid, and dead. It almost makes me want to “drop a dime” and get ’em busted – for their own good!

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